The Patriots Monday night game in Buffalo allowed us another opportunity to sit back on Sunday and watch the rest of the league. The big takeaway?
There are a lot of good teams in the league but it doesn't look like there are any great ones. That especially holds true in the jumbled AFC where injuries, inconsistency and imperfections have prevented teams from consistently stacking wins and creating much separation from one another. All of which bodes quite well for the Patriots, winners of seven straight and currently the hottest team in football.
The NFC has a handful of teams with quality records such as Arizona (10-2), Green Bay (9-3) and Tampa Bay (9-3) but based on some superficial viewing it would appear the difference in the conferences isn't as much about dominance as it is depth. The middle of the AFC seems much deeper than its counterpart. There are nine NFC teams currently sitting below .500 while just four such teams reside in the AFC. Therefore, the top-heavy nature of the NFC is likely the result of those teams benefitting from facing off against a wider array of awful teams.
The Cardinals have probably been the league's most consistent club, and having to play several games without quarterback Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins and continuing to win was an impressive statement. They went on the road to rainy and windy Chicago and came away with a solid win coming off the bye while getting Murray and Hopkins back in the mix.
The Packers and Bucs also have shown more consistency than most, but like Arizona don't appear to be in the dominant category. The Bucs recently lost at Washington, and after spending the week talking about the importance of not overlooking inferior opponents found themselves in a three-point game late in the third quarter on Sunday in Atlanta. Green Bay has played well more regularly but also showed cracks in a recent loss in Minnesota.
Both teams benefit greatly from being in divisions with little to no competition. Both the NFC North and South feature three losing teams behind the big boys. The Cowboys are the lone winning team in the NFC East.
In the AFC, the East, North and West divisions all have multiple winning teams fighting for first place, and even the South has two teams capable of playing with anyone.
So, while the AFC may lack the gaudy records, there's no question the conference is more competitive and has fewer "easy" weeks to navigate. Where the NFC might have the edge is at quarterback, where nine of the top 10 passers based on rating reside. That's largely due to some uncharacteristically inconsistent play from stars like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen in the AFC.
It all figures to add up to an entertaining last month with the playoffs right around the corner. But unlike most years past, there may not be any prohibitive favorites going in - which likely suits the Patriots just fine.
Good for Detroit
The best moment of Week 13 unquestionably came in Detroit, where the Lions picked the perfect time to post their first victory in a full calendar year. With the area mourning in the aftermath of a senseless school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, the Lions did their best to honor those affected and came away with a dramatic walk-off touchdown for their first win of the season.
When Jared Goff's final pass settled into rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown's arms in the end zone to secure the win, it set off a celebration usually reserved for clinched divisions and other such accomplishments. But watching the events unfold it was hard not to feel there were more important things in play and listening to coach Dan Campbell's postgame press conference solidified those thoughts.
Campbell began by offering up the game ball and dedicating the win to Oxford before reciting the names of the victims individually in an emotional address that was about much more than just football. It was an appropriate gesture and if it allowed a community to heal from an unspeakable tragedy even if only for three hours then even better.
As for the game
A couple of interesting nuggets played out down the stretch of the Lions victory. First, Campbell made a bold move to go for it on fourth-and-inches from his own 28 with 4:08 remaining while leading 23-21. It backfired when Goff was sacked, allowing the Vikings to take over at the Lions 19 needing only a field goal to take the lead.
I loved the decision but hated the play call. The Lions needed less than a yard yet had Goff retreating off a play action fake instead of simply running a sneak to move the chains. But the choice to risk giving the Vikings ideal field position ultimately allowed the Lions enough time to recover, and that's exactly what happened. Had Detroit punted, the Vikings likely would have moved into field goal range and melted what was left of the clock. Having only to travel 19 yards, Detroit had 1:50 left to win the game.
The other element worth noting is the Lions game-winning touchdown came with no time left and no PAT was attempted. The rules dictate that no PAT is necessary with no time remaining if the team that scored doesn't need the additional points. However, the Lions led by two, and while unlikely the Vikings could have created a two-point safety by somehow returning a failed conversion that would have tied the game. Obviously, Detroit likely would have taken a knee rather than risk having a kick blocked or doing anything else to put the ball in harm's way, but it was interesting that the officials did make Detroit run the PAT when technically there was an avenue for points that could alter the outcome to be scored.
Kudos to Harbaugh
The Ravens easily could have played it safe and had their All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker trot out to tie the game with a PAT with 12 seconds left. But John Harbaugh had a different idea and decided to go for 2 and the win. Trailing 20-19 after having watched Lamar Jackson lead a 75-yard touchdown drive in the waning seconds, Baltimore wasn't content to play overtime.
Harbaugh kept his offense on the field and coordinator Greg Roman dialed up the perfect play to combat what was sure to be heavy defensive pressure from Pittsburgh. Jackson faked a handoff and with T.J. Watt coming quickly, he lofted a pass toward a wide-open Mark Andrews in the right flat.
But Jackson's pass was slightly overthrown, and Andrews dropped it and thus allowed Pittsburgh to remain in the race at 6-5-1. I loved the decision to win it on the road after the Ravens defense struggled throughout the second half, and Jackson spent much of the day under heavy duress. Baltimore was severely banged up in the secondary and its best corner, Marlon Humphrey, was lost for the season on the previous drive. Harbaugh explained the state of his defense at the time played a role in his decision.
And the play was there. Many have pointed to Jackson's throw being slightly off (it was) and Andrews' inability to secure it (he should have). But few have noted Andrews inexplicably slowing down as he cut to the outside, which may have resulted in Jackson's throw landing just outside of its intended target.
Either way the Ravens dropped a game it likely should have won, thus allowing the standings to tighten even further in the AFC.
Week 13 tidbits
The Chiefs kept on the winning track but it was another sloppy and less-than-inspiring offensive performance. After scoring on their first two possessions, the Chiefs became mired in a slew of penalties and drops, one of which turned into a Patrick Mahomes interception. Kansas City has now won five straight, and the defense continues to put up some impressive performances, but it's hard not to wonder if Mahomes and the offense will ever be right in 2021. ... Speaking of things that are hard to explain, the Niners finding a way to lose in Seattle on Sunday is up there. The Niners looked dominant at times, racking up 23 first-half points and running over and through the hapless Seahawks. But Seattle had a 73-yard touchdown run on a fake punt, came up with a safety and forced three turnovers before knocking down a final potential touchdown pass. The Seahawks made their share of mistakes as well, particularly Gerald Everett, who fumbled at the Niners 2 with Seattle leading 30-23 in the final minutes. Too bad NBC chose to flex this one out of the Sunday night window because there haven't been many wilder games than this one. ... Miami continues to work its way back from a 1-7 start and now hits the bye week at 6-7 after a win over the Giants. The Dolphins will return in Week 15 by hosting the Jets and very well could head to New Orleans at 7-7 with a chance to get above .500 with a win over the Saints. Somehow, Brian Flores has his team still sniffing around playoff contention and the season-finale with the Patriots could have postseason implications for both teams.
Basically a status quo week among the top of the heap.
Arizona (10-2) - Murray and Hopkins returning to health makes the Cardinals dangerous. Green Bay (9-3) - Aaron Rodgers had a week to heal his ailing toe and the Packers remain in the hunt for the top seed. Tampa Bay (9-3) - Tom Brady chucked it all over the Falcons and the Bucs also are in contention for the bye. New England (9-4) - It wasn't pretty but it was quite effective and now the Patriots control their destiny for the top spot in the AFC. Kansas City (8-4) - The Chiefs don't look quite right but their as hot as anyone other than the Patriots.