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Week 13 Preview: Bills-Patriots Is the For-Real Game of the Year

Not everything, but some of the things you need to know. Also, the one-year anniversary of the 11–0 Steelers, life after Ben, Panthers’ inflated expectations, Antonio Brown on a really dumb podcast, and more. Plus, musical guest: The Mountain Goats!

1. For the past decade, the NFL’s emphasis on parity has led to a point in which 70% of games are decided by two or three plays (many of them flukes, but we’ll save that discussion for another week, or every other week). Still, everyday, people who appear on mid-day basic cable shows furrow their brows in a vain attempt to understand how Team A With Good Win-Loss Record could lose to Team B With Worse Win-Loss Record. In light of that, an exercise in nostalgia:

Join me on a journey through time, to one year ago today: Dec. 5, 2020, the day before Week 13’s Sunday action. Perhaps you’ll remember Dec. 5, 2020. A little after sunset, Saturn was 4.0° to the upper left of 56 Sagittarii. Forty-eight hours earlier it had been Dec. 3. And that loved one? They were exactly one year younger than they are on Dec. 5, 2021. As for the NFL, the standings, in part, looked a like this:

• The Steelers were 11–0—in other words, two games better than any team in the NFL at this point in the current season.
• The Saints led the NFC at 9–2, followed by the 8–3 Seahawks, winners of two straight.
• The Bucs sat at 7–5 after losing three of four—each of those three losses nationally televised de-pantsings, in their own building, at the hands of the Saints, Rams and Chiefs.
• The Giants led the NFC East.
• The Dolphins, winners of six of seven (and on the verge of becoming winners of seven of eight), were 7–4 and one game behind the Bills in the AFC East.

Especially with the 17th regular-season game tacked on, how much wisdom is there in banking on a Cardinals-Ravens Super Bowl? Or proclaiming the Patriots infallible after six straight wins? Or writing off the Rams after three straight losses, or the Colts based on their 6–6 record?

There’s a lot of season to go, so maybe everyone just shut up for now. Anyway, here’s a bunch of bad football takes…

2a. Patriots-Bucs was not the game of the year (regular-season edition), because to be the game of the year it has to have some kind of stakes. Considering it was inter-conference and during a 17-game season, Patriots-Bucs was one of the least important NFL games anyone involved had ever played in. The only thing at stake was who the shouty-talking points would favor on mid-day basic cable shows.

No, the game of the year, Round 1 at least, is happening Monday night, when the Bills and Patriots will play a game that will put one team in the driver’s seat in the AFC East, and put the other back on the postseason bubble.

Mac Jones is the story of the Patriots’ season offensively, because quarterbacks are important and people pay attention to them. And Jones has played very well—his pre-snap acumen is excellent, he processes quickly after the snap, and he typically gets the ball to the right spot at the right time, all but eliminating the need for any hero ball. But he’s also able to do that because the circumstances have been ideal. 

The Patriots lead the NFL in average starting field position (the Bills are second, by the way). They’ve rarely played from behind during their six-game winning streak (that's usually the case when they win), but they also haven’t trailed by more than one possession at any point in 10 of their 12 games (the two exceptions: the lopsided loss to the Saints and, somehow, the Texans win). The only time New England has trailed in the second half during their win streak was against the Chargers, and it was the defense that took the lead back with a pick-six. Basically, the Patriots offense has been able to enter every week with a game plan and had the luxury to stick to that game plan throughout.

Along with Josh McDaniels’s play-calling, Jones has an excellent offensive line. And the heart of this offense is still—as it was to an extent during the late-Brady years as well—the power run game. Damien Harris and, especially of late, Rhamondre Stevenson have steamrolled opponents at times. The ability of the rushing attack, and the fact that it’s always a threat due to game flow, is a big reason Jones ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.85) on first down.

The Bills would love to put the game in the rookie’s hands, but that’s a tall order considering how badly they’ve struggled against strong rushing attacks this season. Buffalo has played in a lot of lopsided games in which the opponent’s run game was not a factor—statistically, they got fat against bottom-tier offenses like Miami (twice!), Houston, Jacksonville and the Trevor Siemian-led Saints. But the Bills lost a game on a couple Derrick Henry plays in Week 6, and two weeks ago they couldn’t get Jonathan Taylor on the ground. The Patriots will test them similarly on Monday night.

2b. On a Monday night in Foxboro last December, the Patriots tried a zone-heavy approach against Josh Allen and it went horribly. (You might remember that game, J.C. Jackson talked a little too much to Stefon Diggs and was subsequently set ablaze.) Allen’s ability to break zone defenses was part of the issue, but so was the fact that the Patriots were playing zone on the back end with no semblance of a pass rush up front. It’s been a different story this season with Matt Judon in the fold.

Opponents have had some success against Allen with conservative split-safety looks on the back end and a mush-rush approach to keep him from making plays with his legs up front. The Patriots can certainly replicate that, but they’re also capable of getting much more bold.

3. There’s nothing surprising about Ben Roethlisberger’s imminent retirement, but the fact that it was leaked very much feels like a white flag being waved on the Steelers’ 2021 season. (Though, really, last week’s loss in Cincinnati was probably white-flag-y enough.)

Looking ahead to 2022, Pittsburgh becomes an intriguing spot for any quarterback. They have a talented and diverse young group of weapons at receiver, long-term pieces at running back (Najee Harris) and tight end (Pat Freiermuth), and an offensive line that isn’t good, but has improved over the last 15 months and could end up being a solid group by this time next year. Pittsburgh will have some breathing room in terms of cap space with Roethlisberger coming off the books, enough to make a run at, say, any former Pro Bowl quarterbacks looking to move on from teams in the Pacific Northwest. Among the rookie class, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett could probably be dropped into this offense next summer and prove to be an upgrade (Matt Corral, Malik Willis and Desmond Ridder are higher-ceiling but longer-term developmental prospects to a certain degree). The last time the Steelers dropped a rookie quarterback into the lineup they went 15–1.

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The Steelers have quietly become a very leaky run defense, though they can hold out hope that Devin Bush returns to full form in his second year back from a torn ACL (and whenever the day comes that Cameron Heyward hangs ’em up that will be a more impactful loss than the 2021 edition of Roethlisberger will be). But right now the biggest issue for this franchise is the limitations on the offensive game plans because of the quarterback.

4. I will confess that, among the many things of which I do not have my finger on the pulse—fashion, pop culture, dental hygiene, etc.—local sentiment regarding the professional football team in Charlotte is among them.

Coming into the year, the Panthers profiled as a team nearing the completion of its rebuild on one side of the ball (defense), but, charitably, years away from having an NFL-caliber offense. The weapons are good, but the offensive line is one of football’s worst, which presumably played into the decision not to take a quarterback in last year’s draft. They instead scratched the lotto ticket that is Sam Darnold, knowing full well that—despite his occasional highlight-reel plays—he was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in football the previous two seasons.

The lack of a starting-caliber quarterback is exceptionally difficult to overcome, and while the return of Cam Newton is exciting, the number of times a team has found their answer at quarterback in the form of a street free agent signed in November is zero. But Carolina's 3–0 start—in a world where people struggle to view these things holistically—apparently sent expectations flying off the rails among fans and, it sounds like, the owner as well.

I’m not advocating for or against Matt Rhule, and last Sunday’s loss in Miami was undeniably ugly (though not much uglier than the Ravens’ performance in Miami 17 days earlier). But if ownership thought Rhule was the answer less than two years ago when the cupboard was essentially bare, and are convinced to pull the plug after two seasons of missing the playoffs first with Teddy Bridgewater and then with essentially no one at the sport’s most important position, that’s a troubling early sign for the David Tepper era.

5a. The Antonio Brown/Mike Edwards/guy who will never play in the NFL suspension was as meek as you thought it would be. You can get worked up about it, or you can remember that the league office has never risen above a baseline level of competency when it comes to these matters—everything about the personal conduct policy is an exercise in PR, not in any kind of justice, which is probably why it’s been sideways from the start. The COVID protocols were created in the same vein—for show, with the league passing the enforcement buck onto the teams with little guidance rather than asking teams to, say, verify vaccination status (or, God forbid, have someone from the league office do the verification work).

If we, as a society, believe that “misrepresenting their vaccination status” is an important issue, then we should be looking to the federal authorities to do something about these specific cases, and to state and national legislators to write laws to address fake vaccination cards in general.

5b. As for Brown, it’s another round of the Bucs front office and players enabling the worst in him. This time, it was Richard Sherman’s podcast—the show for those who think The Players’ Tribune’s edges are a little too sharp—turning Brown’s many instances of misconduct and mistreatment of others for which he has shown zero contrition and ultimately faced mild consequences into a bizarre, hagiographic redemption arc. No one is the villain in their own story, and Brown’s continued insistence on clutching on to some kind of convoluted victim complex is one thing. The insistence on those around him to promote that narrative is downright toxic.

Anyway, the very bad podcast (that I won’t link to because it isn’t worth listening to) included this exchange, which is surely in the running for lowest moment in podcasting history. This ran one day before Brown’s suspension was announced...

Sherman: So, like, how frustrating is it for you, I mean like even, even talking about the stuff that that that you've been dealing with recently, like they talking about your card fake and all that. And you got the vaccine and then you get the booster shot and you still got to deal with scrutiny, like, it's like no matter what the truth actually is, people can make their own narrative and you got to deal with it.

Brown: Yeah that's the sad part. You know the country say you're innocent until proven guilty but you're guilty until you show innocence because anything someone says everyone's already magnifying it and if I come out if you come out and say anything you just put yourself in deeper holes.

Usually I write a joke here, but there isn’t one. "People can make their own narrative and you got to deal with it" is the kind of vapid word jumble typical of an enabler willing to go to bat for Brown in the vaguest of terms because he's good at football. And, one more reminder: During our reporting on Brown in 2019 this shop offered him multiple opportunities to address the many allegations made against him. He never did.

6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Mountain Goats!

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