Less than 10 weeks to go until the most anticipated Super Bowl of our lifetime! Will Tom Brady and Bill Belichick embrace after the game? Are there any storylines left to write about after the overhyping of the teams’ Week 4 meeting? How many more times will we be forced to watch the cringeworthy Rob Gronkowski USAA commercials? With Brady’s Bucs at 9–3 and Belichick’s Patriots at 9–4, we are officially allowed to consider this possibility. Here’s what else you need to know after Week 13:
1. The Patriots’ rebuild took one year. After one 7–9 season, and their lone absence from the playoffs over the last 12 years, the Patriots are back atop the AFC. It hasn’t always been pretty, between a 1–3 start and, Monday night, a utilitarian 14–10 win in Buffalo. But a hallmark of the Patriots’ dynasty this century—other than that Brady guy—has been that they create ways to win based on the circumstances of every matchup. On Monday, one of those circumstances was an overpowering wind that led to a pre-game determination that, when going into the wind, the line to kick from was the 10-yard line. And this season, another one of those circumstances has been playing with a rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, who has an excellent aptitude for the game if not a physical skill equal to some of his peers. They’ve brought Jones along at a steady pace, pairing him with a physically imposing offensive line and an expensive group of targets acquired via free agency. They’ve run the ball on 47.6% of their snaps—though, of course, that rate is skewed slightly by last night’s box score (46 runs, 3 passes). On the other side of the ball is a defense studded with both old and new stars that’s allowed the fewest points per game in the NFL this season (15.4). Belichick should be in the running for both Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, because he has done in one year what some organizations have been trying to do for most of the last decade (see item No. 7).
2. The AFC is still wide open. With all that being said about the Patriots’ resurgence—a word that hasn’t been associated with the franchise since the early aughts—it’s still anyone’s AFC. A failed two-point conversion try against the rival Steelers was the difference between the Ravens staying atop the AFC and falling back. The Titans, who have lost two in a row, could get Derrick Henry back from his foot injury for a playoff run. The Chiefs are on a five-game win streak, oddly powered by their defense rather than their offense. A whopping 13 AFC teams have six wins or more! (And then there are the Jets, Texans and Jaguars.) For comparison’s sake, only eight NFC teams have at least six wins. The muddy conference standings promise to make for an intriguing final five weeks of the season.
3. This is looking like T.J. Watt’s year to win DPOY . . . and maybe more? Sure, it’s easy to say this after Watt recorded 3.5 sacks against a division rival, and after he got in Lamar Jackson’s face to force an incompletion on the decisive two-point play in the win against the Ravens (all of this after testing positive for COVID-19 six days earlier). His performance on Sunday also pushed Watt past Myles Garrett as the NFL sack leader, with 16, despite having played two fewer games. But Watt has been knocking on the door of this honor for the past couple years: In 2020, he received only seven fewer votes than three-time winner Aaron Donald. And when his position coach gave him a season sack goal of 30 last year, he did so to make sure his goals were set high enough. The way Watt put the Steeleers on his back in a game they had to have to stay viable in the AFC playoff picture, he could even make a case as an MVP candidate.
4. Brandon Staley made a call we need to see from more coaches. We are not talking about fourth-down aggressiveness, or any game strategy from the Chargers’ 41–22 win against the Bengals. In the first quarter of the game, Joey Bosa was evaluated for a concussion and didn’t return. Later, Staley explained that Bosa was actually cleared to return, but the head coach was the one who made the decision not to put him back in, because of Bosa’s recent concussion history (two last season). “With his history, we just wanted to make sure,” Staley told reporters. “As long as I’m the head coach here, we’re going to be making decisions like that in the best interest of our players.” It’s not a decision you see often, especially involving one of a team’s most important players. But we know that the effects of concussions can be cumulative and snowball over time, and also that there can be a delayed presentation of symptoms when a brain injury occurs. Staley’s decision truly put the health and safety of his player first, something we certainly need to see more of in the NFL.
5. Aaron Rodgers’s toe has legs. This storyline may have already achieved its peak absurdity when the Packers QB bared the fractured digit on a Zoom press conference to dispute his own joking comment that he had “COVID toe,” but it seems far from over. Last week, in Rodgers’s return to his weekly pulpit on The Pat McAfee Show, he suggested that Packers coaches were leaking information about what is currently the most notorious toe in the NFL. Then, coming out of Green Bay’s Week 13 bye, Matt LaFleur said he did not believe that Rodgers was having toe surgery. “Not to my knowledge,” LaFleur said, a slightly odd reply considering you’d hope the head coach would be fully in the know about the surgical plans of his MVP quarterback. You may remember Rodgers’s January 2015 divisional round win against the Cowboys on virtually one leg (better known as the “Dez caught it” game). The toe has already made more headlines.
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6. We cannot put stock in what teams say to justify a controversial signing. Before the Bucs won the Super Bowl last year, I asked Bruce Arians, You have said that Antonio Brown has been good in the locker room. There have been numerous off-field incidents, including a rape allegation and him threatening a woman and her children. Why did you feel that he was worthy of [another] chance? This was Arians’s reply: “For the first time, when I had talked to him, I was talking to a different guy. Very remorseful. I had never seen that. ... He did not have a leash. It was a one [strike], you’re gone. And he’s been a model guy in the locker room. I see a huge difference. A huge difference in the maturity.” Less than a year later, Brown was suspended for three games by the NFL for “misrepresenting” his vaccination status. And, for now at least, Brown remains on the Bucs roster.
7. The New York Football Autumn (Winter) of Despair abides. The last time we hit on our favorite segment of the sunsetted Weak-Side Podcast, both New York teams were 0–2 yet again. Here we are 11 weeks later, with the 3–9 Jets and the 4–8 Giants sustaining particularly ugly losses as they limp toward the finish line of another lost season. Both teams have been in a perpetual state of rebuild for basically the last decade: The Jets have had one winning season since they last made the playoffs in 2010, and the Giants have been to the postseason only once since winning the Super Bowl in 2011. But while we expected this to be a long season for the Jets, with a rookie head coach, a rookie QB and a roster in desperate need of more talent, expectations were much higher for the Giants. Joe Judge fired offensive coordinator Jason Garrett mid-season, and Dave Gettleman is reportedly not expected to return as GM in 2022. But the final five games of this season should absolutely also be used to evaluate Judge, too.
8. Rams-Cardinals is in a week. Whatever you thought of Bills-Patriots (I loved it?), it was a consequential Monday night game in December. Next week, we get another one. The Cardinals beat the Rams in Week 4; now they meet again, the 10–2 Cardinals with the best record in the NFL and the 8–4 Rams trying to reestablish themselves after losing three of their last four games. The one thing we can say confidently is that the weather for next week’s MNF will be much different than last night.
More NFL Coverage:
• How Belichick Broke Buffalo on MNF
• Breaking Down the NFL Playoff Picture With Five Weeks to Go
• Week 13 Takeaways: Classic-ish Ben Shows for Ravens Game
• MAQB: Goff Deserves to Feel Good After First Win With Lions
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