Ravens' weak spot, Chiefs' balance among Week 14 revelations

Sean Payton and Drew Brees spent nine years searching for home-field advantage again after their 2009 title, only to lose in overtime to the Rams last season in one of the most infamous games in NFL history.

With the Saints just four wins away from clinching that No. 1 seed again, another NFC West upstart arrived on Sunday to take control of a loaded conference that Saints fans are sick of trying to survive.

It's the time of year when there are fewer games that truly matter. But the ones that do -- including the 49ers' thrilling 48-46 victory in the Superdome -- echo for weeks and sometimes years to come.

On the busiest Sunday since Week 3, the locations of the day's biggest contests felt familiar: the L.A. Coliseum, Gillette Stadium and the Superdome. The results did not. Throw in the Ravens' crucial dismissal of the Bills in Buffalo, and the four biggest games from Week 14 will help shape the next six weeks of football before the participants of Super Bowl LIV are decided.

Below are the biggest takeaways of Week 14's four biggest games.

1) A great pass defense can slow down the Ravens

Considering the Ravens entered Sunday with the highest yards-per-carry average of any team since the AFL-NFL merger, it would stand to reason that a strong rush defense would be the first ingredient to slowing down Lamar Jackson. Over the last two weeks, however, the 49ers and Bills showed another route.

The Ravens' second-ranked offense was held below 300 yards in back-to-back weeks largely because of opposing cornerback play. Both the 49ers and Bills are excellent in pass defense, which allowed them to load up the inside to stop the run and inside throws. Both teams kept their safeties near the line of scrimmage and dared Lamar Jackson to beat them deep and to the outside. That type of strategy can only be pulled off with excellent communication and personnel in the secondary, which the 49ers and Bills have in abundance.

What the Bills' defense accomplished Sunday was particularly impressive. The Ravens had 13 possessions before kneeling down late in the fourth quarter. They punted seven times, more than they had in their previous five games combined. Jackson was held to 40 rushing yards and averaged 5.8 yards per pass, with each of his three touchdown passes requiring more brilliance than the last. If the Bills had a serviceable passing attack, they could have pulled off the upset.

The Ravens' last two sluggish offensive games came in difficult conditions, but that could be what they play in before the Super Bowl. On Sunday, we learned beyond any reasonable doubt those games would be in Baltimore. The Ravens' win in Buffalo, combined with the Patriots' loss to the Chiefs, ostensibly gave Baltimore a two-game lead for home-field advantage, with three games left to play. It's very possible the Ravens could enter Week 17 against the rival Steelers with nothing to play for, other than to knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.

It's also very possible the Ravens' toughest competition in the AFC could come from a team that already beat them, and whose sneaky-good pass defense may not be so sneaky anymore.

2) The Chiefs are more balanced -- and dangerous -- this season

The road to the Super Bowl will be more difficult this year for Kansas City than it was last year, which ended in a loss to the Pats in the AFC title game, although the 23-16 victory in Foxborough on Sunday gave Andy Reid a fighting chance to steal the No. 2 seed and bye from New England. Even if the Chiefs have to win two road games, they are a more complete team this season than they were in 2018 because they can win different types of games.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who may have been hired specifically to take down the Patriots, showed incredible confidence in his secondary on Sunday with the array of blitzes he sent at Tom Brady. The Chiefs didn't believe that receivers other than Julian Edelman could quickly win one-on-one matchups, and they were right.

Kansas City entered the game as the No. 6 team in pass defense efficiency, a mark that should only go up. They pressured Brady on nearly 70 percent of the team's third downs, according to Pro Football Focus, because of their confidence in the matchups on the back end. It reminded me of the only matchup all season in which Lamar Jackson looked overwhelmed: Kansas City's Week 3 victory over the Ravens.

The Chiefs' offense was far more explosive in two games against the Patriots last season, yet they went 0-2. That's what makes this Chiefs team so scary. There is plenty of room for Patrick Mahomes and the offense to get in better rhythm and less reliant on heroic throws from the quarterback. They will be battle-tested, having faced the toughest opposing slate of defenses in football. This Chiefs team will reach the playoffs tougher than it was a year ago, with big-game experience and a regular season to be proud of. Despite facing a ton of adversity and injuries, they'll host at least one playoff game as the AFC West champs and have a great chance to win 12 games in a season where Matt Moore stepped in for nearly three entire contests.

3) Jimmy Garoppolo has grown in Kyle Shanahan's offense

The 49ers and Saintsentered Sunday as the No. 2 and No. 7 defenses in the league. They left exhausted from a 48-46 instant classic that included nearly 1,000 yards of offense, with the two teams combining to go 8-for-10 in the red zone.

Having played the Ravens to the wire in a defensive slugfest and out-scored the Saints in the Superdome in successive weeks, the 49ers should be ready for anything in the playoffs. If they can finish off the season with wins over the Falcons, Rams and Seahawks -- not an easy task -- they will have earned one of the most impressive No. 1 seeds in recent memory. The 49ers' two losses were on kicks to the Seahawks and Ravens. Jimmy Garoppolo proved Sunday how far he's come in Kyle Shanahan's offense, and a 49ers team that has dealt with injury after injury showed the upside of such bad luck.

So many of the 49ers' reserves have gained great experience over the course of the season because they've had to step into starting jobs. Players like running back Raheem Mostert and receivers Kendrick Bourne and Deebo Samuel have settled into key roles after being thrown into some of the league's biggest games all season. With George Kittle healthy again and Emmanuel Sanders the clearly defined No. 1 receiver, Samuel has stepped up as the team's No. 2 wideout, with Bourne playing out of the slot. Mostert has made Tevin Coleman superfluous. Most importantly, Garoppolo's timing improves by the week.

The 49ers will have to keep overcoming their injury luck after learning center Weston Richburg is out for the season, cornerback Richard Sherman is out a few weeks and pass rusher Dee Fordcould be gone until the playoffs. Their depth throughout the roster is ready and should be on display in Week 17 against the Seahawks in a game that feels destined to be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Speaking of which ...

4) The defending NFC champions aren't dead

The Rams are shaking off the Super Bowl hangover down the stretch like the 2017 Falcons and the 2018 Eagles did. The Falcons won six of their last eight in the regular season before falling a play short in the Divisional Round. The 2018 Eagles won five of their last six on the way to their own heartbreaking road loss in the Divisional Round.

I'm not that interested in who wins the No. 6 seed in the AFC, because I don't expect that team to truly be a threat in the tournament. The sixth seed in the NFC, however, figures to be highly dangerous, given that this version of the NFC is one of the deepest conferences in memory. The 9-4 Vikings and 10-3 Packers especially should be aware that even winning 11 games might not guarantee a playoff berth this season.

MVP Watch

1) Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens

2) Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks

3) Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

4) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs

5) Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers

There are three weeks left in the regular season, too much time to declare this race over. But with each passing week, Russell Wilson's relative downturn since Seattle's Week 9 win over the Bucs win feels like a trend. His night against the Rams would have looked much better if not for dropped passes; even so, Wilson is taking a lot of sacks (18 in four weeks) and has thrown an interception in four straight games. His only two negative-graded weeks by Pro Football Focus also came in that stretch. Lamar Jackson hasn't played his best the last two weeks, but the onus is now on Wilson to make up some ground.

UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Drew Lock, QB, Broncos

Lock was a big-play machine against the Texans, producing seven plays over 20 yards, including four of his first eight throws. The Texans appeared a step slow to the ball, struggling to account for Lock's arm strength. While Lock made a few throws under pressure that showed enviable poise, offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello did a fantastic job scheming open receivers in a pass-first approach the Texans weren't prepared for. Broncos fans should be excited, but give Lock room to breathe before calling him Elway's heir.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Lock's tight end, rookie Noah Fant, who has made so many mental errors all season, had three of those big plays and a 14-yard touchdown to boot. The physical tools are there if the first-round pick can mature. Meanwhile, Fant's teammate Kareem Jackson had one of the best revenge games of the year, logging a long touchdown return, an interception, three passes defensed and 11 tackles, a few of which ended drives, against the team that drafted him in 2010.

Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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