Week 13 is nearly in the books and we have a new No. 1 seed in the AFC and a potentially new one in the NFC, pending the result of Monday Night Football. There were surprises at both the top and bottom of the standings this week and we’ll get you all covered with what you might have missed and what you might need to know about Sunday’s Week 13 action.

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1. The Ravens keep proving themselves

The most anticipated matchup of the year took place on Sunday afternoon between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens in a game that put the league’s top offense against the No. 1 defense. The potential Super Bowl preview was as fun as advertised in a 20-17 Baltimore win.

One of the questions for this matchup was how, or if, the 49ers defense would be able to slow down the Baltimore offense. The Ravens’ passing game was certainly slowed — Lamar Jackson averaged just 4.6 yards per attempt and minus-0.02 Expected Points Added per play — but Jackson and the Ravens proved why they can still succeed otherwise.

With the passing game not working, Jackson led the charge on the ground with 16 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown. His rushing production was worth 0.30 EPA per play with a 69% success rate and 62% first down rate, per the Baldwin Boxscore. That type of value on the ground from a quarterback can save a game if the passing attack can’t be effective.

After last week’s blowout win against the Los Angeles Rams, former Raven and current Rams safety Eric Weddle said half the time he had no idea who had the ball on the Ravens offense. That might have been a bit of an exaggeration but it didn’t feel that way against San Francisco. Niners defenders guessed wrong on a number of occasions that led to big gains. When the defense crashed the running back, Jackson kept. When they held ground and worked to contain the edge against Jackson, he handed it off to a back. These are simple option principles, but against the Ravens, guessing wrong can be deadly.

Take this two-play stretch from early in the third quarter. On a 2nd and 1, the 49ers had a linebacker (Azeez Al-Shaair, 51) contain Jackson on the edge, but the quarterback handed off to Mark Ingram, who followed great blocking up the middle for a gain of 10. Then on the next play, Arik Armstead crashed hard at Gus Edwards, but Jackson kept the ball and had a wide-open lane to his right for a gain of 13. This is the type of stress Baltimore can put on an opposing defense on any play.

Getting San Francisco to commit so hard to any run action in the backfield opened up play-action for the limited success the passing game was able to have. Per Next Gen Stats, Jackson was 10-of-13 off play-action against San Francisco and while it only netted 85 yards (6.5 YPA), Baltimore’s lone passing touchdown to Mark Andrews was opened up by a play fake.

Through Week 12, the Ravens led the league in play-action rate (32% of plays, per Football Outsiders), but the big passing plays hadn’t been there. Baltimore was just 21st in yards per play off play-action and was one of five teams to average fewer yards per play when using play-action than without it (Baltimore was first in the league in yards per play without play-action). But the Ravens have been working it in more to the offense in an attempt to create those big plays and Jackson has at least 10 play-action pass attempts in three of his past four games.

Perhaps more important in this game than creating big plays, Baltimore did an excellent job avoiding negative plays. San Francisco had just two tackles for loss against the Ravens and Jackson’s lone sack lost no yards.

This was the fourth game of a tough four-game stretch for the Ravens that included games against the Texans, Patriots, and Rams. Baltimore now sits at 10-2 with the edge for the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a lighter slate of opponents to end the season — the Bills, Jets, Browns, and Steelers.

Football Outsiders now has Baltimore with a 67.1% chance at the AFC’s top seed and a 32.6% chance of winning the Super Bowl, exactly double the Super Bowl odds for the next best team, the Patriots (16.3%).

2. Houston stole the Baltimore Blueprint

Arguably, the Ravens’ most impressive win came against the Patriots. Then two weeks later they blew out the Texans. On Sunday Night Football, Houston took lessons from both of those games and turned it into a 28-22 win over New England that wasn’t nearly as close as that final score would suggest.

The Texans adopted Baltimore philosophies on both sides of the ball, which was not just helpful against the Patriots but could open up more possibilities for Houston going forward, regardless of opponent, and it was a great sign for a coaching staff looking to improve.

First, we’ll start on offense where the Texans used a number of snaps from pistol for both the run and the pass to give the Patriots a few different looks. The most successful play from pistol was the 13-yard touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Darren Fells in the second quarter. Houston came out in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, and one wide receiver) with a tight end to each side of Watson in the backfield and Carlos Hyde behind them. It was a new look for the Texans in both formation and personnel — Houston had used 13 personnel on just six snaps through Week 12.

At the snap, the Texans got most of the Patriots defense to bite on the run fake, which allowed Fells to sneak out the left side of the formation uncovered and run in for the score, which put the Texans up 14-3.

Watson also got a lot of efficient work in the quick game — 18 of his 25 pass attempts were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage — but he was also able to connect on a deep shot, a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills. That play took advantage of New England’s preference to double cover an opposing No. 1 receiver. With a single high safety, Duron Harmon (21) moved towards DeAndre Hopkins (10), which left Stills (12) in one-on-one coverage on the left side of the field.

Watson had a successful day against New England’s defense with 0.50 EPA per play and a 58% success rate. It was just behind Lamar Jackson’s day against the Patriots with 0.52 EPA per play and a 67% success rate.

On defense, the Texans got aggressive by blitzing Tom Brady. Brady has long been a player who beats the blitz, but that hasn’t happened this season. Baltimore is the most blitz-happy team in the league this season and while Houston is middle fo the pack, they turned up the pressure against the Patriots. Houston hit Brady 12 times with four from D.J. Reader and three from Jacob Martin.

Houston also played some games in the secondary by making extra effort to take away Julian Edelman and James White and dare anyone else to beat them. Edelman and White both found success, though mostly late in the game when the Texans eased off the gas pedal, but earlier in the game New England’s other options couldn’t come through.

With the win, Houston gave themselves a 62.1% chance at winning the AFC South with another 25.5% chance at a wild card. The Texans still have two games with the Tennesse Titans, in Weeks 15 and 17, which will somehow decide both of those races.

3. The Chiefs Have A Defense

During the 2018 season, Kansas City’s defense was the clear weak spot of the time. The offense put up points at a historic rate but the defense couldn’t stop anyone. The pass defense was 12th in DVOA, but the run defense was a league-worst. Luckily, the Chiefs scored so often, most opposing offenses never had the chance to run. This season, the Chiefs still have a fairly big pass-run split, but they entered the week sixth in pass defense DVOA and 30th against the run. In a 40-9 win over the Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs showed the pass defense can take over a game — something that wasn’t a possibility in 2018.

Kansas City forced Derek Carr into a number of mistakes, including two bad interceptions — one returned for a touchdown. Both included plays with sound communication and execution throughout the secondary.

The first came on a 2nd and 12 with just under four minutes gone in the game. Safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) had lined up in the left slot across from Tyrell Williams (16). But as Williams’s route went vertical, Mathieu passed him off to the deep safety as he jumped in front of Darren Waller’s (83) route for the interception.

On the second interception, safety Juan Thornhill and corner Bashaud Breeland (bottom of screen) talk before the snap to set themselves up for the correct post-snap responsibilities against a trips bunch. Thornhill read Carr and when he saw Tyrell Williams break inside, he charged on the route and jumped in front of the receiver for the pick and a touchdown.

Both Thornhill (draft) and Mathieu (free agency) were not on the Chiefs last season. Neither was Breeland and top corner Charvarious Ward only played 12% of the defensive snaps as a rookie last season. This is a reworked Kansas City secondary that has been able to hold opponents down when necessary and give time to a pass rush unit that has been up and down the season — the Chiefs were just 23rd in pressure rate through Week 12.

In this game, Patrick Mahomes only averaged 6.0 yards per attempt with just one touchdown pass (though he averaged a significantly better 0.46 EPA per play). Last season, the Chiefs would not have been able to win a game like that. They can this season, though they’ll hope they won’t have to again. And if the defense keeps this up while the offense gets back or even close to its 2018 groove, the Chiefs could be much more of a threat than they’re currently getting credit for in the AFC.

4. So, Are the Steelers Good?

This should be a fairly simple question with a yes or no answer, but the Steelers might just be 2019’s strangest team. At 0-2 with a backup quarterback, they traded a first-round pick, one that looked primed for the top-5, for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Then the defense started to come together but the quarterback was still bad. Due to injury, they won a game with the third-string undrafted rookie, but went back to Mason Rudolph when he was healthy. But then Rudolph was bad again and he got benched for Develin Hodges, who just led the Steelers to a 20-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Now the Steelers sit at 7-5 as the sixth seed in the AFC.

Mike Tomlin might not be the head coach you want making high leverage in-game decisions in a matchup between two top tier teams, but rallying an underrated group of players who could have easily quit earlier in the season for some unexpected wins is probably the exact type of team you’d want him leading.

One thing we can answer about the Steelers is the defense has become legitimately good. The unit was third in defensive DVOA through Week 12 and the Browns had little success against it in Week 13. Baker Mayfield had a QBR of 44.7 with minus-0.15 EPA per play. They also held Nick Chubb to just a 38% success rate on the ground. This is a defense that can keep the Steelers in just about any game.

On the offensive side of the ball, Hodges isn’t the answer to anyone’s question but against the Browns, he jumped into a strategy we previously recommended for Rudolph — go deep often. If you’re running an offense that’s already likely to be a low success rate unit, try to maximize the impact of the successful plays that do come. Against Cleveland, Hodges’s average pass traveled 10.9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which was the second-highest for any quarterback this week (behind Mayfield).

Hodges and the Steelers just happened to be pretty successful with this strategy on Sunday. Per Next Gen Stats, Hodgers completed 8% more passes than expected and he averaged 0.36 EPA per play with a 56% success rate through the air. He was 4-of-6 for 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception on passes that traveled at least 20 yards through the air.

Hodges isn’t going to be connecting on deep bombs regularly, but given the strengths of Pittsburgh’s current receiving corps, taking a high volume of shots is likely the best strategy, especially with the chance they do connect as often as they did on Sunday. 

5. TANK WATCH Update

With the college football regular season over and conference championships and bowl games left on the schedule, Week 13 was massive for shaping the top of the draft. Let’s check in on how our tankers did this week:

  • Miami Dolphins (37-31 win over Philadelphia): Miami was the original tanker this season, but the Dolphins have shown signs of life over the past few weeks. Ryan Fitzpatrick has been slinging the ball all over the field and while that can be hit or miss — he’s sixth in average depth of target and fifth in percentage of throws into tight windows — he’s unlocked the potential of DeVante Parker, who had seven catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. The Dolphins are now 3-9 and sit with the No. 4 overall pick.

 

  • Washington Redskins (29-21 win over Carolina): Washington also won against the Carolina Panthers with a crazy game on the ground — 138 combined rushing yards from Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson. Still, Carolina had a chance to win the game at the end, but Kyle Allen decided he didn’t like open throws to the end zone. Dwayne Haskins was better in his second win, but still struggled with 5.9 yards per attempt, five sacks taken, and a QBR of 16.5. 

 

  • New York Giants (31-13 loss to Green Bay): The Giants have lost eight games in a row and kept playing the hits in a home snow game against the Packers. Blown coverages on defense and turnovers for everyone on offense, though Sunday’s Daniel Jones turnovers were interceptions not fumbles, which according to Pat Shurmur is… progress? The Giants are now 2-10 and might be worse than they were in either of the past two seasons. They end up the week’s biggest winner by losing and now have the No. 2 overall pick with a 23% chance at the top pick per Football Outsiders.

 

  • Cincinnati Bengals (22-6 win over Jets): The Bengals got their first win of the season thanks to the return of Andy Dalton and a return to form for Adam Gase, who coached the Jets offense to just six points against a Bengals defense that has allowed fewer than 20 points just twice this season. The Bengals got the best of both worlds on Sunday, the win got that 0 out of the left column and thanks to every other team but the Giants winning, the Bengals still have a game advantage on the top pick with a 59.8% chance of grabbing it.

Future Watch: These teams will play a big part in how the others finish. The Giants host the Dolphins in Week 15 then in Week 16, the Giants play in Washington and the Bengals travel to Miami. It’s like the playoffs, but the exact opposite.

6. The Chargers Out Charger’d Themselves

By now you’ve probably heard enough jokes about how Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers consistently find themselves trailing late in one-score games. All Chargers games are the same, but all Chargers games are oh so different.

With 2:22 remaining in the game against the Denver Broncos, the Chargers had a 4th and 1 on their own 34-yard line trailing 20-17. The Chargers rightly lined up to go for it — even with two timeouts and the two-minute warning, there’s no guarantee to get the ball back — but then two consecutive false start penalties forced the Chargers into a 4th and 11. They still went for it, a pre-snap decision that boosted the Chargers’ odds of winning about 10% per EdjSports. 

On a failure, a team is almost better off giving the opponent a short field for a potential quick score to get the ball back rather than punt it deep and allow the opponent to milk the clock deep in its own territory to ice the game. But in this case, the Chargers converted with a 38-yard pass to Mike Williams.

The Chargers got all the way up a 4th and 1 at the Denver 29 with about :50 seconds remaining and while the Chargers initially kept the offense out on the field, they only tried to draw the Broncos offside. This is a place where, especially if a decision is made early, the Chargers would increase their chances of winning the game in regulation with a conversion. Instead, they let the clock drain and kicked a field goal to tie the game. These high leverage short-yardage situations become a tough place for the Chargers without the option of a sneak, something they’ve long avoided Rivers attempting.

After the score, the Broncos took over on their own 28-yard line. This is a place where many coaches would call for a knee and overtime and that was reportedly the original plan in this game before Vic Fangio vetoed the idea. Instead, the Broncos ran a deep shot to Cameron Sutton. This is something teams should do way more often. There was no downside to the play. With the score tied and only nine seconds left, a deep incompletion or interception doesn’t hurt the offense. The benefit of a completion or pass interference call far outweighs the negative possibilities, especially with a quarterback like Drew Lock, who was making his first NFL start.

Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward got flagged for pass interference and the Broncos got set up at the LA 35-yard line. They kicked a 53-yard field goal as time expired for the win. This was one coach playing not to lose and one coach playing to win. One coach won.

7. Unanswered Quarterback Questions

One of the big stories we want to follow through the offseason is the potential quarterback movement across the league. Strategies for two teams potentially got more complicated on Sunday. The Carolina Panthers are expected to move on from Cam Newton and the easiest way to do that would be to hang on to Kyle Allen and allow him to stay as the starter.

Well, Allen has been quite bad in recent weeks, showing his early record wasn’t a reflection of his play.  Against Washington, Allen took six sacks and averaged 6.0 yards per attempt with a 14.5 QBR. He also had the worst play of the week and maybe the season with whatever happened on the fourth down attempt at the goal line to end the game.

Allen is now 30th among 31 qualified quarterbacks in Total QBR this season between Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. He hasn’t shown nearly enough to be considered a good enough reason to move on from Newton in the offseason.

The other team already believed to have an answer, but Nick Foles’s tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars has been off to about as rough a start as possible. Foles was benched midway through a 28-11 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Foles threw a pick and lost two fumbles against one of the league’s worst defenses. He had a QBR of 1.1, which means a team would win behind that quarterback performance just 1.1% of the time.

Foles was replaced by Gardner Minshew, who initially moved the ball but also struggled to a QBR of 8.1. Jacksonville could potentially trade Foles in the offseason — it would open up $3.1 million in cap space — but the Jaguars might have killed any trade value by letting Foles play and look this bad.

Right now it looks like neither the Panthers nor the Jaguars have their long-term answer at quarterback on the current roster and that could potentially make this offseason’s quarterback movement even more interesting.

8. Play of the Day

A 4th and 1 touchdown pass from the punter to the kicker. The Dolphins have nothing to lose, so they’ve been playing every game like it’s the final game in The Waterboy and it’s wonderful.

9. Chart of the Day

The Rams were embarrassed the Ravens on Monday Night Football last week then bounced back in a huge way against the Arizona Cardinals in a 34-7 win. Jared Goff had some open throws against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, but he also had some impressive passes en route to 424 passing yards on 9.9 yards per attempt. His more frequent target was Robert Woods, who went everywhere for the offense with 13 catches for 172 yards on 19 targets. Woods made life easy for Goff by getting open early and doing most of his damages after the catch (80%). 

10. What is pass interference

Just when we thought we had a handle on pass interference reviews (it’s not getting overturned, so never challenge it), three pass interference plays got overturned in Week 13. All this does now is encourage coaches to challenge again. Reviews that come automatically — scoring plays, turnovers, or in the final two minutes — have a higher rate of overturn than in the general flow of the game. That might be the eventual solution to this problem, but after Week 13 we’re now left wondering what is and isn’t worth challenging after the first 12 weeks gave no hope about anything being worth it.