We're coming up on the stretch run of the NFL season. The Panthers officially clinched a playoff spot, and a number of other teams helped out their positioning, too. In case you missed anything, here are the highlights from Week 13.
Most Entertaining Game Of The Week
The undefeated Panthers, a team that feasts on shaky offenses, was facing a Saints team that had mustered just 20 points over the past two weeks. What a difference some home cooking makes–New Orleans and Carolina put on a wildly enjoyable shootout. In the end, the Panthers scored a touchdown on the ever potent (a.k.a. nearly non-existent) Cam Newton to Jerricho Cotchery connection, and Carolina escaped with a 41-38 win. Newton threw five touchdown passes for the second time this season. The teams combined for 831 total yards and 54 first downs, plus we got to see Stephone Anthony return a fumble for a touchdown AND he pulled off the incredibly rare "blocked extra point returned for a two-point conversion" shortly before halftime. Though the Saints don't have their vaunted home-field advantage these days, the Superdome was rocking, and this had the feel of a playoff game, even if one of the teams only has four wins.
Who Earned His Paycheck?
Mobile quarterbacks are on the move! See what I did there? Such a riot. Anyway, Marcus Mariota had an 87-yard touchdown run that seemed to cover nearly the entire left side of the field, part of a 112-yard day on the ground. Russell Wilson threw three touchdowns with no interceptions, and ran for another score, as he's playing the best football of his career, even without his starting running back and best receiver. Tyrod Taylor only completed 11 passes, but they went for 211 yards and three scores, and he also scored once on the ground. This was a huge week for quarterback rushing touchdowns, in fact. In addition to these three, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Alex Smith and Jameis Winston all crossed the goal line, too.
They're on underperforming teams, but man, Allen Robinson and DeAndre Hopkins are absolute joys to watch on the field. Robinson finished with an absurd 10 catch, 153 yard and three touchdown line, making tremendous grabs on throws that weren't always on target. And Hopkins added another beautiful one-handed catch to his resume–something that's fast becoming a weekly occurrence–while also scoring a solid touchdown later on. Both the Jags and Texans lost, but these guys made their respective games a lot closer than they really should have been.
The Eagles treated Sunday like it was the day after Christmas: they just returned everything. Okay, I'll see myself out. Najee Goode scored on a blocked punt, Malcolm Jenkins had a 99-yard interception return, and Darren Sproles ran a punt back 83 yards for a touchdown. And the Eagles STILL almost gave the game away, but a furious Patriots rally came up short, and Philadelphia held on, 35-28. This team still has a ton of holes, but their special teams and defense, a big reason for their early success last year, came up huge again Sunday. And with the sad, sad state of the NFC East, even a team that gave up 90 combined points the two previous games can still win the division. On top of all that, Connor Barwin bet a fan before the game that the Eagles would win, and came away with a free beer on his way to the locker room. Not too shabby.
We're in for a real treat next week when the Bengals and Steelers face off. The former destroyed division rival Cleveland 37-3, while the latter embarrassed the overmatched Colts 45-10 on Sunday Night Football. Dalton accounted for three touchdowns, A.J. Green racked up 128 yards and a touchdown on five catches, Jeremy Hill had 98 yards on the ground and a score, and he didn't even get shoved back by Browns fans when he jumped into the stands. That happened last year, but Cleveland, trickling all the way down to its fans, has simply lost its will to fight. On the other side of the Great Lakes, the Steelers just completely dominated the hapless Colts. Ben Roethlisberger threw for four touchdowns, two of them going to Antonio Brown. Brown–the man with one of the great smiles in the NFL, according to Bob Costas–also had a punt return touchdown, which seems to happen every time he replaces the actual punt returner, as he did Sunday Night after Jacoby Jones fumbled twice. Can't wait for the Cincinnati/Pittsburgh rematch on Sunday.
Forget everything you thought you knew about Blaine Gabbert. Okay, chances are you had forgotten about Blaine Gabbert entirely, which is understandable, as he had a fairly unmemorable career in Jacksonville. But since coming in for the benched Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert has shown marked improvement as both a passer and a runner, and has led the Niners to as many wins (2) in four games as Kaepernick did in eight. Both his arm and his feet were on full display in a gutty overtime win against the Bears Sunday: he finished with 196 yards passing and the game-winning touchdown throw to Torrey Smith, plus Gabbert added 75 yards on the ground, the highlight being a 44-yard scamper to tie things up with under two minutes to go. The win is the first time Gabbert had ever won a road game outdoors, which is honestly mind-boggling to think about, for how long he's been in the league. Jimmie Ward also added a pick-six to tie the score at 6-6. Prior to that point, the Niners had five total yards of offense. Ward's interception, the first of his career, was the first time the team has scored a touchdown in the opening quarter this season.
Whose Performance Deserves A "Needs Improvement?"
Of course, the reason the Niners were even in a position to tie in regulation and win in overtime was because the normally reliable Robbie Gould missed two fairly easy field goals, a 40-yarder and 36-yarder. The second was with three seconds left, and the disappointment throughout Soldier Field was palpable when he hooked it badly to the left. He had previously only missed three field goals throughout the first 11 games of the season. Gould wasn't alone, either; the Giants' Josh Brown missed a field goal in overtime after his team blew yet another second-half double digit lead. The Giants can look at losses like these, where they had the game seemingly in the bag before shooting themselves in the foot, when they find themselves outside of the playoffs. The embarrassing thing, though? The NFC is so bad, both of these teams still have a shot at making the postseason.
Matt Schaub simply cannot get away from throwing pick sixes. He threw another one this week, one that was batted up in the air and taken back to the house by Derrick Shelby. But this was a game of missed opportunities and really dreadful offense, for the most part, so both the Ravens and the Dolphins as a whole get poor marks. How bad was it? Baltimore had the ball at the Miami 40 or closer on two straight possessions in the fourth quarter and came away with zero points. Meanwhile, the Dolphins had 61 yards in the second half and eight first downs for the entire game, and still won.
Cordarrelle Patterson scored on a kickoff return against the Seahawks, high-stepping the final 30 yards and hopping into the stands to celebrate with the fans. That's all well and good, except that touchdown was the first of the day for Minnesota, and cut the Seattle lead to 35-7. That kind of sums up the Vikings season. They're 8-4, but anytime they play a game of major importance, they can't pull off the victory. They've lost to the Packers and Seahawks by double digits at home, and inexplicably dropped only three points on the Niners in the season opener. Knowing that the Packers eked out a lucky win on Thursday night and still coming out with no energy is incredibly frustrating for Minnesota.
The Rams, Browns and Chargers each managed only three points at home against far superior division opponents. The trio combined for 757 total yards (about 252 per team–15 quarterbacks alone threw for more yards) and six turnovers, and looked like they really can't wait for the season to be over. It's one thing to try and rest up and get healthy, it's another to come out and give less than maximum effort. That certainly seems to be case with all three of these teams, and if they're smart, they'll give their young guys a lot of time over the final month of the season. Maybe they can find something positive to build on going into next year.
Finally, let's just never watch a game involving an NFC East team again, okay?
Five Fun Facts From Week 13
Aaron Rodgers' touchdown to Richard Rodgers is the longest game-winning, game-ending Hail Mary in NFL history.
Dwayne Harris is the first Giants player to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown in 60 years.
The Ravens failed to block a punt, kick or extra point this week, snapping a five-game streak of blocks.
This is the first time since 2012 the Patriots have had two consecutive regular season losses.
A.J. Green is only the second player (the other is Randy Moss) who has reached 1,000 or more receiving yards in five straight seasons to start a career. Meanwhile, Andy Dalton is the second quarterback (the other is Peyton Manning) to throw for at least 3,000 yards in five straight seasons to start his career.
Five Predictions For Week 14
Last Week: 2-3
Good covers for the Ravens and Chiefs. The Redskins and Giants both blew winnable games and covers late thanks to missed kicks (among other things), but that Indy pick was WAY off. Let's just forget about that one.
NEW ENGLAND -3 over Houston
Gronk may return for the Patriots, and even if he doesn't, it's mighty difficult to believe New England will lose three straight. And as good as Houston's defense can be, do you really think they'll put up three return touchdowns like the Eagles did?
Seattle -6 over BALTIMORE
The Seahawks are peaking at the right time, and the Ravens are as bad as they've ever been. Remember, Richard Sherman picked off Matt Schaub and returned it for a touchdown in an epic Houston collapse a few years ago; will the pick six streak continue? My guess is yes.
Dallas +8.5 over GREEN BAY
Not sure if you've noticed, but Green Bay hasn't looked right for much of this season. And Dallas, despite an abysmal record, is only a game out of first place in their division. Outside of the Thanksgiving Day massacre, they've at least been competitive, and I'm thinking they can nab a late garbage time touchdown to make this look respectable.
Detroit +1 over ST. LOUIS
St. Louis hasn't looked like they've wanted to play football in over a month. Todd Gurley has been struggling, and the Lions' rush defense is not the place to break out of a slump. Add in 10 days to prepare and an angry Lions team that knows they let a season sweep of the Packers get away, and this could be a blowout.
San Francisco +1 over CLEVELAND
Cleveland just lost by 34 points and is currently favored. I'm riding the Blaine Gabbert train until it crashes. Probably this week, but hey, if we're gonna go down, let's go down in flames.