NFL Week 13: Expert Takeaways from Sunday's Action

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystDecember 2, 2013

NFL Week 13: Expert Takeaways from Sunday's Action

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    Fans of the NFL had much to be thankful for this week.

    There were huge games in Kansas City and Philadelphia. The red-hot Carolina Panthers kept right on winning, while the Houston Texans found a new way to lose their 10th straight game of the season.

    OK, so maybe Houston fans aren't all that thankful. Enraged? Yep. Despondent? Sure. Thankful? Not so much.

    As is the case every week, we've asked each of Bleacher Report's National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers to give their takes on some of Week 13's biggest storylines and developments.

    Here's what they had to say.

The Philadelphia Eagles Are a Playoff-Caliber Team

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    One of week's biggest games took place in Philadelphia, where the Eagles moved to 7-5 on the season with a win over the Arizona Cardinals.

    The Eagles have had their share of ups and downs this year, but NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon thinks the win over a hot Arizona team establishes the Eagles as a legitimate playoff contender:

     

    The red-hot Philadelphia Eagles have won four in a row and are tied for the NFC East lead with the Dallas Cowboys, but by finding a way to beat the streaking Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Philly proved that it is worthy of a playoff spot.

    That doesn’t mean they’ll get in. Carolina and San Francisco still possess the NFC’s wild-card spots and Dallas has the tiebreaker advantage over Chip Kelly’s team. But those two will meet again, in Dallas, in the season finale.

    I can’t see this Eagles team losing more than one of their next three—they have Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago, with only the Vikings game on the road—and Dallas has three winnable games coming up as well, so there’s a very good chance that Week 17 matchup decides the division champion for the third straight year.

    But even if Philly finishes 3-1 and fails to win the division, there’s a chance the Eagles grab a wild-card spot with a 10-6 record. The 7-5 Cards automatically lose the tiebreaker to Philadelphia now, and the 8-4 Niners have a very tough schedule with Seattle at home and Tampa Bay and Arizona on the road between now and Dec. 29.

    What’s interesting is that the Eagles have also automatically clinched the conference record tiebreaker over the 49ers, so all Philly has to do is gain a game on the 49ers between now and the conclusion of the season. Considering the difference in their strength of schedules, there’s a decent chance that happens.

    How funny would that be? Two NFC East teams in the playoffs in a year in which the division has been roundly mocked for its ineptitude. It could happen easily. Dallas has finally discovered how to win up-in-the-air games and the Eagles have finally proven that they can beat quality opponents, not just the Tampas and Oaklands and Washingtons and Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bays of the world.

    In the AFC, the Eagles would undoubtedly be a playoff team. But they’re in the tougher conference, so there’s still some work to be done. If they can keep performing like this, though, they’ll deserve a shot to play in January.

The Future Is Now in Philadelphia

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    The Eagles may have had ups-and-downs, but it's been all "ups" where Nick Foles is concerned.

    The second-year pro's three scoring strikes against the Cardinals give Foles 19 touchdown passes for the season against no interceptions.

    In the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller, that deserves some props:

     

    Nineteen touchdowns. Zero interceptions. That’s the year for Nick Foles so far. And through six starts this season, one thing is very clear: Foles is the quarterback of the future for this franchise.

    When Chip Kelly was hired by the Eagles, many naturally thought he would be on the lookout for a mobile, dual-threat quarterback. Those people must not have paid attention to Kelly's offense at Oregon. Instead of needing a versatile QB, Kelly needed a decision-maker who wouldn’t turn the ball over and could make every throw in a wide-open playbook. He’s found that in Foles.

    The former third-rounder was a fan favorite in the loaded 2012 NFL draft class, with the major knock on him being a lack of experience at Arizona after transferring from Michigan State. He was given the 2012 season to watch, learn and play some while gaining the mental reps he lacked in college.

    Now Foles is ready, and his performance and production are showing fans why Kelly’s offense is in good hands for the long haul.

Bengals Run Game Could Be the Thing to Carry Them Deep Into the Playoffs

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    They didn't win many style points doing it, but the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers 17-10 to move to 8-4 on the season.

    With quarterback Andy Dalton struggling, head coach Marvin Lewis turned the keys on offense over to the ground game against the Bolts.

    AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst thinks that may well be a good idea moving forward:

     

    The Cincinnati Bengals got back into the win column following their bye week with a defeat of the San Diego Chargers. With the 6-6 Baltimore Ravens edging into the playoff picture by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, the Bengals could not afford to lose ground in the AFC North. The question was whether or not the offense could turn its pre-bye doldrums around. The defense and special teams had both been playing well but quarterback Andy Dalton in particular had held the team back.

    Dalton wasn’t a bright spot in the win over the Chargers, but the Bengals did find ways to move the ball. Their run game put up 164 yards of offense, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis leading the way with 92 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals rushed a total of 38 times against San Diego’s 17th-ranked rushing defense, compared to just 23 pass attempts for Dalton.

    Though there were times in which the Bengals held a lead significant enough to warrant fewer passes, the real accomplishment of the run game was to make up for Dalton’s error-filled day. Dalton completed 14 of his 23 attempts for 190 yards, a touchdown and an interception and had only 41 yards on five completions in the first half. He overthrew or underthrew a number of his receivers, was simply off-target on other passes, and merely flashed the talent that he displayed in October.

    If that brilliant stretch of play by Dalton is truly a thing of the past, then leaning on the run game is a good strategy for the Bengals offense. Dalton can still make plays—he has a slew of talented receivers, including A.J. Green and a pair of good tight ends, so it’s hard not to—but if the Bengals cannot put the game in his hands, running the ball is the only other option.

    The home stretch of the season and the playoffs are both great stages for the run game. Cooler weather in most outdoor venues, the desire to control the football, and the need to limit mistakes can make a good run game invaluable. With Green-Ellis alongside the shifty Giovani Bernard, the Bengals can easily turn to the ground if the air isn’t producing.

    It’s good for the Bengals that they figured out an effective contingency plan for their streaky third-year quarterback just when they are making their final playoff push.

The Chargers Blew Their Shot at the Playoffs on Sunday

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    The flip side of that Bengals' win, of course, is a Chargers loss, one that drops the team to 5-7 and all but ends their playoff hopes.

    In the opinion of AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen, Week 13 was just a snapshot of a Chargers team that has been all over the place this season:

     

    The San Diego Chargers got a hard-fought victory last week against the Kansas City Chiefs on the road to stay in the playoff hunt. They scored 41 points on the road in a hostile environment against a pretty good defense.

    But that was last week.

    At home against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Chargers could muster only 10 points. The defense has been a problem for the Chargers all season, so holding the Bengals to just 17 points would be reason for celebration had the offense done its part.

    Everyone had talked about the inconsistency of the New York Jets and totally forgot about a team just as inconsistent playing 3,000 miles away. The Chargers alternated wins and losses for the first six weeks before finally getting their first back-to-back win in Week 7 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    The Chargers were 4-3 and then dropped three straight games after their Week 8 bye. Just when we were about to write them off at 4-6 as they were teetering on the edge of disaster, the Chargers found a way to win in Kansas City and stay in the hunt.

    With a loss on Sunday, the Chargers are now 5-7 and have dropped four of their last five games. The the Chargers are still just a game out of the playoff race, but that’s a bit deceptive. There are six teams vying for the final playoff spot and the Chargers would have to leapfrog four of them.

    The tiebreaker is conference record and the Chargers could only finish 6-6 if they won all of their remaining division games. Their schedule includes a trip to Denver and home games against the Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.

    The 6-6 Baltimore Ravens are 6-4 in the conference with two games left to play against fellow AFC foes, and the 6-6 Miami Dolphins are 5-3 with four games left. The Chargers would have to win all four of their remaining games to get to 9-7 and hope that neither Baltimore nor Miami win three of their last four.

    San Diego’s offense has carried the team this season, but it was the offense that blew the team’s shot at the postseason on Sunday.

Vikings Give Lions a Big Assist in NFC North Race

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    The NFC North has appeared to be the division that no one wants to win over the past few weeks, with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers playing hot potato with the division lead.

    However, a Detroit win (over the Packers) and a Bears loss in Week 13 has given the Lions a bit of breathing room.

    As NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse points out, the Lions have an unlikely benefactor to thank:

     

    The Detroit Lions' impressive week got a lot better Sunday.

    Just three days after the Lions humiliated the back-to-back division champion Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving, the previously two-win Vikings came back and upset the second place Chicago Bears in overtime. The loss dropped the Bears to a disappointing 6-6.

    Detroit probably couldn't have asked for a better Week 13 outcome.

    Now 7-5, the Lions will enter the season's final four games with a two-win advantage over the Packers and a game lead over the Bears (with the head-to-head tiebreaker as well). The NFC North is clearly Detroit's to lose.

    The Lions can partly thank the Vikings, who overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and then survived a wild overtime period. Chicago blew opportunity after opportunity to put the game away, including a late fourth down with under two minutes left and Robbie Gould's 47-yard attempt in overtime.
     
    The Bears will now have to overcome a sizable gap in the division standings.

    Detroit can win three of its last four games and guarantee an NFC North title. Given how uncertain Detroit's scenario was ahead of Week 13, the results of the last four days have certainly inspired confidence that the Lions will win their first division title in two decades. 

Alshon Jeffery Continues to Develop at an Alarming Rate

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    The Bears may have fallen to the Vikings, but it wasn't the fault of the offense.

    Josh McCown topped 350 passing yards on the day, with the main beneficiary of that big outing being second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery.

    Jeffery broke his own franchise record for receiving yards in a game, and that second ridiculous stat line this year caught the eye of NFL Lead Writer Matt Bowen:

     

    Despite the Bears' second suspect loss in a row, Jeffery continues to display his ability to run the entire route tree in his second pro season.
     
    Jeffery missed time with injuries and showed signs of his inexperience last year. The South Carolina product had trouble separating from NFL defensive backs at the top of the route tree and his overall play was inconsistent.  
     
    Not surprising for a rookie transitioning to the next level.
     
    However, his production in Minnesota on Sunday (12 receptions, 249 yards, two touchdowns) is just another example of how much he has improved this year in Marc Trestman’s offense.
     
    From my experience in the league, the majority of pro ballplayers make their biggest jump from a developmental perspective going into their second seasons. Instead of training for the combine and pro days, players have a full offseason to study the tape, work on their craft, and improve their overall technique to meet NFL standards.
     
    Jeffery has learned how to use his size to create separation on inside breaking cuts, he consistently high-points the football, and his catch radius is as good as any wide receiver in the NFL right now.
     
    Within Trestman’s playbook, Jeffery is utilized in the short to intermediate route tree and he will also test the top of the defense in the vertical passing game (corner post-fade).
     
    That was on display versus the Vikings and it’s a reminder of what Jeffery is capable of when we look at his skill set and development this year.

Development of Panthers Receivers and Newton, Makes Carolina NFL’s Scariest Team

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    If you're a regular reader of NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter (and if you're not, you should be), then you know that he's not shy about climbing out on the proverbial limb.

    Well, Schalter is at it again this week, with a pick for the NFL's most dangerous team that many might not expect:

     

    Cam Newton has been the centerpiece of the Carolina Panthers offense from the instant he was drafted. From his very first game, Newton’s unparalleled combination of size, speed, power and arm has been the straw that stirs the Panthers’ drink.

    Complemented by, and part of, the multi-headed Panthers rushing attack, and gifted with a tough, crafty target in receiver Steve Smith, Newton has had nearly everything a quarterback needs to succeed.

    Everything, that is, except the role-playing wideouts that can stretch the field vertically, get open in space and move the chains when the No. 1 option is covered—or in something less than peak form (as the mercurial Smith often is).

    The maturation of Brandon LaFell and the redemption of former top-10 pick Ted Ginn Jr. have given Newton the secondary weapons he’s never really had. The two combined for five catches, 83 yards and two touchdowns—most spectacularly, Ginn’s 36-yard third-quarter score.

    Those numbers aren’t overwhelming. Combined with reliable tight end Greg Olsen’s five catches for 85 yards, though, and Smith’s three for 51, they prove Newton—blessed with legitimate receiving options that defenses are forced to respect—can not only beat defenses with his size, speed, power and arm, he can beat them with his brain.

    That, and the NFL’s best defense, make Carolina the scariest team in the NFL.

Positive Veteran Performances Raise Hope for Falcons in 2014

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    Let's just call it like it is. The 2013 season has been a complete, total and raging dumpster fire for the Atlanta Falcons.

    With that said, NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen saw some things to like in Atlanta's 34-31 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills in Toronto:

     

    There isn’t too much to savor about the Atlanta Falcons’ 3-9 season of despair. In fact, the end of the season can’t get here quickly enough because that will allow some sort of weight to lift off the shoulders of the players and coaches.
     
    Games like Sunday’s win over the Buffalo Bills will make the offseason a little easier.
     
    Atlanta’s overtime win will give a taste of what could have been, but what’s more important, what’s going to come in 2014 with the Falcons. Roddy White, who has missed part of the season and spent the other part playing hurt, looked like his old Pro Bowl self. He caught 10 passes for 143 yards, and the Week 13 performance will give hope for next season.
     
    Running back Steven Jackson scored two rushing touchdowns and gained 84 yards on the ground. The sought-after free agent has looked like a bust for most of his time in Atlanta, but Sunday’s performance gives hope for 2014. Could Jackson experience a resurgence next season where the entire season looks a lot like Sunday’s game in Toronto against the Bills?
     
    Atlanta has a lot of work to do in the offseason and many holes and problems to fix. With White looking better and Jackson beginning to come alive, there’s a lot to look forward to in 2014.

Wholesale Changes Lie Ahead for Jets

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    For a time, it appeared the New York Jets might turn out to be one of this year's pleasant surprises.

    However, as the offense grows more stagnant by the week and the losses mount, the Jets are looking more and more like the team we thought we'd see this year.

    According to AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz, this midseason swoon portends big changes coming for Gang Green:

     

    Rex Ryan’s future isn’t attached to Geno Smith, but the head coach and the quarterback are both on a downward trajectory that could spell the end of each with the Jets.

    There has not been a worse quarterback in the NFL this year than Smith. The last time he had a good game was the last time the Jets won because of their quarterback, not just in spite of him. Once considered the top quarterback prospect in the 2013 draft class, Smith slipped at a staggering rate, but there was enough physical talent for the Jets to take a chance on him in the second round.

    Should the Jets be surprised it hasn’t worked out? Aside from Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, drafting a quarterback after the first round hasn’t been a profitable situation in recent years. Jimmy Clausen, Pat White, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, Kevin Kolb, Drew Stanton and a host of others have failed to develop into long-term starters with Pro Bowl potential.

    General manager John Idzik was part of the brain trust with the Seattle Seahawks when they drafted Wilson in the third round in 2012, and the hope was that Smith would develop in a similar way. That has not been the case, and while they’ve learned a lot about Smith in the process, they’ve also been reminded that next year doesn’t have to be this way.

    If the benching of Smith was a sign of bigger things to come, it’s not the end of the world. In at least a couple of cases—the Panthers with Clausen to Cam Newton, the Eagles with Kolb to Michael Vick—the franchise went on to bigger and better things in short order.

    If Idzik has ties to anyone, it’s certainly not Ryan. Sure, he gave his head coach a vote of confidence in early November, saying Rex has done “very well” and that it’s been “great” working with him, but also said he’s “living in the moment” this season. At the moment, the Jets are on a three-game losing streak, have fallen out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season and are once again fielding one of the league’s worst offenses.

    The Jets were never expected to make the playoffs, but with no tangible signs of improvement, it might be hard for Idzik to justify hanging onto the coach he didn’t pick in the first place.

Despite Sunday's Win, 49ers Offense Needs to Do More in Certain Situations

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    Just as it often has for past Super Bowl losers, the 2013 season has had its share of bumps in the road for the San Francisco 49ers.

    The Niners downed St. Louis 23-13 in Week 13 for their second straight win. But as NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland writes, the offensive issues that have plagued San Francisco in 2013 have not completely been resolved:

     

    After two straight losses to the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, head coach Jim Harbaugh rallied his troops. Instead of letting the San Francisco 49ers continue their downward spiral, he forced creativity on the defensive side of the ball and simplified the offense’s plan of attack.

    Lo and behold, the change in strategy has led to back-to-back wins over the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams. Even though both teams are far from playoff contention, both games were must-win contests. The 49ers need to win every game possible considering they are fighting for their life to own the final wild-card spot in the NFC.

    However, the change is strategy doesn’t mean everything is now perfect for quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense. There are still a couple of key areas this unit needs to improve upon over the course of the final four games of the season.

    Amid San Francisco’s two-game winning streak, the Niners are 8-of-26 on third down and 5-of-8 in the red zone. The team’s red-zone numbers are on par with their season average, but better play-calling and execution is needed on third down.

    When the playoffs roll around, a 31 percent conversion rate on third down isn’t going to be good enough. To effectively sustain drives and put more points on the board, the 49ers will need to successfully garner a first down 40 percent of the time on third down.

    At the end of San Francisco’s incredible playoff run last year, Greg Roman’s offense converted 43 percent of the time on third down. As wide receiver Michael Crabtree continues to find his rhythm, expect things to continuously get better.

    In the meantime, fans should be concerned about the team’s lack of execution on third down.

With Playoffs Looming, Colts Have Four Weeks to Figure Out Who They Are

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    It wasn't that long ago that the Indianapolis Colts were riding high. They were the giant-slayers who had beaten the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.

    Granted, the Colts are 8-4 and running away with the AFC South. However, NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey doesn't exactly see the Broncos or New England Patriots quaking in their boots at the thought of facing the Colts in the postseason:

     

    Whoever the Indianapolis Colts are right now isn’t going to scare any contender come playoff time.

    2013 has been the tale of two seasons for the Colts. The loss of wide receiver Reggie Wayne led this team toward ineptitude on offense and a seriously overburdened defense. Even Andrew Luck—the wunderkind himself—has struggled this season. It isn’t just the lack of help around him, he’s made poor decisions that have hurt his team.

    Part of that, though, has to be the pressure of trying to do it all, when there’s so little to trust in the absence of Wayne. Drops have stymied the Colts offense, and the running game has been absolutely horrible. Yet, there’s offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton still chipping away in the run game and taking shots designed for wide receivers who couldn’t catch a cold in the Midwest in December.

    The Colts are headed to the playoffs—likely as the AFC South champion—so life isn’t all bad.

    With games left against Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City and Jacksonville, things aren’t exactly going to be easy for Indianapolis. It’s possible that things get interesting down the stretch in terms of seeding, but there really isn’t a challenger for their playoff spot.

    The bright side is that the Colts have some leeway. They can tinker with their offensive line. They can test out wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers on some extended time with the starters. They can put in new sets for Luck and others to improve the offense. They can do all these things, but will they?

    If they simply toddle into the playoffs identical to the team they are now, it will be a quick one-and-done. Right now, this team is not ready for the bright lights of January.