December football has officially arrived. There are plenty of teams still in the playoff mix, but many are learning that the style of play must drastically change in cold weather environments. Division races across the league will likely come down to the wire. Detroit, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay picked up critical road victories, while Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Seattle took care of business at home. The results weren’t unexpected this week, but the way certain teams played may indicate which are destined for January and which will be watching the playoffs from home.
Flacco going off: The Ravens defense has been dominant all season, carrying them through some woeful stretches on offense. It appears that Joe Cool and the gang have figured it out on the other side of the ball now. Flacco was in rhythm from the first snap of the game on Sunday, lighting up a depleted Miami secondary. John Harbaugh said after the Cleveland victory in week 11 that the team might look back at that game as a turning point. He may be right. The defense continues to stifle opposing offenses, making Baltimore a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the AFC.
Oakland keeps doing it: The Raiders are like that kid in college who parties 24/7 but pulls all nighters before exams and somehow graduates with a 3.8 GPA. Nobody really knows how Oakland does it every week, but at this point it’s just what they do. They play sloppy and then kick it into gear with just enough time for an epic comeback. In this scenario, Derek Carr and Khalil Mack are the Raiders rich parents who bail them out of trouble every time.
The Bengals finally playing like the old Bengals: It may be too little too late, but Cincinnati finally played a complete game on Sunday. They made quick work of a reeling Eagles squad. It won’t matter much at this point, though. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are just hitting their stride and will promptly leave Cincy in the dust. Every team in the league gets hit with the injury bug. For the Bengals, it proved to be a crushing blow. Tyler Eifert’s return to form should give fans some hope for a bounce back season in 2017.
The Bears won with 11 completed passes: Give Matt Barkely credit, he out performed Colin Kapernick in the rain. Chicago rode rookie running back Jordan Howard (no relation) to victory over a bottom feeding San Francisco team. A week after giving the Dolphins all they could handle in Miami, the 49ers reminded America why they’re a strong contender for the number one overall pick in next year’s draft. Yes, the Browns are everyone’s favorite, but never underestimate a Chip Kelly coached team.
The Vikings almost beat the Cowboys: Anyone watching the game from home could clearly distinguish which was superior, but Minnesota took Dallas to the edge—and they did it without a head coach! With Mike Zimmer recovering from eye surgery, the Vikings showed grit and a strong defense, reminiscent of the first quarter of this season. It still wasn’t enough to overcome their decimated offensive line. Sam Bradford is playing great football, but no quarterback could win with behind that line.
The Buccaneers are making some noise: Winners of 4 straight, the fighting Jameis Winstons are a pesky bunch. They play sloppy almost every week and rarely protect the football, but they can score in a hurry and the defense can be dominant in spurts. Doug Martin’s return helps provide stability to the run game, which helps take pressure off Winston. They’ll need to be more consistently down the stretch if they plan to make the playoffs. Tampa Bay hosts the Saints next week, then travel to New Orleans in week 16 and finish the regular season at home against a deflated Panthers squad.
Things that shouldn’t have surprised anyone
The Jaguars lost: While shockingly managing to avoid a true blowout all season, Jacksonville is a paltry 2-10. Gus Bradley’s record is 14- 45 and given how high the expectations for this team were coming into the season, his firing will only be a formality. Blake Bortles isn’t playing behind a great offensive line, but he doesn’t appear to be the answer long term. There’s talent on this roster; they need a coach bold enough to make Bortles compete with another young quarterback.
The Chiefs and the Falcons put on a show: Kansas City plays everyone close, and Atlanta has proven they can score on anyone, especially at home. The Chiefs also pulled off one of the coolest fake punts ever. Andy Reid is coaching out of his mind right now and the defense is forcing costly turnovers from the opposition every week. This week, Eric Berry’s two interceptions probably buried Matt Ryan’s MVP campaign.
The Giants lost in Pittsburgh: The surprise here might be the score. Neither defense is particularly great, and both offenses can light up the scoreboard at a moments notice . Welcome to December football. Throwing the ball becomes much harder, and running it won’t prove easy for teams that haven’t excelled at it all season. The Giants are still a dangerous team, but they’re streaky. That’s how they won both Tom Coughlin Super Bowls, so perhaps a similar run is due. More likely though, they’ll fizzle out like the Cowboys of yesteryear.