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Four Must-See Matchups to Watch in the NFL Week 13

Expect the Vikings to dial up the pressure against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Also pay attention to QB matchups both young (Deshaun Watson–Baker Mayfield) and old (Philip Rivers–Ben Roethlisberger).

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s possible that nothing this week tops Richard Sherman saying he doesn’t have a relationship with his former Seahawks teammate, Russell Wilson, which he did on Thursday. When asked whether he knew what Wilson was capable of as a passer outside the pocket, he responded: “I’ve also seen him throw five picks in the game, so you see what he’s capable of on both sides of it.” This is an extremely fun feud, but unfortunately the 49ers aren’t competitive enough to make their matchup with Seattle a game of the week. Hopefully, these games can top that drama on Sunday:

New England Patriots–Minnesota Vikings: Bill Belichick vs. Mike Zimmer

Bill Belichick and Mike Zimmer are two of the best defensive minds of their generation. This week, Belichick called Zimmer one of the best coaches in football; Zimmer called Belichick the best coach ever.

Before the season I floated this game as my Super Bowl pick. The Vikings seemed stacked after upgrading to Kirk Cousins at quarterback, and the Patriots are very good at being the Patriots. The Vikings have shown glimpses of being the team I thought they’d be, but they lag behind the Saints and Rams atop the NFC and will likely have to fight for a wild-card berth if the Bears keep up their torrid pace in the NFC North. They are not, in short, still my Super Bowl pick. The one thing they can do is blitz, which happens to be the one thing the Patriots cannot handle, according to data. It is true that Tom Brady struggles against the blitz, but he also rarely faces it. He hasn’t offered much of an explanation for this, but one might be that he has lacked weapons for long stretches this season, especially Rob Gronkowski, who has been battling ankle and back injuries, and is on pace for his lowest yards-per-game mark since his rookie season.

According to Pro Football Focus:

The biggest thing for the Vikings’ blitzes is the element of surprise. The Vikings’ 25.2 percent blitz rate is actually slightly below the league average of 27.0 percent. They’re not adding an extra man regularly because they lack the ability to get home with four; they’re using it as a sporadic weapon in their arsenal. Because of that, their blitz packages have generated pressure a ridiculous 48.5 percent of the time (league average is 41.8 percent). When they don’t blitz, that figure is only 32.6 percent (league average is 30.0 percent).

It will be fascinating to see how often the Vikings blitz Brady. Of course, on the other side, the Patriots will probably not struggle to pressure Kirk Cousins, the second-most pressured quarterbacks among starters. There will be pressure.

Pittsburgh Steelers–Los Angeles Chargers: Ben Roethlisberger vs. Philip Rivers

Sam Fortier at The Athletic had a good point about Philip Rivers this week. Contrary to years past, Rivers is not throwing reckless passes in an effort to get his team back in position to win. That, apparently, is because of Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn’s system. Whatever the reason, it has worked. Rivers tied a record by completing his first 25 passes on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. He is averaging a career-high 9.1 yards per attempt. His 115 rating is 10 points higher than any of his full seasons. He is tied for the lowest interception percentage of his career and is on pace to have a career high in touchdown percentage. If not for Drew Brees or Patrick Mahomes II, he’d be making a strong case for MVP.

Roethlisberger is … not. It’s probably a bad sign he’s comparing himself to a 3-point shooter who keeps missing:

Roethlisberger—who, like Rivers, was drafted in the first round in 2004—is not having a career year, because this season looks very much like recent ones he’s posted. In the last four years, he has had a rating of anywhere between 93 and 95; over the last three years, he has a yards-per-attempt average between 7.5 and 7.8, an interception rate between 2.6 or 2.5, and a touchdown percentage between 5 and 5.7. Rivers is peaking and Roethlisberger is … Roethlisberger.

Cleveland Browns–Houston Texans: Baker Mayfield vs. Deshaun Watson

Hue Jackson, ladies and gentlemen!

One of the remarkable things about Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield is that they are unquestionably two of the NFL’s best young passers, yet both have been harmed by circumstance. Mayfield was saddled with Jackson, who made him significantly worse, and Watson has been harmed physically by a bad offensive line. His pressure rate of 43 percent is the tops in the league.

Thankfully, Mayfield is rid of Jackson, but Watson’s problem is not yet solved. Still, these are two of the most exciting teams in the NFL: The Texans have won eight in a row and the Browns, despite only having four wins, look damn competent. And Mayfield is historically efficient:

Plus, new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens seems cool:

New York Giants–Chicago Bears: Eli Manning vs. the NFL’s Best Defense

It is not a particularly good Sunday slate—one of the games of the week, Saints-Cowboys, was on Thursday night. But there are exciting—hilarious, even—subplots that we have to discuss. I do not care about the Bears-Giants, but I do care about the report that came out this week that said Eli Manning might start for the Giants in 2019, despite a 3-8 start to this season. Writes SNY: “The biggest reason a Manning return can’t be ruled out, the source said, is this: ‘Who’s going to replace him?’” Hmm, I wonder. Perhaps any first-round pick or any free agent quarterback who doesn’t cost $23 million against the cap (which is almost all of them)?

Committing to Manning at the expense of a new plan at quarterback would be a disaster. If the point is to bring Manning back as a stopgap while a young quarterback is groomed, fine. If Manning is your quarterback of the future, your future is bad. He’s having an OK season—he ranks eighth among qualified quarterbacks in completion percentage—but there’s nothing to suggest he’s on an upward trajectory. His average depth of target on throws is 7.5 yards, according to Airyards.com. For context, he was at 9.4 in 2013. Patrick Mahomes is at 9.2, and Brees is slightly below Manning at 7.3 but completes 75 percent of his passes, almost a full yard per attempt more than Manning.

Manning has played well the last three weeks against Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco, who’ve all struggled this season. His rating hasn’t dipped below 91 in any of these games. Well, here come the Bears:

I’m also excited to see the team that causes the most fumbles in the league going against a runner who never fumbles:

Eli Manning, incidentally, has 120 fumbles, the most of any active player.