At this point in the season, we’re past teasing what just happened in Week 13 and going straight to what it means. With four games to go we have some divisional dogfights going on, aside from the usual wild-card scramble. After Sunday’s developments, the AFC North (Ravens, Steelers), AFC South (Texans, Titans and Colts, if they win Monday night vs. Jets) and NFC South (Falcons, Buccaneers) are all tied, and in the AFC West, the Raiders lead the Chiefs by one game, and Denver is another game behind entering a round-robin between all three. It’s getting good, so let’s just dive in with what happened…
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 13:
Go crazy, folks
Giants, like Dolphins, are exposed: Both the Giants and Dolphins entered Sunday having won six-straight games against less-than-stellar opposition and faced a big test on the road. Both failed spectacularly, as the Giants fell 24–14 to the Steelers in a game that wasn’t that close, and the Dolphins were blasted 38–6 by the Ravens. No time for the Giants to feel sorry for themselves, as the Cowboys come calling on Sunday night. QB Eli Manning (two INTs, 69.9 rating) has to play better in these big games. Double-digit points is not good enough. Don’t even think I can make much of the Steelers’ defensive performance in that game because it looked like the Giants, from the offensive line, receivers and QB, just played poorly.
Eric Berry, Chiefs teach Falcons a lesson: Atlanta has some very good players with a lot of experience, like QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones and C Alex Mack, but it also has a youthful foundation, right down to second-year head coach Dan Quinn. The Chiefs, with their vast experience, showed the Falcons exactly what they can expect down the stretch as Kansas City pulled off a very professional 29–28 victory. The Chiefs got big plays on offense, special teams (a 55-yard fake punt by Albert Wilson) and defense to frustrate the Falcons. Safety Eric Berry was extraordinary, making a great read to pick off Ryan for a touchdown right before halftime, and then winning the game when he jumped a Ryan two-point conversion and returned it for the Chiefs’ two game-winning points. Kansas City (9–3) now has a chance to tie for the AFC West lead on Thursday night, when it’ll have a huge matchup with the Raiders (10–3). The Falcons, who have lost four of seven, are now in a tie of their own for the NFC South lead with the 7–5 Bucs.
Raiders have the look of a contender: Oakland trailed the Bills 24–9 at home midway through the third quarter and you never once thought it was in trouble or about to be exposed as a pretender. Say what you want about the Bills, but that’s a good team that has given a lot of teams trouble. Yet the Raiders, very maturely and methodically, played its best football offensively and defensively (particularly thanks to “The Kloser" Khalil Mack), outscoring the Bills 29–0 in a basically a 15-minute span of game time to the point that the victory was secure with 8:34 remaining in the game. How many other teams can do that? Maybe the Cowboys and Patriots? That was some impressive showing. And, oh baby, how about that Raiders-Chiefs tilt on Thursday night?
Bucs aren’t backing down: After winning at Kansas City and at home against the Seahawks, the Bucs stacked another impressive victory, a 28–21 win over the Chargers in San Diego. Now, I’m not going to go too nuts over this one because Philip Rivers has really struggled in the second halves of games this season (two interceptions Sunday to give him 10 on the season, and six in the fourth quarter), but you put this with the other two and Tampa is definitely coming on strong. Now tied for first place, it has the Saints (twice) and Panthers, sandwiched around the Cowboys coming up.
Ravens turn a corner at the right time: The Ravens had stunk offensively all season and were being carried by their defense. They entered the Dolphins game averaging 20.7 points per game since Marty Mornhinweg replaced Marc Trestman as offensive coordinator. The Ravens exceeded that in the first half alone as they jumped to a 24–0 lead over Miami. QB Joe Flacco finally looked like his former self as he completed 76.6% of his passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns (with one interception). The 2012 vibe continued with TE Dennis Pitta, who caught two touchdowns (his first scores since ’13).
Washington defense can’t hold up late: It wasn’t perfect on the offensive side of the ball either (a fade to DeSean Jackson from the 1-yard line?!), but for the second week in a row, the defense couldn’t come up with a stop when it was needed. It was one thing to falter against the Cowboys, it was another to allow the struggling Cardinals to score a season-high 31 points.
Lions can win conventionally?: It was pretty disconcerting to watch the Lions lead a team wire-to-wire and beat the Saints comfortably. I mean, who are the Lions without crazy, last-minute comebacks? I don’t know if I like this, or whether I can get used to this, but the Lions were very impressive in dismantling New Orleans 28–13 on the road.
Vontaze Burfict was a monster: Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict can cause trouble for his own team on Sundays with boneheaded plays, but in Week 13 he caused plenty of trouble for his opponent, wreaking havoc against the scuffling Eagles with two interceptions (one returned 47 yards), 15 total tackles and four pass deflections. The Bengals looked like their 2015 selves in the 32–14 victory, but too bad it was their first victory since Oct. 23.
Slow your roll
Dolphins are still a work in progress: The Dolphins had won six-straight games to make everyone believe that they had turned a corner very quickly under coach Adam Gase (and they are indeed better), but they showed they’re still largely the same frontrunners they’ve always been. As soon as things started to go against them against the Ravens, the Dolphins packed it in, taking a 38–6 loss against another AFC playoff contender. Miami couldn’t be denied against the hapless Jets, Chargers, Rams and 49ers, but as soon as a real team put it in a corner, the Dolphins (especially their donut defense that was just drilled in the middle of the secondary repeatedly) just took the beating. Gase is doing a lot right, but there’s still a lot of mentally weak players on that team. Still, Rome wasn’t built in one day.
Paxton Lynch is no Trevor Siemian: When the Broncos traded up to take QB Paxton Lynch with the 26th overall pick, most figured it was only a matter of time before he supplanted some guy named Trevor Siemian as Denver’s starting quarterback. But after Lynch made his second career start and was 12 of 24 for 104 yards for a 61.8 rating against a decent Jaguars defense, it’s clear that this is Siemian’s team this season, whenever he returns from injury.
Lay off Doug Pederson: Now that the Eagles have been exposed as the rebuilding team that they’ve always been, it seems rookie coach Pederson is in the cross hairs. Sure, Pederson has had his issues, but this was never a 3–0 (with wins over the Browns, Bears and a Steelers team that has been up and down all season) team in terms of talent. The Eagles just aren’t that good, especially in the secondary and at the skill positions. That’s not Pederson’s fault. It’s just where they are.
Just because the Packers are winning doesn’t mean they’re back: Green Bay beats two teams, the Eagles and Texans, that have each dropped their last three games and I’m supposed to think the Packers are back all of a sudden? Yeah, no thanks. Let’s see what Aaron Rodgers and Co. do against the Seahawks, Vikings and Lions to close out the regular season. And then we can reassess.
About Sunday Night
This laugher from start to finish, a 40–7 romp by the Seahawks over the Panthers, was all about what happened off the field. In a fitting representation of a lost season for the defending NFC champions, the Panthers took the field against the Seahawks without reigning league MVP Cam Newton, who was benched for the opening drive because of what Michele Tafoya reported was a “dress-code violation.” Considering what Newton has worn before and after games in the past, that must have been some outfit. Derek Anderson, who started for Newton while he sat out the first series, threw an interception on the first play of the game and things didn’t get much better for the Panthers. Considering the way the Panthers have played this season, leadership could be part of the problem. And Newton is supposed to be one of the leaders.
The other big news was that the Seahawks lost All-Pro safety Earl Thomas for the season with a broken lower leg. Seattle has dealt without having strong safety Kam Chancellor for stretches, but Thomas, as the center-field playing free safety, is the whole key to their defense. This could be a huge blow to how far they can now go. To make things worse, Thomas tweeted from the locker room during the game that he was considering retirement.
A look at the worst coaching decisions from Sunday.
• On third-and-goal with under two minutes left in the first half against the Cardinals, Washington decided it was a good idea to throw a fade pass to WR DeSean Jackson (who is 5’ 9 ½”) against CB Patrick Peterson (6’ ¼” ).
• Mr. Contract Extension, Rams coach Jeff Fisher, couldn’t find his challenge flag against the Patriots because he was wearing a massive parka.
• Trailing 19–6 with 13:40 left in the fourth quarter, Saints coach Sean Payton decided to challenge the ruling that WR Brandin Cooks didn’t score a touchdown. First of all, not one replay showed that Cooks may have scored. Secondly, the play to the 1-yard line gave the Saints a first down, and it was their final challenge. Payton lost the challenge, lost a timeout that could have been useful, and it was ultimately a useless challenge because the Saints scored on the next play.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
Actually, I have to give the zebras some credit. Outside of a few things here and there (like the Chiefs getting hit with 13 penalties for 128 yards by Walt Coleman's officiating crew, after averaging just 6.4 penalties in their first 10 games), I thought Sunday’s games went pretty well. I don't think we’ll hear much post-game complaining around the league. Let’s keep it up guys. Gotta stack success. And good job by the Steelers-Giants crew for picking up a late flag that would have continued a drive on a hard hit by safety Mike Mitchell. It actually turned out to be a good hit, and not in the head/neck area.
Coolest thing I saw
Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill thought he had a touchdown pass on a nicely thrown fade to Devante Parker early in the second quarter. But then free safety Lardarius Webb came out of nowhere and took the ball from Parker and stayed in bounds for an interception. You won’t see many better plays than that.
Clinging to a 19–13 lead early in the fourth quarter, Matthew Stafford stared down a Saints blitz, got hit by two defenders and still got enough on the ball to hit Golden Tate on a 66-yard, catch-and-run touchdown that basically put the game out of reach. Those guys have a special connection going.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Patriots: He had eight catches on 10 targets for 82 yards in the Patriots’ ho-hum 26–10 victory over the Rams. The emergence of Mitchell, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2016, will be very big in the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending injury. Mitchell now needs to be the team’s deep threat, and with his performance in Week 13 and the three touchdowns he had in the previous two games, Mitchell (who has a devastating stiff arm after he catches the ball) is trending upward.
Numbers sometimes lie
117 yards, three touchdowns: The line for Bears RB Jordan Howard in a 26–6 victory over the 49ers. Howard wasn’t that impressive behind a banged up line considering he had 36 carries (3.7 average) in the snow, and he was going against the 49ers and their terrible run defense.
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
Two catches for 55 yards: The stat line for Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins on seven targets, and that includes a 44-yard touchdown. Yes, QB Brock Osweiler had something to do with Hopkins’s struggles, but he also had two drops, including one on third down that would have kept a drive alive deep in Packers territory. Hopkins has had difficulties throughout this season, and they’re not all Osweiler related.
After the whistle
With Sunday’s victory over the Rams, the Patriots won their 10th game for the 14th-straight season, and quarterback Tom Brady notched his 201st career victory (regular and postseason). Both are incredible achievements and signify the greatness of both Bill Belichick’s program, and Brady’s status as the greatest quarterback in league history. The only other team with more consecutive 10-win seasons was the 49ers (1983-98), but most of their work came before the salary-cap era in 1994. Brady (201–61) has a career winning percentage of .767. The only other quarterback over .685 is Russell Wilson (60–24–1, .712). Brady is 140 games over .500. Only Dan Marino, John Elway, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning have more than 140 wins total. Quite a day for the Patriots and Brady.