maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): December football is upon us, and yesterday the NFL blessed us with a great slate of games. We’ll get to the tie between the Washington Commanders and the New York Giants (which I think we can all agree was objectively the funniest possible outcome), the Baltimore Ravens and backup quarterback Tyler Huntley squeaking by the Denver Broncos and Deshaun Watson’s return to football after a lengthy suspension for sexual misconduct.
But let’s first talk about the late games, which saw the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Kansas City Chiefs for the third time (!) this calendar year and the San Francisco 49ers’ horrendous injury luck get even worse. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot on the Niners’ first drive Sunday, and is out for the remainder of the season. Still, the Niners put on a dominant defensive performance and beat the Miami Dolphins (a team some of us had identified as a serious playoff contender last week!) by two scores. How did San Francisco pull it off?
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): From a big-picture perspective, the defense played zone on all but five of Tua Tagovailoa’s dropbacks. On the first play of the game, which was a home run TD to Trent Sherfield, they were in man. The Niners quickly switched out and it seemed to cause Tua to be uncomfortable all game long.
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): Yeah, it was uncharacteristic to see Tua make so many mistakes. He had as many turnovers Sunday (three) as he had the entire season leading up to that game.
maya: I was particularly impressed by how effectively the Niners took away the middle of the field. Tua has been feasting in that intermediate range, from sideline to sideline, but in Week 13, he really struggled in that intermediate zone and on the right side of the field. (To be fair, the Dolphins were missing their two starting tackles, which is not a recipe for success against this terrific Niners defense.) Though Tua completed a higher share of passes there, it’s not a region the lefty usually throws so many passes to.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Tua has been feasting on bottom-shelf defenses and finally faced a premium brand. I was not surprised he struggled. They’re a two-man offense and those men are really good, but if you take one out, or if one is hobbled like Jaylen Waddle seemed to be, I don’t see Tua or this offense grinding things out.
neil: And it’s not like they totally took away the Dolphins’ big-play weapons — there was that long TD to Sherfield, and Tyreek Hill still had 146 yards and a TD. But they neutralized most everything else Miami has been doing well.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The initial TD to Sherfield was over the middle, interestingly. This really was a missed opportunity for the Dolphins though. If you told me that the first play of the game would be a TD, that Fred Warner would have his second-worst coverage game of the season (per PFF) and that Jimmy G. would be injured, I would have said a Miami win was a lock.
Salfino: Yeah, I think the Miami defense was more exposed than its offense in this game.
maya: One thing that gave me pause was that Miami ran just 45 plays yesterday, the second-fewest plays in a game this season.1
Salfino: And beyond the play count, Maya, the Dolphins had only 28 “move” plays (runs plus completions). That’s terrible. They allowed Purdy (mostly) 59!
maya: That to me says it was a pretty solid offensive effort, despite the debut of 2022’s Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy. How did the Niners keep the Dolphins off the field?
neil: That’s Mr. RELEVANT now, Maya.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He had a Purdy good game.
neil: (We’ve got jokes for days with this guy.)
maya: Good, because it sounds like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think you have to tip your hat to Kyle Shanahan for orchestrating another solid sock puppet performance behind center. He seems to be able to call plays for these guys that put them in positions where they stand a chance. But also, to argue against myself, on Purdy’s very first play at QB, Shanahan called a play with five wide receivers, which is kind of wild. Purdy dumped it off short left, but that’s not a great way to throw a new QB in there.
neil: My question is, will Purdy finally help us settle the “Is Jimmy G. good?” debate? He did a solid Jimmy G. impression in relief for sure.
maya: I want to see another few games with Purdy under center, but it seemed like he was more amenable than Jimmy G. to those quick checkdowns (or perhaps they were called for him more?). Christian McCaffrey led the team yesterday with eight receptions for 80 receiving yards, the latter of which is the most he’s had with the Niners.
Salfino: I’m going to have to defend Jimmy G. here, as 5.7 yards per attempt is not a Jimmy G. impression. Garoppolo is all-time in YPA, almost always over 8.0 (7.9 this year).
Let’s just say it was a solid-enough impression.
joshua.hermsmeyer: We have defended Jimmy G. for the last time this year!
Salfino: I also think we need to remember how bad the Dolphins defense is. With a week for an opposing defense to prepare, it’s going to be Purdy ugly.
So let’s move to the Chiefs-Bengals game, which might’ve looked a bit different had Miami’s biggest playmaker been on his previous team.
Salfino: In the Chiefs’ two biggest games so far, against the Bills and Bengals, their top competition in the AFC, we’ve seen the loss of Tyreek Hill really hamper the ability of Patrick Mahomes to generate easy plays on offense. That was a Chiefs trademark. Now, against good defenses, it’s a real slog. Nothing is easy. They really have no A-game.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a couple things that jumped out to me in this game.
1. Mahomes was 1-for-8 for 19 yards and two sacks when pressured. Burrow was 4-for-4 for 48 and one sack. So Burrow and the Bengals responded better when things broke down. Burrow was also 6-for-7 with a TD when blitzed.
2. The Chiefs tried both man and zone defense against Burrow. He killed them with both. He was hyper efficient, taking what the D gave him against zone, going 14-for-15 for 162 yards — that’s 10.8 YPA. And against man, he didn’t have the efficiency (11-for-16) but he threw for two touchdowns.
maya: That’s super interesting, Josh, especially when you compare it to Burrow’s first year in the league! His improvements when facing pressure have been stratospheric the past two years.
Salfino: Yeah, Josh, that sack on third-and-3 really wrecked the game. Mahomes had a lot of time to get rid of the ball and was dumped for a 4-yard loss. I still would have gone on fourth-and-7 versus kicking a 55-yard field goal. They never got the ball back. He needed to live for the next play and go on fourth-and-7 there. That sack was a turnover, pure and simple.
Burrow making that throw after the two-minute warning into a very tight window for a first down to run out the clock was a signature play.
neil: And speaking of teams with explosive offenses not running many plays: After scoring that TD with 3:49 to go in the third quarter, K.C. ran only 12 plays the rest of the game. Cincy ran 28, while chewing up 12 minutes and 19 seconds of clock.
maya: We crapped all over the Bengals for the first few weeks of the season, and I’d be lying if I said I had thought much about them since October. But … this is a good team! What did we miss about them early on?
Salfino: The Bengals are probably the most balanced team in the AFC. They don’t do anything great but they do everything well.
joshua.hermsmeyer: With Lamar Jackson out for at least a few weeks, and Burrow playing like a vet, I like their chances in the division now.
Neil, where do we put the percentages?
neil: Right now, we have a very close division race — Ravens 54 percent, Bengals 43 percent (this is after accounting for Lamar’s injury). Cincinnati plays the tougher schedule over the rest of the season — fifth-hardest, per Elo, versus 12th-hardest for Baltimore.
Honestly, the Bengals might have been victims of the Early Season Perception fallacy … I feel like teams who come out of the gate with losses in Weeks 1-2 have to fight harder for respect even when they win later on. And it’s worth noting that Burrow is also picking up steam at the right time, playing his best football of the year recently.
Salfino: I thought the Bengals were MUCH better than the Ravens even with Jackson.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes Mike, and you thought the Jets would beat the Vikings.
Salfino: Well, if you would have told me they’d have 200 more yards and 1.6 yards more per play, I’d feel pretty good about that prediction.
maya: Guys, we’ll get to the Jets soon, I promise. But I want you smarties to help me understand why Burrow has picked it up!
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s things like delivering under pressure. Burrow ranks fourth in the league in raw QBR while pressured since Week 9, with a 70 percent completion percentage. League average is 47 percent. Now he could keep this up — but it’s not a great bet. Performance under pressure is one of those things that isn’t very sticky.
Salfino: Given how he kept the Bengals alive without his best weapon, Burrow has as good a case for MVP as anyone in the AFC. I’m not going to be upset if anyone says Mahomes, because Mahomes is better. But Burrow has been great and has figured out a way to play a tough hand after that terrible first game without Chase against the Browns.
neil: Yeah. I don’t know if it was rust coming back from that offseason injury or what, but Burrow has gone from middle of the pack in most rate stats early on to the top of the league.
And as you alluded to Josh, I like his accuracy in particular. Burrow was 22nd in lowest off-target throw rate through Week 5 and has been No. 2 since Week 6.
maya: Yeah, I think my issue with the Bengals has very much been the Early Season Perception fallacy, combined with the fact that they peaked so late last season. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I sort of thought the Super Bowl run was a bit of a fluke! Do they beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game if the Chiefs hadn’t had such a wild finish against the Bills the previous week? But perhaps it was no fluke!
Salfino: And Josh gets a big “RBs don’t matter” win with Samaje Perine’s performance, just sayin’.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Perine held the college record for most yards in a game, 427 yards against Kansas, breaking a record held by Melvin Gordon — who is currently on Kansas City’s practice squad.
Salfino: He was the top fantasy handcuff/upside injury play all year, I’ve been saying.
Remember the pearl-clutching when the Bengals gave Perine a big carry over Mixon in the Super Bowl? Like Mixon was Jim Brown and Perine some scrub.
neil: Perine is the Leroy Kelly to Mixon’s Jim Brown, got it.
maya: Let’s move to the Giants-Commanders game, the season’s second tie (and also the second 20-20 tie of the year). The Commanders, much like the Bengals, feel like a late playoff contender thanks to their impressive record and the effectiveness of their quarterback switch. Is Taylor Heinicke going to be the guy to take Washington to the playoffs?
neil: It is quite unbelievable how much better Washington has been since Carson Wentz went out. They have gained the most Elo points of any team since Wentz’s last start for them (which actually was a win, albeit of the ugly 12-7 variety over Chicago).
Salfino: I wouldn’t brag about tying the Giants. But the Commanders are sort of the NFC’s Jets. Good defense, good skill players, well-coached mostly but big questions at QB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Brian Daboll as Coach of the Year hype lost a bit of luster with this tie, but I give the Commanders a ton of credit. Moving away from Wentz at quarterback has been a blessing. Maybe the potential to move on from their owner is helping as well.
Salfino: Is this Heinicke or the defense and Terry McLaurin? I think this is a classic case of giving the QB too much credit.
neil: I think you’re right, Mike. Heinicke has still been meh — he’s just better than Wentz.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Until this week McLaurin was underproducing his opportunity. He was a solid buy low.
Salfino: I think the QB change is a coincidence (though Wentz DID NOT throw to McLaurin).
McLaurin is getting 30 percent of targets with Heinicke and it was 15 percent with Wentz — just gross.
maya: There’s a pretty clear hierarchy in terms of productivity, but there’s no denying that the combination of McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson have been effective. In an average week this season, they’re responsible for 48 percent of Washington’s total receptions and 59 percent of its receiving yards.
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When Dotson was out for a few weeks, McLaurin and Samuel couldn’t quite pick up all the slack.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s probably it, Maya. You need multiple receiving threats for anyone to really shine.
Salfino: McLaurin’s pace with Heinicke is 97 receptions for 1,400 yards. With Wentz it was 62-1,040.
neil: Right. It’s not that Heinicke is doing anything any half-decent QB wouldn’t. It’s just that Wentz was mismanaging that offense. And then their defense is allowing 5.2 fewer points per game too, that helps!
maya: For what it’s worth, we have Washington with a 69 percent chance to make the playoffs — 19 points higher than the Giants.
neil: I tell ya, Daniel Jones gets no respect out here!
Salfino: The Giants are dead with their schedule.
Plus, Saquon Barkley has been pretty terrible — 39th of 41 RBs in success rate (min. 100 carries).
neil: Yeah, Mike. The schedule is maybe the big thing. According to Elo, they have played the No. 1 easiest schedule to this point.
Over the rest of the season, they will play the No. 1 hardest.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If you believe in EPA as a measure of team strength, the Giants are still probably the better team. But EPA doesn’t know about their schedule the rest of the way.
maya: Those two games against the Eagles are probably doing a lot of work schedule strength-wise. Plus the Vikings, I guess?
Salfino: But Darius Slayton is a good player. Why he was buried by two coaching staffs for so long after a great start to his career for a fifth-round pick is a major mystery.
maya: My dreams of an entire division going to the playoffs are being dashed by the week. And honestly, I hold the Vikings at least somewhat responsible (at least for messing things up on the AFC side):
Salfino: The Jets got a big break with the Chargers Chargering in Las Vegas, at least. But the Vikings loss was super gross.
neil: This is our way in to talk about the Jets?
maya: Yes, Neil, it’s time to talk about the Jets.
Salfino: Let’s go!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I know you were disappointed that the Jets didn’t survive the ground on that fourth down non-catch in the end zone, but you actually wanted them to stay on the ground, right? Run the ball?
neil: And here I was going to say at least they went down guns blazing on the arm of the legendary Mike White …
maya: Fifty-seven pass attempts!!!
neil: And their last eight offensive plays were all White passes.
joshua.hermsmeyer: [I triggered a Salfino essay.]
Salfino: Yes, not running twice from the 1-yard line to win the game was dumb. Bam Knight is also a tough runner. Teams used to score less than 10 percent of their 1-yard TDs in the air and now it’s over a third. There’s an epidemic of passing there. I don’t get it. It’s not easier to pass near the goal line. Even the element of surprise isn’t doing much work. Teams through Week 12 were 58 percent passing there and 62 percent running. But again, the Jets had TWO TRIES.
maya: I really wish Breece Hall wasn’t injured.
Salfino: Knight had a 50 percent success rate and just made a great run to avoid a loss. Even two sneaks there is fine, though it was in fairness a full yard. But look, this was typical Vikings red-zone luck. I won’t go so far to say red-zone defense is a potted plant, but scoring or not is way more about the offense and the Vikings are just getting super lucky. All those field goals and poor decisions were on the Jets, who deserved to lose despite dominating the stat sheet.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Meanwhile the Vikings keep winning by being almost perfectly average. It’s an incredible display of positive variance in a league dominated by luck. This is the team you always hoped for with Kirk Cousins behind center.
Salfino: They get outgained 5.9 yards per play to 4.3 and win. Incredible.
neil: And it wasn’t even their luckiest win of the season.
maya: The Vikings have won all nine one-score games they’ve played. With five weeks to go, they really could break the league record for most regular-season wins by a single score, which is currently nine.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s an incredible accomplishment. Yay analytics.
neil: Who holds that, Maya?
maya: The 2019 Seattle Seahawks were 9-2 in single-possession regular-season games, though the record for most one-score wins without a loss goes to the 2009 Indianapolis Colts, who went 8-0 in their first eight such games.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Speaking of incredible accomplishments, Russell Wilson may not pass for more touchdowns this season than his house has bathrooms.
neil: Mr. Unlimited (places to poop) has met his match.
Salfino: What if he removes a bathroom? Problem solved!
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s OK to ignore Deshaun Watson like No. 71 ignored the line call on this play.
Him falling down at the end is the chef’s kiss.
neil: I know the Browns still won, but Jacoby Brissett would’ve done better. Just saying.
maya: Ugh. Very underwhelmed by the Texas-Browns game in general yesterday. And I came in with low expectations.
Salfino: Just talking about the football, Watson probably needs a few games to get reacclimated to playing. Though I hate that we’re even talking about Watson.
neil: I guess playing the Texans is the equivalent of a preseason tune-up.
Salfino: I want to say before we go, throwing it out there, that in a year where the AFC was supposed to be so dominant, the Eagles are by far the best team in football in my key stat: net yards per pass play for minus allowed. They are nearly a yard ahead of everyone else. If they just leverage that advantage by having Hurts throw like in Week 13 vs. all that pointless, minus-EV running like in Weeks 11 and 12.
BTW, Ian Rapoport is reporting the Panthers are expected to waive Baker Mayfield. Niners?
maya: The Niners already picked up Josh Johnson, though!
joshua.hermsmeyer: My goodness. Baker might be out of the league.
neil: Purdy is better than Baker at this point.
maya: Oof. How the mighty have fallen.
(Was Baker ever mighty?)
neil: (In college.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: He’ll always have the rookie touchdown record. Narrator: No, he won’t.
Salfino: Well, after his rookie year and winning the playoff game, I think.
Look, no one wants to say it but 6-foot and under is too short. Drew Brees was the outlier.
Wilson is showing he’s too short now that he can’t run around.
Yet who is the No. 1 QB prospect now? A 6-foot QB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Wait, is Russ bad now because he’s short!?
Salfino: Russ has to play from the pocket now and can’t.
He can’t see!
neil: And he has way too many bathrooms.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.