Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 12: Raiders, Patriots remain on an AFC collision course
The AFC looks like it's going through either Oakland or Foxborough in the playoffs
When the new year rolls around and Jan. 19 hits, it will be the 15th anniversary of the Tuck Rule Game. It's been that long since the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots last met in the postseason, and this year certainly appears to offer an opportunity to end the drought.
That's a bittersweet proposition for Raiders fans. The thought of Tom Brady beating Oakland in the snow usually conjures painful memories, but Oakland's success in 2016 should heal some of those wounds. The Raiders fell in the standings despite a win, but it's on a mere tiebreaking technicality -- they have the same record as the Patriots and it's hard to fathom just about anyone else squaring off for the right to play the NFC in Houston.
Both Oakland and New England are 9-2 after winning their respective Week 12 matchups, and these two teams offer substantially more balance and upside than anyone else in the AFC at the moment.
New England didn't blast through the New York Jets on Sunday, but it was a divisional road and rivalry game. Brady didn't bring his A game out of the gate, but he managed to find it in enough time to record his 200th career win, tying Peyton Manning for most all-time.
Brady lost Rob Gronkowski again, with the all-world tight end exiting with a back injury after suiting up to play despite a major lung injury suffered two weeks ago, but the quarterback has some weapons who are starting to emerge.
Dion Lewis (six carries for 24 yards, four catches for 34 yards) is getting more and more snaps as he returns from injury and Malcolm Mitchell is coming along nicely. The rookie wideout finished with five catches for 42 yards and a pair of scores, including the one that put the Pats ahead for good.
New England's defense isn't great right now, and the Patriots are moving parts in and out on that side of the ball. But Bill Belichick has five more weeks to tinker with the defense, and given their schedule (vs. Los Angeles Rams , vs. Baltimore Ravens , at Denver Broncos , vs. Jets, at Miami Dolphins ), it would be a stunner if they finished worse than 12-4.
How they manage Gronk's health down the stretch is worth monitoring. And so is Derek Carr 's finger -- the Raiders quarterback dislocated his pinkie finger late against the Carolina Panthers in Oakland's 35-32 win, the latest in a year's worth of high-octane, close wins for the Raiders.
FINGERS DO NOT BEND THAT WAY pic.twitter.com/PFnWPQO7H5— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) November 27, 2016
The Panthers don't have a good record, but they're still a pretty good team. And Oakland got their best shot in the second half and still managed to win in a fairly balanced fashion. Carr played well both before and after his injury. There were some questionable coaching moves in this one (more on that below), but what stood out was the big plays the Raiders defense made when the game was on the line.
We know that Carr and Co. can light up a scoreboard -- Oakland is a top-five offensive team in points scored. Now the defense, particularly Khalil Mack , is coming alive in terms of making plays.
For instance, the game-sealing sack of Cam Newton that effectively snuffed out the Panthers' playoff hopes and kept Oakland in the hunt for home-field advantage:
The sack by Mack secured an impressive Swiss Army-like day for the superstar that included an incredibly athletic pick-six of Newton before the first half ended.
Thanks to these game-swinging plays, Mack joins former Raiders great Charles Woodson in a pretty rare class of production.
Khalil Mack had an INT, sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, TD; first player since Charles Woodson in 2009 to do all 5 in same game.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 28, 2016
There's a little bit of 2009 New Orleans Saints feel to this team, right? That Saints team, which would eventually win the Super Bowl, started out 12-0 and dominated more teams than the Raiders have this year. Carr is not Drew Brees . But the Raiders can score on anyone and are a highly explosive offense. The defense isn't great, or even league average (29th in DVOA heading into Week 12), but the Saints weren't great on defense, either, just very opportunistic. The Raiders have a similar feel in a weaker league overall.
Carr coming back from the finger injury and continuing to wing sharp passes is a huge sign for a team with a ton of good mojo right now.
No one else in the AFC really comes close to these two teams. The Kansas City Chiefs and Broncos can play a lot of defense, so they're scary, but they can't score many points. The Houston Texans are currently a playoff team and might be a hoax. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the scariest team left, and they wouldn't be in the playoffs if the season ended today. (Spoiler: It doesn't.)
History is fairly famous for repeating itself. It wouldn't be surprising if the Raiders and Patriots became the latest example.
Here are six more takeaways from Sunday's Week 12 action.
1. A familiar loophole
The Ravens are coached by a man with a lengthy history as a special teams coaching ace in John Harbaugh, and it showed Sunday afternoon. With the Ravens up by seven points and less than 10 seconds remaining in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals , Baltimore's punting unit exploited an NFL loophole in order to prevent Cincinnati from getting the ball back.
It's unofficially called the "hold everyone and run out the back of the end zone instead of punting" play.
Ravens win by holding Bengals intentionally and delaying safety, there's no time extension for the flags pic.twitter.com/cL9AdJaIwv— Vikings Blogger (@firstandskol) November 27, 2016
It's a genius move, and totally legal, too.
NFL says end of Ravens-Bengals game officiated correctly. Not a palpably unfair act to use that tactic on one play... (continued)— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) November 27, 2016
... (2 of 2) If Ravens had used same intentional holding tactic on a second straight play, it would have been palpably unfair act, NFL says.— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) November 27, 2016
It's also not the first time the Ravens pulled this off, having attempted the purposeful safety in Baltimore's Super Bowl victory over the 49ers. It didn't let them bleed the clock out because Chris Culliver got through to the punter, but the Ravens only saw their lead dip to three with just four seconds left on the clock.
Smart coaching and excellent execution. This is what competition is all about. Please remind the Ravens about it the next time they whine about someone taking advantage of a rule.
2. Bountygate revenge
Remember Gregg Williams? He was the central figure in the Saints' Bountygate scandal, heard on tapes telling the Saints defense to take out the head in order to kill the snake and allegedly running a bounty program on quarterbacks as far back as 2009. You might have forgotten who he was because of his sweet frosted tips and goatee, but he's still very much in the league, now coaching for the Los Angeles Rams.
Williams made his return to New Orleans on Sunday, and boy did he get embarrassed all the way around. First off, a security guard demanded to see his identification before he could get in the Superdome.
This was probably set up by Sean Payton, who got a year-long suspension as part of the scandal. Payton, according to players, was fairly enthused about this game.
"He was fired up," safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "I'm sure you all know why."
That attitude manifested itself in an explosion of offense for the Saints. Per Josh Katzenstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Sunday tied for the second-most points (49) scored by a team against a Williams-run defense in his 18 seasons and tied for the most yards (555) against the defensive coordinator in a regulation game.
The Saints came to play, and they did not let off the gas all afternoon, even letting Willie Snead bomb a 50-yard touchdown, which just felt like rubbing it in.
The byproduct of this big day is the Saints being right back in the NFC hunt. They're the 10th seed in the conference, but are just two games back of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South. They get Tampa Bay twice, Atlanta once, Detroit once and Arizona once. All of those games save one will take place indoors -- don't rule out the Saints ripping off a big win streak to close out the season.
3. Elsewhere in the NFC South ...
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming along nicely, too. They've had some really bad games during this season, but as Jameis Winston pointed out after Sunday's game, the Tampa defense is continuing to play better each week.
Tampa has won three straight, and the last two are particularly impressive: going to Kansas City and winning and hosting Seattle and holding them to five points. The Seattle Seahawks were the hottest non-Cowboys team in the NFC before Sunday, when Russell Wilson and Thomas Rawls were totally bottled up.
Remember how we talked about history? Well, the Raiders were spun into oblivion the year after the Tuck Rule Game by the Buccaneers, who would destroy Oakland in the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers are now over .500 this late in the year for the first time since that 2002 season.
Over those three games, Winston is really starting to up his play. The second-year quarterback is completing 68 percent of his passes for 8.63 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
His improvements been happening longer than that, too. Since a rough first four games, when the Bucs went 1-3 and Jameis looked like he was going to have a regression year, Winston only has three interceptions in seven games.
And he is feeding his guy, Mike Evans .
Winston is special. You could see it during his first few games at Florida State. He was quite the story for different reasons throughout his college career. He had an up-and-down rookie season and struggled out of the gate this season. But you can see everything starting to click here for him. If he can continue to elevate his game down the stretch, the Bucs can make a legitimate playoff run for the first time in a long time.
4. Another second-year guy developing
Also developing into an elite(ish)-level quarterback is Tennessee Titans second-year man Marcus Mariota . Mariota on Sunday closed in on a record for most games in a row with multiple touchdown passes in a player's first two seasons, as he did it for the eighth straight game, just two behind Dan Marino's record of 10 from 1984.
Solid company, and it's not even a stretch to put Mariota with the best when you see him make the throws he's making.
There's not a spot on the field he can't work at this point, either.
I remember watching Mariota against the Indianapolis Colts the first time this season and thinking that Mike Mularkey had broken him. He was an excellent quarterback in his first season and looked like a franchise guy. But suddenly he was uncomfortable in his drops, missing wide-open throws and generally looking lost. Over the past month-plus, he has been one of the best quarterbacks in football.
Here's his past six games:
|Comp/Att (%)||Yards (per game)||Yards/Att||TD/INT|
|Weeks 8-12||104/152 (68.4)||1,394 (278.8)||9.2||13/2|
The Titans are a seesaw when it comes to whether they're actually going to win games. They're better than the Colts but can't beat them. They absolutely stomped out the Green Bay Packers . They hammered the Chicago Bears but nearly let Chicago come back.
But they're in the hunt in the AFC South and AFC wild-card races. They have two talented backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry who run behind an excellent line.
In Mariota's streak of multiple-score games, he has 21 touchdown passes and two interceptions. He doesn't have a red zone interception in his career. He leads an efficient and precise attack and he is, despite an offensive attack that limited him for a stretch of time, morphing into one of the best young quarterbacks in football.
5. Questionable coaching
Buried in the Panthers-Raiders game -- a tale of two franchises hurtling in opposite directions in 2016 after Oakland's 35-32 win that put the Panthers on the brink of elimination and guaranteed a winning season for the silver and black -- was a pretty miserable stretch of coaching from Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio.
While they have nicknames, Riverboat and Blackjack, that would imply they are bold gamblers, both guys just made irrational decisions that could have cost their team the game.
Rivera's was born out of a conservative approach to the game that makes no sense. On fourth-and-1 from the Panthers' 40-yard line with 5:56 remaining and the game tied at 32, Rivera decided to punt the ball back to Oakland.
A turnover on downs there is a total nightmare, of course, but consider the factors in play here:
- The Panthers have Cam Newton, the deadliest short-yardage weapon in the NFL;
- The Panthers were averaging 5.2 yards per carry at the time;
- The Raiders' defense is its weaker link; and
- The Raiders' offense is very good and Derek Carr is currently the best statistically clutch quarterback in the NFL:
Derek Carr in 4th quarter when tied or trailing: 80 for 118 (67.8%) for 1109 yards (9.4 ypa), 10 TDs, 1 INT, 122.5 rating— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) November 28, 2016
Run the ball with Cam to get a yard, grind out some clock and find a way to take the lead. If you can't get a yard there with a defensive end playing quarterback, what's the point of all this anyway? The Panthers' defense was banged up too, including the absence of defensive leader Luke Kuechly . They made plays in the second half, but the Raiders were moving the ball.
You won't believe this, but 12 plays after Michael Palardy punted, the Raiders put points on the board. The Panthers got a shot at scoring as well, but they shouldn't have had as much time as they did -- Del Rio handed Carolina a bunch of free time thanks to questionable goal-line play-calling.
Rivera burned his first timeout after a second-down run with 2:29 remaining. Oakland picked up a first down on the next play, so Rivera let the clock wind to the two-minute warning. (Stick to a strategy already.) After a first-and-goal run by the Raiders, Rivera used his second timeout.
So it's second-and-5 from the Panthers' 5-yard line, with Carolina having one timeout and the game tied.
Del Rio and the Raiders promptly attempted two straight passes before being forced to kick a field goal on fourth down.
A touchdown is obviously a fantastic outcome, but this meant Carolina got the ball back with 1:45 remaining and one timeout. It should have been Carolina getting the ball back with just about a minute left and no timeouts.
Everything worked out fine thanks to Mack destroying Trai Turner to sack Newton and end the game.
The result was good for Oakland, but the process was questionable. Of course, Rivera's unwillingness to gamble on his quarterback picking up a yard may have set the Panthers up to lose in the first place.
6. Everyone else, you have a problem
Justin Houston is back and he is destroying people. Literally multiple people, because Broncos right tackle Ty Sambrailo was beat up by Houston so bad he got benched for Donald Stephenson .
It was ugly and it was awkward.
And the ugliness happened a lot.
Houston wasn't quite as dominant after leaving to have his shoulder checked on in the second half, but seeing him come back and play at full speed was quite the delight.
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