The best team doesn't always win the Super Bowl. That doesn't fit the neat and tidy narrative we want in sports, but it happens.
Sometimes it's just the team that can string together three or four good performances. The hottest team, rather than the best team. The Ravens pulled that off last year. The Giants have done it a couple times. The Packers were a wild-card team when they won the Super Bowl three seasons ago. It's getting more common.
The best candidate for that long playoff run this season might be the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers beat the Rams 23-13 in a game that was a bore because it was never in doubt. San Francisco dominated. But every 49ers fan understands that there were two major takeaways: San Francisco won to get closer to a wild-card spot, and receiver Michael Crabtree was back.
Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles tendon, played most of San Francisco's snaps in his season debut and looked pretty good on a 60-yard catch. He only had two catches on the day, but that's fine. He has a month to work himself back to his normal form.
The 49ers haven't been whole all season. The receiver spot opposite Anquan Boldin has been a hindrance to the passing game. Boldin is far better suited as a secondary weapon. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith missed five games with his personal issues, but is back and had two sacks against Washington last week.
The 49ers are obviously talented, considering they went to the NFC championship game two seasons ago and the Super Bowl last season. They haven't done well against the better teams they've faced since beating Green Bay in Week 1, but it is a much different team with a healthy Crabtree and focused Smith. They still have a lot of great talents like tight end Vernon Davis, who can do things like hurdle a defender to score a touchdown, like he did Sunday.
The 49ers aren't the best team in the NFL this season. They aren't even the best in the NFC West, because the Seahawks are running away with the division. But might the 49ers be the best team in January? Possibly. That's all that really matters anyway.
Here are the other winners and losers from Week 13:
Tom Brady: Remember when Brady was struggling? Yeah, that was fun.
Brady is making up for lost time. Over his last four games he is averaging 360.8 yards per game, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. His resurgence has come with a healthy Rob Gronkowski and versatile running back Shane Vereen back in the lineup. The Patriots started slow on Sunday against Houston, but Brady carried the Patriots to a 34-31 win with 371 passing yards.
There was a time earlier this season when the Patriots looked vulnerable despite a pretty good record. Then Brady started catching fire. Now they look like one of the few real Super Bowl contenders.
Roddy White: White tried playing through a bad ankle injury early in the season, and then suffered a hamstring injury. He hadn't had a game with more than four catches or 45 yards before Sunday, and that's from a player who has been one of the NFL's best receivers for many years.
It was nice to see White look like himself on Sunday. He had 10 catches for 143 yards in the Falcons' overtime win. He had 10 catches combined from Oct. 7 until Sunday. With a healthy offseason, hopefully the 32-year-old White will have plenty more games like he had Sunday against the Bills in his future.
Ryan Tannehill: There isn't any definitive answer on whether Tannehill can be the Dolphins' franchise quarterback. He hasn't done enough in two seasons to make Miami confident he can be a Pro Bowl-type player, but he hasn't been that bad either.
Sunday was a positive step for him.
Tannehill had 331 yards and two touchdowns and led the Dolphins to a 23-3 victory over the Jets that keeps them in the wild-card race. That's consecutive 300-yard games for Tannehill against the Panthers and Jets, two pretty good defenses.
Tannehill has been solid this year with 3,115 yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He still has four games to go, and how he does might determine how comfortable the Dolphins are with him heading into his third season.
Houston Texans: The Jaguars won on Sunday. So did the Falcons and Vikings. The Texans gave the Patriots a good run, but fell short.
And they'll be very happy about that in May.
The Texans are the only team in the NFL with two or fewer wins after the Vikings, Falcons and Jaguars won. Houston now has a clear path to the first overall pick. They would either take the top franchise quarterback off the board or Case Keenum plays really well in December (doubtful, but he didn't look bad against New England) then they can swap that pick for a huge haul. Either way, it's a recipe for the Texans to bounce back very fast from a horrendous season.
The Colts' offense: Indianapolis beat Tennessee, and that was necessary after the Colts got blown out by Arizona and St. Louis over the last three weeks. The AFC South race is over. Indianapolis has a three-game lead over the Titans with four to go, and the Colts own the tiebreaker.
But this still doesn't look like a team that is capable of much in January.
Tennessee allowed just 264 yards to the Colts, who don't have much of a running game (though it'll be better now that they've come to their senses and benched Trent Richardson) and an offensive line that has Andrew Luck running for his life most plays. Considering there's a very good chance we see a Chiefs-Colts matchup in the first round, and Kansas City rushes the passer tremendously well, that's not good. The defense isn't good enough to carry the Colts in the playoffs. This just isn't the same team that scored three wins against elite opponents early in the season. It's hard to imagine the Colts lasting until the second round of the playoffs if they keep playing like this.
Geno Smith: OK, the Jets benched Smith at halftime and still lost to Miami. Now what?
The Jets are going to have to figure out their big picture plan. Is it worth benching Smith for good? Rex Ryan wouldn't say what the plan for next week was. Would Matt Simms get the Jets to the playoffs? Would it hurt Smith's confidence to bench him permanently, or perhaps he's losing confidence by playing through this horrendous slump? Are they even sure Smith is the future? With eight touchdowns and 19 interceptions so far this season, maybe not.
These are questions the Jets need to answer. Smith should have been benched at halftime on Sunday. He was horrible. The Jets had 39 yards at halftime. That was the only logical move. Now come the tougher questions.
Marc Trestman: A couple weeks ago, it was curious when the Bears kicked a field goal before fourth down in overtime against the Ravens, because it seemed like muddy conditions made it a difficult try. But Robbie Gould hit the field goal and all was forgotten.
Marc Trestman's odd decision on Sunday won't be forgotten so easily, especially if it keeps the Bears out of the playoffs.
On second and 7 in overtime against Minnesota, Trestman sent out Gould for a 47-yard field goal. That's a pretty long field goal to settle for. The Bears have lost seven fumbles in 323 plays this year. Gould is a good kicker but there was no reason for Trestman to not try to get him closer. Gould missed.
The Vikings took the ball and drove for the game-winning kick, which drops the Bears' record to 6-6. The NFC North is practically out of reach, because the Lions have a game lead, the tiebreaker over the Bears and an easy schedule. The wild-card spots will probably go to the second-place team in the NFC South, and San Francisco.
"I didn't want to risk a penalty that would set us back similar to what happened (to the Vikings), or a fumble, something unique," Trestman said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "I felt like we were clearly in range and could get the game over."
It still doesn't make any sense.
Antonio Smith: It's easy, when you've lost 10 games in a row, to start looking for others to blame. It might be even easier to throw out a spying accusation against the Patriots.
Add them both together, and you have Texans defensive end Antonio Smith's postgame comments after Houston's 34-31 loss to New England, referring to the Patriots' second-half plan.
“Either teams are spying on us or scouting us . . . I don’t know what it is,” Smith said, according to the Boston Globe. “We had some ways that we were going to play this week that just got put in this week, and it was just miraculous that they changed up some things that they did on offense and keyed on what we put in this week to stop what they were doing.
“It was things that they had never done before out here. It just seems miraculous to me.”
Let's take a logical view of this. Instead of figuring that Bill Belichick (I'll still take him as coach of the year) and his staff made adjustments at halftime, Smith suggests that the Patriots were somehow spying on Texans locker room? Or what, had a mole on the team?
“You would have to be a descendant of Tonestradamus [Nostradamus] to know what we put in this week to be able to change that fast,” Smith told the Globe.
Or, that's just the sign of a good coaching job. That's probably not as fun as a conspiracy theory, however.
Every other MVP hopeful: The MVP race has been over for a while, of course, but it's still worth checking in on Peyton Manning's stats and pace after a 402-yard, five-touchdown game against the Chiefs.
Manning has 4,125 yards and 41 touchdowns through three-quarters of the season. That puts him on pace for 5,500 yards and 54.7 touchdowns. That is on pace to barely eclipse Drew Brees' single-season record of 5,476 yards and also beat Brady's record of 50 touchdowns. Only seven times in NFL history has a quarterback thrown for more than 41 touchdowns in a season. Manning has 41 with four games to go.
The MVP leader hasn't been in question since game No. 1 of the 2013 season when Manning threw seven touchdowns. He has been amazing all season.
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