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The Hot Read, Week 16: How the Ravens Stopped the 49ers

Baltimore’s dominant defensive performance over San Francisco confirmed who the hottest team in the league is. Plus: why the Dolphins are Super Bowl contenders, the Lions’ first divisional title in 30 years, award picks, and more.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from this Sunday (and this week, Monday) of NFL action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.

The Big Thing: How the Ravens Stopped the 49ers

A lot happened this weekend. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.

The Ravens intercepted the 49ers five times on Sunday. That’s the first time a defense has snagged five interceptions since 2021. Brock Purdy himself was intercepted four times before a stinger sent him to the bench for much of the fourth quarter, and Sam Darnold threw another pick on a late, fourth-down desperation throw to complete the quintet.

Let’s focus on those four picks from Purdy, which bring the biggest questions for San Francisco. Vikings QB Nick Mullens threw four interceptions on Sunday, so it hasn’t been long since we’ve seen a four-pick performance. I would wager, however, that this is the first game in a long, long time when the December MVP favorite produced a zero-TD, four-INT performance. That feels remarkable.

Now, any four-interception performance comes with some bad luck. Two of Purdy’s four interceptions came on deflected passes that landed in the breadbasket of an awaiting Ravens defender. Sure, the Ravens did good work on their tip drill, but if those PBUs had broken differently, the box score could have looked a little friendlier.

That doesn’t change the fact that the Ravens defense had Purdy spooked in the pocket. Take the first third down of the second half, on which Purdy nearly threw another interception. It’s man coverage across the board, with an extra defensive body set to Christian McCaffrey’s side.

Pre-snap, the side to read is the three-receiver side. That’s where Purdy starts, reading inside out. Willie Snead is the innermost receiver on the slant, and he gets gloved up early in the route. Patrick Queen is coming on a free rush from Purdy’s right. The progression is very clear: move to the next receiver, Deebo Samuel, on the next slant—he won on his route right away.

But Purdy short-circuits, never getting off of Snead, throwing to him while his head isn’t turned and wilting away from the throw, leading to inaccuracy. It’s almost picked.

In a vacuum this play doesn’t seem too egregious or indicative of a resounding defensive performance; I think it is the latter. The 49ers offense has ripped through the league on the back of clean dropbacks and first-read throws to wide-open McCaffreys, Samuels, George Kittles, Brandon Aiyuks. (And SF had a few of those plays in this game!) To force, on a third down, a contested, pressured throw to Snead? That’s an enormous win for the Ravens.

Here’s another play that’s indicative of the type of night it was for the 49ers offense. Third-and-9—a bad miss from the pocket as Purdy tried to throw the McCaffrey outbreaker. Look at the timing of his feet in the dropback, how he double-clutches the throw. Why is he ready to throw so much earlier than McCaffrey is in his break, as he was on the Snead miss? It could be that these missed connections are on the receivers for not getting into their breaks quickly enough, but it’s more likely a testament to the physical, disruptive play of the Ravens defense at the line of scrimmage. The timing of the 49ers offense felt broken for much of the night.

Here’s another third down, featuring a blitz from Kyle Hamilton. Purdy should look to the blitzing side and throw into the teeth of the rush; instead, he looks to the side where the Ravens dropped guys into coverage, and his first read is dead. He breaks a clean pocket, which creates pressure, and he has to make a tough throw on the move that ends up deflected and intercepted.

And the final interception, still early in the third quarter. Purdy opens to the two-receiver side, has Aiyuk with nice leverage on Hamilton, and doesn’t throw it. That’s fine—I think he could have thrown it, but whatever. If you’re not gonna throw it, then why look at it? If you want the backside dig from Kittle (which is what I think he wants), you can get to it far sooner.

As it is, by the time you get to the backside, pressure is on you. Purdy’s arm is hit on the checkdown, the ball is inaccurate, and it is intercepted.

And just like that, it’s 30-12.

While Purdy looked nothing like he had all season, Baltimore looked everything like it had. The Ravens found ways to generate free rushers from the second level for much of the (meaningful) game, but never by dedicating more than five bodies to the rush. Those rushers created chaos—checkdowns, hurried throws, batted balls. When the Ravens didn’t bring pressure, they overlapped zones, exchanged routes, and tackled in space like none other. And they won at the line of scrimmage—both in the trenches and against routes—with big, physical play. Jadeveon Clowney and Justin Madubuike hardly lost a rep up front. Marlon Humphrey played like it was 2019. Hamilton and Roquan Smith stamped their All-Pro résumés. It was a night for stars.

Funnily enough, a defensive performance like this isn’t about the big bounces—the gaudy interception totals, the celebrations in the back of the end zone, the short offensive fields, the big scoreboard. It’s about those little Purdy hesitations—rushed throws short of the sticks. That’s what’s meaningful for Baltimore; that’s what will translate to a potential Super Bowl rematch in February. That’s what will stop this offense, which previously looked stoppable only by injuries (which again was an issue for left tackle Trent Williams, who left the game with a groin injury).

I’m not sure any other defense is equipped to do this. Nobody plays smarter, more cohesive defensive football in the league than the 11 Ravens on the field, who were coordinated by second-year defensive play caller Mike MacDonald (whom I consider the premier head-coaching candidate in this cycle). Heck, I’m not even sure the Ravens are equipped to do this again—they ran lucky, as all teams with five takeaways do.

But I saw something on Monday night that I wasn’t sure I’d see again this season: Purdy and the Niners, stopped. Hats off to Baltimore, the best team in football.

The Little Things

It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.

LAMAR and Gravitational Pull

It is criminally negligent to write a whole, honkin’ Big Thing on the Ravens’ statement victory and not mention Lamar Jackson. So let me state some basic truths: No quarterback in football is playing better than Jackson is right now. He is the league MVP. He is the most unique quarterback in the league. Any and all arguments against can be sent to my email, youreahater@spotify.com, or to my P.O. box at 1000 Nope Not Listening Boulevard.

The thing that never stops amazing me with Lamar is how he tilts the field. On this huge Gus Edwards catch and run, look at how the threat of Lamar’s legs—and Lamar has barely even started running at this point—yanks Dre Greenlaw out of the middle of the field.

Lamar creates explosive plays without making it look like he’s doing anything, which is why he’s underappreciated. He is rarely, if ever, moving at full speed. But because he is more dangerous in the open field than any other quarterback in football (it isn’t even remotely close), he creates spaces that other quarterbacks don’t just by virtue of his presence. He is singular among quarterbacks and, unless you award the MVP based on how often a quarterback sneaks the ball from the 1-yard line, more than deserving of the award.

A DIVISION TITLE

A division title is not a little thing, actually. It is an enormous thing. If you don’t believe me, watch this.

After beating the Vikings on Sunday, the Lions will host their first playoff game in Ford Field. The last playoff game in Detroit was on January 8, 1994, a time when I was very busy not existing yet. I’m sure Dan Campbell’s Lions aren’t satisfied with just getting to the game and would like to win it (and a few more—Detroit is tied for the 1-seed in the NFC right now).

But here in my column, we do stop and smell the roses for a moment. Kudos to Campbell and the Lions.

A DIVISION WIN

A division win is not a little thing, actually. It is an enormous thing. If you don’t believe me, watch this.

The Raiders went from playing below their weight under Josh McDaniels to playing a few classes above it with Antonio Pierce at the helm. They have been a far cry from perfect—Aidan O’Connell didn’t complete a pass after the first quarter—but they’ve been a legitimate headache defensively as young players fight for playing time and future starting jobs. Pierce 180’ed the culture in a month—that’s hard to do.

Do the Raiders keep Pierce on for the permanent job? Teams rarely keep their interim coaches, and even more infrequently does it work—the best success story of the past 20 years is probably Jason Garrett—but I wouldn’t fault them for giving it a try.

The Zag: The Dolphins Are Super Bowl Contenders

I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.

I was surprised by the general public reaction to the Cowboys-Dolphins game on Saturday: a tough 22-20 victory for the Dolphins. “Welp, neither one of those teams is legit” was the collective response. I strongly disagree.

A one-game sample is very useless. One game, in the context of season-long narratives, can be very helpful (see: Ravens defense against Brock Purdy)---but deciding that the Dolphins aren’t good enough to win a Super Bowl because they didn’t beat the Cowboys the way you’d want them to is silly.

When I look for teams that can win the Super Bowl, here’s my checklist.

1. You need star talent. Actual star talent. Not “he’s a rising star in this league!” Actual, field-tilting star talent.

The Dolphins clear this bar easily. Tyreek Hill is the single biggest non-quarterback headache in offensive football right now. He requires multiple bodies in coverage to remove him from the game, and even then, it’s more of a mitigation than a full removal. And when you dedicate that many defensive resources to solving the Hill problem, you open up space for Jaylen Waddle and De’Von Achane and Raheem Mostert—more on them later.

Defensively, one of the Dolphins’ stars, edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, is out for the season with a heartbreaking Achilles tear. But CB-S hybrid Jalen Ramsey remains a top talent and irreplaceable cog of the Vic Fangio defense. He has game-winning ability. Even on that go-ahead Brandin Cooks touchdown, Ramsey had great coverage—he just lost to a better throw and catch.

The Dolphins have the stars I like to see. They could have had more, but I think they have enough.

2. You need to be able to win games in multiple ways.

One-dimensional teams always die in the postseason. If you win games only on a ground-and-pound game script, eventually you will get stuck trailing, and you will lose. If you win only on explosive passes and can’t salt away games in the trenches, a good defensive coordinator will put a blanket on your passing attack, and you will lose. If you win high-scoring games despite a liable defense, eventually you will fail in the fourth quarter, and you will lose. You must be able to survive any and all game scripts to make it through the best-of-one gauntlet we call the NFL playoffs.

The Dolphins did not clear this last year—they were a pass-only offense and a team built only for high-scoring games. This year? They do.

Not enough is made of the Dolphins’ rushing attack. It is a handful. They aren’t producing a weekly 100-yard rusher, as they did to start the season, but they’re first in expected points added per rush and second in explosive run rate even though they’ve suffered more injuries along the offensive line and to their running backs corps than most teams this season. You might expect a running game built on team speed, behind such a shaky offensive line, to live on explosives but suffer snap to snap. This isn’t the case for Miami, which is fourth in rushing success rate.

You cannot sell out to defend the pass against the Dolphins. They can hand the ball off, chunk their way down the field, and still score in a hurry if they get their speedy backs to the second level.

And then there’s the defense. Since Week 8, when Ramsey returned from injury, the Dolphins have been first in defensive success rate and second in EPA per drive. Their schedule has included some cupcakes over that stretch—they got to play the Tim Boyle–led Jets and the Zach Wilson–led Jets—but it also included Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Dallas.

This defense is for real, and this time, it isn’t about the stars. It’s about the system and the depth. Over this dominant stretch, key plays have been delivered by Zach Sieler, Kader Kohou, and Xavien Howard. Bradley Chubb and Andrew Van Ginkel have stepped up in Phillips’s absence, David Long and Duke Riley in Jerome Baker’s absence, DeShon Elliott and Brandon Jones in Jevon Holland’s absence.

The Dolphins defense isn’t perfect (opposing offenses have been suspiciously good in two-minute situations as of late), especially after all these injuries. But it is a good unit. It can win the Dolphins a game in the postseason, much like it did against Dallas, a legit playoff team, this week. And that’s the final thing.


3. They’ve been there before.

In general, the “They haven’t beaten a legit winning team” criticisms do not interest me. Records don’t reflect team quality nearly as well as we’d like to think. (Who would you rather play right now? The 8-7 Rams or the 11-4 Eagles?) So when folks criticized the Dolphins for their record against playoff teams, I didn’t read much into it.

It does, however, matter for the psychology of the players. Championship pedigree is real. The locker room needs the internal confidence to sit in a tough spot against a playoff opponent and say, “We’ve been here before. We know our way out.”

Miami had a chance to establish that earlier this season and failed to, losing by seven against the Chiefs in Germany. Here, they got it back. The offense didn’t play perfect ball but avoided critical mistakes. The defense held the line for much of the game, and when it faltered, the offense finished the job. This was a gritty team win against a good Cowboys squad, and it matters to Miami.

(There is one other thing I look for in a Super Bowl contender: a legit quarterback. I will not be commenting on Tua Tagovailoa’s qualifications as a Super Bowl quarterback at this time, but hey—we’ve seen Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo in the game in recent years. Tua more than clears that bar.)

The Dolphins look like a Super Bowl contender to me; they really do. To see it, you have to think that losing to the Titans despite leading by 14 with five minutes left was a fluke—and it was. You have to think that an early-season loss to the Bills doesn’t accurately reflect the state of the two teams now—and I think that’s easy to see, too.

But the Dolphins do have another test: That Bills team, desperate to make the playoffs, still hoping for an AFC East title, comes to town in Week 18. Heck, the Dolphins play those AFC-leading Ravens in Baltimore in Week 17. We’ll get to see Miami against Super Bowl talent again, and it will come with even more injuries: Waddle is out multiple weeks with a high ankle sprain. I’m worried that when we get to late January, Miami won’t look like the team it’s been for much of the season.

But for now, from this vantage point, those 11-4 Dolphins are actually good. Good enough to win a Super Bowl. I know—what a zag!

(Mostly Real) Awards

I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.

That Old Man Can Play Award: Browns Quarterback Joe Flacco

Usually, we’re handing out a Young Man Can Play award somewhere in this section. But when 38-year-old Flacco throws for more than 300 yards in three consecutive games for the first time in his career (read that again and realize how nuts it is), you gotta respect your elders.

If Flacco were a 24-year-old, we’d be accusing him of system quarterbacking. He’s feasting on play-action shots to a star wide receiver in Amari Cooper, who is also playing career ball despite his (slightly less advanced) age of 29. But just this season, we saw several quarterbacks in Cleveland’s system—the young Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the journeyman P.J. Walker, and the extremely well-compensated Deshaun Watson—fail to hit the shots that Kevin Stefanski offered them.

Not so with Flacco, who leads the league in air yards per attempt and explosive play rate on play-action throws. He’s also eighth in INT percentage and hasn’t scrambled once. Go off, my old YOLO ball king.


Slightly Younger but Still Old by NFL Standards Man Can Play Award: Bucs Wide Receiver Mike Evans

Be honest with yourself: Have you ever done anything as impressive as producing 1,000 receiving yards in one NFL season? I certainly haven’t. But let’s pretend I have.

Could you or I do that impressive thing 10 consecutive times? And not just 10 consecutive times, but with only one chance to hit a 10-time streak? The chances of flipping a coin and getting 10 consecutive heads is 1 out of 1,024—that’s 0.1 percent.

Anyway, Mike Evans has 1,000 receiving yards for the 10th time in his 10-season career. He also leads the league in receiving touchdowns, with 13, and is one of only five receivers to have at least five 12-plus touchdown seasons in history.

Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Panthers Quarterback Bryce Young

Sunday was absolutely the best I’ve seen Bryce Young look as a pro: 23-for-36, 312 yards, two scores, no picks, two sacks. It was far from a perfect game—Young attempted two throws beyond 20 yards and completed one. But the one he completed was a doozy.

Young did get a nice boost from the Joe Barry defense he faced, but he looked faster mentally than he has all season, which allowed him to make plays both in and out of structure. An encouraging step toward how he won in college.

The Mike Tomlin Award: Steelers Wide Receiver George Pickens

I don’t like reading into sideline behavior and player frustration. I think the narratives spiral out of control far too quickly; too much happens behind closed doors for an outside perspective to be fair and accurate.

What I do know is this: Pickens made a bad thing (not blocking on a potential Jaylen Warren touchdown) worse with his comments about it last week. And then Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin did what he somehow always does: made a bad thing good. He was frank about Pickens’s mistakes while also being very firm that the Steelers are dedicated to developing him, and then he put his money where his mouth was. Pickens didn’t lose playing time, earned targets, and delivered with a four-catch, 195-yard (!), two-touchdown performance—the sort of play that proves to a young player the value of staying engaged with the team and the coaches. Pickens was the offensive star in a critical, season-saving win just one week after looking like the butt of a joke. Good on him, and good on Tomlin.

Next Ben Stats

What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.

One hundred percent: That’s the likelihood that the Bears will make the wrong quarterback decision this offseason.

The Bears don’t quite have the history of quarterbacking foibles that the Browns do, but they’re close. Their leading passers in 2016 were Matt Barkley and Brian Hoyer. They took Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl—not, like, on a trip, but as the actual starting quarterback. Who was that other quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky’s draft again? The really good one from Texas Tech who went to the Chiefs?

As such, I can’t shake the feeling that Chicago will get the 2024 quarterback decision wrong. There are two major inflection points for the Bears, who are one Panthers loss away from mathematically securing the top pick. The first inflection point: what to do with incumbent Justin Fields, who is playing the best ball of his career since coming back from a thumb injury.

The Bears will almost certainly replace Fields by selecting a rookie with the first pick. But which rookie? USC’s Caleb Williams is the favorite to be the top selection right now, but it isn’t a slam dunk—the more I watch UNC’s Drake Maye, the closer I think the two are. That’s the second inflection point.

I’m not saying they should keep Fields (I wouldn’t; I’d trade him) or take Maye over Williams (I don’t think I’d do that, either, but I still have time to decide). I’m just saying that whatever they do will end up being wrong. Bear down.

One hundred ninth: That’s where this Patrick Mahomes game ranks by EPA per drive among all his career starts. (He’s started 109 games.)

The bells are ringing, the horns are blaring, and the Chiefs Offensive Consternation Train is leaving the station.

I’ve spent all season on Chiefs Are Gonna Be Fine Boat. I’ve acknowledged that this Chiefs offense is worse than it’s been in seasons past, and worse than it should be, given how good Mahomes is—but I’ve still believed that Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid can lift the unit come playoff time. This is my last chance to switch sides, but I think I’m gonna stay on this boat. I won’t be surprised at all by a competent Chiefs offense in the playoffs, as Reid pulls trick after trick out of his sleeve to keep this unit afloat.

But man, from my view on Chiefs Are Gonna Be Fine Boat (which is increasingly becoming Chiefs Are Gonna Be Fine Island), this is harrowing stuff. Mahomes is second-guessing reads and open receivers like I never thought he would, and the offensive line is a legitimate liability. Kansas City needs to rediscover its running game, badly.