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Reporters' Notebook

Pats-Texans X-factor; 49ers' biggest test; Rashaad Penny's diet

As we turn toward Week 13 of the 2019 NFL season,'s network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- The X-factor in Sunday night's enticing Patriots-Texans bout.

-- San Francisco's spectacular defense faces its biggest test yet.

-- The key to Rashaad Penny's breakout game.

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NFL: Could Carli Lloyd help league's kicking woes? A full-page ad appeared in the Thanksgiving edition of the Dallas Morning News, with the headline "Hey Dallas, Do you Sweat a Playoff Run?" The ad, featuring soccer star Carli Lloyd, pokes at the Cowboys' current state. The ad also raises the bigger issue of whether women -- particularly Lloyd, who made the gold medal-winning kicks for the United States team in two Summer Olympics -- could play in the NFL.

Lloyd has expressed an interest in trying out for NFL teams and, given the results across the league so far this season, there are plenty of organizations that could use help. Kickers are having a historically poor season. Entering Week 13, kickers have made just 80 percent of field goals (the Cowboys and Patriots combined to miss three field goals in wind and rain last Sunday), which is the lowest success rate since 2003. That's 136 missed field goals, exactly half on attempts between 40 and 49 yards. Even more startling: Kickers have successfully made just 93.4 percent of extra points, the worst it has been since 1979 -- 40 years ago. (Granted, we're only in Year 5 of the lengthened XP distance.)

Week 13 didn't start out any better for kickers, with two of the Thanksgiving games marred by shoddy kicking. The Bills beat the Cowboys despite missing an extra point and a field goal, while the Cowboys missed two field goals. The Falcons missed an extra point and a field goal in their loss to the Saints.

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Fuller factor looms large vs. New England.DeAndre Hopkins is arguably the best wide receiver in football, but it's his running mate who could be the difference for the Texans against the Patriotson Sunday night.

Houston is 1-10 all-time against New England, and Deshaun Watson is 0-2 in his career versus the AFC East powerhouse. But in both those games, Watson didn't have Will Fuller, who missed each bout because of injury. Houston's offense is an entirely different animal with Fuller on the field. We saw this last week on *Thursday Night Football*, when Houston took over first place in the AFC South behind Fuller's seven catches for 140 yards.

Hopkins has told me multiple times how different defenses play when Fuller is on the field. He can see it pre-snap and within his route. There is usually more room for him to work the middle of the field because Fuller's speed forces teams to respect the deep ball. When Fuller is on the field, Watson throws the deep ball (20-plus air yards) more frequently, at a higher completion percentage and with a passer rating of 97.5. Compare that to his deep-ball rating of 67.9 when playing without Fuller.

Bill Belichick has made it clear this week that he himself is concerned about Watson's ability to go deep.

"Does a great job on the deep ball, has very good touch and accuracy, is a good decision maker, obviously very athletic kid that can do a lot," Belichick said this week. "He's a very good passer, can extend plays and make throws out of pocket, make throws in the pocket, and if he has to run the ball to convert a third down, he certainly is capable of doing that, and he's a hard guy to tackle. I've been very impressed with his downfield passing ability and decision making and accuracy on third down."

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MIAMI DOLPHINS: Flores keeping rebuilding team focused on what matters. With a young roster that has been depleted of top-line talent in this 2-9, rebuilding season, Dolphins players said that first-year head oach Brian Flores' coaching style -- sticking to a weekly strategy -- has allowed the squad to feel it is getting better. Dwelling on the past would not be beneficial.

"He focuses on the daily grind," tight end Mike Gesicki told me. "It's about getting better at practice. It's all about today and the upcoming game, not about breaking down the season in quarters and stuff like that. It keeps us from looking too far ahead or behind and that's probably the best way to do it with our team."

Added outside linebacker Jerome Baker, who leads the team in tackles: "We do look at how we did in the past with some things, but only so how we can adjust and improve. We know, the next few weeks, it's about getting better as a team. We're still young and you never want to dwell on the past wins or losses. Having our head coach relate that really helps a team like ours."

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Kicker carousel won't stop spinning. For his first 19 years as head coach of the Patriots, Bill Belichick had to employ just three kickers: Adam Vinatieri, Stephen Gostkowski and Shayne Graham* (although that was just for half a season). But when the Pats visit Houston on Sunday night, they'll be on their fourth kicker of *this season.

New England was forced to sign Kai Forbath on Friday, about 24 hours after Nick Folk underwent an emergency appendectomy.

"We'll do introductions so we can get to know everybody," joked Belichick. "We'll see how it goes."

The Pats were set on this roller coaster when Gostkowski went on IR the first week of October with a bad hip that later required surgery. Mike Nugent came and went quickly, struggling to find consistency. He was replaced by Folk, who settled into a nice groove right from the start, hitting all five of his field goal attempts versus Baltimore and Philadelphia before going 2 for 4 in terrible weather conditions last Sunday against Dallas.

"Other teams in the league have gone through it. We've gone through it at other positions," Belichick said, adding, "It's not ideal, but we'll keep going."

Forbath hasn't kicked in the league since the tail end of last season, when he nailed 4 of 5 field goals and all three of his extra points for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Renfrow injury accentuates rookie receiver's self-evaluation.Raiders WR Hunter Renfrow's suffering a broken rib and punctured lung in Sunday's blowout loss to the Jets underscored something the rookie had said a few days prior.

"I need to get bigger and get stronger, not get pushed around as much," Renfrow, who is listed at 5-10 and 185 pounds, said two days before taking a big hit from Jets corner Blessuan Austin and being tackled by defensive lineman Henry Anderson. "That's something I'm working on now, but I'm really looking forward to the offseason to work on."

Renfrow realized the flow of the regular season doesn't allow him to engage in a full workout regimen and diet overhaul, which is why he was looking forward to adding mass in the offseason. He's surely more motivated to do so after this injury.

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Division title still well within reach. Following Dallas' loss to Buffalo on Thursday, an Eagles victory over Miami on Sunday would draw Philly's record to 6-6, same as the division-leading Cowboys. Dallas has already beaten Philly, so for now, it has the head-to-head tie-breaker. However, the two teams face off again in Week 16 -- in Philadelphia -- for what could be all the marbles in the NFC East.

"We have to go take it," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins told me. "Nothing is going to be given to us the remainder of the year. With the schedule we have, there are not any games that we feel we shouldn't win."

Philadelphia held an identical 5-6 record heading into Week 13 last season and won four of its final five games to finish 9-7 and clinch a wild-card berth. The only path to the playoffs in the NFC East this year appears to be as the division champ, but Jenkins said players are very confident they can salvage their up-and-down season.

"With the exception of Miami, all the games are within our division," he said. "We know those teams, so we should be prepared. They know us, as well. It's right in front of us. We have to take these wins and it starts with Miami. We've done this before. We've been here. We also know that just because we've been here it's not just going to fall in line. We have to focus on ourselves and take care of our business."

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Don't dismiss Duck.Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges' 79-yard touchdown pass on his fourth snap in relief of Mason Rudolph last week reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Ravens safety Earl Thomas.

We were talking about Bengals rookie QB Ryan Finley, who was about to make his first NFL start against Baltimore, and Thomas said he'd know within the first series if Finley was up to the task. I asked if Thomas recalled a young QB handling that situation well, and he pointed to the Ravens' Week 5 game in Pittsburgh where Hodges took over for Rudolph, who had suffered a concussion.

Said Thomas: "(Hodges) came in and it was like, man, this dude is trying to beat us!"

Hodges -- an undrafted rookie from Samford who got a $1,000 bonus after participating in a tryout camp and got cut in September before returning on the practice squad after the Josh Dobbs trade -- nearly rallied the Steelers to a win that day, and won his first NFL start a week later against the Chargers. He wasn't lights-out besides his long TD strike last week against Cincinnati, completing four of his other 10 passes for 39 yards as Pittsburgh struggled to move the ball. But there's reason to believe he won't shrink under the pressure of start No. 2 in Sunday's ballyhooed rematch with the Browns.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Saleh's defense faces huge test in Baltimore. After five weeks of home/West Coast games, the 49ers will leave their Thanksgiving leftovers behind as they head to Baltimore to face Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.

There's no doubt this is one of the toughest adversaries (if not the toughest) the 49ers have left on their regular-season schedule. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan is well aware of the challenge his team faces with Jackson and his elusive ways: "He's a running back out there, and a quarterback when he's throwing, but he can run hard. You've got to bring him down. He can take the hits and he also can deliver them."

When it comes to the Ravens' rushing attack, though, it's not just Jackson the 49ers' defense will have to contend with. RB Mark Ingram has been a force on the ground, and San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh says his charges are ready to face every offensive obstacle Baltimore will throw at them: "That's a lot of the challenge is that they are a downhill, power-running football team. They're a physical bunch. We've got to bring it to them."

Earlier in the week, Shanahan said that, while his players are focused and training as they would any other week, he hopes the guys don't feel the need to eat "everything" on Thanksgiving. (Something I felt down to my very core. Duly noted, coach.) For the record, there was a lively exchange in the locker room when I asked a few of the players their favorite dish. As it stands, WR Emmanuel Sanders is the only one who sided with me on Team Cornbread. DT D.J. Jones led a larger contingent of Team Mac and Cheese.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Penny fueled by improved diet, increasing professionalism. Running back Rashaad Penny could be a huge wild card in Seattle's aim of reaching another Super Bowl. He exploded for a career-high 129 yards on 14 carries in last week's 17-9 win over Philadelphia and he has a different mindset as the Seahawks fight for an NFC West title.

Penny admitted to struggling with his practice habits and discipline last season. His diet was so bad that he ballooned to 238 pounds during his rookie campaign and he wasn't a big part of Seattle's offense earlier this year, as he came into that Eagles game with just 167 total rushing yards. However, he has changed his diet -- especially by cutting out McDonald's -- and he's more explosive.

If Penny can live up to the promise that came with being a first-round pick in 2018, he could team with starter Chris Carson to give Seattle another dimension in an offense that has relied heavily on the passing of Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson.

"I've just been doing things [differently] than what I did last year," Penny said. "I know last year, as the season was progressing, I was gaining weight. This year, they told me to be more of a professional and practice harder than I've ever practiced in the past. I just take everything as 'game-like' now. Whether I'm at practice or walk-through, I'm more keyed in."

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