Certain playoff hopefuls are easy to get excited about. The Falcons, quarterbacked by last season’s MVP and featuring a near-mythical creature as its no. 1 receiver, will be a thrilling addition to the postseason if they’re able to secure an NFC wild-card berth. The Seahawks, even after their deluge of injuries, have a wizard under center and can muster the type of spellbinding performance they put together in knocking off the Eagles 24–10 on Sunday night.
Other playoff hopefuls, like the Ravens and Jaguars, don’t inspire the same widespread interest, though. Entering Week 13, Baltimore and Jacksonville ranked first and second, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. Both teams also have quarterbacks and offenses with seemingly limited upside. Yet both lit up the scoreboard in Week 13. The defenses for these squads are formidable, known quantities; if their volatile quarterbacks can get hot even for a stretch, the Ravens and Jags have the potential to emerge as playoff buzz saws.
Baltimore stomped the Lions 44–20 on Sunday, and while the defense thrived behind its usual collection of well-timed stops and devastating turnovers, Joe Flacco turned in his best game of the season. The NFL’s onetime highest-paid player (a tidbit that makes less sense every time it comes up) completed 23 of 36 passes for 269 yards with two touchdowns. His 7.47 yards per attempt on the afternoon may not seem like much, but given that he came into the weekend averaging 5.3 yards per attempt and 8.2 yards per completion, it felt like he threw for 600 yards. For the first time this fall, Baltimore had a real passing game. Flacco connected with receiver Mike Wallace (who finished with 116 yards on five catches) on a deep shot down the right sideline for a 66-yard gain in the second quarter. Fellow wideout Jeremy Maclin hauled in four grabs, one of which was a 17-yard gain over the middle that required Flacco to let the ball rip in the intermediate part of the field. After two straight months of dinking and dunking, the Ravens looked like they wanted to push it downfield. That represents a massive improvement over their dismal aerial efforts through the season’s first 12 weeks.
Blake Bortles’s 26-of-35-passing, 309-yard, two-touchdown outing in a 30–10 rout of Indianapolis wasn’t an outlier compared to the rest of his 2017 campaign, but it was encouraging nonetheless. And what makes Sunday’s performance notable is that it comes on the heels of his terrible showing in last week’s 27–24 loss to Arizona. The frustrating part of the Jacksonville offense — and of Bortles’s career to date — is that it’s been maddeningly inconsistent. The Jags look potent on offense one week and inept the next. When Bortles drops well-placed throws to receiver Keelan Cole down the sideline, though, Jacksonville has the makings of a team that could make a run come January.
Flacco’s and Bortles’s solid-yet-unspectacular games are worth spotlighting because of the other elements of these two rosters. The Jaguars picked off Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett twice Sunday and finished the game with four sacks, bringing their total to a league-leading 45. The Ravens recorded three turnovers against the Lions and allowed just 3.3 yards per carry. Take away one 33-yard Tion Green run in the second quarter and that figure drops to a measly 1.96.
Jacksonville swinging games with a series of soul-crushing defensive plays should be the expectation by now. The Jags are plus-12 in turnover differential and subsist on timely takeaways like cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s sliding interception to ruin an Indianapolis drive near the end of Sunday’s first half. This group has scored six touchdowns on the season; Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell has scored five.
It just so happens that the only team with a better turnover differential than the Jags is Baltimore (plus-14). And Sunday offered another prime example of how that unit has been so effective. Well-designed defensive plays rarely get the adoration of their offensive counterparts, but Ravens coordinator Dean Pees has long been one of the NFL’s best play-callers on that side of the ball. On a third-and-7 early in the second quarter, Baltimore sent free safety Eric Weddle off the right edge while linebacker Matt Judon occupied the tight end. The result was a strip sack that gave the Ravens possession on Detroit’s 36-yard line. Six plays later, they pushed their lead to 17–0.
A similarly devastating defensive back blitz generated another turnover for Baltimore. Slot corner Maurice Canady came screaming off the right side on a third down late in the fourth quarter. Spooked by immediate pressure, Lions backup quarterback Jake Rudock lofted a ball toward the flat that Weddle easily returned for a pick-six.
Baltimore’s other interception on the day went to 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, who had a rough outing at times against perpetually underrated Lions receiver Marvin Jones Jr. The rookie cornerback was thrust into an increased role after veteran Jimmy Smith went down with a season-ending Achilles injury in the second quarter. Despite being ravaged by various ailments on offense, the Ravens had managed to keep most of their key defensive contributors healthy until now. The team could do worse than plugging in a first-rounder like Humphrey as a replacement, but it’s not built to survive without a fully stocked defense.
The Jaguars have no such concerns. Linebacker Telvin Smith sat out Sunday with a concussion, marking the first missed start by a Jacksonville defensive starter in 2017. The Jags defenders have been able to stay on the field, and they’re poised to wreak havoc in the postseason as a result. In the top-heavy AFC, it appears as if both the Jags and the Ravens should snag playoff berths. While they may not be the most tantalizing teams in the field, they could prove extremely dangerous if their quarterbacks can find the gear that they reached Sunday.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Just when the Seahawks looked ready to collapse, they went and handled the best team in football. Seattle’s rash of defensive injuries and offensive inconsistency looked like the combination that could keep this team from making the postseason for the first time in Russell Wilson’s career. But Sunday’s victory over the Eagles was a reminder that there’s still plenty of talent lining the Seahawks’ roster. Playing without stalwarts Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor will undoubtedly affect Seattle’s pass defense, yet it doesn’t negate the fact this front seven is a brick wall against the run. Philadelphia came into the week ranked eighth in rushing DVOA; its backs managed 68 yards on 20 carries. Inside linebacker Bobby Wagner bolstered his Defensive Player of the Year credentials with 13 stops, including two tackles for loss. The guy is playing like he’s possessed by a demon. I almost expect his head to spin fully around at any given moment.
On the other side of the ball, a familiar collection of names (Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham) showed up in a big way — and they were joined by one notable surprise. Running back Mike Davis, the former practice-squad player who seems like the 25th backfield option that Seattle has tried this season, ran for 64 yards and accounted for 101 yards from scrimmage. Considering that both Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy are averaging 2.6 yards per carry on the year, Davis’s outing represented a major improvement. The Seahawks may not be the same Super Bowl threat they’ve been in years past, but with Atlanta falling to Minnesota and facing a brutal schedule down the stretch, they could linger in the NFC playoff race.
2. The worst sight for Atlanta’s surging offense was Xavier Rhodes and the Vikings defense. Minnesota’s shutdown corner pestered Julio Jones throughout Sunday’s 14–9 win, and he had plenty of help from his friends. When Rhodes wasn’t manhandling Jones near the line, safety Andrew Sendejo came over the top to break up a pass, or counterpart Harrison Smith forced Matt Ryan to look the other way. A week after Jones totaled 253 receiving yards against Tampa Bay, he finished with just two catches for 24 yards. Ryan managed just 173 yards through the air, his lowest total in the past four seasons.
Atlanta did have success on the ground, as Devonta Freeman averaged 6.2 yards per attempt on 12 carries. But that wasn’t enough against the Minnesota defense. The Vikings — who’ve rattled off eight consecutive wins since falling to Detroit in Week 4 — keep finding ways to get it done. And with Philly’s loss to Seattle, the 10–2 Vikings are in the mix for home-field advantage all the way up to a Minneapolis-hosted Super Bowl.
3. Green Bay’s overtime win against the Buccaneers sets up the possibility of either a heroic Aaron Rodgers return or NFC doom, depending on your rooting interest. The Packers registered an ugly 26–20 victory over Tampa Bay thanks to a dominant ground game and a defense that tormented Jameis Winston for four straight quarters. The Bucs quarterback was hit 13 times and sacked seven, and there wasn’t a single culprit: Clay Matthews tallied 2.5 sacks, Kenny Clark had two, and Dean Lowry and Jake Ryan each had one. When an offense is as dysfunctional as the Bucs’ is right now, multiple things go wrong every week.
The Packers’ win moves them to 6–6. Surveying the rest of the playoff picture, it might be time for the other teams in the NFC to start clutching their pillows. Green Bay will take on the 0–12 Browns next Sunday, while the 8–4 Panthers are set to host the Vikings. The next week, the Panthers will get the Packers just in time for Rodgers to be eligible to return from IR. That means that in two weeks the Packers could be one game back of Carolina for a wild-card spot, with the best quarterback in football under center and a chance to secure a tiebreaker that’d put them in great shape to make the postseason.
When Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week 6, the idea of the Packers hanging around long enough for Rodgers to come galloping over the ridge on a white horse felt like a fantasy. Not anymore. A win over the Browns would mean that Green Bay’s hopes with Rodgers are real. And if the Packers do manage to get in, the other NFC contenders will sleep with one eye open. This is starting to feel a lot like the last hour of John Wick. He’s not exactly the bogeyman.
4. Jimmy Garoppolo’s 49ers debut was a promising sign for the franchise’s future. Garoppolo went 26-of-37 passing for 293 yards with one interception in his first start for San Francisco. That’s not staggering on paper, but he looked comfortable in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system and led the team to a 15–14 win over the Bears. His interception was the result of a terrific play by Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller (who had a great game in his own right) to yank away the ball from receiver Louis Murphy on a throw over the middle. Garoppolo is an underrated athlete whose mobility should serve him well in the myriad play-action and boot components of Shanahan’s scheme, and he showcased a quick release and solid accuracy all afternoon.
The Niners have a long way to go, but they’re starting to assemble an intriguing collection of offensive talent. Long billed as a speedster in Buffalo, wideout Marquise Goodwin has carved out a nice role with Niners. He finished with a career-high eight catches for 99 yards Sunday. Goodwin and Pierre Garçon (who’s on IR) have the potential to reprise the roles Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu filled for Shanahan when the coach served as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. What’s missing is San Francisco’s version of Julio Jones. Luckily, the front office should have upward of $40 million in cap room even after signing Garoppolo this spring, and it’ll likely be the owner of a top-three pick in the 2018 draft.
5. Two high-profile stars made bizarre choices in Week 13. Rob Gronkowski was virtually unstoppable Sunday. He made nine catches for 147 yards and torched the Bills defense in every way imaginable. Yet he also made the inexplicable decision to take a cheap shot at Buffalo corner Tre’Davious White following a fourth-quarter interception. With White lying facedown on the sideline, Gronkowski slammed his elbow into the back of the rookie’s head, bouncing his helmet off the turf.
What the hell are you doing, Gronk? pic.twitter.com/mZTgJA62eU— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 3, 2017
There appears to be no rhyme or reason for how the league handles matters like this. A.J. Green managed to avoid a suspension after he body-slammed Jalen Ramsey to the ground in Week 9, and the Aqib Talib–Michael Crabtree punishment was partially the result of repeated spats between the two. Yet neither of those involved a direct shot to the back of a guy’s head as he lay defenseless on the ground. This Gronkowski hit was as dirty as they come, and it warrants a suspension.
Not long after Gronkowski pulled a wrestling move on the field, Marcus Peters went full wrestling heel by tossing a referee’s flag into the stands after a penalty in the end zone. The weirdest part is that Peters wasn’t ejected, but left anyway. Consider it a low point in Kansas City’s steady slide, as the Chiefs have dropped four straight after starting 5–0.
Marcus Peters was just flagged for throwing a flag into the stands. Incredible pic.twitter.com/gue5ove5g8— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) December 3, 2017
6. Saints cornerback Ken Crawley turned in another great outing in what has become a season full of them. While rookie Marshon Lattimore has gotten most of the recognition in the New Orleans secondary, Crawley, an undrafted free agent, has played a crucial role in the team’s defensive renaissance. That continued in a 31–21 win over Carolina on Sunday, as showcased by a big stop early in the fourth quarter. Cam Newton took a deep shot to receiver Damiere Byrd on a second-and-5; Crawley played it perfectly, knocking the ball away while avoiding any major contact.
For a team to turn its fortunes around the way that New Orleans has this fall, hitting on first-round studs like Lattimore is key. Yet finding high-level starters on the scrap heap is just as impactful. Crawley has been excellent.
7. This week was the latest reminder of just how ridiculous the 2013 Florida State defense was. The collection of defensive talent that helped fuel the Seminoles’ national title run showed up everywhere Sunday. Jalen Ramsey picked off a pass for the Jags. Eagles defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, in the midst of the best season of his career, recorded two run stops. Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner intercepted his third pass of the fall against the Cardinals, and Bears linebacker Christian Jones racked up a team-high 13 tackles in a loss to the 49ers.
That virtually every starter (and some of the backups) from that Florida State team landed on NFL rosters is remarkable, and now several of them are contributing to contenders, from the guys above to Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith to Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby. It already feels safe to call that Seminoles group one of the most talented college units of all time.
8. Tarik Cohen looks like a video-game glitch. The Bears’ pint-size rookie has produced a steady stream of highlights all season, and Sunday was no different. The way he eluded 49ers in the open field and changed directions on a dime on this 61-yard punt return touchdown was special. What was truly amazing, though, was the burst that he showed after finally putting his foot in the ground and setting his sights on the end zone.
The gear that Cohen hits at the 30-yard line — a split second after spinning around — makes the footage look doctored. It’s been another tough season in Chicago, but damn, this guy is fun.
9. This week’s line play moment that hit rewind: Khalil Mack remains a terror. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year isn’t having the kind of monster campaign he did last season, but he’s up to 7.5 sacks on the fall, and this play in a 24–17 win over the Giants was a reminder of what makes him so dangerous. The flexibility and balance that he displays — to both work underneath the right tackle and bend toward the quarterback — is rare stuff. And he finishes it off with his own brand of strip sack.
Lawrence Taylor perfected the art of the strip sack by tomahawking the ball from the blind side. Because Mack often works from an offense’s right side, though, he sees the ball he’s trying to pry loose. In this case, he yanks it away from Geno Smith and ends a New York drive.
10. This week in tales of the tape: Case Keenum’s ability to keep plays alive is seriously impressive.
Seriously, anyone acting like Case Keenum this year is no different to years past, it's just the situation...— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) December 3, 2017
Does not make this play in years past. pic.twitter.com/1XdBsHMmcf
I typically reserve this space for X’s-and-O’s talk, but a play’s success often depends just as much on how an offense’s players fare outside of its structure. The Vikings have helped Keenum a lot this fall by providing him with a play-action-heavy scheme and an excellent collection of pass catchers (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph); Keenum has built on that by extending plays with his feet, thus opening up throws down the field as he maneuvers both inside and outside the pocket.
Keenum has been pressured on 38.2 percent of his throws, per Pro Football Focus, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. He has been taken down on only 6.2 percent of his dropbacks when pressured, the lowest rate in the league by far. Some of the pressure he faces is self-inflicted — he tends to hold onto the ball too long, and few quarterbacks are quicker to scramble — but it’s important to recognize the extent to which Keenum has avoided sacks.
He wasn’t pressured on the above play against Atlanta, but he avoided two different Falcons defenders while keeping his eyes downfield and allowing a receiver to come free about five seconds after the snap. Combine that ability with the Minnesota wideouts’ knack for creating separation, and it’s clear why the Vikings’ passing game is such a headache to defend.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: There’s nothing left to say about DeAndre Hopkins.
After Hopkins made this absurd grab along the sideline, there was a brief moment of silence on the broadcast, followed by a chuckle, followed by color commentator Trent Green saying, “I don’t know.” It’s OK, Trent. None of us do.