The first half of the 2016 NFL season was pretty blah, with bad teams playing bad games and many questions about quality of play. The games have picked up as of late, and down the homestretch of the 2016 season we've got some serious potential for drama in a couple of divisions. The most enticing might be a section of the standings that looked lost just a few weeks ago: the long-standing rust belt power of the AFC North.
Both the Ravens and Steelers came into Week 13 up against white-hot teams, with Baltimore playing the streaking Dolphins and the Steelers hosting the white-hot Giants. Both of those teams were coming in on six-game win streaks, and both of those teams were stopped summarily in their respective tracks.
It wasn't some fraud situation, either, although the Dolphins and Giants were probably playing above their heads during their respective stretches. This was a case of the Ravens and Steelers flexing their muscles and showing the world that the division is going to just as fun to watch down the stretch as it has been in years past.
For Baltimore, this was a case of strength meeting strength -- the Ravens' run defense came into Week 13 allowing a league-low 74.9 yards per game to opponents. After snuffing out Jay Ajayi and the potent Fins' rushing attack, the Ravens are allowing an extremely frugal 73.8 rushing yards per game. Ajayi still ran well, but Baltimore got up so quick and has so much power on the interior of the defensive line (Timmy Jernigan, quite notably) that he wasn't going to be able to really establish anything on the ground.
The Ravens piled up 303 yards in the first half alone, the fifth-highest number in franchise history, and scored their highest point total (38) since 2014. And this offensive explosion is what makes them so fascinating.
Baltimore has the tiebreaker on Pittsburgh now but plays the Steelers again -- Football Outsiders gave them a 40 percent chance to make the playoffs coming into this week and FiveThirtyEight gives them a 40 percent chance now. But ignore whether they're going to get into the postseason for a moment.
Instead, think back to 2012 and the Ravens team that won the Super Bowl. They limped into the playoffs and then Joe Flacco turned into Joe Montana, producing one of the most incredible postseasons in NFL history. Baltimore hasn't been impressive on offense at all this year, but if they get in, the players they have certainly give them a chance. Mike Wallace, Steve Smith and Breshard Perriman are great fits for Flacco's deep-ball skillset, and Dennis Pitta's having a remarkable comeback.
Terrence West and Kenneth Dixon aren't Pro Bowlers, but the Ravens have been running well when they want to commit to it. This is a relatively boring team that might have an extra gear on offense we hadn't seen all year until Sunday.
The downside for Baltimore is the schedule. Next week they play at New England, then host the Eagles before closing out with two on the road at Pittsburgh and at Cincinnati. They'll be favored in ... one of those games? Maybe two depending on the Bengals game.
This is why the Steelers are the current Las Vegas and statistical favorites to win the division, despite Baltimore being in first. Well, that, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Those guys are OK at this football thing.
The last few weeks the Steelers are starting to really get going offensively. They're winning too -- people freaked out about Pittsburgh's four-game losing streak, ignoring the quality of opponent and/or circumstances. That stretch came against a better Dolphins team than we thought, New England without Big Ben, the Ravens in a rivalry game and the 11-1 Cowboys. Those were tough spots, and now Pittsburgh's picking on lesser opponents.
But the production from the Pittsburgh offense has been vastly different than what you would expect. In their three wins over the Browns, Colts and Giants, the Steelers haven't topped 30 points once. They look explosive but also appear to understand the limitations of the defense, and it seems they want to try and play a more ball-control offense.
Over their last three games, Pittsburgh has run 69, 63 and 62 offensive plays and never possessed the ball less than 31:45 of the game. Time of possession and offensive plays can be tricky methods of determining success, but what you see the Steelers doing is leaning on Le'Veon Bell, who finished Sunday with 182 total yards. He's the most versatile back in the NFL, and the Steelers are wisely feeding him and minimizing the amount of time their defense spends on the field.
FiveThirtyEight gives Pittsburgh a 67 percent chance of making the postseason, while FO gave them a 63 percent chance coming into the week. You look at this offense, you look at the schedule and it's not hard to see why Pittsburgh's favored down the stretch.
It's totally possible we only see one of these teams in the postseason. They both can't win out, obviously. Either team would be a major problem for whoever it runs up against in the postseason.
Here are four more takeaways from Sunday's Week 13 action.
1. Belichick's latest victim
The Rams were substantial underdogs -- 13.5 points -- to the Patriots on Sunday in Foxborough. It's hard to lay two touchdowns in the NFL, but when it's a rookie quarterback starting against a Bill Belichick defense in Gillette Stadium, you might want to reconsider.
Jared Goff, in the third start of his career, became the ninth rookie quarterback to start against the Pats in New England since Belichick took over, and he became the ninth to lose as well.
|Jared Goff||Rams||12-04-16||14/32 (43.8)||161||1/2||43.9|
|Marcus Mariota||Titans||12-20-15||3/6 (50.0)||32||0/0||66.0|
|Derek Carr||Raiders||09-21-14||21/34 (61.8)||174||0/1||62.6|
|Geno Smith||Jets||09-12-13||15/35 (42.9)||214||0/3||27.6|
|Ryan Tannehill||Dolphins||12-30-12||20/35 (57.1)||235||0/1||65.8|
|Andrew Luck||Colts||11-18-12||27/50 (54.0)||334||2/3||63.2|
|Mark Sanchez||Jets||11-22-09||8/21 (38.1)||136||1/4||37.1|
|Ken Dorsey||49ers||01-02-05||18/28 (62.1)||189||1/0||92.5|
|Byron Leftwich||Jaguars||12-14-03||21/40 (52.5)||288||1/2||63.3|
Worth noting here: Mariota left with an injury and the Patriots then savaged Zach Mettenberger. Also, Belichick went up against J.P. Losman in his rookie season of 2004, but Losman didn't start because Drew Bledsoe was the Bills' starter then. And Belichick went up against Trent Edwards in 2007, but he wasn't the starter -- he was replacing an injured Losman. Time is a flat circle.
Goff was no better than any of the guys before him on Sunday, either. His touchdown was a total garbage time throw, coming with less than 90 seconds to go in the game and the Rams trailing 26-3.
And the ability to entirely neutralize talented young signal callers dovetails nicely with the news of the day and the result of the coaching matchup. Remember, this week Rams coach Jeff Fisher was asked about the Pats running backs and praised Brandon Bolden -- primarily a special teamer this year -- and Danny Woodhead -- on injured reserve and playing for the Chargers.
On conference call, Rams HC Jeff Fisher said Danny Woodhead is a playmaker for the Patriots. Woodhead is on IR and plays for the Chargers— Matthew Cannata (@PhinsiderRadio) November 30, 2016
Fisher and Belichick have now been coaching for the same number of years -- 22 -- which was a fact that FOX was more than willing to point out during the game. Ouch.
Comparons Jeff Fisher à Bill Belichick 😅 pic.twitter.com/281AAowvJu— NFL France (@FirstDownFR) December 4, 2016
It's not fair to compare anyone to Belichick, the best coach in the game today and quite possibly the greatest coach of all time. But he's had Fisher's number for a while now.
Bill Belichick vs. Jeff Fisher point total over the last 10 quarters between their teams: 118-7.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) December 4, 2016
And it's just injury to insult that the news of Fisher signing an extension leaked out on Sunday morning. Things would be really awkward were it not for that last touchdown drive. The Rams were squatting on 96 total yards before Goff took them 66 yards to paydirt, giving Los Angeles a "not respectable but not mock-worthy" 162 yards for the game.
2. A Berry good day
For the second time this season, Chiefs safety Eric Berry bailed out his team with a magnificent defensive play that flipped the course of the game and provided an offensive spark from an unlikely source.
Berry pulled off something I've never seen before against the Falcons in his return home, an emotional midseason trip to Atlanta where he was born. The last time he came back to Atlanta in the middle of a football season? Berry was getting cancer treatments.
This time it was to play the Falcons and Berry was a difference maker, pulling off a pick-six and a pick-two. The latter was when the Falcons, after taking the lead, were going for a two-point conversion and Berry jumped a lane on a Matt Ryan throw and went 100 yards in the other direction.
Yes, Berry is the first player in NFL history with a pick-six and a pick-two in the same game. His pick-two also became the first time that a team pulled off a game-winning, defensive two-point conversion when it was trailing.
3. A big defensive loss in Seattle
Just a few weeks after changing the path of the NFL season with a massive hit to Rob Gronkowski on a Sunday night, Earl Thomas may have altered the Seahawks' path as well when he went down with what Pete Carroll later confirmed was a broken leg.
Thomas was carted off, seen by Michelle Tafoya of NBC leaving the X-ray room on crutches and then tweeted some concerning notes very quickly thereafter.
This game has been so good to me no regrets.. A lot is running through my mind including retirement thanks for all the prayers.— Earl Thomas (@Earl_Thomas) December 5, 2016
Kam you owe me a steak . Haha— Earl Thomas (@Earl_Thomas) December 5, 2016
Now, we have no clue if Thomas will actually retire. Or if he's even actually consider it. Sitting in the locker room knowing that your season is over and you have a long road of rehab ahead, especially when the Seahawks look like a potential Super Bowl winner, will do some weird things to your headspace.
Thomas is only 27, but he's a smart dude who sees the toll this game takes on his body.
From a football perspective, I certainly hope he's not going anywhere. There's not a better safety in the game, and watching him turn into a speeding bullet and lay wood on opponents is delightful. Everything about Thomas' game is fun to watch.
For the Seahawks right now, this is a huge blow. On the Panthers' first play after the Thomas injury, Newton hit Ted Ginn for a 55-yard bomb into the end zone. That's the sort of play that Thomas ranges on and snuffs out.
Seattle's been very good this year because its defense has been playing as well as the team that won the Super Bowl. Thomas is a huge reason for that. He's going to be severely missed and, as good as the rest of that defense is, it will show for Seattle.
The offense showed major signs of life on Sunday night though, tossing up 40 points while Russell Wilson and Jimmy Graham got their mojo going and Thomas Rawls exploded for over 100 rushing yards in the first half alone.
4. Time to respect the Bucs
Tampa officially leaping into the playoff hunt means it's probably time to give the Buccaneers their due for the winning streak they're on. The Bucs are the current No. 6 seed in the NFC, leapfrogging the Redskins with a 28-21 win over the Chargers in San Diego.
Just look at the group of four wins they've put together since they were hammed by the Falcons on Thursday night to fall to 3-5. The Bucs beat the Bears in Tampa (yawn), went to K.C. and stole a road win over the Chiefs (oh, hello there), held the Seahawks to five points in Tampa (well now!) and then went all the way out to San Diego and made Philip Rivers melt down en route to a huge win.
Tampa's got this weird thing going where they don't put up huge numbers offensively, per se. Jameis Winston's playing really the last few weeks, but the running game hasn't been dominant. Cameron Brate, who caught another touchdown on Sunday, has emerged as a legitimate threat at tight end.
It's their defense that's been getting better over the past few weeks. The Bucs allowed the Raiders and Falcons to score 73 total points in the span of five days. Over the past four weeks, they've allowed just 53 total points.
The pass rush is getting home and the secondary was making plays all over the field against San Diego. Credit Mike Smith for the job he's done fashioning this defense despite not necessarily having all the players he needs for his scheme.