As the NFL heads into the final quarter of the season, now is when games start, in earnest, to become much more significant.
And, as four teams — the New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs — are now tied for the best record in the AFC at 8-4, the margin of error becomes that much smaller. The Ravens, however, might be the team most in trouble. Awful injury luck and a loss against the Steelers dropped them from the No. 1 seed.
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Here are the Week 13 winners and losers.
The Kansas City Chiefs, the best team in the AFC?
Don’t look now, but the Chiefs, after an early season slump are tied with three other teams for the best record (8-4) in the AFC after they took down the Denver Broncos, 22-9. Kansas City still has its explosive offense, as much as defenses have dropped deep safeties to try to eliminate the big passing play. But this revival for the Chiefs has come on defense.
In particular, the defensive line and secondary have been instrumental. Let’s start up front, where a healthy Chris Jones and Frank Clark have been constant disruptors, throwing off the timing of plays even when they don’t generate sacks. On the back end, defensive backs have capitalized on the hurried and sometimes forced passes that quarterbacks have thrown because of that pressure. In Kansas City’s five-game winning streak, the Chiefs defense has seven interceptions; the secondary is responsible for six of them. And, since he came off of injured reserve in Week 5, linebacker Willie Gay has injected speed in the middle of the field and can rush on the occasional blitz.
Part of what has made this defense so much better is how it has clamped down in the red zone. Denver scored touchdowns on just one of its three trips inside the 20, including a 20-play drive in the second quarter that took 11:07 off the clock and resulted in a turnover-on-downs. That alone, should scare the rest of the conference — and maybe even the NFL.
It has gotten lost, and it did Sunday after the Colts dropped Houston in a 31-0 shutout, but Indianapolis running back Jonathan Taylor is recording a historic season. And, as so many quarterbacks have suffered through spells of spotty play, he might be an under-the-radar frontrunner to become the first non-QB league MVP since Adrian Peterson won it in 2012 as a member of the Vikings.
Against the Texans, Taylor ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. Consider some other numbers: Taylor leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,348), carries (241) and rushing touchdowns (16). He has rushed for a touchdown in 10 consecutive games, the longest streak since LaDainian Tomlinson did it in 18 straight. But perhaps the most important stat, and the one most in the spirit of the MVP award, the Colts (7-6) have won all of their games in which Taylor has rushed for 100 or more yards. In the games Taylor didn’t reach that mark, Indianapolis has lost each of them.
The streaky Washington Football Team has suddenly won four in a row, the latest a 17-15 victory against the Raiders. Mainly through a defense that erases opposing rushing games and clamps down once offenses get in goal-to-go scenarios, Washington (6-6) has allowed only 17.5 points per game over its winning streak. On offense, quarterback Taylor Heinicke has extended plays and spread the ball around well enough.
Two of Washington’s next three games are against the Cowboys (8-4), with the first coming Sunday at home. Washington has been a pleasant surprise in the second half of the season. On paper, Dallas has a much better roster and its defense is getting healthy, so it will be a tall task for Washington. But we’ll know one way or the other by the end of the second game against the Cowboys if Washington is just hot, or a team capable of a playoff run.
The 1-10-1 Detroit Lions
Finally. The Detroit Lions won their first game of the season, 29-27, against the Vikings. It’s a momentum-building victory, and one that had been building all season long. Despite having clear deficiencies on the roster, rookie coach Dan Campbell’s squad has played hard and even almost eked out victories in other key games.
Perhaps the best takeaway for the Lions is how the team answered late after it was outscored by a margin of 21-3 from the start of the second half until the final minute of the game. Quarterback Jared Goff made sound decisions and exploited the soft defensive coverage Minnesota played on the final drive, even during the touchdown. Prior to that, it was the efficiency with the downfield passing game; four different receivers had catches of 23 or more yards. Detroit may win only one game all season long. But as the roster slowly improves, if the team can keep building this culture of disciplined (three penalties, 11 yards) and gritty play, better days should be coming.
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But, let’s be clear here: just as much as the Lions took a step forward today, the Minnesota Vikings, and above everyone else coach Mike Zimmer, are deserving of pointed criticism. Zimmer’s seat could be warming as Minnesota (5-7) is spiraling and in danger of missing out on the playoffs for the second year in a row, and third time in four seasons.
Against Detroit, Zimmer’s game management and defensive play calling in the final drive are inexcusable. The Vikings’ defensive backs played off-coverage, allowing Goff to go nine-of-14 passing for 80 yards in the final series, though three of those incompletions were spikes. Detroit actually looked rather disjointed at the line of scrimmage, but Zimmer inexplicably called two timeouts, including one before the game-winning touchdown. This has been the pattern for Minnesota all season: it has played up and down to opponents, has not adapted well in games and — worst of all, it has wasted the talent it has on the roster.
Joe Mixon and the inconsistent Bengals
First, let’s give Cincinnati credit for battling back from an early hole. They faced a 24-point deficit early in the second quarter and eventually cut that down to two points midway through the third. But the Bengals eventually lost, 41-22, in large part because of self-enforced errors — especially turnovers — during critical situational moments.
There was a strip sack of quarterback Joe Burrow in the first quarter, a Burrow interception that receiver Ja’Marr Chase had cradled into his hands but bobbled away, another Burrow interception midway through the fourth. But the most devastating, game-swinging play was a fumble by running back Joe Mixon earlier in the fourth — a concentration lapse play — that was scooped up and returned 61 yards by cornerback Tevaughn Campbell for a touchdown. Cincinnati would not score another point after that. All told, the four turnovers led to 17 Chargers points. So now the Bengals (7-5) have fallen victim again this season to inconsistency, dropping what was close to a must-have against an L.A. (7-5) team that jumped ahead of them in the playoff picture, just one week after dominating the Steelers. And this head-to-head loss in the tiebreaker could be massive.
Banged-up and flawed Baltimore Ravens
Following the trend of AFC teams who climb to the top seed in the conference one week, only to drop out of it the next, the Ravens dropped two spots after a 20-19 loss against the AFC North rival Steelers. Baltimore (8-4) has scored just 61 points over its last four games. And a main culprit is the 2019 NFL MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who is pressing, likely feeling the pressure of needing to carry the offense with so many injuries elsewhere, and committing far too many turnovers.
His interception, a heave off of his back foot, while Baltimore was in the red zone, is the type of mistake one would expect from a rookie, not from a four-year veteran. It also wiped what would’ve been three essential points off the board. Going back to the injuries, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he opted to go for two rather than a game-tying extra point at the end of the game because the team was down too many corners after Marlon Humphrey was sidelined. Harbaugh said “it could be a while” that Humphrey would miss and that an MRI is forthcoming. Already decimated at running back, offensive line and now cornerback, it’s safe to wonder if all these injuries — in addition to Jackson’s pressing — is too much for Baltimore to overcome.
Niners’ wild-card hopes
A 30-23 loss against the Seahawks didn’t knock the 49ers completely out of the NFC playoff picture (they’re currently in the No. 7 seed), but it’s the kind of defeat that could cost them down the road. And the problem against Seattle was quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and that offense. With star receiver Deebo Samuel out with a groin injury, Garoppolo struggled to connect with players other than tight end George Kittle. Frankly, the game shouldn’t have even been that close. The Niners were gifted a couple of lucky turnovers, both coming at the expense of Seahawks tight end Gerald Everett inside San Francisco’s own 5-yard line, as Seattle was about to score.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak in which San Francisco (6-6) looked like it was starting to find its rhythm on offense. And, as the Eagles (6-7) are finding a bit of consistency as of late, San Francisco’s hold on the final slot in the NFC playoff picture may be precarious, especially with matchups remaining against the Rams (8-4), Titans (8-4) and Bengals (7-5).
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 13 winners, losers: Chiefs might be AFC’s best team
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