Week 12 loaded up on the early games, but didn’t exactly load up on the quality football. Even the intriguing late matchups didn’t deliver in the way we expected, though there is still plenty to take from the two key matchups. With now three-quarters of the season in the books (MNF pending), let’s dive into what we found in Week 12.

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1. Two Defenses Matter

In the football analytics world, and especially on Twitter, larger ideas tend to get shortened into quick, digestible catchphrases. Take, for instance, “running backs don’t matter,” which encapsulates something more like “no singular running back presents a significant advantage over another and running back performance is much more reliant on the surrounding talent, especially the offensive line, than the back himself.”

The same can be said for “defense doesn’t matter,” which was taken from the idea that when projecting offensive performance, especially for fantasy football, the quality of the defense is not an important factor. So the variance in performance against the Denver Broncos (ninth in defensive DVOA) and Seattle Seahawks (21st) will have more to do with the offense than the actual defenses. But this season two defenses really matter, the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers.

Arguably no team made a bigger statement in Week 12 than the 49ers, who embarrassed the Green Bay Packers 38-7 on Sunday Night Football. Aaron Rodgers had his worst career outing by yards per attempt, just 3.2. He was also sacked five times.

Despite the blowout, the Packers kept with a run-heavy game plan, 31 early down pass attempts to 23 early down rush attempts. But it really wouldn’t have mattered if Green Bay had chosen to go full out with the pass because San Francisco had shut down anything Rodgers wanted to do. Per Next Gen Stats, his average depth of his completions on Sunday night was behind the line of scrimmage. Rodgers was 0-for-8 on throws beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

The San Francisco defense got Rodgers and the Green Bay offense so frazzled, Rodgers resorted to getting the ball out so quickly (an average of 2.47 average seconds to throw per Next Gen Stats) that any type of meaningful downfield throws were nearly impossible. And if Rodgers held the ball too long, he was going to get hit — San Francisco ha an additional five quarterback hits on top of the five sacks for 10 total. 

San Francisco’s schedule gets harder — though the Green Bay game was included when that statement was also made prior to this week — with games in Baltimore and New Orleans in the next two weeks. We shouldn’t expect the 49ers to shut down opponents like this every week, but the next two games can give us some insight into how far this defense can carry the team against some of the best teams in the NFL. Sunday night showed the defense can be so good that this type of domination is in the range of outcomes.

Meanwhile, with the aid of terrible weather conditions (heavy wind and rain) as an extra defender, the Patriots held the Dallas Cowboys, the No. 1 offense by DVOA through Week 11, to just nine points in a 13-9 victory. Dak Prescott easily had his worst game of the season with minus-0.29 Expected Point Added per play, a 32% success rate, and a 22% first down rate, per nflscrapR via the Baldwin Boxscore.

New England held Prescott to a completion percentage 8.3% below expected, per Next Gen Stats, Prescott’s first game of the 2019 season below expectation. Entering the week, Prescott had been one of the best deep throwers in the NFL with the third most EPA on throws that traveled at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, per Sports Info Solutions. Partly because of the weather and partly because of the coverage, Prescott only even attempted one pass of that length and it wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter; it fell incomplete.

The Patriots can completely shut down what an opponent does best and in this game, that was any pass attempt to Amari Cooper. Matched up with Stephon Gilmore in coverage for most of the game, Cooper was held catchless on just two targets. The first ended up as a Gilmore interception on a shallow crossing route when the corner closed in on a forced throw on 3rd and 2 after a high snap.

The second was a late deep throw with under two minutes remaining that was originally ruled as a catch but overturned under review. Cooper did have a 15-yard catch against Gilmore canceled out by an offensive holding penalty.

Because of the coverage on Cooper, Prescott was forced to throw elsewhere and the Cowboys were tempted to run with the weather being what it was. For as poor as Dallas’s overall offensive performance was, early down passing wasn’t the problem. The Cowboys averaged 0.35 EPA per play through the air on first and second down compared to minus-0.04 on the ground. Still, Dallas ran 24 times on early downs compared to 22 passes. Where the game really favored the New England defense was on third downs, when the defense forced the Cowboys to minus-1.08 EPA per play and a 12% success rate.

New England has been the best defense throughout the season and still one of the best all-time by DVOA, though we’ve seen it struggle with the main competition in the AFC (Baltimore) and was bailed out by some questionable coaching on the other side of the field.

2. Sending the wrong message

During the pre-game rush Sunday morning, NFL Network’s Ian Rappoport reported possible intertest between current Cowboys head coach and the New York Giants should Garrett and the Cowboys part ways this offseason. If you listen closely to the wording Rappoport uses during the segment, it’s pretty clear this was something floated for Garrett’s side to give the illusion of interest elsewhere with his contract set to expire after the season. When viewed in that way, it’s a curious timing before a game against arguably Dallas’s toughest opponent. It looks even worse in hindsight after Garrett helped coach his team out of the game.

Garrett kicked three field goals in the game and all three could be considered questionable decisions. The first came in the second quarter when Dallas was already down 10-0. The Cowboys faced a 4th and 2 from the New England 28-yard line. Dallas had just ran a play with a designed rollout to the left that had Randall Cobb open, but Prescott missed the throw on the move. Garrett sent on the field goal unit for a 46-yard field goal attempt, a distance Brett Maher had already missed from earlier in the game to the other side of the field.

Per EdjSports, Garrett cost the Cowboys about 2.5% in win probability by electing to kick. A run or a similar pass used to open a receiver quickly could have worked in this situation or a run on third down could have potentially made a fourth down attempt easier, even if it had only gained a yard.

On Dallas’s next drive, the Cowboys faced a 4th and 5 from the New England 9-yard line. 4th and 5 is a little tricky, but this close to the end zone, down by seven points, the downside of missing is fairly limited. Dallas would still need a touchdown whether they made the field goal or failed on the attempt and a failed conversion would have put a struggling opposing offense on its own 9-yard line to start a drive. It’s a place where the numbers might not lean one way or the other, but the potential upside still outweighs the negatives with a failed conversion, especially as an underdog on the road.

Then in the fourth quarter, down 13-6, Dallas kicked on 4th and 7 from the New England 11. The kick itself was questionable, but the biggest indictment on Garrett’s game management was the three plays before. It started with a three-yard run from Ezekiel Elliott. Then on 2nd and 7, the Cowboys motioned to empty and the play turned into a low percentage throw to tight end Blake Jarwin in the back of the end zone. A similar thing happened on third down, this time to a covered Jason Witten in the end zone.

With a better grasp of situational awareness, the Cowboys could have called plays on second and third down that made a potential fourth down easier to convert. Dallas didn’t need to take a shot to the end zone on those two plays from 11 yards out. Even a gain of four on second down could have opened up more options for a third down play. This is something a coach like John Harbaugh has embraced this season and the Baltimore Ravens have greatly benefitted from both fourth down decisions and pre-fourth down play calls. But Garrett has never approached coaching in that way and it has continually cost his team.

There were other blunders during the course of the game with a big weakness on special teams. New England blocked a punt late in the first quarter and it stemmed from a weakness Bill Belichick admitted the Patriots tried to exploit. Dallas also struggled to field some kick returns while New England consistently kicked short of the goal line, which consistently caught the Cowboys off-guard. This falls on the special teams coordinator, but should also be something under the control of a “CEO” coach like Garrett. That’s his job, though it might not be in Dallas for much longer.

3. The week’s most exciting game: Panthers-Saints

The 34-31 New Orleans Saints win over the Carolina Panthers was wild, so we’re going to do a mini 1st and 10 for that game inside this week’s 1st and 10. 

(1) Brees finds a way

For stretches of the game, Drew Brees looked rusty and old, but finished with a more than respectable performance with a 79.1 QBR, 0.31 EPA per play, and a completion percentage 14.2% higher than expected. 

(2) Alvin Kamara can adjust

Kamara was ineffective on the ground with minus-0.64 EPA per play, a 36% success rate, and just a 9% first down rate, but he picked it up with his receiving ability. His 0.20 EPA per play still left a Kamara with an overall negative impact on the game, but his 67% success rate and 56% first down rate receiving were greatly needed when called upon.

(3) Kyle Allen stepped up

After a stretch of bad to terrible games, Kyle Allen had an impressive performance against the Saints. 0.39 EPA per play with a 77.1 QBR. It shouldn’t be enough to erase all the bad Allen previously showed, but it was a solid performance in a tough environment.

(4) Norv Turner remains an underrated offensive coordinator

The best thing about the Carolina offense is Norv Turner, who has been a great play-caller and designer since taking the role. The third down goal-line touchdown pass to Christian McCaffery to end the first half was a thing of beauty. Tight formation, receiver motion to free up the left side, and McCaffery uncovered for an easy score.

(5) Michael Thomas is great

More on this later, but Thomas remains the best in the NFL at what he does. He’s simultaneously Brees’s safety blanket and New Orleans’s big-play threat. He had 10 catches on 11 targets for 101 yards and a touchdown.

(6) The only way for the Pass Interference challenge to work is for New Orleans to be on the wrong side

On Carolina’s final drive of the game with the score tied, New Orleans got a third down stop on their own 5-yard line. Ron Rivera challenged for an uncalled defensive pass interference and won the challenge that set up a first and goal from the 3.

(7) Marcus Davenport is what the Saints hoped he was

Davenport hasn’t kept up his hot start to the season, but he’s still been one of the league’s most productive pass rushers. His third down sack of Allen pushed the Panthers back before their missed 28-yard field goal. 

(8) Brian Burns should play more

Burns is Carolina’s best pass rusher. He was 38th in pressure rate among 133 edge rushers with at least 100 pass rushes entering Week 11. He has one of the quickest get offs in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. He had a sack to kick off New Orleans’s final offensive drive, but then got taken off the field. Burns should be one of Carolina’s top edge rushers by snaps played and any play he’s not on the field, the defense is worse for it.

(9) The separation created by Michael Thomas

We already gave Michael Thomas credit for being great, but the separation he created faking an inside move on this 24-yard gain on a third and 6 during the final Saints drive was masterful.

(10) The final quarter of this game was insane

The fourth quarter of this game featured a Carolina touchdown to tie the game at 31, a New Orleans turnover on downs, a missed 28-yard Carolina field goal to take the lead, and a last-minute Saints drive for the game-winning field goal.

 

4. Oakland’s Bubble Busts

There might not have been a more surprising team than the suddenly competitive Oakland Raiders, but it always felt like there was a hard ceiling on the team’s play and a misstep was coming, even if mostly due to the rough travel schedule. Well, that finally came in an early start East Coast game against the New York Jets. Oakland put up just three points and allowed 34 in a blowout loss.

Jon Gruden had looked like a young innovative offensive mind over the past few weeks putting Derek Carr in favorable situations. But on Sunday, he was outdone by Adam Gase, who had himself a game. The Jets were running flea-flicker wheel routes and setting up wide-open touchdowns on screens while the Raiders had no answers.

Carr had a pre-Gruden Carr game in the box score. 4.7 yards per attempt with a 5.3 average depth of throw and a 2.3-yard average depth of completion. Instead of a typical quick passing day, Carr held onto the ball — an uncharacteristic 3.24 average seconds to throw — between a mix of being thrown off his quick game and trying to open something up downfield when nothing was working.

The loss, however inevitable it felt at some point with the number of East Coast starts and a trip to London, torpedoed Oakland’s chances for the playoffs. Per Football Outsiders, the Raiders now have an 18.7% chance at the playoff, a 31.8% drop from the start of the week. No team had a bigger loss in the standings.

But still, there already appears to be more hope for the Raiders going forward into their move to Las Vegas next year than most would have thought before the season. 

5. Tank Watch

With the injury to Tua Tagovailoa, there are now two clear prospects at the top of the draft, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow for the QB-needy teams and Ohio State EDGE Chase Young for the others. That makes the top of the draft order incredibly intriguing.

The race for Burrow might already be over, though, with the 0-11 Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals looked to be on the verge of their first win, but the Pittsburgh Steelers upgraded at quarterback when they *checks notes* benched their former third-round pick for an undrafted rookie in the middle of the game. Football Outsiders gives the Bengals an 80.5% chance at the top pick.

Miami and Washington are then in competition for the No. 2 overall pick and if you want to throw the Giants in there, they don’t look like they’ll complain. Miami had looked more competitive in recent weeks, but never had a chance against the Browns in a 41-24 loss. Washington snuck out a 19-16 home win against a hapless Detroit Lions team. So now the Miami, Washington, and the Giants sit at 2-9 and without another quarterback currently slated to be picked this high — one will get pushed up eventually — the best tank race might now be for the No. 2 slot and the shot at Young.

Week 16 might determine most of this with Washington at the Giants and Cincinnati at Miami. Flex both of these games to Sunday Night Football and run a split-screen. 

6. Shaquem In Seattle

No team is harder to understand than the Seattle Seahawks. They have Russell Wilson, who is great, but they love making it as difficult as possible for Wilson to lead the team to victory.

Wilson wasn’t consistently great in a 17-6 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, but luckily for Seattle, Philadelphia is in complete disarray both schematically and with personnel. Wilson had an impressive tight window throw to Malik Turner off a flea-flicker but he was sacked six times and finished the game with just a 20.0 QBR. But with Wilson, the team is always going to have more than a good shot at winning.

Maybe the most positive development for the Seahawks looking forward came on the defensive side of the ball with the continued use of Shaquem Griffin as a pass rusher. Griffin was drafted in the fifth round last season after his incredible combine but only played special teams. That was also the case in 2019 until last week when Griffin got a little play on defense — 13 snaps (16%).

This week with Jadeveon Clowney out, Griffin got more time to work on defense — 25 snaps (33%) and made an impact. He only had one tackle, but had two quarterback hits and was involved in a fumble he didn’t get credit for creating. Carson Wentz and Miles Sanders struggled with a handoff on a counter from shotgun but Griffin was so quick off the line, he hit Sanders and made the fumble recovery for Seattle possible.

Late in the game, Griffin got a hit on Wentz after a faked outside and rushed inside on fill-in right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

 

Griffin adds a speed element to the front line of the Seattle defense that really isn’t there when he’s not on the field. This defense, even with Clowney only came into the week 30th in defensive pressure rate. Griffin was a highly productive edge rusher at UCF — he had 33.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons — and this could be a perfect role for both him and the Seattle defense. Hopefully, it continues to grow.

7. If a game falls in a forest…

11 games were played in the 1pm Eastern window with just two in the 4pm slot. Because you were probably watching Cowboys-Patriots and paying no attention to Jaguars-Titans (good for you, normal person), here’s what you missed:

  • Ryan Tannehill continues to be good? He threw for 14.0 yards per attempt and had a QBR of 92.3. This sounds completely made up — and because this is a Jaguars-Titans game, I could make anything up and you’d believe it — it is 100% real.
  • Derrick Henry had 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. That’s great for your fantasy team, but didn’t impact Tennessee’s final score as much as Ryan freaking Tannehill.
  • The Jaguars’ offensive woes were no magically fixed by Nick Foles. Foles averaged 5.7 yards per attempt, had positive but below average EPA per play (0.04), and just a 36% success rate.
  • Leonard Fournette caught passes. Like a lot of them. Nine. On 12 targets. With a long of 27. I swear this is not made up.
  • The 6-5 Titans have a 41.2% chance of making the playoffs, per Football Outsiders. Tennessee or Indianapolis is the likely 6-seed.

8. PLAY OF THE DAY

Kyle Shanahan remains better at his job than you do at yours (no offense, I’m sure you’re great.)

9. Chart of the Day

Typically, we won’t use a fairly unimpressive chart here, but Terry McLaurin’s day could have been a lot better than this. McLaurin got himself open on almost all of these targets. McLaurin is so good and he’ll continue to get himself open. The hope will now be that Dwayne Haskins can get him the ball consistently.

10. Third-Quarter Awards

We’re now three quarters of the way through the season with every team except for the Ravens and Rams with 12 games in the books. Like we have at the other quarter marks, we’ll run through award picks.

Quarter-season MVP: Patrick Mahomes
Midseason MVP: Russell Wilson
Three-quarter MVP: Lamar Jackson

I don’t consider myself someone who gets swayed with the day-to-day conversation we now have about MVP, but over time I do think just enough has gone right for Lamar Jackson to take the lead on this award. He’s developed into a great passer. He’s easily the league’s most efficient and explosive runner and he’s on a three-game stretch with QBR’s of 88.8, 99.7, and 90.8. Now he’ll get another primetime matchup against the Los Angeles Rams and next week against the 49ers to cement his case.

Quarter-season Offensive Player of the Year: Keenan Allen
Midseason Offensive Player of the Year: Michael Thomas
Three-quarter Offensive Player of the Year: Michael Thomas

Not much has changed here. Thomas still leads the league in just about every receiving category and is still far and away the leader in EPA. This column doesn’t need more fawning over Michael Thomas.

Quarter-season Defensive Player of the Year: Shaq Barrett
Midseason Defensive Player of the Year: Richard Sherman
Three-quarter Defensive Player of the Year: Richard Sherman

I understand I’m probably still on an island here (and I would give no pushback on a vote for Stephon Gilmore) but Sherman has been vital to the San Francisco secondary. He came into the week third in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap and he helped shut down Davante Adams and the Green Bay passing game on Sunday.

Quarter-season Offensive Rookie of the Year: Terry McLaurin
Midseason Offensive Rookie of the Year: Terry McLaurin
Three-quarter Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kyler Murray

We just noted how good McLaurin is, but his actual production has dipped with the inconsistent quarterback play in Washington. Kyler Murray was on a bye this week, but he’s already developed into an emerging star in Arizona. The current roster hasn’t allowed for a full-scale offensive attack, but Murray has done great with what he’s been able to work with. He is fourth in EPA on throws of 20 yards or more, he’s third behind Jackson and Dalvin Cook in rushing EPA, and he’s ninth in Total QBR.

Quarter-season Defensive Rookie of the Year: Brian Burns
Midseason Defensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Bosa
Three-quarter Defensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Bosa

Bosa continues to make an impact. He’s 12th in the league with 8.0 sacks and tied for fourth in tackles for loss with 15. He still has some competition, though. Josh Allen has been just as impressive with less fanfare on a worse defense and Burns could get back into the picture with more playing time.