It would be hard to draw up a weirder Sunday than one in which the Miami Dolphins, the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals all won, while the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers lost. The surprising victories by the league’s lesser teams provided plenty of entertainment, but Week 13 was all about the potential Super Bowl preview between the Baltimore Ravens and the 49ers, a pair of heavyweight teams that fought their way to a 20-17 classic.
Here’s what we learned:
A 49ers-Ravens Super Bowl would be intense. Watching these teams feel each other out was fascinating. It was 17-14 in favor of Baltimore at halftime, with both sides moving the ball consistently. But a series of defensive adjustments led to both offenses disappearing. The second half consisted of just seven drives, which resulted in two punts, two turnovers on downs, a fumble and two field goals. While the game didn’t match the scoring of last year’s 54-51 thriller between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams, it had every bit as much intensity, and for much of the second half there was a feeling that whichever team ended up with the ball last would win. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens made that a reality by grinding out the final 6 minutes 28 seconds with a drive that took 12 plays to go just 34 yards before Justin Tucker’s game-winning 49-yard field goal.
Baltimore and San Francisco are two of the three most likely teams to make the Super Bowl, according to The Upshot, with New England being the third. Getting a chance to see the 49ers and Ravens face off again — after their offenses get a chance to watch the film and see what they were doing wrong — would be an absolute treat.
Lamar Jackson is having the best rushing season for a quarterback — ever. Against San Francisco’s terrific defense, Jackson was left to largely fend for himself. Running backs Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards were wrapped up and Baltimore’s receivers found no purchase. But Jackson, in what is looking like an M.V.P. season, was up for the challenge of running his team to victory. With 16 carries for 101 yards, he surpassed 100 yards for a fourth time this season, setting a record for a quarterback. He is up to 977 rushing yards, which leaves him just 62 short of Michael Vick’s single-season record with four games left to play. The only significant rushing record for a quarterback that will likely elude Jackson is rushing touchdowns, as Cam Newton had 14 in 2011, while Jackson has just seven.
The Patriots’ offensive woes are more than just a blip. New England’s offense topped 20 points for the first time in three weeks, but it wasn’t enough as its defense fell apart in a 28-22 loss to the Houston Texans. The Patriots scored three offensive touchdowns in a game for the first since Week 7, but two came with the game essentially out of hand in the fourth quarter. And considering how easily both Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson carved up New England’s defense, the Patriots no longer being a sure thing on offense could be a major issue in the playoffs.
It was a great week to be an awful team. The Dolphins, the Redskins and the Bengals had all been accused of tanking for draft position, but each of them — even previously-winless Cincinnati — went out and won in impressive fashion. The Dolphins and the Redskins showed grit by having their defenses stop last-minute drives that could have tied or won the game for the opposition, and the Bengals simply destroyed the previously-hot Jets, 22-6. It was not a good day for all of the bottom-feeders, however, as the Giants got blown out by Green Bay, earning their eighth straight loss and dropping to the second-worst record in the N.F.L. (2-10). The Bengals’ final four games consist of one against the Dolphins and two against the wildly inconsistent Cleveland Browns, so the possibility exists of the Giants ending up with the No. 1 pick in the draft, which would be a drastic fall from the (two-game) heyday of Daniel Jones Mania.
The Titans could be dangerous in the playoffs — if they get there. Tennessee is on the outside looking in as far as the playoff picture is concerned, but since promoting Ryan Tannehill to starting quarterback, the Titans have been clicking offensively, and have gone 5-1. They trail Pittsburgh for the second A.F.C. wild-card spot by just a tiebreaker, and on Sunday, Tennessee’s defense got into the act, showing some surprising firepower in a wild fourth quarter. In a span of just three minutes of game clock, the Titans blocked a field-goal attempt (returning the ball 63 yards for a touchdown), intercepted a pass by Jacoby Brissett (giving their offense a short field for another touchdown), and recovered a fumble that essentially ended the game. If the Texans aren’t careful, the Titans might sneak into the A.F.C. South division title rather than a wild-card spot.
The Rams and the Chiefs can still party like it’s … 2018. This hasn’t been a particularly pretty season for either team, but on Sunday, Los Angeles and Kansas City reminded everyone what they are capable of when everything is clicking. The Rams, who were obliterated at home last week in the nadir of a 3-5 stretch, got several key offensive contributors back for this game and it showed in a 34-7 blowout over Arizona. The Chiefs, who went 3-4 after a 4-0 start to the year, looked energized coming out of a bye week — a staple of Coach Andy Reid’s career — demolishing the Oakland Raiders, 40-9.
We haven’t seen the last of Gardner Minshew’s aviators and jorts. The Jaguars were happy to give the ball back to Nick Foles when he returned from injury three games ago, but after two lackluster starts — both of which resulted in losses — the veteran quarterback bottomed out on Sunday against the awful secondary of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He completed just 7 of 14 passes for 93 yards and turned the ball over on each of his team’s first three possessions. He was pulled at halftime for Minshew, a sixth-round draft pick who proved to be a fan favorite — perhaps folk hero? — during an eight-game stint as a fill-in starter. Minshew moved the ball far better than Foles had — while also throwing a crucial interception — and at this point there is an argument to be made that the rookie could give Coach Doug Marrone the best shot at saving his job in a wildly disappointing season.
Sunday’s Top Performers
Top Passer: Deshaun Watson
Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdown passes in the snow, and Ryan Tannehill continued to be ruthlessly efficient, but Watson’s performance, especially in the context of it coming against New England, stood out above the rest. Coming into the game, New England had allowed four passing touchdowns all season. Houston matched that total by itself, with Watson throwing three — one of which was a 35-yard bullet to Kenny Stills in the end zone — before being credited as a receiver on the fourth when DeAndre Hopkins took a handoff, ran the ball to the edge and then flipped the ball back to Watson who dove into the end zone.
Top Runner: Derrius Guice
Guice, who came into the game with just 74 rushing yards in a two-year career that has been hampered by knee injuries, got nearly double that on just 10 carries in a breakout performance. He and the veteran Adrian Peterson combined for 228 yards on the ground.
Top Receiver: DeVante Parker
Robert Woods of the Rams had more receiving yards, but Parker absolutely dominated Philadelphia, making a pair of terrific touchdown catches in the enormous upset.
One* Sentence About Sunday’s Games
*Except when it takes more.
Chiefs 40, Raiders 9 It does not seem particularly fair for Kansas City to run up 40 points in a game in which Patrick Mahomes only threw one touchdown pass.
Texans 28, Patriots 22 New England made up for a slow start some with a push toward the end, but their first seven possessions were brutal: Field goal, interception, four straight punts and a turnover on downs.
Ravens 20, 49ers 17 Even in a loss, San Francisco’s pass defense looked terrific, holding Baltimore to 105 yards through the air — the 10th time in 12 games that the 49ers have held an opponent to 200 passing yards or less.
Packers 31, Giants 13 “I loved the conditions,” Aaron Rodgers told reporters of the snowy day at MetLife Stadium in which he threw for 243 yards and four touchdowns.
Titans 31, Colts 17 “It’s almost looking like a weapon for us,” Coach Mike Vrabel said of his team blocking a third field goal attempt in a span of three weeks.
Steelers 20, Browns 13 After falling behind by 10-0, Pittsburgh outscored Cleveland by 20-3 the rest of the way, getting some revenge for an ugly (and controversy-filled) loss in Week 11.
Rams 34, Cardinals 7 Jared Goff threw for 424 yards, Todd Gurley had 115 yards from scrimmage, Robert Woods had 172 receiving yards, Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks both contributed and the Los Angeles defense got a pick-6 from Taylor Rapp. Where has this team been all year?
Buccaneers 28, Jaguars 11 “It’s difficult,” Nick Foles said of a game in which he committed a turnovers on each of his team’s first three possessions. “But you know what, I’m going to look at the bright things and keep my head held high.”
Broncos 23, Chargers 20 If you’re Coach Anthony Lynn of the Chargers, and the Broncos run a last-second play that is fairly obviously designed to draw a pass interference penalty against your team, it had to sting to watch one of your players actually commit the penalty, setting up Denver’s game-winning field goal.
Dolphins 37, Eagles 31 Sure, DeVante Parker had two touchdown receptions, but Jason Sanders caught a touchdown pass, then kicked his own extra-point, and he chipped in with a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter for good measure. According to Pro Football Reference, Sanders is the first player to kick an extra-point and have a receiving touchdown in the same game since 1977.
Redskins 29, Panthers 21 If you thought Carolina’s failed goal line try in the closing seconds of a loss to Green Bay in Week 10 was bad, consider this: Trailing Washington by just 8 points with 40 seconds left to play on Sunday, the Panthers had a 1st-and-goal at Washington’s 1-yard line. They proceeded to run the ball for negative yardage twice, throw an incomplete pass and then turn the ball over on downs on a sack, effectively ending the game.
Bengals 22, Jets 6 Andy Dalton got into a game for the first time since Week 8, and proceeded to become Cincinnati’s career leader in passing touchdowns, its career leader in completions, and he ended what had been a 13-game losing streak for his team going back to last season. Not bad.