Option 1, Week 13’s Burning Question: How does the weekend shake up the MVP race?
I don’t believe the MVP award means all that much. I was thrilled when Lamar Jackson became the first Raven to take home the honor last year, but I would trade it in a heartbeat for playoff wins. And it’s not about who is the “Most Valuable”, but to put it more accurately, it’s the “Most Outstanding.” Still, it’s fun to track, and December is the month when MVPs are won and lost (just ask 2017 Carson Wentz, who should have won the award but lost it by missing the end of the season due to injury).
Entering this weekend, I saw three frontrunners for the award and three on the periphery. Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson rank in the top five of the major passing categories and lead Super Bowl contenders, while Arizona’s Kyler Murray, Tennessee running back Derrick Henry and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger have all had their moments. After Week 13, this is just a two-horse race between two guys that have been there before.
For Henry, Murray and Wilson, Week 13 dealt death blows to their campaigns. Henry’s Titans found themselves down 38-7 at halftime to the Cleveland Browns, a deficit in part due to an uncharacteristic Henry fumble and a modest 60 rushing yards on the day. Considering the rarity of running backs winning MVP, Henry now seems better suited for the OPOY race. Murray followed up a stinker in New England with a two-turnover fourth quarter in a must-win divisional battle. And Wilson, the de-facto MVP after eight weeks, had an ESPN QBR rating of 32.0 and a pair of turnovers in a 17-12 upset loss to the New York Giants. The poor performance continues a concerning trend for Wilson, who has thrown the fourth-most interceptions (11) and does not rank in the top 10 in the ESPN QBR metric. Each player has bigger things to worry about in the season’s final weeks anyway.
That leaves Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. Neither solidified their MVP award with closer-than-expected Week 13 wins, but these are the guys to watch going into December. The two passers have combined for one bad game (Rodgers’ blowout loss to Tampa) and rank highly in every passing metric and near the bottom in turnovers.
This is Late Prime Rodgers vs. Early Prime Patrick Mahomes. Rodgers put up his ninth 3+ passing touchdown performance of the season. Mahomes made more incredible passes and third down conversions. Their teams are gunning for the one seeds. Is there a better Super Bowl matchup out there?
Option 2, Week 13’s Huge Performance: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
The Browns are 9-3. A big reason for that is the NFL’s best rushing attack, as well as a coach who knows how to utilize Cleveland’s prolific duo to great effect. Another reason is one of the league’s easier schedules. But neither reason played a significant role in the Browns’ rout of Tennessee. On Sunday, Baker Mayfield was, for the first time this season, the guy.
In case you missed it, Mayfield threw four touchdown passes in the first half against a Mike Vrabel-coached Tennessee defense in Nashville. For context, Mayfield has thrown for more than two touchdowns in an entire game just twice this season, and that includes yesterday. Two of them were brilliant playcalls (I mean, Mayfield didn’t exactly throw offensive lineman Kendall Lamm open). But all four were on point throws and turned what promised to be the Game of the Week into the early slot’s most lopsided affair.
I don’t want to detract from Mayfield’s performance. He was the best performer of the week, after all. But next week’s game against Baltimore will be his toughest test yet. If you can remember back to Week 1, the Ravens limited the Browns’ offense to just six points, their lowest total of the season. But more interestingly, the Baltimore defense is one of the most blitz-heavy units in the league. Mayfield did his damage on Sunday against low-pressure looks from the Titans and has historically struggled against significant pressure. A win over Baltimore on Monday Night Football could signal that he’s turned a corner and given a new dimension to one of the NFL’s most intimidating offenses.
Option 3, Week 13’s Crucial Decision: Jets Blitz on a Las Vegas Hail Mary Attempt
Miami-Arizona is the game of the year so far, but the Jets-Raiders has to be the season’s best finish. Even after a blowout to Atlanta a week earlier, the Raiders entered their game as heavy favorites against the 0-11 New York Jets. So to find the Jets winning in the fourth quarter was an absolute surprise, and even more so, when the Jets effectively won the game by forcing a late turnover on downs. But then the biggest surprise of all — the Jets found a worse coach than Adam Gase. And on their own staff!
Two things about me. First, I am pretty lenient toward NFL head coaches. Who am I, an armchair quarterback, to tear down guys who have been in the profession for five decades? I was a big Jason Garrett guy in Dallas, and while I understood that his loss of the locker room meant a firing was imminent, I still think he accomplished a lot. I’ve been lobbying against Matt Patricia and Bill O’Brien, but that’s just because their rosters had so much potential and there was no hope for improvement (both were fired last week).
However, I have been 100 percent against Gregg Williams, the New York Jets’ defensive coordinator, since the Bountygate scandal in New Orleans. Williams was suspended indefinitely as the ringleader of the pay-for-hits scheme in New Orleans, yet has gotten job after job and even had a stint as the Browns’ head coach. Through all his stops, Williams has learned nothing and was even targeting Broncos players at the end of a TNF loss just to attack and hurt them — the penalties bear it out. And he’s no Wade Phillips either. Name the last elite Gregg Williams defense. I know the 2020 Jets aren’t one of them.
Here’s the second thing about me. I believe that any play call has some degree of justification. Any play call can catch the other team off guard if executed well just by virtue of being a surprise. Seattle could have believed that a pass from the one yard line would be a quick score that would go against New England’s expectations, for example.
That brings me to the decisive play of the Raiders-Jets game. The Jets punted the ball away after a three-and-out, allowing Derek Carr one more chance at glory. I had already turned the game off, certain that the turnover on downs was Vegas’s’ doom. In the Raiders’ last gasp attempt, Williams dialed a heavy blitz. Carr stepped up in the pocket, found rookie Henry Ruggs on a stop and go route, and scored the go-ahead touchdown to keep the Jets winless.
The play call was an abomination. Sure, maybe Williams thought it would catch the Jets off guard, and if Carr didn’t step up in the pocket and was flustered, maybe that’s the end of the game. But going into prevent defense makes the chance that any receiver can get the ball near the end zone infinitesimally small — there’s no downside. And putting your corner in man coverage with no help, in this case Jets corner Lamar Jackson, is a recipe for disaster. I ran the exact same stop and go play on my brother Nate in Madden 19 on Saturday, and when his safety didn’t move over, I found DeAndre Hopkins for a 75-yard touchdown. The tragedy in it all is that the Jets played well enough to win the game, only for one guy, Gregg Williams, to laugh in their face and send in an unjustifiable call.
Monday morning, the Jets announced that they fired Gregg Williams. About time.
Checkdown: Interim coaches rise to the challenge
Speaking of Jets coaches, Adam Gase is closer than anyone to getting the boot. But maybe the Jets are pressing pause on his firing because of a counterintuitive trend — interim coaches are actually winning, and the Jets seem intent on winning the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes.
After firing coach Matt Patricia after Thanksgiving, the Lions won a come-from-behind game against the Bears with interim coach Darrell Bevell at the helm. Bevell’s Game 1 win wasn’t the first success an interim coach has found. Raheem Morris is 4-3 with the Atlanta Falcons, while Romeo Crennel is 4-4 with Houston. That may not seem earth-shattering, but these teams couldn’t win a game with coaches that had been there for multiple seasons and multiple playoff berths, then suddenly found success with coaches who hadn’t led a team in years.
These interim coaches deserve all the credit in the world for turning around their locker rooms and teams, though a playoff berth is a tall order for any of the three. But this reflects more on the coaches who deservedly got fired after way too many opportunities and squandered talent. The trend underscores the importance of locker room morale and culture, and sometimes it can take a change at the top to set that change off. And to my point about optimism — Houston couldn’t harbor any serious beliefs that they could turn it around. Detroit didn’t have any hope in the Matt Patricia era. Atlanta already knew the script with Dan Quinn. The greatest sin of these coaches’ overextended stays was that there was no light at the end of the tunnel for fans and players to hold onto.
I don’t foresee any other coaching changes for the rest of this season, but this should serve as a lesson going forward for NFL owners that the underperformance of guys on the field aren’t always reflective of the players’ talent, but sometimes coaches who have stuck around for too long.
Game Notes: It’s almost time for that wretched, horrible inter-conference game that pops up on the schedule every four years. I’m talking about Cowboys-Ravens, the battle between my two favorite teams. This year, I think it’s in the best interest of both teams for the Ravens to win, though the game will be surreal as always…The Saints are 8-0 without Drew Brees over the past couple seasons. Give credit to GM Mickey Loomis for stocking the New Orleans roster with competent Brees understudies, but also for building a team that can stand the test of time and injury. Still, Brees might be the only way the Saints can survive the NFC in the playoffs…Tyreek Hill’s backflip into the end zone was disrespectful. In a good way…Deshaun Watson deserves MVP buzz, even though that’s not what the award has evolved to become. If Houston brings in the right guys to turn the ship around, Watson will be absolutely electric…Can’t have a much worse home showing than losing 45-0 to the Patriots. Anthony Lynn is a great guy and I hope he gets another chance with a team that doesn’t have a cursed locker room, but Lynn’s days with the Chargers are nearing their end. Does this hurt Herbie’s chances at Rookie of the Year? He’ll have a couple chances to get back on track…My number one NFL take — Patrick Mahomes is must-watch TV. It isn’t counterintuitive or controversial, but it’s essential. You can’t miss this guy play. Something awesome always happens….The Giants are in the driver’s seat of the NFC East with Colt McCoy at quarterback. Fittingly, if they won, they’ll get the hats that say “2020 NFC East Division Champs”. It’s so fitting that I might have to cop that hat.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Dolphins-Bengals, Raiders-Jets, Texans-Colts, Chargers-Patriots, Packers-Eagles
Best Sunday: Cleveland Browns — As the great Patrick Andres noted, the first time the Browns have had a winning record since we were in first grade. An emphatic way to get there, too.
Worst Sunday: Chicago Bears — One Windy City football team is ballin’ out. It’s not the NFL one.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: Will play Tuesday (!) against Dallas.
The Skinny: See above.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: Bye Week
The Skinny: See above.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 21-39, 173 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, 80.4 passer rating, 15 yards rushing, 1 lost fumble, lost 28-38 to Los Angeles Rams
The Skinny: Almost halfway through the Cards-Rams NFC West battle, these were the stat lines of the two quarterbacks, Arizona’s Kyler Murray and Los Angeles’s Jared Goff.
Set aside a 59-yard touchdown on an utterly broken coverage and Murray has seven incompletions in seven attempts, while in that timespan Goff has nearly 20 completions on 25 attempts. The Rams proved to be a much better football team in battering the Cardinals for the seventh straight matchup, but the gulf (excuse the pun) between the quarterbacks was alarmingly wide.
This has been nothing new for Murray, once an ascendent MVP candidate. Arizona has lost its last three and a lot of the burden falls on their sophomore quarterback. Sunday’s game marked the fourth game that Murray’s ESPN QBR dropped below 55 (out of 100) and the second straight. Murray had his moments, but he also suffered his worst quarter of the season when it mattered most.
Give credit to the Rams for making Murray feel uncomfortable. Los Angeles had a constant pass rush in Murray’s face and limited him to just 15 yards on the ground. For context, Murray is 0-11-1 in his career when he rushes five times or fewer and 0-4 this season. Murray struggled to challenge Los Angeles’ secondary as well — touchdown aside, he averaged 3 yards per attempt. He found DeAndre Hopkins often, but D-Hop’s eight catches garnered just 52 yards.
The fourth quarter was when a game that teetered on the edge turned into a blowout. Murray seemed poised to lead yet another game-winning drive, but poor ball security on a play action rollout resulted in a fumble that gave the Rams the ball just a couple first downs from the end zone. Los Angeles didn’t capitalize with points but succeeded in taking precious time off the clock. Then Murray made his most inexcusable mistake of the day, an out route throw that Ram Troy Hill stepped in front of and took back for the game-sealing touchdown.
The NFC West title is now out of the picture for Arizona, who just a couple weeks ago were the story of the league. But a Wild Card bid might be slipping out too with Minnesota reentering the playoff picture, and games against the Niners and Rams in the last two weeks of the season loom large. Arizona has to hope that the prolific Murray of the NFL’s first half returns before the clock runs out on their season.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: Will play Monday vs. San Francisco.
The Skinny: See above.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 26-39, 296 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 97.8 passer rating, 19-7 win over Cincinnati
The Skinny: Tua made his return to action after sitting out of the Dolphins’ decisive win over the Jets. The Bengals, now without Joe Burrow, didn’t pose a significant test for the playoff hopefuls from Miami, but the 19-7 win was a step forward as the Fins prepare for the final push.
Considering his rough outing against Denver and his rehab in between starts, Tagovailia’s stats were very impressive — season-highs in passing yards, completion percentage and completions and a turnover-free day under center. In a high volume role, Tagovailoa made all the difficult throws, from rollouts to run-pass options to deep throws (Jakeem Grant dropped a breathtaking 50-yarder) to 50-50 jump balls, and has yet to throw an interception on the season. Situationally, Tagovailoa didn’t panic when faced with an early deficit or collapsing pockets and his crisp passing helped push the Dolphins into field goal range in the final seconds of the first half. The next drive, Tua was nearly perfect and gave Miami a lead they would not lose.
No matter the start, a win like this does volumes for a rookie quarterback. Miami should be confident going into the stretch run with a defense that has come together, a rushing attack that has found contributors from all sorts of places and a quarterback who is only nearing his potential.