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The Starting 11: The Ravens Can’t Lose, and the Texans Are Hitting Their Stride

Baltimore and Houston scored huge wins this weekend and showed off how dangerous they could be in playoffs. Plus: What comes next for the Eagles, Browns, Chargers, Jaguars, and Panthers?

AP/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.

1. Ravens-Niners was billed as a possible Super Bowl preview, and after a month full of blowouts, Baltimore proved it can still win ugly. The conditions were terrible in Baltimore for the NFL’s potential game of the week. Steady rain and frigid temperatures made it difficult to glean much about either team in the Ravens’ 20-17 win, but John Harbaugh’s group still managed to impress in subtle ways. Lamar Jackson wasn’t the world-destroying force he’s been in recent weeks (he finished with just 105 yards passing and misfired on a potential touchdown throw to Mark Andrews late in the second quarter), but Baltimore’s offense still showcased why it’s such a headache for defenders. At the most basic level, the Ravens are trying to make defenses guess wrong on each and every play. In order to slow down the league’s most efficient running backs, the Niners routinely crashed hard toward Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards on option plays, which freed up Jackson to pull the ball and rip off nice runs (including his 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter). Even when the Niners did guess right, Jackson was often able to improvise his way to positive yardage.

This may sound like an oversimplification, but the Ravens have the NFL’s most effective offense because they’re very good at gaining 10 yards in four plays. The structure of Baltimore’s running game, the passing complements off of it, and Jackson’s talents as a runner make it incredibly difficult to stop Baltimore from moving the chains during a given set of downs. And if a defense manages to push the Ravens to fourth down, Baltimore is the most aggressive team in the NFL in that position. When Richard Sherman stopped Jackson 2 yards short of the marker on a third-down run midway through the second quarter, there was no question that the Ravens would go for it. On that fourth-and-2 in Niners territory, Jackson found tight end Hayden Hurst for a tough completion along the sideline that barely got Baltimore a first down. Six plays later, Justin Tucker pounded a 30-yard field goal through the uprights to give the Ravens a 17-14 lead.

For most of this season, Tucker has been a glorified PAT robot. The Ravens’ fourth-down aggressiveness has made it easy to forget that they employ the best kicker in NFL history. With the game tied at 20 in the final moments, Baltimore had no qualms about asking Tucker to kick a 49-yard field goal in disgusting weather. As soon as it left his foot, there was no doubt. At its best, Baltimore can run opposing teams off the field. But even in a driving rainstorm against arguably the best team in the NFC, the Ravens proved they have more than one way to win.

2. Sunday’s huge win over the Patriots showcased just how good the Texans can be. Deshaun Watson was virtually perfect against the league’s best defense. Houston’s superstar quarterback completed 18 of 25 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns—and made a number of jaw-dropping throws along the way. New England’s defensive game plan focused on doubling DeAndre Hopkins with safety help over the top and daring Houston’s other receivers to beat their man in coverage. The Texans were more than up to the challenge.

One play after Will Fuller beat J.C. Jackson deep and narrowly missed coming down with a 35-yard touchdown catch, Kenny Stills got behind cornerback Jonathan Jones and hauled in a perfectly thrown 35-yard rocket. One of Fuller or Stills has missed three of the Texans’ past four games, and Sunday’s contest was the first time in six weeks that neither showed up on the injury report. Hopkins is still—rightfully—the centerpiece of this passing game, but with two receivers who ran sub-4.4-second 40-yard dashes at the combine back in the mix, the geometry of the Texans offense is different.

The effect that Fuller has on Watson and this passing attack has been well established the past few seasons, but what makes Houston’s offense truly special are the new wrinkles it’s developed in 2019. Running back Duke Johnson has taken a backseat to Carlos Hyde at times this season (Johnson has played 401 snaps compared to Hyde’s 403), but the Texans deployed their pass-catching back for most of the game against New England. Johnson out-snapped Hyde 38-21 and hauled in five passes for 54 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Watson also looks considerably more comfortable with Houston’s approach to blitz protection than he was earlier in his career. His rapport with Hopkins in those situations has been key this season, and that was on display again Sunday.

3. Week 13 delivered the final nail in the coffin for several preseason playoff hopefuls, but no loss stung worse than the Eagles’ embarrassing display against the Dolphins. It was clear weeks ago that Philadelphia wouldn’t get far with its current roster construction, but I’m not sure anyone expected them to get worked in a 37-31 loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and a tanking Miami team. Most of the Eagles’ recent issues have come on offense, but on Sunday, Philly’s secondary made perennial breakout candidate DeVante Parker look like the best receiver in football. Jalen Mills initially gave this group a boost after coming off the PUP list in Week 7, but the Dolphins receiving corps worked him all game.

The Eagles are still—miraculously—alive in a horrifically bad NFC East, but at this point, Philly’s best bet is to regroup and hope things turn around in 2020. Most of this (notably expensive) roster will return next season, but Howie Roseman’s priority this spring will be to rebuild a secondary that’s badly in need of some work. Recent draft picks like Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas have not panned out, and both Mills and safety Rodney McLeod are set to hit free agency. Head coach Doug Pederson’s team still has plenty of talent and should bounce back with some better injury luck next season, but losing to these Dolphins is the nadir of his tenure—no matter how “good” of a football team he claims they are.

4. Carolina’s 29-21 loss to the Redskins should put an end to any illusions about Kyle Allen’s long-term viability as the Panthers’ starting quarterback—and could lead to more significant changes throughout the organization. Allen took seven sacks and turned the ball over twice against Washington, including a lost fumble inside the Redskins’ 5-yard line with 27 seconds remaining in regulation. He currently ranks 30th in QBR, ahead of only benched Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. Combined with a rough game from Christian McCaffrey and a brutal outing by the Panthers’ run defense, this loss marked a low point for the Ron Rivera era.

Rivera has helped return the Panthers to relevance during his nine-year tenure with the franchise, which includes a Super Bowl appearance following a 15-1 season in 2015. He’s a renowned player’s coach who’s done an excellent job managing the locker room. It wouldn’t seem like two consecutive losing seasons—ones with plenty of injury misfortune—would cost Rivera his job, but a recent change in the Panthers’ ownership could shift the calculus. David Tepper bought the team in July 2018, and in the past year and a half, he’s beefed up the analytics staff in an effort to modernize the team’s personnel department. It’s possible that Tepper could look at Carolina’s disappointing season and see an opportunity to hit the reset button at every level of the franchise.

Cam Newton reportedly won’t return as the Panthers’ QB next season, even if he is healthy. General manager Marty Hurney, a retread appointee by former owner Jerry Richardson, will probably be out as well as Tepper retools the team’s front office. Rivera could be the last—and most unlikely—casualty of Tepper’s reimagining of the organization. Even if Rivera does return in 2020, this era of Panthers football as we currently know it is almost certainly over.

5. The Chargers have turned losing into an art form, and after another disappointing season, it’s time to start considering the Philip Rivers succession plan. Just when you think the Chargers can’t find a new way to lose, they go and outdo themselves. This time, a late pass interference penalty on cornerback Casey Hayward set up a 53-yard Brandon McManus field goal that won Denver the game as time expired. The Chargers’ latest heartbreak may have been particularly cruel, but the truth is that their season was over weeks ago.

With his sights now set on 2020, the most pressing issue for general manager Tom Telesco will be what to do with Rivers. The veteran quarterback is in the final year of his contract, and the Chargers will likely be picking high enough in this year’s draft to potentially find his successor. If the team does decide to bring Rivers back for one more season—thus keeping the most visible player in the organization as it moves into a new stadium next fall—his deal will likely eat up at least half of the $55 million the franchise is projected to carry into free agency. If Rivers chooses to retire and the Chargers do go in a different direction at QB, Telesco will have more resources to remake problem areas of the roster like the offensive line.

Bringing Rivers back as a bridge QB seems like an attractive option, but Telesco may decide that devoting considerable resources to a quarterback who’ll turn 38 Sunday isn’t the most prudent plan. Current backup Tyrod Taylor is under contract for only $7.5 million next season, and he has extensive starting experience. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chargers usher in a new era and build around a core of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and a secondary that’s still quite talented when healthy.

6. After yet another rough outing in a 28-11 loss to the Bucs, Nick Foles was benched in favor of Gardner Minshew II—and the Jags now have some unenviable choices to make about their huge offseason investment. Foles went 7 of 14 for 93 yards with an interception in the first half on Sunday against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. In most circumstances, replacing Foles with Minshew—who showed plenty of promising flashes while filling in for the injured starter during the first half of the season—would make sense based on performance. But the Jags are less than nine months removed from handing Foles a four-year, $88 million deal with $50.1 million guaranteed. If he’s on Jacksonville’s roster next season, Foles would carry a $22.1 million cap hit; Minshew, on the other hand, will cost the Jags $632,721. At that price, Minshew is clearly the better option, but if Jacksonville cuts Foles, he’ll carry a dead cap hit of $33.9 million for a team that already doesn’t have much projected cap space next season. Jacksonville’s best path would be to unload Foles on a desperate team looking for a cheap stopgap quarterback, but even that might require a Brock Osweiler–style deal and a draft pick. There aren’t many enticing options for the Jags at this point, but it’s become pretty clear that Foles isn’t the answer they hoped he was this spring.

7. Cleveland’s 20-13 loss to the Steelers effectively extinguishes the Browns’ dim playoff hopes. It’s been a maddening season in Cleveland. Just when it seems like the Browns have something going, they manage to get off course. In the first half against Pittsburgh, it seemed like Cleveland had uncovered a reliable offensive recipe that put Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb on the field at the same time. On Hunt’s 15-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, Chubb ran a swing route to the right flat, which pulled linebacker Mark Barron from the middle of the field. Hunt ran an angle route to the vacated area, and Baker Mayfield found him for an easy reception.

But after Mayfield injured his right hand by hitting it on a helmet late in the first half, Cleveland’s passing game dropped off. It feels like Freddie Kitchens has shown enough creativity with the Browns offense in recent weeks to earn a second season as the team’s head coach, but it’s possible that ownership looks at this disappointing season with a supremely talented team and decides to go in a new direction.

As Kitchens’s squad has underachieved, Mike Tomlin’s team has managed to remain in the playoff hunt with a third-string quarterback at the helm. After the game, ESPN’s Diana Russini reported that Tomlin and his staff went “straight up high school” at halftime and drew up a new game plan to account for Cleveland’s two-back approach. After losing Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, it seemed like the Steelers’ season might be over—and when Pittsburgh traded a first-round pick to the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick shortly after, it felt like a mistake for a team that could be picking in the top 10. Two months later, Pittsburgh is 7-5 and staring down a wild card spot in the AFC. This season might rival any others in Tomlin’s fantastic head-coaching career.

8. Ryan Tannehill and the Titans offense have gotten plenty of attention during the team’s recent run, but Tennessee’s defensive packages on third down continue to give opponents fits. With the game tied at 17-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Titans defense countered the Colts’ three-receiver, shotgun set with a six-defensive-back dime look. Tennessee lined up with two deep safeties and walked its inside corners up to the line of scrimmage to form a hard-to-read seven-man front. At the snap, linebacker Rashaan Evans and safety Kenny Vaccaro dropped into coverage, slot corner Logan Ryan came screaming off the edge, and safety Amari Hooker spun forward to create a single-safety look. If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Evans’s and Vaccaro’s movement made Colts QB Jacoby Brissett hesitate just long enough for Ryan to get pressure and force an incompletion. The Colts punted, and Tennessee eventually won 31-17. Tannehill has rightly garnered plenty of attention during the Titans’ turnaround, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees has made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

9. Aaron Rodgers’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Allen Lazard is play-action football run to perfection. When the Packers hired Matt LaFleur as the team’s head coach this season, he was sure to bring under-center, play-action throws along, too. With the Packers facing a second-and-1 late in the first quarter against the Giants, they lined up in a three-receiver set with tight end Jimmy Graham operating as an H-back to the left of the formation. At the snap, Rodgers executed a hard play fake to Aaron Jones as Graham feigned a block across the formation. Graham drew two linebackers, and wide receiver Geronimo Allison pulled a safety forward with a crossing route. That left Antoine Bethea one-on-one with Lazard, who could have broken his route either way. Bethea had no shot, and Rodgers launched a 40-yard rocket for the score.

10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Mike McGlinchey and George Kittle are one mean duo in the run game. McGlinchey has been an absolute monster since last season, and this play is no exception. The second-year tackle manages to get push on the double team—thus making Kittle’s kick-out block significantly easier—and peel back to pick off the linebacker. It’s not like Kittle needs much help as a run blocker, but McGlinchey’s slight shove helps the All-Pro tight end finish off linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and allows Raheem Mostert to scamper for a 40-yard touchdown.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: We’ve been waiting years for this version of DeVante Parker.