Every Wednesday, Dan Hanzus combs through the expert findings of the NFL Media Research Department to share nuggets (also known as "nugs") that fascinate, frighten or change him on a fundamental level. This is the Week 12 edition of High-Flying Adventures In The Research Notes.
HOW ABOUT THEM COWBOYS? SERIOUSLY, HOW ABOUT THEM? THEY OK?
A bum hamstring will keep Lee sidelined again this week, but Smith is on track to return to his role as Dak Prescott's blindside protector. This is huge seeing how badly Prescott has struggled without his big man.
On the latest Around The NFL Podcast, we talked about how this amounts to a Loser Goes Home Match for both teams at Jerrahworld. I think Prescott is simply too good to lay another egg given the stakes -- especially in his own building. The return of Smith and a spry Alfred Morris points to a Big D bounceback performance.
If I'm wrong, I'll delete this file and disappear to South America. Who's got two thumbs and no accountability? THIS GUY.
TOM BRADY AND THE PATRIOTS ARE THE SAME AS THEY EVER WERE
Let's take a moment to pour one out for sad Matt Patricia GIFs. You remember those, right? Back when the Pats were getting sliced up on defense and actual smart football people were predicting the downfall of a dynasty New England?
Ooooh, withdrawn. Pensive.
Dark. Troubled. Vexed.
Fast forward to the present and Patricia and Bill Belichick seem to have things figured out. Since Week 6, the Pats have allowed just 12.5 points per game. That's second in the NFL, trailing only the Jaguars, a defense on a historically productive pace.
Sure, the Pats remain last in total defense, but that really just goes to show how flawed that stat really is. New England has surrendered an average of 402 yards per game, but that number has been inflated by their early struggles and glorious garbage time in blowouts. It doesn't accurately reflect the present state of the team. By the way, the 2011 Patriots and Packers are the only teams to allow 400 yards per game and make the playoffs. Rodgers and the Packers hoisted the Lombardi that season.
One last thought here: Tom Brady is, once again, playing impossibly well (he's thrown 50 touchdowns and four interceptions dating back to last season). Brady's greatness means that New England's D really only has to play at an average level for the Patriots to win pretty much every week. In September, that seemed like a massive ask. As we head toward December, the unit has surpassed "average" and is settling into "actually pretty good."
And that's pretty bad for the rest of the NFL.
RUSSELL WILSON FOR MVP?
The Seahawks lost Monday night to the Falcons because their kicker is cursed by the Football Gods and their head coach lost his damn mind in several key situations. Russell Wilson wasn't perfect, but he was as magical as ever, just about single-handedly bringing Seattle back in a game it had no business winning.
The aforementioned Brady is the deserved favorite for MVP this season, and Carson Wentz is probably the most logical challenger in the race. But Wilson is the embodiment of the old debate, "Yeah, but who is the most valuable player to their team?" How many games do the Seahawks win without Wilson? (Probably about the same number of games the Packers will end up winning without Aaron Rodgers.) Call me crazy, but I'd think the Patriots would still be in playoff contention without Brady.
Which is not a shot at Brady, more a nod to the brilliance of Belichick, who already pulled off an 11-5 season without TB12 in 2008. Wilson is the best passer and best rusher for Seattle. If he drags a Seahawks team missing most of the Legion of Boom to the postseason, how could he not be in serious consideration?
Again, Brady is the heavy favorite for a reason. But Wilson represents my dark horse.
LE'VEON BELL IS NOT HAVING THE SEASON ANYONE EXPECTED
When you watch the Steelers, you see a handful of plays every week that only Bell could pull off. The vision, the patience, that uncanny sliver that turns three yards into eight and eight into 30. We're not seeing that nearly as much this year. The question: Is that on Bell? The scheme? The line? Or is it all ultimately much ado about nothing? If Bell puts together a few chunk runs, that average moves over 4.0 and nobody brings it up again.
I see it playing out that way.
AND NOW THE GAME THAT'S HERE TO SAVE WEEK 12
Consider this a huge test for the Rams, who didn't exactly get exposed last week against the Vikings, but doubters now have some ammunition after the Rams were unable to keep up their onslaught on the road against a top tier team. If the Rams' high-scoring offense flatlines again at home against the Saints, it will be perfectly fair to wonder whether Los Angeles is really at the level of the other NFC titans. Oooh, intrigue!