Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 12 to Week 13.
» Have Aaron Rodgers throw in rhythm, rather than relying on improvisation? Check.
» Vary the team’s offensive formations and personnel to avoid predictability? Check.
» Rediscover the team’s dormant pass rush and avoid defensive self-immolation in the first quarter? Done and done.
This vintage, nearly flawless performance from Rodgers has been building for the last month. It’s just that no one noticed while the Packers‘ defense fell apart. He’s getting rid of the ball on time and finding receivers faster. He fit the ball into keyholes Monday night. Davante Adams‘ quickness and ability to make tough grabs has been a constant for more than a month. Green Bay’s two drives totaling 30 plays and nearly 15 minutes time of possession were a masterclass in closing out a game and protecting a vulnerable defense.
There is a risk to overreacting to one win, but this was the Packers‘ last stand for the 2016 season and they delivered their best game of the season. Somewhere, Lions and Vikings fans watched football’s most talented quarterback play at his peak and thought with a sense of dread:
“Oh no, not again.”
Narratives that were busted
1) Russell Wilson started his finishing kick early this season, inspiring hope that he could sneak into the MVP race and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. It’s hard to imagine those alternate timelines occurring after Seattle’s three-point offensive performance in Tampa.
There were bright sides, though. Wilson showed he can still run for 80 yards because he had to. As far as losses go, the Seahawks can afford this. It was their second East Coast trip in three weeks and injuries were a big factor. The top NFC Seed is out of reach now but was likely gone anyway unless the Cowboys stumbled hard. Seattle remains in good position for the No. 2 seed.
2) The NFC West is no longer one of the league’s best divisions. It’s now among the worst. The Seahawks remain a title contender but look at the rest of the division after its 0-4 performance in Week 12. Seattle, Arizona and Los Angeles lost on the road to NFC South teams by a combined score of 101-45. The Cardinals have been displaced as the NFC’s offensive “It” team and face an uncertain future. The Rams are 4-7 after 11 games for the third straight season under Jeff Fisher. They haven’t truly been part of a playoff race since Fisher was hired. The 49ers are the NFC’s worst team, reduced to moral victories the last three weeks.
3) The Bucs’ three-game winning streak starts with defense at a level not even coordinator Mike Smith could have seen coming. One of the worst groups in football early in the season, Tampa has given up a total of 32 points the last three weeks.
This is a group the Bucs can build around. Rookies Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves have keyed the improvement. Gerald McCoy was dominant in two of the wins and linebacker Lavonte David looked like his old self against Seattle. The defense and Doug Martin‘s return have taken pressure off Jameis Winston.
4) Kirk Cousins continues to smash the glass ceiling for soft-tossing, mid-round picks everywhere. He’s now fourth in attempts and third in passing yards on deep throws (over 20 yards). As Chris Wesseling noted on our Week 12 Around the NFL review podcast, Cousins is set to be one the highest paid players in the sport.
5) Alex Smith, like Cousins, is an easy guy to mock. He didn’t throw the ball more than 10 yards downfield until midway through the fourth quarter in Denver. When most QBs get a free play from an offside penalty, they take a shot. Smith takes a check-down pass. At times this season, it looks like Andy Reid maxed out this offense with Smith at the helm, and we’d forgive Chiefs fans for wondering if they could upgrade.
And then Smith accomplishes something like he did Sunday night. Needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion with no timeouts with three minutes to work with, Smith started his drive getting sacked and facing a third-and-long. Smith then calmly marched the team 75 yards for the score and the two-pointer.
Needing a field goal to keep the game alive in overtime, Smith directed a field-goal drive that included a deep throw to Travis Kelce. Given one minute and great field position, Smith set up Santos again. If Tom Brady or Derek Carr delivered that type of performance in the money moments, they would be treated as conquering heroes. Smith gets treated like an afterthought.
Storylines that deserve more attention
1) Alex Smith deserves extra credit because he was playing behind a leaky offensive line against one of the best pass rushing teams in football. That’s just life in the AFC West.
Pro Football Focus noted that four of their top 12 performances all season by edge rushers came from the division this weekend: Khalil Mack, Justin Houston, Von Miller and Joey Bosa performing the honors. Bosa is on his way to earning the Defensive Player of the Year award despite his holdout, and there may not be anyone close in the race. Throw in breakout seasons from Dee Ford and Melvin Ingram, Oakland’s underrated addition of Bruce Irvin and Denver’s depth, and you have the best pass rushing division in football by a wide margin.
2) I never want to take Le’Veon Bell‘s greatness for granted. The stats are one thing. (He’s played half a season and put up 1,136 yards from scrimmage.) The style is another. No one runs like Bell. No one cuts through the line in slow motion like he’s in “The Matrix” like Bell. No one jab steps and stops like Bell. No one dances on his toes like Bell, beating linebackers like he’s killing them with a crossover dribble. No one does it at 225 pounds with the ability to run over defenders or run routes like a wideout.
Bell is quietly better than ever this season, treating each carry like an urgent chance to express himself. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has noticed, pivoting the Steelers away from their pass-happy attack into a ball-control offense that has only required 16 patient drives over the last two weeks, all with Bell at the center. He is one of the most singular athletes I’ve ever seen with the football in his hands, and he could just be hitting his peak. Don’t miss it.
3) Can you deeply miss a player that was barely there? Seattle’s running game is a long way from its Beast Mode heyday and the loss of rookie C.J. Prosise showed up in Tampa on Sunday. The Seahawks lack versatility without him, especially in a game where they are playing from behind.
4) Jason Pierre-Paul has been the best player on the field in two straight Giants games. Disruptive early in the season, now he’s finishing plays more often. It’s happening in concert with tag team partner Olivier Vernon‘s steady improvement. It’s also coming just in time for JPP to get a huge contract in the offseason.
The coaching revenge game of the decade
Saints coach Sean Payton set out to embarrass his former assistant Gregg Williams on Sunday in the Superdome and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
New Orleans’ 27 first downs, 49 points and 555 yards were remarkable for how easy they all came. Payton schemed his players into wide open spaces on snap after snap, appearing to know what Williams called before every play like a cheating older brother playing Tecmo Bowl.
This was perhaps the only “revenge” game narrative in history that was underplayed for its impact on the result. This Saints team is better than their 5-6 record but they aren’t this good. If Payton faced off against Williams every week, the Saints would go undefeated.
Concerns for Week 12 winners
1) The Titans‘ defense was ranked No. 28 in FootballOutsiders’ metrics before giving up 411 yards to the Matt Barkley-led Bears. If not for a wide open drop by receiver Josh Bellamy, Mike Mularkey would have entered the bye week explaining what was nearly the worst fourth-quarter collapse of the entire season.
That game, and cornerback Perrish Cox‘s subsequent release, is a reminder that Dick Lebeau’s Titans unit has not equaled the sum of its parts. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are among the league’s sack tandem leaders and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is a boss, but the Titans give up far too many big plays. The shady secondary and failed blitzes are reminiscent of Lebeau’s teams at the end of his Steelers run. This group only needs to be average to help win the AFC South, but they aren’t average right now.
2) This Patriots team lacks juice. Bill Belichick often points to Thanksgiving as the real start of the season, the time when his best teams traditionally start to peak. Instead, the last three weeks included a loss at home and close games against NFL also-rans.
The always excellent Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com called Sunday’s win the Patriots‘ best win of the year because of the team’s ability to withstand adversity. Pulling out a close game in Metlife Stadium is the type of win that every season needs. It’s also fair to point out the Patriots had one QB hit in the game, a problem that is not going away. Tom Brady played his least accurate game of the season at less than 100 percent and Rob Gronkowski hurt his back again. There is time left to turn things around but this looks more like a team that has cut too much off its collective hoodie rather than a team peaking at the right time.
3) The Chargers remain alive at 5-6 because of Philip Rivers and a roster that would stack up among the NFL’s best if it was healthy. Winners of four their last six, I’ve held out hope they could sneak into the playoffs on a long winning streak. Handing the Texans their first home loss with relative ease should support that case, but the nagging question of coach Mike McCoy remains.
Given a chance to put the game away with his excellent offense on fourth-and-1 in Houston territory, McCoy tepidly called for a punt midway through the fourth quarter. (Three plays later, the Texans had gained the field position back.)
Faced with a similar situation with three minutes left, McCoy again went ultra-conservative, not allowing Philip Rivers to throw a single pass on third down when a conversion would comfortably end the game up two scores. (Note: Philip Rivers is great at throwing footballs). The Texans wound up tossing a few Hail Mary passes in part because McCoy coaches not to lose. It’s hurt the Chargers all season and is not a new trend. It’s the type of coaching that has to give Chargers fans Schottenheimer flashbacks.