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The Hot Read, Week 13: The 49ers Are Back to Peak Form

With an emphatic win over the Eagles, San Francisco’s injury-fueled three-game skid is in the rearview mirror. Plus: the disastrous officiating in Chiefs-Packers, why the College Football Playoff selection committee got the postseason field right, awards, and more.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL Week 13 Sunday 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: The Healthy 49ers Are the NFL’s Best Team

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

Here are the best 10 offenses in football by expected points added per drive.

Nobody on this list is a big surprise. The 49ers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Bills, and Eagles fill out a clear first tier; the Lions, Rams, Chiefs, Ravens, and Chargers are in the second.

Now here’s the same graphic adjusted to remove Weeks 7 and 8 for the 49ers, when the team was without Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams.

This way, it looks far less like there’s a first tier and a second tier. It looks like there’s a lone leader.

Of course, this isn’t fair to everyone else. The Cowboys have had to play games without Tyron Smith and Tyler Smith, and the Dolphins without Terron Armstead, Robert Hunt, and De’Von Achane. Everyone deals with injuries.

But when the 49ers haven’t been dealing with injuries on offense, they’ve looked better than anyone else this season. In fact, they’re undefeated. They’ve won every game that both Samuel and Williams have started and finished. In Week 6, when they stumbled against the Browns, Samuel went down after just eight snaps; during Weeks 7 (at Minnesota) and 8 (against Cincinnati), both Samuel and Williams were out.

Those three games are the 49ers’ only losses on the season.

In each loss, they scored 17 points; in the nine full games that Samuel and Williams have both played, the 49ers have scored at least 30 points in all but one (in which they scored 27).

Again, I don’t want to give this treatment to just the 49ers. Plenty of teams have looked like juggernauts during stretches of this season. The Cowboys have scored at least 30 in each of their past four: 40 in three of those. The Eagles, before they ran into the 49ers, had won their last five against opponents such as the Dolphins, Cowboys, Chiefs, and Bills. But the 49ers played both of those teams and beat those teams by a combined score of 84-29. Nobody has felt more dominant, against bigger opponents, than this healthy Niners squad.

The Niners just present too many problems for opponents to solve. Every single player that might touch the ball for the 49ers is downright terrifying: Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo. Samuel leads all receivers in yards after catch per reception by over 1.5 yards per catch; Kittle is third among tight ends in YAC per reception, but he’s also third among tight ends in air yards per pass attempt—that’s not at all how that’s supposed to work. Aiyuk is top 20 among wideouts in both catch rate and air yards per target, which is—say it with me—not at all how that’s supposed to work.

When all of these guys are healthy, you just sit there as a defense and take it. There’s nothing else to do. Blow after blow, broken tackle after broken tackle, nifty motion into play-action fake into misdirection screen into actually, it’s a reverse. Also, you’ve just given up a third-down conversion to Jauan Jennings, and there goes Brock Purdy on a scramble. Are you with me? Do you need a minute? Can I get you a glass of water?

As fun as the 49ers offense has been when the plasma cannons have had a full charge, the season is far from over. San Francisco is still a game behind Philadelphia in the hunt for the no. 1 seed, and Detroit and Dallas remain in that mix. The 49ers have a rematch with the Seahawks next week and a huge Week 16 game against Baltimore coming ’round the mountain. They’re still likely to play the Eagles on the road, should they run into them again in the playoffs—and when they see the Eagles (or the Cowboys) again, they will see a motivated and embarrassed team with plenty of adjustments up its sleeves. The hay isn’t in the barn.

But this is the best 49ers offense we’ve seen in the Shanahan era, full stop. The prime Jimmy Garoppolo years had gaudy numbers, but defenses hadn’t caught up with the easy gimmicks yet. Defenses know the ins and outs of this system now, and it doesn’t matter. The 49ers don’t just have gimmicks; they have star talent at every position on offense, including a young quarterback who is improving every week on already impressive play. It’s tough to imagine anything stopping them except a terrible bounce on the merciless injury roulette wheel.

Is there any team you’d like to play less right now than the 49ers?

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.

1. I DON’T KNOW what refereeing is

The state of NFL officiating deserves a much longer and more nuanced look than is possible in this column. Any take on refereeing given within 24 hours of a game (including this one) is unavoidably held prisoner by the moment and is not given with a sober mind. I will provide that sober take on some future day.

What in heaven’s name was going on at the end of Chiefs-Packers? The Patrick Mahomes unnecessary roughness call was made by an official far away from the play and thrown even though Mahomes was still in bounds at the time of the hit. It happened on the Chiefs sideline, and you don’t even see them call for a flag!

The next play was a called scoop ’n’ score overturned by review that also had a personal foul penalty that disqualified Isiah Pacheco, and I don’t even want to get into that. The play after that …

This league calls the silliest defensive pass interferences. Terrible underthrows in which the receiver makes no effort to catch the ball and only flounders through contact are rewarded with a spot foul. Uncatchable balls are routinely ignored. And this—a piggyback ride—went unflagged.

The subsequent plays included a clock stoppage when the receiver was moving backward on his way out of bounds (should have been a running clock) and a Hail Mary that had a defensive pass interference (though, to be fair, every Hail Mary does).

The Packers deserved this win. They’re 6-6, having knocked off the Lions and Chiefs in recent weeks. I think they’re going to the playoffs, and rightfully so.

But I don’t like watching games in which I have no idea how the officiating will go. As a regular gambler on football, I really don’t like it. The NFL is playing with real fire by letting the quality of officiating continue to deteriorate while also openly partnering with multiple U.S. sportsbooks.

Imagine an end-of-game sequence like this one in the AFC championship game with millions upon millions of dollars on the line. Spooky stuff.

Wait! Sorry, hang on. I just remembered. This was whistled dead for forward progress in Texans-Broncos?! Are you kidding me?!

OK. Done now.

2. ANDREW VAN GINKEL, up to the plate

I can’t imagine the average NFL fan is super dialed in on Van Ginkel right now, but he’s one of the most important players to watch over the next few weeks. Star Dolphins pass rusher Jaelan Phillips popped his Achilles against the Jets in heartbreaking fashion, and to fill those enormous shoes, Miami is relying heavily on Van Ginkel.

Van Ginkel has been almost exclusively a defensive lineman for most of his career, but under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio this year, the Dolphins have experimented with playing him off the ball and in space. Against the Commanders, in the Dolphins’ first game without Phillips, Van Ginkel played no box snaps for only the fourth time this season, and he produced early, with a pick-six and what should have been recorded as a sack in the first half.

The Dolphins defense continues to be one of the best in the league now that it has the intricate Fangio system under its belt. If it can survive the Phillips injury, it’ll remain a force alongside that explosive offense come playoff time.

3. BEATING YOUR DIVISION RIVAL with the same play they almost beat you with

Late in the fourth quarter, the Tennessee Titans tied the game against the Indianapolis Colts with this Will Levis touchdown throw to DeAndre Hopkins.

The design on this throw is cool. The Titans are bluffing a typical pick route—the inside receiver runs to the flat, and the outside receiver runs the slant. The defensive backs accordingly switch responsibilities—but then Hopkins suddenly breaks back inside, and the outside corner is nowhere near close enough to affect the catch point. Excellent design.

The Titans would fail to take the lead when they missed the extra point, and this game would go to overtime. Down three and in need of a touchdown to win it, here’s the concept the Colts dialed up.

That look at all familiar?

4. THE CHARGES against those who willingly watched Jets-Falcons or Chargers-Patriots

Six months of community service and a $5,000 fine. I don’t care if you needed someone to have a great fantasy day to make the playoffs. You better have been born in New York, Atlanta, San Diego, or the greater New England area to have tuned in to these games.

If you or someone you know willingly watched these games, please reach out to me, and I will perform a citizen’s arrest.

The Zag: The College Football Playoff Committee Got It Right

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.

OK, so this isn’t an NFL take. But the 2023-24 Selection Committee officially named the four teams for this year’s College Football Playoff, and everyone is furious, so here we go.

These are the four best teams in college football, according to the committee. That sentence was very carefully written, even though at first brush it looks banal. “Four best teams in college football” is very different from “four most deserving teams in college football.”

The most deserving teams in college football are the teams that had the winningest seasons. Such teams include Washington and Michigan—undefeated power conference champions who made this year’s playoff. But that designation would also include Florida State, the undefeated ACC champion who was left outside the playoff.

Florida State was left out for a simple, obvious, and very painful reason: Their starting quarterback, Jordan Travis, is out for the rest of the season with a devastating leg injury. Travis, who was squarely in the Heisman race, is one of the best quarterbacks in college football. He is far from the only NFL-caliber player on the Seminoles—there are also WRs Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson, edge rusher Jared Verse, running back Trey Benson. But Travis plays the most important position on the field, and without him—or even backup Tate Rodemaker, who missed the ACC title game with a concussion—Florida State is not nearly as good of a team.

Were it the committee’s job to put the four most deserving teams into the playoff, they would have put Florida State in. But that’s not their job—and if that were the objective of the College Football Playoff, there would not be a committee at all. Rather, there would be an algorithm. All undefeated conference champions would get into the playoff, ranked by strength of schedule. Behind them, all one-loss conference champions would get in, ranked by head-to-head record and then by strength of schedule. It would not even be a little bit hard to do this.

Why, then, has college football adopted a closed-door committee to generate a heuristic ranking? Well, for one, it’s preferable that the best teams get in over the most deserving because the playoff games will likely be better. For another, it acknowledges that football always comes back to watching the games and making your own judgments—for as many stats as I love to use, it’s a hard sport for stats to encapsulate. But much, much more important is this: It creates debate.

It is unbelievably fun to be angry about things. Perilously so, in fact. It’s tempting to just hop on Twitter—er, X, I suppose—and do it all the time. The regionality and tribalism of college football have always hinged on that reality: that everyone should have at least some argument for their team and accordingly convince themselves that everyone is out to get them, digging their heels further and further into a rabid fandom the likes of which the NFL barely touches.

So the committee put Alabama, a one-loss conference champion, in above Florida State, a zero-loss conference champion, because Alabama is a better team right now than Florida State by their collective judgment. I’m inclined to agree. You can disagree if you like, and you can yell at me on Twitter as well. You can tell me the committee is intellectually dishonest because a true interpretation of “four best teams” would have almost certainly included Georgia over Texas or Washington—and I can see that point crystal clear. It’s a frustrating system—and that’s the point.

I feel horrible for Florida State fans and players, all of whom deserved a bid for the national championship and lost it entirely on terrible injury luck. There’s nothing I can say to make that better.

But the committee got it right.

(Mostly Real) Awards

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

That Young Man Can Play Award: Arizona Cardinals TE Trey McBride

Tight end is a famously challenging position for young players to learn. Rookie tight ends often end up taking a de facto redshirt year by default. Such was the case in 2022 for McBride, who essentially didn’t play until Zach Ertz got injured, ultimately ending the year with 265 yards on 29 catches.

In the last six weeks of this season, McBride has 41 catches for 440 yards and two scores. No tight end has more receptions; George Kittle has 1 more yard.

McBride has quickly become a favorite target of franchise quarterback Kyler Murray, and with wide receiver Marquise Brown approaching free agency, McBride is establishing himself as the primary target in this offense overall. In Sunday’s 24-10 win over the Steelers, McBride had eight catches for 89 yards and a touchdown, and led the Cardinals with nine targets. Stock dramatically up for the younger player.

Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Detroit Lions TE Sam LaPorta

Everything I just wrote up there about rookie tight ends not producing? Toss that out.

LaPorta has been a godsend for the Detroit Lions. They desperately needed a viable second target to play foil to Amon-Ra St. Brown, and they got more than they bargained for with their second-round pick tight end. After a nine-catch, 140-yard performance in a win over the Saints, LaPorta has 679 yards through 12 games—that total already puts him seventh on the post–Super Bowl leaderboard for rookie tight ends. At 56.6 yards per game, he’s on pace for 962 yards, which would make him only the second rookie in the Super Bowl era to clear 900 receiving yards—Kyle Pitts, who has the record at 1,026 yards, is very much within range.

The Very Much in the Playoff Race Award: The Los Angeles Rams

Don’t look now, but the Rams have a top-10 offense. Sixth in success rate, seventh in EPA per drive. And they’ve been dealing with injuries to key players like Cooper Kupp and Kyren Williams. The obvious things to highlight in this offensive surge are the superlative play of Matthew Stafford, who remains a fearless gunslinger despite his age and injury history, and the emergence of Puka Nacua, who had 139 yards from scrimmage and a score in the Rams’ 36-19 win over the Browns.

One unheralded but critical key to note: the play of the offensive line. The Rams snagged two new starting guards this offseason: rookie Steve Avila in the second round of the draft and Kevin Dotson late in training camp via trade with the Steelers. Both have been lights-out, while longtime backup Alaric Jackson (responsible for the best inexplicable screenshot of Sunday’s slate) is holding his own at left tackle.

The Rams have a proven formula on offense and a young defense that’s getting better by the week. They aren’t built like a true contender, but I’d wager they’re a tough out in January.

The Very Much Not Really in the Playoff Race Award: The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns

I simply cannot take 2023 Joe Flacco seriously. He didn’t even play that poorly—for a while there, the Browns were keeping pace with the Rams!—but the Browns are on their fourth starting quarterback, and it’s a player even the Jets passed on. I do not fear this team.

I also cannot take 2023 Mitchell Trubisky seriously, despite the fact that Kenny Pickett’s ankle injury means I must watch him play the New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football—truly, the most cursed matchup to ever grace that revered slot. The Steelers hope Pickett will be out only a few weeks, but I’m not sure Trubisky is good enough to keep the Steelers alive in this dense AFC playoff race during Pickett’s absence.

With the Steelers and Browns facing dire quarterbacking situations, there’s more room now for some AFC hopefuls. The Texans and Colts, surely. The Broncos as well. Dare I say … the Bills?

Next Ben Stats

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

1: That’s how many punts the Colts actually blocked on Sunday

The national media is lying to you! It’s sensationalizing the numbers! It’d have you believe the Colts blocked two punts against the Titans this Sunday—consecutive punts, in fact. But it is a lie!

Here is their one punt block, courtesy of a wonderful rush by Nick Cross.

As you can see in this replay, Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse actually does make contact with the ball moments before driving it directly into the oncoming Cross. (Cool football nerd moment: This rush was designed based on film study of the Titans’ punt protection this season. Not dumb luck—schemed up!)

The second “punt block,” however, was anything but!

This, my dear friends, is a forced fumble because Stonehouse never made contact with the ball. Cornerback Troy Brown knocks the ball away from Stonehouse on the drop, not the kick. This ball was never punted, but rather fumbled by the Titans and recovered by the Colts.

The media would have you believe we just saw the 30th game with multiple blocked punts for a single team. Ha!

3: That’s how many games NFL teams have lost this year while allowing their opponent to score 10 or fewer points. The Patriots have all three losses.

This is not a Next Ben Stat—rather, it’s a Next Jason Starrett Stat; he really stumbled across a banger.

You want to know the absolute worst bit? Those three losses … are the Patriots’ past three games: 10-6 to the Colts in London, 10-7 to the Tommy DeVito Giants last week, and this 6-0 travesty at home against the Chargers. The Patriots defense has given up 26 points over the past three games. They’re third by success rate and second by EPA per drive in that stretch. And for their effort, nothing: 0-3. A new coaching staff and a new quarterback (perhaps selected with the second pick, which the Patriots now own) almost inarguably await.