So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise. In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 13, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
The Texans show a verifiable ceiling
The Houston Texans did it. Two weeks after suffering an embarrassing loss at the hands of the white-hot Ravens, Houston slew the dragon. Bill O’Brien took down his former mentor in convincing fashion with his Texans delivering a full dismantling of the New England Patriots.
The Texans offense did whatever they wanted, for the most part, getting hot in the second quarter and never letting up on the gas. The once-unbeatable New England secondary looked anything but against Deshaun Watson. The Texans’ passer was nearly flawless. With a 72 percent completion rate at 9.3 yards per pass attempt with three scores through the air. He also chipped in with a “rushing” score, with a major unrecorded assist going to DeAndre Hopkins. A performance like this reminds us why Watson is just as talented as any of the top quarterbacks in the MVP race. He’s as true a difference-maker as there is in the NFL.
You cannot deny Houston has a floor. With injuries in their front seven and offensive line, those units aren’t up to the standard the team had set coming into the season. The secondary has been a problem all year and passers like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes have already shredded them this season. Those problems will give anyone pause about picking the Texans in a one-game elimination situation come the postseason.
However, with Watson, the Texans have a ceiling high enough to beat any team in the AFC playoff race. He is simply marvelous. No team has put it on New England through the air the way Watson did on Sunday night football. Nothing could have been more emblematic of Watson’s game than when Will Fuller juggled away a would-be second-half long touchdown and he went right back to Kenny Stills in almost an identical situation one play later for the score.
The Texans haven’t had a perfect regular season. They have a flawed roster. We can’t even give them the AFC South title yet with two games left to play against the soaring Ryan Tannehill-led Tennessee Titans. However, flawed teams with massive regular season miscues have hoisted a Lombardi Trophy before. Sunday night’s convincing win over the ever-looming Patriots reminded us that with Watson and a full arsenal of weapons, the Texans are as dangerous as anyone.
DeVante Parker rewrites the rules
We’ll never be able to write the book on a player again after the way DeVante Parker has rewritten his story here in 2019. The long-time fantasy bust has fully evolved into a genuinely good player.
With a seven-catch, 159-yard, two-score line in Week 13, Parker is pacing for 1,138 yards on the season. He’s Ryan Fitzpatrick’s clear No. 1 target and he’s been stuffing box scores for fantasy managers on a nearly weekly basis the last couple of months. Even better, Parker finally looks like the real deal. Jay Cutler once called him a “faster Alshon” when the now-retired quarterback began his ill-fated swan song with the 2017 Miami Dolphins. It took years but he’s finally lived up to that potential.
Parker put everything on film in Week 13. He won routes in the vertical game, tracked the ball like a maven and snared passes with ferocity from defensive backs covering him. Believe it: This is a real breakout for the fifth-year wideout.
Allen Lazard’s big game
Allen Lazard has seemingly been in Aaron Rodgers’ good graces all season. He’s pined for the second-year receiver to get more playing time, implying he trusts him over offseason hype bunnies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison. On balance, the Packers offense has been a good unit from October on, even if it seems Aaron Jones and Rodgers can never find a way to share the touchdowns with one another in a given week. So we care about major role players in this unit.
Lazard looks like he’s locked down a key spot here. He’s the No. 2 receiver for a still-running-hot Aaron Rodgers. At the very least, that means Lazard can punish cream puffs like the Giants secondary. He did just that with three catches for 103 yards and a score. Lazard isn’t a lock for a ton of volume but does get another great matchup against Washington next week.
The Bengals win
Andy Dalton was far from a world-beater in the Bengals first win of the 2019 season but he was not close to a problem. In his return to the starting lineup, he didn’t clear 60% in completion rate and posted a middling 6.6 yards per attempt but he did lead three first-half scoring drives and didn’t turn the ball over.
Here’s the deal: The Bengals are a deeply flawed team but they are not 0-16 bad. Cincinnati has incredibly real and serious holes in the secondary, linebacking corps, and offensive line. However, the defensive line and offensive skill position players are not sub-NFL-caliber. You can’t tell me that the team didn’t suddenly feel a jolt when they heard Dalton was returning to the starting lineup. NFL players aren’t dumb; they could see that Ryan Finley simply didn’t give them a chance to win. They also know Dalton isn’t perfect but has been enough to get the Bengals to life at times during his long run as the starter.
With Dalton under center, the Bengals don’t suddenly become a strong NFL offense but they won’t live in the basement as they did with Finley. We can suddenly feel a bit more comfortable with the predictability of players like Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd and even look down the line at some sleepers in the unit.
Todd Gurley’s big game
As Sean McVay closes out the 2019 season, he’ll be tasked with showing the world he can adjust. That he can find a counterpunch when his first move is taken away. It took way too long but he showed some signs of doing just that when he changed the Rams to a power-run team against the Bears back in Week 11.
It was easy to forget because the Rams got crushed by Lamar Jackson and company in LA the very next week, but Todd Gurley and the revamped offensive line delivered strong sustaining punches all night against Chicago. Considering the true juggernaut that Jackson and his offense have become, you can argue the Rams had a smart plan for the closing weeks of the season but just ran into a buzzsaw in Week 12.
Week 13 gave some credence to that line of thinking. Against another middle-of-the-road NFL team, Gurley was a monster. He dropped 95 yards and a touchdown at five yards per rush on the Cardinals. With a long run of just 11 yards, Gurley was that sustaining runner the offense needs. It’s clear that the All-Pro back isn’t the same physically. However, getting north-to-south seems to fit what he does best at this point rather than the old stretch zone runs.
McVay is starting to show some signs of adaptation. So far, it’s been enough to beat the middling Bears and Cardinals. It’ll probably keep things more competitive against the Seahawks and Cowboys the next two weeks, even if he’ll need far more than this to turn his team back into a contender next year.
5 Things I don’t care about
Tom Brady’s final stat line
Don’t let anyone look you in the face and tell you the Patriots played well as a pass offense tonight. This theoretical goofball may well want to say, “Look at the numbers, Tom Brady threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns.” That type of box-score analysis isn’t gonna fly. Not in this house.
How anyone could watch Sunday night’s loss to the Texans and not be slightly worried about the New England passing game is beyond me. Whether it’s Brady looking a bit more stiff than we’re used to or the receivers being a clear roster weak point, the issues are there for any objective eye to see.
The Patriots have clear strengths as a team. The defense is good. We know the secondary is well-coached and has one of the best players in the NFL in Stephon Gilmore. Deshaun Watson took them to task tonight but it’s the first time anyone has even truly moved the needle against them. As a team, they ran the ball well against the Texans. Sony Michel and James White each cleared 4.4 yards per carry and the offensive line is miles better as a run-blocking unit the last two weeks since Isaiah Wynn has returned.
Which team did the result of that game say more about?
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) December 2, 2019
Even with all those roster strengths and one of the best coaches to ever carry the clipboard, this team has a passing problem. Reinforcements are not coming. The group they have in the receiver room is what they’ll take into January. Brady is at a stage of his career where we can expect him to be human. New England can be a dangerous team but it’s unlikely to come via their aerial attack.
This isn’t some kind of “empire is falling” or “Tom Brady is finished” post. There are no hot takes here, just the reality that this great dynasty is in one of its final chapters. New England can easily hoist the Lombardi in February but it feels far from a given.
Since they are two of the best players in the NFL, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson have already gotten the best of New England’s rockstar defense. That could easily shift to the defensive side of the ball’s advantage in a potential rematch but we have verifiable evidence that the best passers in the game can gain the upper hand. In both cases, the Patriots offense wasn’t up to task in getting the best of a high-scoring affair. That’s likely to be the case in a rematch as well. All of that is just where we are with this team. The Patriots are clearly an AFC contender but do not look like a favorite at this stage.
Whatever the logic was to start Nick Foles
The Jaguars had a good thing going. Rarely does this team have something to get up for. It was clear as day that Gardner Minshew was giving them just that during his run as the starter. And yet, the Jaguars brass decided to turn the reins back to Nick Foles when the former Super Bowl MVP was healthy.
Since Foles returned after the bye, the Jaguars have lost three-straight games and were outscored 103-44 by the Colts, Titans, and Buccaneers. He has been far from the only problem. He has been far from anything resembling a solution.
With Minshew removed from the equation, it seemed like every ounce of juice left along with him. The fire that visibly seeped from Minshew to his teammates and down onto the fanbase has evaporated. For a team that seems bereft of any sort of identity since their AFC Championship loss two years ago, that’s problematic.
It’s almost certain the team gave Foles his starting job back because they believed in their offseason investment and wanted to protect it. Bad logic. My assumption was that the team believed that perhaps the Jaguars’ relative success under Minshew had less to do with him and more to do with the ecosystem around him being better than we imagined amid breakouts from players like DJ Chark and Leonard Fournette. Two and a half weeks with Foles as the starter was enough to see that was equally as faulty a theory.
Whatever reasons the Jaguars had for putting Foles back in there, they were poor. Foles probably would have been more valuable to the team if they could use him as a trade chip in the offseason but now he’s soiled his value. The Jaguars offense needs to be severely downgraded the rest of the season, even if Minshew reprises his starting role.
The 49ers loss
There isn’t much shame in losing on the road to the NFL’s most transformative figure in 2019. The 49ers were 5.5-point underdogs to Lamar Jackson’s Ravens but it took a last-minute field goal to send them packing. Outside of the win, it was as good as it could get for San Francisco. No one is taking a moral victory lap for the 49ers but there were encouraging signs here.
On offense, they stuck to their script. Jimmy Garoppolo was hyper-efficient with a 71.4% and 7.9 yards per attempt. He did all that while the Ravens took away rockstar tight end George Kittle. While he recorded just 17 yards on four targets, Garoppolo got all three of Kendrick Bourne, Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel over 40 yards. The running game was also white-hot against a stout Baltimore front. It just wasn’t with the back fantasy managers expected. Where have we heard that story before? Raheem Mostert stepped up for a slumping Tevin Coleman with Matt Breida out and took his 19 carries for 146 yards and a score.
The defense largely held the Ravens in check through the air. Jackson managed just 4.6 yards per attempt and held Marquise Brown to a single yard on two targets. All three of the Ravens running backs failed to clear 4.0 yards per carry. San Francisco was just the latest to find out that even when you limit two or more parts of the Baltimore offense, there is just one more waiting to deliver a final dagger. Jackson did that with his fourth 100-yard rushing day of the season.
The 49ers would have loved to get this win and sit more comfortably atop the NFC standings. However, if they were going to lose, this wasn’t the worst way to do it.
Sky-rocketing every running back facing the Chiefs
Josh Jacobs ($33) was the second-most expensive running back in Yahoo DFS this week behind only Christian McCaffrey. None of the risk was priced into his cost at that rate and I don’t care how much production the Chiefs give up to running backs — there is risk here every week.
Just like Melvin Gordon two weeks ago, Josh Jacobs watched his team fall behind in a hurry to a Kansas City offense that wasn’t even playing at peak form. That made his 6.1 yards per carry rather meaningless for fantasy. Sure, he got to 104 yards on the ground but consider he is mysteriously a zero in the passing game, that’s just not enough from a bottom-line fantasy perspective. The Chiefs pass defense is legitimately good. The coverage is solid and the pass rush can demolish inferior quarterbacks. With their offenses unable to move the ball and their defenses getting worked by Patrick Mahomes and company, early down backs like Jacobs and Gordon get limited too easily.
The temptation will be to rocket players like Sony Michel, Phillip Lindsay, and David Montgomery up rankings when they play the Chiefs the next three weeks. Yet, it looks like each of their teams carry similar flaws to the Chargers and Raiders.
Trusting James Washington
The Steelers offense fought back after falling behind early to the Cleveland Browns. That’s what having Duck Hodges will do for you. Unlike his predecessor, Hodges plays the game with a fearless mindset and is not the least bit hesitant to throw downfield. That’s brought life to the passing game and it’s most notable in the stat-line of James Washington.
After gaining 98 yards and a score last week against the Bengals (most of it courtesy of Hodges coming off the bench), he followed up with a 111-yard scoring effort in Week 13. Now, if you’re asking if I’m intrigued with Washington coming off these two games amid a clear quarterback upgrade going into a match up with the Cardinals, that’s an easy yes. Is it something you can trust? That’s another matter entirely.
Washington had just four targets overall. Hodges only threw 21 passes. There isn’t going to be much passing volume to go around in Pittsburgh, not while they’ve committed to a more power-run-focused attack with Hodges and Benny Snell in the backfield. It’s unlikely the Cardinals offense will make them come out of their shell with Pittsburgh’s aggressive defense in the mix. So, while Washington could rip through a defunct secondary next week, just understand: The margin for error is thin.