Following last night's Monday Night Football meeting between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints, Week 13 is officially in the books and just five weeks of the 2022 regular season now remain.
For those who are in the midst of the playoff battle, the stakes are being raised with each passing week. It's time for teams to perfect what they're good at, to cast aside what doesn't work and to lay down a marker or two that suggests they are going to be a serious contender come the knockout postseason tournament in January.
The Cincinnati Bengals did just that in recording a thrilling 27-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, marking the third time in a row that Joe Burrow has bested Patrick Mahomes (no other quarterback can stake such a claim). The Bengals are getting hot at the right time, just as they did in 2021. Cincinnati used a December win over the Chiefs to kick-start a run that took them to within five minutes of winning the Super Bowl.
And few would bet against Cincinnati being in the mix again this season following Sunday's hard-fought victory over the Chiefs. The Bengals have now won four in a row and are looking like a pretty complete team.
Burrow was very efficient and came up really big in a huge spot to ice the game with a killer strike over the middle to Tee Higgins. Ja'Marr Chase racked up 97 receiving yards after four weeks on the sidelines with a hip injury, Samaje Perine rushed for 106 yards in relief of the injured Joe Mixon and, for the second week in a row, the once-problematic offensive line allowed just one sack.
The defense was never going to dominate from start to finish against the number one offense in football, but they had some big moments; primarily Germane Pratt stealing the ball away from Travis Kelce. It was a huge fumble force and recovery that swung the game in Cincinnati's favour.
The Bengals are tied at the top of the AFC North Division with the Baltimore Ravens, who won but lost Lamar Jackson to a knee injury on Sunday. The two teams meet in Week 18 and I would fancy Cincinnati to take that division, even though they have the much tougher run-in.
As for Burrow, he deserves a seat at the top of table of quarterbacks in the AFC. He wants in on that Mahomes-Josh Allen rivalry and why not? He has ice running through his veins, makes massive plays when his team needs them the most and he and his teammates are hitting top form at exactly the right time of the year.
San Francisco's defense… The 49ers went into Sunday's contest with the Miami Dolphins being lauded as the top defensive unit in the league and rightly so. They were out in front in virtually every major category and boasted dominant playmakers on all three levels with the likes of Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga. The Niners knew they were going to fact a tough test with Miami's third-ranked attack coming to town. And things soon got worse when Tua Tagovailoa connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield on the opening play of the game. When Jimmy Garoppolo left the contest with a broken foot, San Francisco's defense needed to power the win. And they just did that in a 33-17 victory. They pounced for three interceptions, scored on a fumble return and recorded three Bosa sacks. The Dolphins had their offensive moments, but they were fleeting and the Niners defenders were the stars of this show.
The Philadelphia Eagles… The Eagles went into Sunday's contest against the Tennessee Titans facing one of the best run defenses in the NFL. So, how would the team that rushed for 363 yards against Green Bay the previous week flourish against a tougher test? They would show the rest of the NFL that they are as balanced as can be and capable of winning in different ways on different weekends. In a dominant 35-10 victory, the Eagles rushed for just 67 yards on 24 carries. But they totally abused a weak Tennessee secondary as Jalen Hurts threw for 390 yards and three touchdowns. Philadelphia are so well rounded and look Super Bowl ready on both sides of the ball. The defense recorded six sacks of Ryan Tannehill that led to a mercy benching from Titans head coach Mike Vrabel towards the end of this one-sided affair. The Eagles look to be the clear class of the NFC as we head into the home straight of the regular season.
Detroit's offense… Those words just feel weird when being typed out. But the Lions have been a fun watch in 2022 and they topped 30 points for the sixth time in 12 games this season. A year ago, I remember struggling to watch Jared Goff throw swing pass after swing pass in a Thanksgiving Day loss to Chicago. Fast forward a little over 12 months and the Lions are feisty, entertaining and still alive in the NFC playoff race. Who would have thought that half their games this season would produce 30 points or more? Sunday's game was about two teams playing towards a brighter future. And following their 40-14 victory, the Lions are further along in that process than the Jacksonville Jaguars. With the Los Angeles Rams slumping, the Lions are also likely to have a top five pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, despite their success this season. I used to think they would move on from Goff, but now I'm not so sure. He threw for 340 yards and two scores on Sunday and looks decent with quality playmakers around him.
The Denver Broncos… I know I'm beating the same old drum every week, but Sunday was a classic example of what is wrong with Nathaniel Hackett's team. Denver's played great defense for much of the game and were keeping backup quarterback Tyler Huntley in check. But it's hard to completely close down a contest when your offense keeps giving the opponent chance after chance to string one game-winning drive together. Russell Wilson doesn't throw many interceptions, but he also doesn't do much with the football. He threw for 189 yards, no touchdowns and no picks and the Broncos went three of 12 on third down. They punted seven times, scored just three field goals and lost 10-9 on Huntley's two-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds remaining. That sort of Jekyll and Hyde showing must be dividing the offensive and defensive locker rooms. The Broncos, who are averaging a league-low 13.8 points per game, have now lost four in a row and eight of their last nine. They are now guaranteed a sixth consecutive losing season. Broncos Country… Merry Christmas!
Derrick Henry… A week after he gained just 38 yards on 17 carries against the Bengals, the powerhouse runner who has owned the months of December and January in recent years rushed for just 30 yards on 11 carries against Philadelphia. Henry is at his best when he can get up a full head of steam and that is just not possible right now when the Titans are losing the physical battle at the line of scrimmage. Teams also don't fear Tannehill and the passing attack, loading the box to make life difficult for the King. He had a longest run of nine yards in Week 12 and just six yards on Sunday. No wonder Tennessee got so bogged down on the offensive side of the ball in a humbling loss to the Eagles.
The Indianapolis Colts… They got absolutely blown away by the Dallas Cowboys in the latter stages of Sunday Night Football, losing 54-19. And I'm going to cheat a little bit here and use this section to speak about the growing power of the Cowboys, who have now won five of their last six. They looked as complete as any contender in the league on Sunday as they rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns, while Dak Prescott also threw for three scores. The defense continued its strong season with three interceptions and three sacks. The Eagles against the Cowboys on Christmas Eve is going to have more spice than a bucket of mulled wine!
The Fast Five…
- One more miserable message to deliver to Titans fans and then I promise I will move on. In a clear revenge game against the team that traded him away on the opening night of the 2022 NFL Draft, A.J. Brown went off for the Eagles as he caught eight passes for 119 yards and two scores. By contrast, the Titans wide receivers combined for four receptions, 41 yards and one touchdown. What on earth were Tennessee thinking when trading away their best passing game option? Brown is a true star and his arrival gives the Eagles balance that was missing last season.
- The roller coaster ride that is the Minnesota Vikings season continued on Sunday as they jumped out to a nice lead (20-3 in the first half) against the New York Jets before needing a last-gasp interception from Camryn Bynum to secure a 27-22 victory against a spirited opponent who just would not go away. This is the world the Vikings live and excel in this season – they are now 9-0 in one-score games, which is the most for any team in a single campaign in NFL history.
- The Seattle Seahawks halted their two-game losing slide with a tougher-than-expected 27-23 win over a Los Angeles Rams team that is supposed to be mailing it in. It didn't look that way on Sunday but, in the end, Geno Smith was too good for the defending Super Bowl champions. Smith threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns as the Seahawks got themselves back in the NFC West race. They remain one game back from the Niners and play them in Week 15. Look out!
- I was watching the Buccaneers-Saints game in a Las Vegas bar with a group of British NFL fans and while it was by no means a classic, it turned up another Tom Brady classic moment. Held down for much of the game, he stormed to life late in the contest and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Rachaad White with just three seconds remaining. At least 10 minutes before that play, many of our group were convinced, absolutely convinced Brady was going to do it. That is the greatness of the man.
- Sunday was a good day for the Buffalo Bills. They had taken care of their business with a routine 24-10 win over the New England Patriots on Thursday night and could put their feet up and root for a couple of teams as the Week 13 Sunday slate unfolded. The Bills needed Kansas City and Miami to lose at the weekend and once that happened, the AFC road to the Super Bowl was, once again, re-directed to run through Buffalo. If they can stay on course, the Bills can clinch a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs as that conference's top seed.
Fact of the Week
The phrase 'It ain't over until it's over' certainly applied to Week 13 in the NFL. The Green Bay Packers (against Chicago) and Las Vegas Raiders (against the Los Angeles Chargers) each overcame 10-point deficits to win. The New York Giants overcame a 10-point arrears to tie the Washington Commanders. Expanding the 'never out of it' theme, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Seattle, Washington and Green Bay all overcame fourth-quarter deficits to win or tie.
I spoke to Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy during our pre-game show on Sky Sports NFL on Sunday and we talked about the keys to late-season success in the NFL. As I hinted at earlier, Coach Dungy said that you find out what works and throw out what doesn't. You want to be playing your best football at this time of the year and form and confidence can go a long way. But he also raised the fact that you need some good fortune on the injury front. The San Francisco 49ers have not had that at the quarterback position this year. First, they lost Trey Lance to torn knee ligaments and, on Sunday, Jimmy G went down with a broken foot. Rookie Brock Purdy is a nice story as the last player chosen in the 2022 NFL Draft, but can Mr. Irrelevant keep the 8-4 49ers on course? And when I say on course, I'm not talking about just reaching the playoffs. Given the strength of the defense and the number of skill position stars on offense, there is no doubt this was a team that boasted Super Bowl ambitions before Garoppolo went down. I'll be fascinated to see if Purdy can keep them in that particular race.