The Debrief, Week 13: Cowboys among against-the-grain winners

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 13 to Week 14.

It took all of 10 days for the NFL to transition from the game that changed football forever to the Cowboys' defense stealing the Saints' lunch money. The Thursday night stunner was an appetizer for a Week 13 slate with games of all shapes and sizes, many won by teams like the Ravens that are choosing to zig while the rest of the league zags.

Baltimore won by holding Matt Ryan's offense to 131 total yards, the most humbling moment yet in a season full of them for the Falcons. The Colts' five-game winning streak ended in a 6-0 defeat, a type of score straight out of the 1970s. The Patriots held the Vikings to 10 points in a December Foxborough game straight out of 2003, complete with two fullback dives for touchdowns to end the team's red-zone slump.

The Cowboys' game plan to stop the Saints was disarmingly fundamental. They tackled in space, they stayed in their gaps and they flew to the ball, with Leighton Vander Esch stringing out play after play to the sideline. They limited yards after the catch.

The excellent team defense set the tone for the week. The average points scored per game was 42.75 following the Eagles' win on Monday night, far lower than the next-lowest frame of the season (the average was 45.19 in Week 3). This wasn't about the weather, either. The most memorable defensive performances came in domes (Cowboys and Rams) or sunny weather (Bills and Jaguars).

All across the league, surging teams like the Seahawks, Texans and Broncos are finding success by playing a different brand of football than the NFL's elite teams, with much of the foundation laid around balanced offenses and strong situational defense. Even the Cardinals joined the fun, holding the Packers to 17 points in Green Bay, costing Mike McCarthy his job.

I point this all out not to say that all defense matters, but to note that the NFL always allows room for successful teams to employ different styles simultaneously. The '85 Bears once coexisted with Joe Montana's 49ers; the Greatest Show on Turf directly preceded the greatest defense of this century, the '00 Ravens.

The arc of the league bends toward the passing game, but that doesn't mean it's the right approach for the 2018 Ravens or that the Patriots' downshift on offense necessarily knocks them out of title contention.

December Football is different primarily because every month is different, and any team unable to adjust on the fly will get left behind. Nothing stays static in the NFL for long, and anyone who claims to know what's coming next should be treated with deep suspicion.

Before getting to the latest update to MVP Watch, let's hit a few other big takeaways from Week 13.

What the Chargers' win meant for the AFC

The Cowboys' defensive performance against the Saints was the most stunning of the season and could rearrange home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. The Chargers' stirring comeback in Pittsburgh, however, was the most significant result of Week 13. Here's how I see the fallout from the game:

1) The Steelers are more likely to be a wild-card team than earn a playoff bye. Mike Tomlin's crew is a game and a half behind the Patriots and Texans, which is a significant deficit with only four games remaining. They need to win out -- including victories over New England and in New Orleans -- and likely need too much help to get a bye. There's a realistic scenario that the Steelers beat the Patriots in Week 15 but still finish behind them in the AFC standings.

Playoff byes don't guarantee anything, as the Steelers learned a year ago against Jacksonville. But the prospect of the Steelers possibly losing the AFC North to the Ravens, who only trail by half a game, has to concern a Pittsburgh club that appeared to be rounding into form a few weeks ago. The team has averaged 55 rushing yards per game over the last three weeks, a number that isn't likely to improve following James Conner's injury.

2) It made the Chargers-Chiefs game in Week 15 more meaningful. The Chargers host the Bengals this week before traveling to Arrowhead Stadium for a tasty "Thursday Night Football" season finale in Week 15. Win both those games and the Chargers have a legitimate chance to steal the AFC West and a potential playoff bye.

3) It wouldn't have happened in other Chargers seasons. This Chargers team needed a signature win, a result that true Philip Rivers believers could point to as proof this season was different. It's not that old Chargers teams never got a break, like when Rivers' touchdown pass to Keenan Allen bounced off two Steelers defenders. Old Chargers teams wouldn't have taken advantage of said breaks.

The Chargers' offense had no margin for error in the second half. They needed two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, and then they needed to drain four minutes off the clock before a game-winning field goal. They got it all done, with the help of enough defensive plays from Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Desmond King and Adrian Phillips.

The Chiefs were still the Chiefs, on the field

The quotes in the Chiefs' locker room after Sunday's win over the Raiders were not typical, but nothing about this last week for the Chiefs has been. Following the release of a video showing Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman during an altercation in February and Hunt's subsequent release by the team, it's become obvious that nothing about this Chiefs season will quite be the same. (Hunt cleared waivers on Monday after the NFL placed him on the Reserve/Commissioner Exempt List.)

The sentimental journey of Andy Reid trying to finally win a Super Bowl and Patrick Mahomes' MVP race continues, but it's now a different journey. The Chiefs' first rushing attempt Sunday in Oakland was given to Tyreek Hill, with Spencer Ware and Damien Williams splitting the halfback snaps. The Chiefs are bringing back veteran Charcandrick West (who had been with the team from 2014 until August, when he was cut) to help, but an offense that was already pass-heavy is only going to be more reliant on Mahomes' wild throws and Reid's game plans.

The Chiefs had no issues Sunday, with 174 rushing yards supporting a 40-point effort in Oakland. This week's clash against the Ravens will provide a better test for how Kansas City's offense will evolve after releasing Hunt. I believe the offense will still excel. A defense that gave up scores on six of the Raiders' last seven possessions remains the far bigger concern on the field than the offense, while the organization handles the aftershocks of such a disappointing chapter in team history off the field.

Cam's shoulder is a major concern for Ron Rivera

The walls are closing in on Panthers coach Ron Rivera, just a month after his team, now 6-6, was riding high at 6-2. He fired two assistant coaches on defense Monday (defensive line coach Brady Hoke and cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura) and is taking over the defensive play-calling going forward after the team's latest loss, to the Bucs.

Those rare in-season position-coach firings indicate that Rivera is hearing heat from his bosses. New owners usually want to hire their own coaches, and Rivera admitted as far back as the NFL Scouting Combine that he would be under "more pressure" this season because of the then-impending change in ownership in Carolina, with David Tepper buying the team from Jerry Richardson in May.

The timing of the coaching changes was curious coming off a game where Cam Newton was picked off four times, failing on four separate occasions to engineer a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter against the Bucs. But the changes make sense in the context of the entire season in Carolina, where Rivera's defense has failed to approach the high standard set in seasons past.

Newton's surgically repaired shoulder could be an even bigger issue than the defense. He was limited in practice last week on Wednesday and Thursday, then had to be taken out of the game late Sunday for Taylor Heinicke to attempt a final Hail Mary. Newton's fling down the field on the previous play fell about 15 yards short of the end zone. Stalwart tight end Greg Olsen had previously left the game with a season-ending foot injury.

When he's right, Newton has one of the strongest arms in the league. And his injury is tough to evaluate, because he also made a number of excellent throws into tight windows during Sunday's loss. But a few passes came out of Newton's hand funny, and the appearance of Heinicke was a strong tell that Newton isn't right. Rivera has shown terrific survival skills during eight seasons in Carolina, but he may only have a few weeks left to figure things out.

Patriots coaches have taken center stage

Bill Belichick was positively beaming after Sunday's win over the Vikings, praising his defensive coaches, starting with coordinator Brian Flores for cooking up a scheme that flummoxed Kirk Cousins. Since the team's Week 11 bye, the Patriots have been extremely creative with their defensive play-calling, with delayed blitzes coming from surprising places and as few as one player lined up as a down lineman before the snap. These game plans require cohesion and communication to implement, areas where the Patriots' defense has improved greatly throughout the season.

Flores appeared to Jedi-mind-trick Cousins into taking too many checkdown passes, while Jason McCourty and Stephon Gilmore did an excellent job on Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen on the outside. This creative approach is out of step with how the Patriots have coached their defense in recent years, and it's made possible by the presence of a veteran secondary they can trust.

The aggressive defensive approach also fits with an offensive style that is leaning on the team's running backs and interior offensive linemen. Belichick appears to have decided that a close-to-the-vest style suits this year's squad, and the Patriots have won eight of nine games without a top-five offense. The return of Rex Burkhead on Sunday allows the team to rotate Sony Michael, James White and Burkhead as the fulcrum of an offense short on big plays to the outside.

This is not the best Patriots team of the decade, but it is starting to follow familiar Patriots patterns of closing out games and the season, with the ever-tinkering coaching staff providing crucial advantages each week.

This week's three most surprising developments from the playoff picture

1) With four weeks left in the season, ESPN's FPI gives the Seahawks a 91.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. Football Outsiders puts them at 90 percent. The Panthers' struggles, along with the mediocrity of the NFC North, has provided Pete Carroll a clear path to the NFC's fifth seed.

2. The Colts' loss in Jacksonville was a killer. The AFC South race is all but over with four weeks left, and the Colts have a tougher path to the No. 6 seed than Baltimore or Denver.

3. The Bucs may need to be added to the "In the Hunt" graphic at 5-7 after two straight wins that included lively defensive-line play. A rough schedule ahead should kill their playoff chances quickly, though.

MVP watch

1) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: Mahomes' performance in Oakland was his season writ small. You could nitpick his missed throws early, or you could embrace the ridiculous fireworks show he put on after that, featuring seven or eight throws no one else can make.

2) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: One poor start should not damage Brees' candidacy. I see Brees and Mahomes as co-favorites entering the final quarter of the season, with the strongest closing kick likely to clinch the award.

3) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: Saying that Donald is a legitimate MVP candidate is the trendy hot take this week. Donald has been in the top three or four names on this list for weeks, and a few more game-changing plays could give him a realistic chance to be the first defensive player to win the award since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

4) Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers: It's happening. The late-career run for a title is accompanied by overdue recognition. Jump on the bandwagon before it's too late.

5) Khalil Mack, LB, Chicago Bears: There is a crazy world in which Donald could win MVP while Mack wins Defensive Player of the Year, but we do not live in that world.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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