Thanksgiving is now in the rear-view mirror and our calendars will flip over to December this week. Somehow, that makes many of the games played on Sunday – and those on the schedule the rest of the way – feel bigger, more important and packed with jeopardy.
The race to the Super Bowl remains as wide open as ever. Some are beginning to show cracks and fall away. I'm talking to you, New Orleans. But others are starting to wake from hibernation. Hello, San Francisco!
One team that tends to find the gas pedal after Thanksgiving is the New England Patriots. But they've been hammering down the motorway for quite a few weeks now. Sunday's 36-13 victory over an injury-ravaged Tennessee Titans team was New England's sixth in a row.
During that run, the Patriots have outscored their opponents by 211 points to 63. This will come as no surprise, but New England are so well coached! Spoiler alert!
Bill Belichick has been injecting football fundamentals into the veins of his players for years and this current crop are reaping the rewards. I mean this in a good way and not as the kind of knock that has been levelled at previous Patriots teams… they are like robots, taking all emotion out of the game and focusing solely on executing at a high level.
Let me give you an example.
It's early in the second half and Tennessee have the ball down by six having already scored on a 68-yard run by Dontrell Hilliard just before the break. D'Onta Foreman explodes through a huge hole on the left side and runs 30 yards downfield.
I've seen those kind of explosive runs go from being a 30-yard gain to a 70-yard touchdown as the defenders drop their heads at giving up a big play. Not the Patriots. The excellent cornerback, J.C. Jackson, came sprinting from the other side of the field, punched the ball loose in textbook fashion and fellow defensive back Jalen Mills recovered near the sideline.
The Titans never scored again and New England eased away in the second half with solid fundamentals and very good play-calling at the heart of another big win which has many asking, quite fairly, if they are the best team in the AFC now?
The defense did give up 270 on the ground but, in key situations, they made the plays that were called to be made, including an endzone interception from the aforementioned Jackson that snuffed out any hopes of a Tennessee comeback.
On offense, this was like the Patriots of old – a team that can morph from one iteration to another from week to week. The chameleons of the NFL have relied on a strong rushing attack in recent weeks, but the ground game produced a modest 105 yards on 24 carries on Sunday. Not a problem. The Patriots put more on Mac Jones' plate and, for the most part, the rookie responded well by throwing for 310 yards and two touchdowns.
There is so much football to be played between now and the middle of February and, as I mentioned at the top of this column, the race to Super Bowl 56 is as wide open as we have seen in recent NFL history. All that said, if anyone wants to even drop the merest hint of a Super Bowl battle between Bill Belichick's New England Patriots and Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you can sign me up for that right here, right now!
The San Francisco 49ers… Let's not go to sleep on a San Francisco 49ers team that has now won three in a row after a 2-4 start to the season. The 49ers are rolling on offense now, scoring 31 in a win over the Los Angeles Rams, 30 in victory over Jacksonville and 34 during Sunday's success against the Minnesota Vikings. The creativity and versatility of head coach Kyle Shanahan's play-calling is what is most notable to me. In victory over the Rams, Deebo Samuel caught five passes for 97 yards and one touchdown. That's all perfectly normal given his dominant start to this season that had some of his records mentioned in the same breath as the great Jerry Rice. But in that same game, Samuel carried the ball five times for 36 yards and a score. And in the following two contests, Samuel has morphed into a brand-new weapon for Shanahan. He has just two catches for 27 yards but has rushed 14 times for 145 yards and three scores. So in this winning run, Samuel has seven catches for 124 yards and one touchdown, while adding 19 runs for 181 yards and four touchdowns. I find that to be noteworthy and impressive.
Tua Tagovailoa… The Miami Dolphins are another of those teams waking up after a slow start. Brian Flores' men made a terrible 1-7 start to the season, but they have now won four in a row; capped by Sunday's 33-10 thrashing of the Carolina Panthers. In the past two weeks, Miami have leant on a strong defense and not asked Tua Tagovailoa to do too much. And he has responded with a couple of the best performances of his young career, shredding defenses with a quick passing attack. Against the New York Jets in Week 11, Tua went 27 of 33 for 273 yards, two touchdowns and a rating of 108.7. On Sunday, he hit on 27 of 31 for 230 yards, one touchdown and a rating of 108.3. The deep ball is not the best part of Tua's game but he can get the ball out of his hands sharply and, on the evidence presented by the last two weeks, accurately. Of course, it helps when you have a speedy run-after-the-catch threat like Jaylen Waddle, who is on pace for more than 100 catches in his rookie season. Miami have both New York teams either side of their bye so could easily be 7-7 by Christmas. They play the banged-up New Orleans Saints on December 27 and a win there sets up a potential playoff run if tough opponents in Tennessee and New England can be overcome. The Dolphins are still alive in December and that did not seem likely a few weeks ago.
Joe Mixon… Opponents of the Cincinnati Bengals have made a strong effort to reduce the effectiveness of rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in recent weeks. The first-year star shot out of the starting gates in 2021 but has now been held under 50 receiving yards in four straight games after going three for 39 yards during Sunday's 41-10 embarrassment of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It didn't matter, though, because the Bengals are currently being powered by one of the league's best running backs in Joe Mixon. He rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, marking his eighth straight game with a touchdown. The Bengals have won two in a row since their bye week and look good for the playoffs with a 7-4 record. Mixon is an every-week star, the threat of Joe Burrow to Chase is still there and the defense is playing very well indeed.
Cam Newton… Cam provided a jolt off the bench in leading Carolina to victory against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10. But he has lost his two starts at quarterback and the Panthers have now been defeated in seven of their last nine after a 3-0 opening to the year. To be fair to Cam, he was pretty decent against the Washington Football Team in Week 11. He was downright awful in Miami on Sunday, completing just five of 21 passes for 92 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating of 5.8 was obviously a career low. His return to Carolina followed by the "I'm back" screaming in the end zone in Arizona was a nice story, for sure. But you have to wonder if Sunday showed us why Cam was on the streets for weeks and weeks after being cut by New England? Let's see how this plays out but Cam and the entire Panthers team need to respond to a terrible day in Florida.
The Los Angeles Rams… Sunday's 36-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field means the Los Angeles Rams have now lost three in a row. In fact, much-heralded new signings Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. have yet to experience victory in a Rams uniform. I'll get to OBJ's side of the ball in a second, but let's start with a defense that is struggling to slow down opposing offenses. It was all too comfortable for Aaron Rodgers as he threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns on a broken toe. The Rams have now given up 95 points in their three successive losses, but some of that is on quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has thrown a pick six in each of his last three games. That's Matt Schaub territory! Stafford is reportedly nursing elbow and back injuries and it showed in Green Bay. He ended up with 302 yards and three touchdowns as the Rams chased the game, but watch the film. Stafford was off on so many of his throws and must re-discover his early-season form if LA are to get back into the Super Bowl conversation.
The Dallas Cowboys… They will be fine in the NFC East because the rest of that division is pretty poor, but the Dallas Cowboys may be slipping down the conference rankings when it comes to the NFC playoffs. The Cowboys have now lost three of their last four and need offensive stars back in the form of CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. Dak Prescott also needs to be more consistent. He was brilliant for large stretches of Thanksgiving Day, but his overtime miss of Noah Brown on third down was deadly. It was a simple completion for what would have been a first down. Instead, Dallas punted and never saw the ball again in a 36-33 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Fast Five…
- I thought Pittsburgh's dismal display against Cincinnati showed, beyond doubt, that fresh blood is required at quarterback in 2021. Ben Roethlisberger should not have returned this season as he looked done after that playoff loss to Cleveland last season.
- Leonard Fournette reminded us there is more to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than Tom Brady as he scored four touchdowns in a 38-31 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Fournette gained 131 yards from scrimmage and was the key man, but also relevant on Sunday was a fit-again Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven for 123 yards.
- The Cleveland Browns are experiencing a rocky portion of their season. Sunday's 16-10 loss in Baltimore means the Browns have now gone 2-3 in the last five weeks. How can you lose a game where the opposing quarterback throws four interceptions? When your own quarterback, Baker Mayfield, leads just one touchdown drive. That is your answer.
- Hats off to Vic Fangio and the defense of the Denver Broncos. They were outstanding in Sunday's 28-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers that keeps the AFC West picture very cloudy indeed. The Broncos intercepted Justin Herbert twice through outstanding rookie Patrick Surtain II, who ran one back for a touchdown. They also sacked Herbert three times and pressured him on many more occasions. There was also some much-needed physicality from Teddy Bridgewater on the game's opening touchdown. The Broncos are alive at 6-5 and play Kansas City on Sunday Night Football in Week 13.
- Mason Crosby is becoming a real problem for the Green Bay Packers and the veteran kicker who is normally so reliable is going to cost them a game sooner or later. If it's later, it could be a Super Bowl-destroying playoff loss. Crosby missed his NFL-high ninth field goal on Sunday.
Fact of the Week
Through Week 12, there are 12 teams in the AFC who have records at .500 or above. The only other season where there were that many teams with that kind of record this late into the year was in 2002. Somewhat strangely given that things feel just as wide open in the NFC, that conference boasts just six teams at .500 or better. Tied for the fewest in one conference this late into the year in the past six seasons.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…
From Mark McKeirnan (@markmckeirnan) Tackling A.J. Dillon in a snowy Lambeau is comparable to…_ that scene in The Lion King where Mufasa gets trampled by the pack of wildebeest, just with the added misery of some snow and freezing weather added in for good measure. The growth of Dillon has really given the Packers a shot in the arm at the right time of the year. No one is going to want to hit a man that big and powerful now that the weather has turned across America. The one-two punch of Dillon and Aaron Jones is going to be a big factor in Green Bay's Super Bowl challenge.
From Mark Jones (@Markrpj) If Bill Belichick goes deep into the playoffs with this Patriots team it will be… one of his finest achievements, but also not a complete surprise given how well they have played in recent weeks. The Patriots are complete from top to bottom… the coaching is elite, the rookie quarterback is growing, the receiving targets stepping up, the running game is reliable, the offensive line dominant and the defense is about as good as there is in the league right now. Why not the Patriots.
From Neil P (@generichash) The team that will surprise everyone by making the playoffs is… the 5-6 Minnesota Vikings or the 5-7 Miami Dolphins. I've already spoken about the softer games coming up on Miami's schedule that could allow them to climb back into the AFC race. The Vikings also have some winnable games coming up in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago (twice). Minnesota are good enough to score 30 every week and we know they have been involved in wild games all year long. I don't think they are about to drift out of the playoff race.
I do think one teams that lost on Sunday is going to be fine. The Tennessee Titans are so banged up at the moment, but they hung around for long periods of Sunday's loss to New England and left a lot of points on the field due to mistakes. If they can get A.J. Brown and Julio Jones back at receiver and who knows, maybe Derrick Henry at running back then this team can still make some playoff noise in January. I also think the Indianapolis Colts are still going to feature down the stretch. They've shown me enough in recent weeks, even in Sunday's loss to Tampa.