One game topped the bill heading into week 13 and it did not disappoint. The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers faced off for what many see as a Super Bowl preview, and treated us to one of the games of the year despite horrible conditions.
Elsewhere in the league the New England Patriots hit a sizeable stumbling block on Sunday Night Football and three of the worst teams in football all picked up surprise victories.
Here are the 10 biggest takeaways from Sunday’s games…
1. Justin Tucker makes the difference for Baltimore
The Baltimore Ravens are now proud owners of the No 1 seed in the AFC thanks to the boot of Justin Tucker. Tucker nailed a 49-yard field goal in soaking conditions as time expired to give the Ravens a 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers in a game plenty expect to be repeated in February. It would be a deserving Super Bowl, with these two teams showing why they are probably the two strongest in the NFL right now.
The weather meant both offenses did the bulk of their damage on the ground. Lamar Jackson refused to look deep (Marquise Brown had a single catch for one yard) but had 103 rushing yards and a score at an average of 6.3 per carry and also threw a touchdown pass to Mark Andrews, his favourite target on the day. In fact, passes to tight ends made up half of Jackson’s 14 competitions.
For the Niners it was a career day for Raheem Mostert that carries them. Mostert has been more of an impact player to this point, but carried the load on Sunday and looked great doing it. He rushed 19 times for 146 yards and a touchdown, as Jimmy Garoppolo mostly kept the offense tight. Conservative play-calling at the end of the first half and a blocked Robbie Gould field goal attempt may have cost San Francisco this win - but those are the kind of fine margins you expect when two great teams go head to head.
2. The Patriots’ offense may kill their hopes
Yes, they have the greatest quarterback of all time, but the New England Patriots’ offense isn’t working, despite what the box score might say in their 28-22 defeat to the Houston Texans on Sunday Night Football. The Pats managed just three points in the first half and were 21-9 down heading into the fourth quarter. Tom Brady failed on drive after drive, and had little to work with outside of Julian Edelman (six catches, 106 yards, TD) and James White (177 scrimmage yards, two TDs). Again, those numbers look healthy, but New England were poor, and did all their damage when the game was already lost.
The Texans, meanwhile, badly needed this win to fully reassert themselves in the AFC, and Deshaun Watson made light work of a supposedly stingy defense. He threw three touchdown passes, to DeAndre Hopkins, Kenny Stills and Darren Fells, but the icing on the cake was a trick play which saw Hopkins toss a six-yarder to Watson in the end zone. Houston have given themselves a bit of breathing room in the AFC South while also leaving the Patriots’ playoff bye up for doubt. New England rarely have to fight their way through the Wildcard round, and this current unit may not be up to that task. Bill Belichick has four weeks to fix his offense.
3. Chiefs take control of the AFC West
The Kansas City Chiefs were outgained by the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, and yet came away with a commanding 40-9 win in the battle for first place in the AFC West. How? They did not turn the ball over and had zero penalties, meanwhile Oakland turned it over three times and gave up 99 penalty yards. This was a win built on discipline - the type that can win you important games in January, even when your team has other issues.
Patrick Mahomes had just 175 passing yards in this one - his lowest mark of the season outside of the week seven win over Denver in which he came off injured. His one touchdown pass was a three-yarder to Darrel Williams, but he also ran one in with his legs - as did both rookie Darwin Thompson and grizzled vet LeSean McCoy. It was the Chiefs’ defense, really, which took the spotlight. They smothered Derek Carr in the secondary, intercepting him twice and stymying the Raiders’ passing attack, which had little to offer outside of Darren Waller.
This isn’t quite the firecracker Chiefs team of 2018, but they may just be better built to go all the way this year, particularly if they put together a strong run down the stretch.
4. When Derrick Henry rolls, so do the Titans
A couple of big plays in the fourth quarter sealed an important 31-17 win for the Tennessee Titans over the Indianapolis Colts - one that moves them to 7-5 and into sole possession of second place in a tight AFC South. The first was a blocked field goal (the Titans’ second of the day) which Tye Smith returned 63 yards for a touchdown, and the second was a beautiful 40-yard touchdown strike from Ryan Tannehill to Kalif Raymond. Tannehill is playing really well since being named starter in Tennessee, and deserves a crack at retaining the starting job next season. He was 17 on 22 in Indianapolis, with 182 yards and two touchdowns.
The real star of this offense, though, is Derrick Henry, who always comes alive at the business end of the season. He rushed 26 times for 149 yards and a touchdown - his third straight game with at least 140 yards on the ground. Tennessee have won all three.
The Colts, meanwhile, have mistakes including their kicking woes to blame for falling to 6-6. Jacoby Brissett also threw two interceptions and had very little to help him on offense, with Zach Pascal and Jack Doyle his only reliable targets thanks to an injury-plagued receiver corps.
5. The NFC East doesn’t deserve a playoff team
After the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving, the Philadelphia Eagles gave us a case for scrapping the NFC East altogether by giving up nearly 40 points to the Miami Dolphins in a humiliating 37-31 defeat. The Eagles offense showed more fight and ability than it has in weeks, but this time Philly were let down by a teflon defense which allowed Ryan Fitazpatrick (27 of 39, 365 yards, three TDs, one interception) and DeVante Parker (seven catches, 159 yards, two TDs) to rip them apart all afternoon. The highlight, though? A fake field goal which turned into a punter to kicker touchdown pass, sending the internet wild.
Because of the weakness of their division the Eagles aren’t out of it at 5-7, but are definitely in trouble. Carson threw for more than 300 yards for just the third time this season in Miami, and was helped by Alshon Jeffery (nine receptions, 137 yards, TD) looking like his old self, but Philadelphia have shown time and again this season that they struggle to move the ball like this against better teams, and are constantly hampered by stupid mistakes. This loss deserves to be the one that ends their season, but Dallas may just give them a reprieve.
6. Browns’ season tumbles into a ditch
The Cleveland Browns’ season is done. Not officially, but it is done. A 20-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, just 17 days after their last tumultuous meeting, showed why. Cleveland had a 10-0 lead early in the first half but then took their foot off the gas, and ended up falling to a hugely depleted Steelers team - one that started its fourth-string quarterback from training camp and was without both James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Devlin Hodges will never be a star, but did enough for Pittsburgh to win off the back of their excellent defense, which sacked Baker Mayfield five times and intercepted him once. Hodges completed 14 of 21 for 212 yards, a touchdown pass to James Washington and a pick. The Steelers deserve a huge amount of credit for fighting their way back to 7-5 despite the many knockbacks they’ve taken this season, while Freddie Kitchens must be fearing for his job after definitely failing to get even close to the best out of this hugely talented Browns roster.
7. Packers bounce back in style
Well that was exactly what the Green Bay Packers needed. After being battered by the 49ers last week, Aaron Rodgers and company got back on track with a convincing 31-13 victory over the New York Giants. Rodgers threw four touchdown passes in the New Jersey snow, two to Devante Adams, who had just one for the season to this point, and a 43-yard dime to Allen Lazard. Rodgers’ passing game dominated the New York secondary on a day where Aaron Jones (18 yards from 11 carries) was near silent.
The Green Bay defense also deserves some credit for picking Daniel Jones off three times. Darnell Savage, Tramon Williams and Kevin King all came away with interceptions as the Giants offense struggled without key figures, and with Saquon Barkley (19 carries, 83 yards) still not completely right after his ankle sprain.
At 9-3, and with games against the Redskins, Bears, Vikings and Lions to come, the Packers should be hopeful of sealing a bye in the NFC.
8. Rams turn back the clock to last season
The Los Angeles Rams have been one of this season’s biggest disappointments. Sean McVay’s innovative, high-soaring offense of 2018 had been all but absent and the defense inconsistent. On Sunday, in a 34-7 thrashing of the Arizona Cardinals, they finally looked like their old selves.
Jared Goff had perhaps his best day of the year, completing 32 of 43 for 424 yards and two touchdowns, helping LA jump out to a 20-0 half-time lead from which they never looked back. Robert Woods was the main recipient, going for a whopping 132 yards from seven catches, but tight end Tyler Higbee also had a big day with Gerald Everett out injured, going over 100 and hauling in a touchdown. Todd Gurley contributed too, with 115 total yards and a score.
On defense the Rams totally swarmed Kyler Murray, who never really managed to get the passing game going. Murray also threw a pick six to Taylor Rapp, and had two further interceptions wiped out by penalties. The Rams are still in the WIldcard hunt in the NFC at 7-5, but can probably only afford to lose one more game - max. McVay will hope this is a turning point, with a visit from Seattle next up.
9. Panthers fail at the last again
Once again the Panthers found themselves inside the five-yard line with the chance to save the game late on. Once again they failed. That’s the third time this season, and this one will hurt the most - an embarrassing 29-21 loss to the Washington Redskins after they had recovered an onside kick to give them hope. At 5-7 that’s their season done in a crowded NFC, and they can’t say it’s not deserved.
Carolina had jumped out to a 14-0 lead and had looked to be strolling to a big get-right victory, but Washington fought back by gashing them on the ground - something the Panthers have struggled with all season. Derrius Guice broke out with 129 yards and two touchdowns from just 10 carries, while Adrian Peterson added 99 and another score. Guice’s young NFL career has been hamstrung by injuries, but this was exactly the type of performance Washington had expected from him when they drafted him last spring.
10. Bengals embarrass hopeless Jets
The New York Jets had scored 34 points in each of their last three games and were on their hottest streak in years, but on Sunday they ended that streak in the most Jetsy way possible - with a 22-6 defeat to the previously winless Cincinnati Bengals.
Sam Darnold failed to move the ball as Adam Gase’s painfully boring offense of the early season returned with a vengeance, and the Jets were unable to run the ball against a horrible run defense either. They mustered just two first-half field goals while on the opposing side, Andy Dalton returned to the Bengals line-up with a touchdown pass that gave him the all-time lead for passing TDs in franchise history. Yes, Cincy really benched him when he was tied for the lead.
Dalton (22 of 37, 243 yards, TD) looked good against a Jets secondary which failed to show up. He may not be in Cincinnati next year, but will find a job somewhere.