Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 13 to Week 14.
The final act of the 2016 campaign is setting up to be a doozy.
This is one of those years where the best, freshest stories happen to reside with the best teams. A return to dominance for national teams like Dallas and Oakland has provided a welcome shakeup to an NFL hierarchy that was growing too familiar. It's almost impossible to overhype this Raiders offense or a Cowboys team led by two rookie MVP candidates, although we'll try, with Dallas one game into a prime-time streak of four straight weeks.
After an uneven regular season, so many of the most entertaining teams play each other down the stretch. Before we get to some of the biggest Week 13 takeaways, let's preview the most watchable teams for the final quarter of the season:
1) Oakland Raiders: It's almost like they're trying to fall behind in games lately, just to fully test themselves. The Raiders will be the most fascinating team over the next month because no lead is safe, whether they're in front or trailing. They also have the most at stake coming up.
The Raiders would drop from the No. 1 seed in the AFC all the way to No. 5 if they were to lose control of the AFC West, which could happen Thursday night if they fall in Kansas City. Derek Carr wouldn't be my choice for MVP, but he could make a strong push with a big finish. Khalil Mack is campaigning weekly for a wide-open Defensive Player of the Year award. Three games remain against contenders, including a finale in Denver, guaranteeing the Raiders will remain at center stage.
2) Dallas Cowboys: They would be ranked No. 1 if they had more to play for in December. Still, we believe it's critical for Dallas to keep getting better, and the Cowboys will be tested against three straight playoff contenders: the Giants,Bucsand Lions. The NFL should give Jerry Jones a humanitarian award for delivering this Cowboys team in this season.
3) Detroit Lions: They proved with Sunday's win in the Superdome that their improving defense is playoff-worthy, and that Matthew Stafford doesn't need to come from behind every week. Their multi-faceted offense has been a joy to watch all season, and they now can dream of a playoff bye, with a compelling trio of games (at Giants, at Cowboys and vs. Packers) to close things out. This franchise hasn't hosted a playoff game since 1993 and held a celebration this season honoring the 25th anniversary of its last playoff win. In this year of the Cavs and Cubs, this should be a team America can get behind!
4) Kansas City: The Chiefs are so damn improbable and weird, and I can't believe their dink-and-dunk offense is part of a team that's so watchable. That's the power of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, the best collection of defensive playmakers around and a guaranteed wild finish each week. The 9-3 record mocks the importance of yardage rankings (Kansas City is No. 23 on offense and No. 29 on defense), because they don't make mistakes on offense and they have waves of playmakers on defense. Andy Reid is a Coach of the Year candidate. The Chiefs are the team that inspires the question weekly: How did they do that?
5) Tennessee Titans: They've battled all the way back from a 1-3 start to .500 and a tie for first place in the AFC South. Now we get to see Marcus Mariota, DeMarco Murray and one of the NFL's most unique offensive attacks tested in tasty matchups against two of the NFL's most talented defenses the next two weeks: Denver and Kansas City.
Narratives that were busted
1) This is not your father's Andy Reid. (Especially if your father is from Philadelphia.) The Chiefs' stone-faced Panda has helped lead Kansas City to a 9-3 record in part because he knows when to be aggressive. Realizing that the Chiefs needed to score big in Atlanta, he passed on a chip-shot field-goal try to attempt to convert a fourth-and-short inside the 5-yard line. The result was a touchdown.
That stood in stark contrast to Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who opted for three points twice in similar situations Sunday. When Reid lined up for his offense to go for it on fourth-and-1 in his own territory with the lead, Belichick-style, Quinn panicked and took a timeout. Reid countered with a fake-punt direct snap to Albert Wilson, who took it 55 yards for a touchdown. That is some next-level coaching-clown-suit creation.
2) The Matt Ryan for MVP campaign headquarters is a lonely place this week after Ryan's two tosses toChiefs safety Eric Berry ruined an otherwise excellent afternoon. Some high-profile losses, like this one and the blown 17-point lead against the Chargers, will be tough for voters to look past, barring a torrid finish from Ryan. The campaign might turn its attention to a second-team All-Pro nod or begin to distribute some fake-news propaganda claiming the Cowboys are committing scoreboard fraud.
3) The Chargers can no longer claim to be the "best 5-6 team in football" or even particularly relevant. We had some fun while it lasted. The final blow was a fitting loss in which the Bucs outscored the Bolts 11-0 in the fourth quarter. The Chargers have outscored opponents in each of the first three quarters this season, but they've lost the fourth quarter by 54 points combined. No one is innocent, and coach Mike McCoy's future is in some doubt. For the second straight home game, the crowd hit the exits after an inexplicable Philip Rivers interception. If this is it for the Chargers in San Diego, this season of heartbreak has been a horrible way to treat the fans on the way out.
A familiar feeling
It's December, and the Ravens and Steelers are battling for the AFC North. Both teams are playing their most consistent ball of the season and should be treated as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Don't be shocked if both make the playoffs, and don't try to sell me on the notion that the Raiders and Patriots are somehow in a loftier class than these two.
Baltimore's run defense is historically good. Sunday's 38-point explosion against a respectable Dolphins defense may have been a sign the Ravens' considerable offensive talent is ready to take off. It has made no sense that a team with Joe Flacco, Marshal Yanda, Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, Mike Wallace and an underused running game would be this poor. The defense has been as consistent as any group all season.
It was telling to see former first-round pick Jarvis Jones and veteran Arthur Moats essentially benched Sunday to get James Harrison more snaps. No matter how many replacements the Steelers draft for him, Harrison remains their best pass rusher at age 38. This team is primed for a strong finish, making its Week 16 date with the Ravens one of the key games remaining on the schedule.
Storylines that deserve more attention
1)Matthew Stafford's career season is carrying over to his feet. He set up two Lions field goals Sunday in the Superdome by extending drives on scrambles, one for 9 yards on second-and-15 and one for 11 yards on first-and-10. This wasn't a one-week trend. The eighth-year pro has hit a career high in rushing yards (178), while only four quarterbacks have earned more value as runners this season, according to ESPN's QBR metric: Colin Kaepernick, Tyrod Taylor, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers. That's not the type of company we're used to seeing Stafford keep.
2)Losing Jason Pierre-Paul would be devastating for a Giants team that lacks depth in the pass-rusher group. There's a reason JPP and Olivier Vernon never leave the field. (UPDATE: On Wednesday, Jason Pierre-Paul underwent surgery on a core muscle and will be out at least six weeks.)
3) Like Doug Martin in Tampa, the Seahawks' Thomas Rawls has looked more like his 2015 self with each passing week. On Sunday night, it sure looked like all of Rawls' terrific short-area quickness and burst were back to pair with his rugged running in his third game on the field since suffering a fractured fibula in September. It's a steep fall after Rawls on the depth chart, so his continued ability to carry the load for the Seahawks is one key to their title hopes. (Martin, meanwhile, failed to finish out the Bucs' win in San Diego. His health is a concern once again.)
4) The Patriots got fat off the soft part of their schedule the last three weeks, but they are starting to find the group they will roll with on the field down the stretch. NFC North castoffs Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy have done a better job making an impact each week at linebacker. Jabaal Sheard is back in Bill Belichick's good graces and playing better. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell is nearly an every-down player in the post-Gronk era.
5) The Colts were evolving into a frisky squad even before Monday's 41-10 nightmare for Jets coach Todd Bowles. The defense has improved to passable since its ugly start. While the offense isn't quite as explosive as Andrew Luck's best teams, Luck makes far fewer mental errors than a few years back. T.Y. Hilton is quietly No. 2 in receiving yards behind Julio Jones and ranks among the best deep threats in football. Donte Moncrief is healthy again and the Colts have two starter-level tight ends.