What a night! I never need to be reminded how much I love the NFL, but I do have to say that Week 13 was pretty special on Sunday evening with eight of the 12 games played being decided by one score.
There was a dramatic late touchdown pass for the Las Vegas Raiders in New York, a late fumble recovery to preserve Indianapolis' win over Houston and an overtime field goal to see the Minnesota Vikings past the pesky Jacksonville Jaguars.
There was so much more than that on a night filled with headlines, fascinating games and furious finishes.
One such game took place in Seattle where few would have given the 4-7 New York Giants a chance, even though they were riding a three-game winning streak to the Pacific North-West to take on the 8-3 Seahawks.
With quarterback Daniel Jones sidelined with a hamstring injury, the Giants played a physical brand of football that is becoming their trademark and they marched out of Seattle having turned the winning streak from three to four games with a 17-12 upending of Pete Carroll's men.
Physicality is becoming the norm for the Big Blue. With Saquon Barkley gone, the running back position has not suffered with Wayne Gallman and, improbably, Alfred Morris coming up big week in and week out. Gallman led the way on Sunday with 135 yards on 16 attempts and, as a team, the Giants carried the rock 31 times for 190 yards and one touchdown. Morris scored two touchdowns.
With a running game like that, the Giants didn't need more than the 105 passing yards delivered by stand-in quarterback Colt McCoy. That was the lowest single-game passing yardage by a starting quarterback for the Giants since Eli Manning in Week 8 of 2007 on a very rainy but historic night in London.
McCoy just needed to stay away from costly mistakes when you consider that the defense – which seems to grow stronger by the week – pressured Russell Wilson into his most frustrating afternoon of the 2020 season. Wilson was sacked five times, including two and a half from a re-born Leonard Williams, and he was intercepted once on a day when Seattle turned it over twice.
Sacks and takeaways are game-changing plays, as we all know. So, it's great news for the Giants that both are becoming regular factors as the stretch run begins. Sunday's sack total was the highest for New York in the past two seasons and the Giants also now rank third in the NFL with 20 takeaways heading into Monday Night Football.
It's all a far cry from earlier this season when New York lost to Dallas to fall to 0-5. With Barkley already done for the year by that point, it had all the makings of a lost campaign. But first-year head coach Joe Judge, who had much to prove after his shock hiring in the offseason, didn't panic. He didn't even acknowledge his team's record, preferring to talk about the team-building process and "progress."
That progress has been clear to see in this four-game winning streak and why not the Giants for the playoffs via the NFC East title? It's surely between them and Washington now with Dallas and Philadelphia falling away. And the Giants hold the head to head tiebreaker over the Football Team.
If and when they get to the playoffs, these Giants will have respect for their opponents, but they won't fear them. And nor should they. This growing team has just strolled into Seattle and harassed and bullied one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Wilson.
They will fancy their chances of repeating that act against the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees (when he is fit again) and Tom Brady.
The New Orleans Saints… With Sunday's 21-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints became the first team to book a playoff spot this season. More importantly, they won for the ninth game in a row and improved their record to 10-2 at the top of the NFC South. Taysom Hill was not setting any records on Sunday, but he was more than good enough while throwing for 232 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 83 yards. Hill is now 3-0 as the starter in relief of the injured Brees and the Saints have now gone 8-0 during the past two seasons with their star quarterback on the sidelines. That's a credit to head coach Sean Payton, who has led his team to winning streaks of at least six games in each of the last four seasons. And the defense is also playing tough, holding opponents to fewer than 20 points in five straight games. The Saints are the perfect reminder that American football is the ultimate team sport.
Travis Kelce… I almost didn't put Kelce in this spot because Kansas City's record-setting tight end has raised the bar so high that his performance during Sunday's 22-16 win over Denver has just become the norm. Kelce caught eight passes for 136 yards and a touchdown during the playoff-clinching victory. And he topped 1,000 yards in a season for the fifth time – that is the most in NFL history at that position and he placed some icing on top of that particular cake by recording each of those five 1,000-yard campaigns over the past five years. His quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, loves to keep plays alive and throw late in the down. And Mahomes' most reliable target in those situations is, and has been for many years now, Kelce. His dominance of Sunday Night Football marked his fifth 100-yard receiving day of the 2020 season with four of those outings coming in the last five weeks.
Gunner Olszewski… Gunner who? I hear you cry. Get to know the name because he is a classic Bill Belichick over-achiever. From the NCAA Division II school of Bemidji State, the former cornerback and kick returner has been turned into a wide receiver and kick returner in the NFL after joining the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2019. It's classic Belichick. If you're smart, tough and versatile, you can play for him… no matter what school you attended in college. That's how the likes of Julian Edelman could thrive as a quarterback out of Kent State who was turned into a wide receiver and, for one season, a cornerback by the greatest coach of all time. Olszewski enjoyed a career day in Sunday's 45-0 shutout win over the Los Angeles Chargers. He scored on a 70-yard punt return, added another 61-yard runback and found the endzone on a 38-yard pass from Jarrett Stidham. It was no fluke, either… Olszewski scored on an 82-yard punt return against Arizona last week only for it to be wiped out by penalty. Remember the name.
Gregg Williams… I couldn't quite believe my eyes on Sunday as the New York Jets gave up a 46-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Henry Ruggs with just five seconds left on the clock. Upon closer inspection, the brazen aggression of the Jets' defensive coordinator was stunning. Williams – who has never been afraid to take chances – dialled up an all-out blitz, leaving Lamar Jackson (not that one, the other one… the undrafted rookie free agent cornerback) in one on one man coverage with no safety help against a first-rounder with the game on the line. Jets safety Marcus Maye said: "I think we could have been in a better call in that situation." No doubt about that. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said he "couldn't believe" the Jets chose to come after him like that with the game on the line. Andrew Luck once told me that every blitz is an opportunity for the offense to make a big play. Williams should never have gifted that opportunity to the Raiders and it felt like he wanted to win this game with a big sack, rather than a less spectactular tackle of a ball-carrier 20 or 30 yards short of the endzone. If Williams wanted to know what to do with his safeties in that situation, the clue is in the name! Playing it safe would not have been the worst thing in the world there. Instead, the Jets conspired to lose a game they should have won. Just one more reason why they remain winless.
The Los Angeles Chargers… I was going to single out the Chargers' special teams here as they missed a field goal, had another field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown, gave up a punt return touchdown and another runback covering 61 yards and had only 10 men on the field for one of their own returns. But the reality is that while the special teams was terrible, that unit was not alone as the Chargers were shut out for the first time since the 2014. Like so many young passers before him, Herbert struggled against Belichick's defense as he set career lows for completion percentage (49.1) and quarterback rating (43.7). He failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in his career. The Chargers are following up last season's 5-11 campaign with a 3-9 record that puts head coach Anthony Lynn firmly in trouble. His team's only victories this term have come against fellow strugglers Cincinnati, Jacksonville and the New York Jets. Looking to sell tickets and become relevant in Los Angeles, the Chargers will feel compelled to move on soon and it will be an attractive opening with the franchise quarterback seemingly in place, even when taking into consideration Sunday's struggles against the Pats.
Derrick Henry… I seem to put Tennessee's running back in the 'Who's Hot' section of this column every week so he has to take his lumps after being a no-show in the Titans' 41-35 loss to the feisty and aggressive Cleveland Browns on Sunday. It was clear from the first couple of drives that the Browns were making it a priority to shoot the gaps and get Henry on the ground before he could build up a head of steam. It worked to great effect bringing him down on a fourth and short and also forcing a turnover on a fumble later in the early exchanges. Henry never got going and couldn't even force his way into the endzone when he did get running at full speed as the Browns shut the door on a two-point conversion attempt. Henry was held to 60 rushing yards on 15 carries. He will be back, of course, but this was a bad day for him and a very good one for the Browns.
The Fast Five…
- I'm not sure Miami's offense is better off at the moment with rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa starting over veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, despite the first-rounder's career high 296 passing yards in Week 13. But it didn't matter on Sunday as defense, not for the first time this season, drove Miami to a 19-7 win over Cincinnati. The Dolphins came up with a turnover for the 18th game in a row (the longest streak in the NFL) as they picked off Brandon Allen twice and recorded six sacks on the day. At 8-4, the Dolphins are enjoying their best season since 2003 and Brian Flores has to be in the mix for Coach of the Year.
- The radio producers in Philadelphia would have been rubbing their hands with glee in the latter stages of the Eagles' 30-16 loss to Green Bay on Sunday night. There will be no shortage of content for the sports talk shows this morning as Jalen Hurts came in for a benched Carson Wentz and at least looked lively in throwing a second half touchdown pass to Greg Ward. In what is shaping up to be a terrible season in Philly, the Eagles must surely be tempted to see if Hurts gives them anything more than Wentz could muster?
- So much of our pre-game show on Sky Sports NFL on Sunday focused on the running back battle between Nick Chubb, of the Cleveland Browns, and the aforementioned Henry, of the Titans. And rightly so as they are the leading pair at their position in the entire league. But Baker Mayfield delivered a 'what about me?' message on Sunday night in his team's big win. Mayfield has been sketchy all season long and had thrown just 17 touchdowns in the first 11 games of the year. But he exploded with four in the first half as Cleveland scored a club record 38 points. Mayfield ended the day with 334 passing yards and those four scores for a rating of 147.0. The Browns are still a run-based team, but having an effective Mayfield who can thrive off of that is going to be huge down the stretch. Now, can he keep it going?
- The Indianapolis Colts needed a late fumble recovery from Anthony Walker to record a 26-20 win over a Houston Texans team who were knocking on the door when Nick Martin delivered a low snap that Deshaun Watson couldn't handle. It was fitting that defense won this game for the Colts – they sacked the normally-elusive Watson five times (three from the seemingly-ageless Justin Houston and two from a healthy-again DeForest Buckner).
- Jared Goff limped into the Los Angeles Rams' Week 13 battle with the Arizona Cardinals with 14 turnovers to his name on the year (second-most in the NFL). With critical words from his coach, Sean McVay, ringing in his ears, Goff put last week's three turnover display against San Francisco behind him by throwing for 351 yards, one touchdown and, crucially, no interceptions. While Goff and the Rams got back on track, the Cardinals continued their slide and have now lost three in a row and four of their last five. Kliff Kingsbury simply must find a way to get Kyler Murray going again because the Cards need 30 points per game given how they are playing defense at the moment.
Fact of the Week
With Darrell Bevell winning his first game as the Detroit Lions' interim head coach (34-30 vs Chicago), interim head coaches are now 3-0 in their first game at the helm this season. The other wins this year came from Romeo Crennel (Houston Texans) and Raheem Morris (Atlanta Falcons). This season joins 2015 (Miami's Dan Campbell, Tennessee's Mike Mularkey and Philadelphia's Pat Shurmur) as the only campaigns in NFL history where every interim head coach won their first game (minimum two interim head coaches).
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 do 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 Lewis Wiltshire (@LewisWiltshire) The number of NFC West teams in the playoffs will be… two, but possibly three! If it is three, then I think that is only because the San Francisco 49ers have been able to go on a stretch run now that key players such as running back Raheem Mostert, receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and cornerback Richard Sherman are healthy. I'm confident the Rams and Seahawks will make the postseason and if anyone else joins them from the division it will be the Niners. I think the Cardinals – who won just five games a year ago – are finding their level. Let's not forget that but for that miracle Hail Mary throw against Buffalo in Week 10, this team would now be on a five-game losing skid.
From Lloyd Tingley (@lloydrhystings) The Eagles starting quarterback for the rest of the season should be… prepared to do a lot of running for his life. The offensive line has been a season-long issue and while Carson Wentz does hold the ball too long, he was also running away from defenders every time I glanced at the action from Lambeau Field on Sunday evening. Things have turned so sour and dour with Wentz at the helm. I think the Eagles might as well at least find out what they have in Jalen Hurts. But what if he does well? That will provide a short-term feeling of warmth and cosiness, but it will create a frenzied offseason filled with media speculation as well. Wentz is under contract through the 2024 season after signing a deal worth $137 million in 2019. It's hard to see how the Eagles get out from under that deal without trading away their first-round passer.
From @Clivepack… The Seattle Seahawks will struggle in the playoffs because… they have some worrying signs beginning to show themselves on this roster. Make no mistake about it, Russell Wilson will give the Hawks a chance to win in every game they play, this season and in future years to come. But Sunday's loss to the Giants was worrying and could offer a glimpse into a darker future come playoff time. The lack of balance was evident. Seattle dropped back to pass on 77 percent of their offensive plays and the pressure on Wilson was too much to bear behind a line featuring a fourth-string offensive tackle. There were drops but I'm not worried about the receiver pairing of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. However, I am worried about a defense that shipped 191 yards on the ground on Sunday. Pete Carroll has some work to do in order to recapture the magic of earlier this season.
Let's take a moment to recognize and enjoy the career greatness of Aaron Rodgers, who was quietly brilliant in Sunday's two-touchdown win over Philadelphia. Rodgers does not get as much publicity as some quarterbacks around the league but there have been few better in NFL history. Rodgers threw the 400th touchdown pass of his Hall of Fame career and reached that mark in just 193 games – 12 contests faster than the next best in Drew Brees (205). Rodgers also moved past 35 touchdown passes for the season and his five campaigns with at least 35 scoring strikes are the most by any player to ever suit up in the NFL. With number 12 is pulling the strings in the backfield, the Packers remain a serious Super Bowl contender in the NFC this year.