The NFL’s Week 13 Sunday slate produced another gaggle of edge-of-your-seat finishes, with eight games finishing within one score. The Giants won a wild one, beating the Bears in overtime 30-27; the Chiefs took advantage of three Raiders turnovers, emerging with a 40-33 victory; the Buccaneers outlasted the reeling Panthers, winning 24-17; and the Cardinals knocked off the Packers 20-17, thanks to a last-second field goal miss by Mason Crosby. The Jaguars shut out the red-hot Colts, winning a defensive slugfest 6-0; the Dolphins survived the Bills’ last-ditch comeback attempt, holding on 21-17; the Titans came back to beat the Jets 26-22; and on Sunday Night Football, the Chargers won a nail-biter over the Steelers, 33-30, by finally hitting a clutch game-ending field goal try (and it took only three tries). Elsewhere, the Rams beat the Lions 30-16, the Broncos beat the Bengals 24-10, the Texans blew out the Browns 29-13, the Seahawks beat the 49ers 43-16, the Ravens ran past the Falcons, 26-16, and the Patriots dispatched the Vikings 24-10.
Sunday’s action delivered plenty of wild plays, but a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.
Aaron Donald Forces a Fourth-Quarter Fumble
The Rams’ explosive, high-flying offense under wunderkind play-caller Sean McVay has stolen the show in L.A. this year, heavily overshadowing the team’s talent-packed but inconsistent defensive unit. Even superstar pass rusher Aaron Donald has seemed to fly under the radar at times despite posting numbers that make him the favorite for his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award. That’s just how electric Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and the rest of the team’s offensive group has been.
Over the past two games, though, Donald has reminded the world that in a season dominated by offense, defense can still make or break a game: His two forced fumbles two weeks ago proved crucial in the team’s stunning 54-51 win over the Chiefs—both led to Rams touchdowns—and the powerful defensive tackle made another pivotal play on Sunday, offering up a late-game strip sack of quarterback Matthew Stafford that propelled the Rams to victory.
Thanks to an uncharacteristically lackluster performance from the team’s offense, L.A. was left clinging to a slim 16-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter. And Detroit, facing a first-and-10 from its own 42-yard line with 8:26 to go, was driving down the field—threatening to take a late lead. That’s when Donald did this:
Aaron Donald, the GOAT pic.twitter.com/fD2aCeTNon— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) December 2, 2018
Donald split a double-team, forced Stafford to retreat, then, after quickly closing the gap, swiped down on the quarterback’s arms, knocking the ball loose. The Rams recovered at the Lions’ 24-yard line; three plays later, Gurley rumbled to pay dirt for the decisive score, pushing L.A.’s lead to 23-13. That timely strip sack proved to be the turning point in a sloppy division-clinching win for the Rams: Prior to that play, the Lions looked primed for an upset. A few snaps later, Gurley waltzed into the end zone untouched to kill any semblance of Detroit momentum. Donald’s turnover pushed L.A.’s win probability to better than 87 percent. The Rams coasted from there.
Donald pushed his league-leading sack total to 16.5, further cementing his status as the best defensive player in the world. He also showed that even when the Rams’ typically unstoppable offense stumbles, the team has a very valuable insurance policy. Donald is the prototype for what a defensive player must be in the new, offense-driven NFL: He can disrupt the quarterback on any given snap, and more important, create turnovers when his team needs them the most. Donald showed he’ll give L.A. a powerful edge this postseason when the team goes head-to-head with some of the league’s other juggernaut offenses.
Lamar Jackson’s Option-Keeper Touchdown
Jackson’s development as an NFL passer remains a work in progress—he completed 12 of 21 passes for 125 yards against the Falcons—but the rookie proved once again that his ability to run changes the way teams must defend the Ravens. Jackson leaned on his legs early and often to confound the Atlanta defense, carrying the ball 17 times for 75 yards and a touchdown—including this option-keeper run that gave the Ravens their first lead.
Lamar's the only option you need. @Lj_era8 pic.twitter.com/m381QMCPEi— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 2, 2018
Jackson briefly left the game in the third quarter after getting kicked in the face by a teammate inadvertently, but returned to lead a Baltimore rushing attack that racked up 207 yards on 49 carries—pushing its three-game total to 716 yards, easily most in the NFL in that stretch. The Ravens dominated the Atlanta defensive front and held the ball for 39 minutes and change—nearly twice as long as the Falcons—which helped boost the team’s defense. With fresh legs all the way into the fourth quarter, the Ravens held a typically explosive Atlanta offense to just 131 yards and 2.9 yards per play.
In its three games with Jackson at the helm, Baltimore’s gone 3-0 and has averaged 28 points and 395 yards per game, both significant jumps over the Joe Flacco–led unit from earlier this season, which averaged 23.6 points and 366.5 yards. But with Flacco back at practice and getting closer to a return from a hip injury, the Ravens will have a choice to make at the quarterback position going forward. Jackson’s clearly green as a passer; the rookie missed a wide-open John Brown for what should’ve been a touchdown in the first half and overthrew him again in the second half. And, after coughing up a fumble on Sunday, he’s now turned it over four times in three starts. Flacco boosts the team’s ability to throw deep, and hasn’t been quite as turnover prone.
For my money, though, the Ravens are simply more dangerous with Jackson leading the offense. They’re capable of weathering the rookie’s growing pains as a passer because of the profound, game-changing impact he brings as a runner. Jackson gives this offense an identity it never had under Flacco, the rookie QB serving as the centerpiece of an unstoppable smashmouth run game that pairs perfectly with the team’s suffocating defense. That combination gives the Ravens the type of winning formula that could make them a very tough postseason out. Without it, it’s hard to see how Baltimore can separate itself from the rest of the AFC elites.
Zach Cunningham Picks Baker Mayfield, Rumbles for the Score
The Texans ran away from the Browns early on. Leading 10-0 midway through the second quarter, second-year linebacker Zach Cunningham dropped back, read Mayfield’s eyes, and reached up to snag the pass with one hand. He reeled it in then rumbled 38 yards for the score.
Zach Cunningham almost had a pick in a shallow zone earlier. Clowney with the pressure outside. Cunningham gets one here: pic.twitter.com/pKU2YCEC6B— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 2, 2018
That pushed Houston’s lead to 17-0 and boosted its win probability to 91 percent. The Texans picked Mayfield two more times before the half was up, then coasted to a 29-13 win—in the process showing they’re the best defense that no one seems to be talking about.
After coming into the week quietly ranked fourth in defensive DVOA, ninth in takeaways (18), and eighth in sacks (34), Houston smothered the previously red-hot Cleveland offense, stifling Nick Chubb and the Browns run game (nine rushes for 31 yards) while creating four game-changing takeaways in coverage. Safety Justin Reid put the cherry on top of a dominant defensive performance with a garbage-time strip of Browns receiver Antonio Callaway as Callaway was about to run into the end zone.
While many of us have been distracted by the Colts’ exciting ascent, the Jaguars’ chaotic fall, or the inexplicably up-and-down Titans, the Texans have won nine straight games to emerge as not just the leaders of the AFC South, but as one of the most balanced squads in the NFL. The offense is missing Will Fuller V and Keke Coutee, but Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins remain capable of putting up points on anyone. The defense, meanwhile, has a takeaway in nine straight games, and seems to get a game-changing play every week, whether that’s from Cunningham, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Kareem Jackson, or Tyrann Mathieu.
Tyler Lockett’s 52-yard Touchdown Grab
Distilled down, the Seahawks’ identity on offense is pretty simple: Run the ball, then throw it over the defense’s head. Running backs Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and Mike Davis have combined to create the requisite ground game, and as he showed on Sunday, fourth-year receiver Tyler Lockett has emerged as the primary target in Seattle’s deep passing game. Lockett’s quickly become quarterback Russell Wilson’s most trusted deep target, and he reeled in his ninth touchdown of the year on this downfield bomb early in the second quarter.
Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett connect for the score!— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 2, 2018
That score gave the Seahawks a 13-0 lead over the visiting 49ers and pushed their early-game win probability to 88.6 percent. Seattle rolled from there, running away from San Francisco to win 43-16.
Lockett’s emergence as the Seahawks’ go-to guy downfield is partly because Doug Baldwin’s role has been diminished as he plays through injuries to both his knees and his groin, but signing Lockett shows plenty of foresight on the part of the team’s brass nonetheless. When Seattle agreed to a three-year extension worth up to $37.8 million with the fourth-year pro in late August, it felt like a massive overpay for a player who’d posted just 45 catches for 555 yards and two touchdowns in 2017 and hadn’t looked the same after suffering a gruesome compound leg fracture in 2016. But this year, Lockett looks back to his pre-injury form, giving the Seahawks that crucial dynamic as a get-behind-the-defense playmaker.
Speed isn’t the only thing that Lockett brings to the table; as we saw on that touchdown grab on Sunday, Lockett’s taken his ability to separate late in his route to a whole new level this year. Using hand-fighting, subtle push-offs, and last-second bursts of speed, the emerging star has been extremely effective at the catch point, making what should be closely contested passes look easy. He showed that off earlier this year against the Rams, Lions, and Bears.
Lockett’s big touchdown grab was his only catch this week, and he’s rarely going to rack up bunches of targets—but the Seahawks pass catcher seems good for a big play or two just about every game. Lockett, who added an 84-yard kickoff return to open the third quarter (setting up a score on the next play) and drew a 43-yard pass interference penalty later in the game (Seattle scored on that drive too), has been one of the most efficient receivers in the league this year. He’s exactly the type of player the Seahawks need to successfully run their low-volume explosive passing attack.
Phillip Lindsay Breaks Away for 65-yard Touchdown Run
Holding a 14-3 lead midway through the third quarter, Lindsay delivered the big play Denver needed to put a surprisingly plucky Bengals team away. The rookie back took a crack toss play to the left and cut it upfield, sprinting untouched for a 65-yard touchdown run.
Lindsay is just too fast ♂️ @I_CU_boy pic.twitter.com/EE4sQY9dIr— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 2, 2018
That gave the Broncos a 21-3 lead and pushed their win probability to 96 percent. Lindsay, who finished with a season-high 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns, was the bright spot of the team’s otherwise underwhelming offensive performance on Sunday. He actually outpaced quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for just 151 yards against what had been one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL over the past month.
While Saquon Barkley, the second overall pick of the 2018 draft, is on pace to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, Lindsay, an unheralded undrafted free agent out of Colorado, is doing his best to give him a run for his money. Lindsay looks like the biggest and brightest diamond in the rough of the 2018 draft class, on pace to finish with 1,249 rushing yards, which would break Dominic Rhodes’s undrafted rookie record (1,104 in 2001). He’s already emerged as the cornerstone of the Broncos’ top-tier rushing offense, but the diminutive feature back is going to need to dig deep down the stretch. With star corner Chris Harris Jr. out for the year with a fractured fibula, Denver may need a little bit more from its offense if it hopes to sneak past the Colts, Dolphins, and Ravens for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot.