As I’ve said numerous times, gut check time in pro football begins after turkey day, as teams feel the added pressure that comes with important cold-weather games in December and January. Which teams are most positioned to make a run toward, and through the postseason? Which teams will fix their deficiencies in the next month?
I decided to do a column of quick-hits this week.
I’ll get to that in a second. But first, another look at Lamar Jackson and the seemingly Super Bowl-bound Ravens.
The rain came pouring down in Baltimore, as did the NFC-leading 49ers (10-2).
The Ravens (10-2) withstood both, beating yet another top-tier contender on their way to an eighth straight victory.
This one was decided on the game’s final play — a game-winning 49-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, the NFL’s best kicker, despite the conditions.
“To win a game like that is really valuable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told NFL.com. “We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for.”
The Ravens were ready again, as they were during previous big-time (and blow-out) signature wins over the likes of the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams in recent weeks.
The two best defenses this season — New England and San Francisco — use very different schemes.
The Patriots rely more on 3-4 principles with bigger defensive lineman (Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton) and a bevy of attacking linebackers to go with their league-best secondary.
The 49ers defense is a faster unit that uses the more common 4-3 look with four-down lineman all liable to rush the passer, with rookie Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner among the men up front making life easier for the likes of linebacker Fred Warner and cover man Richard Sherman.
Jackson throttled the Patriots, and was efficient enough in the rain versus San Francisco. He’s beaten them both.
The Ravens are without question the best team in football at the moment. Their defense has begun to improve, as the offense has eviscerated opponents such as the Rams, who they beat 45-6 in Los Angeles last Monday.
Maybe a possible bad-weather bout in Buffalo versus the the stingy Bills (9-3) this week presents an opportunity for a hiccup. But the Ravens are rolling, and have showed no signs of slowing down.
Baltimore just recently started utilizing speedster Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown again, as he scored twice in the win over the Rams. But Jackson is not even using the deep ball anymore, which is something he can do. His rocket arm has been throwing darts on roll-out passes and on short and intermediate level throws over the middle. And that, coupled with a Jackson-led rushing attack has rendered this offense unstoppable.
But on a day in which Jackson threw for just 105 yards and one score (and lost a fumble) — rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown, as well — it was encouraging to see them win a tough, gritty game.
“Blowing people out is easy,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith told The Athletic. “Being in a dogfight for four quarters, and always believing for four quarters, even longer if you have to, is a whole different mentality. I think to play in a game like this and fight to the end; it just helps our team realize our own resilience.”
In the end, after a defensive stop in their own territory, Baltimore’s familiar savior, Jackson, led the Ravens on a 12-play game-winning drive that ran out the remaining 6:28 on the game clock.
Until someone ends their red-hot streak — and maybe even if they do — the Ravens are the best team in football.
Now, for my thoughts, starting with the offensively-challenged Patriots —
– The Patriots are sputtering in early December for the second season in a row. Last year they recovered by the end of the month to win it all, but watching this offense this season is like pulling teeth at this point. It’s fair to wonder if New England will remain inept offensively for the rest of the season. No pass catcher other than Julian Edelman can get any separation or has earned Tom Brady’s trust. New England used a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry and a second-round draft choice next year to bring in Mohamed Sanu from Atlanta. Both have struggled to find their footing in their few games thus far, while NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky pointed out just how frustrated Brady seemed to be with third-year Patriot Phillip Dorsett last night. That leaves just Edelman and rookie Jakobi Meyers as players who seemingly have any consistent rapport with Brady, and Meyers upset Brady on Sunday, as well.
It’s beating a dead horse at this point — and maybe, a pipe dream — but New England could really use Antonio Brown to open things up on all levels of the offense. If the Patriots are stuck with what they have for the remainder of the season, then it at least appears that the offensive line is better with the return of Isaiah Wynn, which helps the running game, and gives Brady more time to throw. But Brady struggled to find receivers on longer-developing routes, even with time, because they fail to get open. If you take out a late push that can’t yet be deciphered for ‘garbage time’ or a real improvement, the Patriots are have now scored 17, 13, and 9 points on offense the last few weeks. I believe they’ll hang onto the No. 2 seed at the very least, but they’ve already been passed by the red-hot Ravens. Can this team win in Baltimore in an AFC Championship Game? Yes, but now without improving on offense, which is something that seems nearly impossible at this point for the Patriots. But we’ve all learned our lesson with them, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
– Deshaun Watson –three touchdown passes, one receiving score on a pitch-throw from DeAndre Hopkins — was fearless and MVP-like in leading a win in Houston. Ryan Tannehill — 5-1 as a starter in 2019 — lead Tennessee to yet another big win. The Texans (8-4) and Titans (7-5) are the two remaining contenders in the AFC South, as it would be a tough climb for the Colts (6-6) at this point. Houston and Tennessee will play twice in these final four weeks, which includes a Week 17 bout in Houston. Considering they’re a game up already, the edge goes to Houston, who just played (and won) their toughest remaining game. The Titans still have wild card hopes if they fall to Houston once, but that means probably having to win a home game versus the Saints (10-2) in Week 16. If Tenneseee splits their final four games and ends up out of the field at 9-7 via tiebreakers, the team is still worth marveling at. Tannehill has taken over for Marcus Mariota and lifted up a superbly-talented, but usually inconsistent team. And with Derrick Henry bowling over defenses, the Titans are a tough team built for the playoffs.
– Two other teams built for the playoffs include the Bills (9-3) and Steelers (7-5). Both have little to no shot at advancing past the Divisional Round, if not, Round 1, but each are built for cold weather football. And considering the bleakness of Week 15’s initial Sunday Night Football matchup (Vikings-Chargers), NBC announced last night during SNF that Bills-Steelers has been moved to that Sunday night slot in two weeks. That’s a wise decision. What’s better than a possible bad-weather or cold-weather matchup between these tough clubs vying for a postseason berth in December? Josh Allen is a younger looking Ryan Tannehill with more potential, wearing the same number (jersey no. 17). It took a few months, but Allen has found his footing with offseason acquisitions John Brown and Cole Beasley. The former victimized his former team (Cowboys) over Thanksgiving.
The Steelers have mostly stayed afloat thanks to great leadership under head coach Mike Tomlin, who would get my vote for Coach of the Year if Pittsburgh is to make the postseason. The Steelers currently have the No. 6 seed due to a tiebreaker with Tennessee. The Titans can make the playoffs one of two ways, and if they somehow beat out Houston for the AFC South crown, it would be the epitome of a tough wild card matchup in Bills-Titans in Tennessee. The game would also be the first playoff matchup between the two since the Titans beat the Bills in a 1999 AFC Wild Card playoff via the ‘Music City Miracle.’
– One thing is for certain, as we see teams like the Titans, Bills and Steelers strutting their stuff as tough cold-weather teams, clubs like the Raiders (6-6), Browns (5-7) Cowboys (6-6) and even Eagles (5-7) don’t seem like teams that are ready for a December run this season. Cleveland is just a disappointing mess. Oakland is virtually out after two embarrassing losses to the Jets and Chiefs by a combined score of 74-12, while at least one of Philadelphia and Dallas will get in via an NFC East title. The Eagles are usually a tough team that improves as the season moves along, and Dallas is seemingly entering their usual late-season swoon. But I give the edge to the Cowboys at the moment. They may fire Jason Garrett anyway if they suffer a rough home postseason loss in the Wild Card round, but the Eagles are too beat up on offense to beat Dallas right now, even at home. If I had to choose today, I say Dallas wins in Philadelphia on Week 16, to take the division. But I may change my opinion from now until that game begins.
THE BETTER HALF
1. Baltimore Ravens (10-2) (Last week: 1). There’s no debate — the Ravens are the best team in football right now.
2. San Francisco 49ers (10-2) (Last week: 2). The 49ers went toe to toe with the best team in football, and almost won on the road. We’ll keep them here for now. They’ll travel to New Orleans for a huge NFC tilt on Sunday.
3. New Orleans Saints (10-2) (Last week: 4). The Saints have a chance to take a tight grip on one of the NFC’s first-round byes — and possibly, home field advantage — with a win over San Francisco at home, next Sunday. 49ers at Saints. That’s quite the matchup.
4. New England Patriots (10-2) (Last week: 3). They showed fight at the end, but the offense has some serious issues. The defense is caliber of a Super Bowl-winning team. Brady and the offense have to figure this thing out. Can they?
5. Seattle Seahawks (9-2) (Last week: 5). The Seahawks have a chance to slip into the NFC West’s top spot for the moment, if they can beat the Vikings tonight.
6. Green Bay Packers (9-3) (Last week: 6). That was beauty of a snow game in New York on Sunday. That was a pretty win by the Packers, too. But then again, the Giants (2-10) are a mess. Green Bay is sort of in NFC limbo. They’re not quite with these top-tier teams in the conference, yet.
7. Minnesota Vikings (8-3) (Last week: 7). The whole world will be watching Kirk Cousins on the road in Seattle tonight. Will he deliver? Or will he fold? (His performance will probably lie somewhere in between)
8. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) (Last week: 8). The defense came to play this week. But again, it was versus the Raiders. Before losing 40-9 to Kansas City on Sunday, Oakland lost 34-3 to the lowly Jets the week before. And the Jets lost to the then-winless Bengals this Sunday. Translation: are the Chiefs beginning their ‘2006 Colts’ path of an improved defense at just the right time? Or are they just the 2019 Chiefs? We’ll learn more after they travel to New England this week.
9. Houston Texans (8-4) (Last week: 9). Deshaun Watson was awesome in the win over New England. But the AFC South will be decided by the Texans’ two bouts with the Titans this month.
10. Buffalo Bills (9-3) (Last week: 13). I have been tough on the Bills. Well, that was a mighty impressive win in Dallas over Thanksgiving. I apologize, Buffalo. Believe it or not, I think they may be a tough matchup for Baltimore this week, too.
11. Los Angeles Rams (7-5) (Last week: 11). After getting clobbered by the Ravens, the Rams took their frustrations out on the Cardinals, throttling them 34-7 in Arizona. It will be tough for them to make the postseason. They’ll need to win out to have a shot. They have the talent. Jared Goff looked good in the win. It had been awhile.
12. Tennessee Titans (7-5) (Last week: 14). Tannehill and the Titans are an incredible story. Will they keep this up and get to the postseason? Can they steal away the AFC South from Houston?
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) (Last week: 15). Mike Tomlin does it again. The Steelers bullied the Browns in their revenge-filled win in Pittsburgh. It’s amazing how tough this team is. Resilient in the truest sense of the word.
14. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) (Last week: 12). They’re nowhere near being mathematically eliminated yet, but you just know they probably won’t make the postseason now. That’s a bummer. This franchise is still headed in the right direction.
15. Dallas Cowboys (6-6) (Last week: 10). The sky is falling in Dallas, but the sky may have already collapsed on the Eagles in Philadelphia. Which stooge will win the NFC East?
16. Chicago Bears (6-6) (Last week: NR). Even if they win out, they probably won’t make the postseason. But they’re better than anyone else not listed right now.
Next up: Philadelphia