Judgements XIII: With Texans' help, Ravens move to front of AFC playoff picture
So now we can all agree. Baltimore is the team to beat.
The Ravens are the best team in the AFC, and they're the best team in the NFL. They're red-hot, winning their last eight games, have the most productive player in the game ... the highest-scoring offense ... the best kicker ... a sound defense ... and a head coach with a Super Bowl ring.
In short, they're the most balanced team out there. Better yet, at 10-2, they're the top seed in the AFC, thanks to Houston's defeat of the Patriots ... and, yes, that's a big deal.
Yeah, I know, I never undersell New England, especially at this time of year. There is nobody better in January ... or February ... than the Patriots. But they're sputtering when they should be accelerating, and they just lost to a team (Houston) that got destroyed by Baltimore.
Which brings us back to the Ravens.
Look at their play the past month-and-a-half, and maybe then you understand why they're the leader of the pack. They beat Seattle in Seattle. They outclassed previously unbeaten New England. They hammered Houston. They shredded the Rams in L.A. And they outlasted San Francisco Sunday in one of the season’s best … and most physical … games.
That’s five victories the past six games vs. opponents that are a combined 44-15, including three division leaders (San Francisco, Houston and New England) ... plus the defending Super Bowl champion.
In essence, the Ravens have separated themselves from the pack. Where the NFC playoff picture is an uncertain free-for-all, with five clubs within a game of each other, the AFC is pretty clear: It's Baltimore and everyone else.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
1. It doesn’t matter who wins the NFC East. They’re not playoff factors. The Eagles stink. The Cowboys can’t beat an opponent with a winning record. And if you’re over .500 you win a division title. Add it up, and you have a division that doesn’t deserve to play in January.
2. Carolina’s Ron Rivera just joined Jason Garrett, Freddie Kitchens, Pat Shurmur and Doug Marrone as coaches on the hot seat. That was the third time this season the Panthers were inside an opponent’s 5-yard line at the end of the game with a chance to win or tie. And it was the third time they failed. Only this one was different. Because this one was vs. 2-9 Washington.
3. Tennessee is a legitimate playoff threat. The Titans are an inspired team with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, going 5-1 since he took over for Marcus Mariota, including a defeat of Kansas City. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
4. Death, taxes and the Browns in Pittsburgh. Yep, those are the certainties in life, with Cleveland dropping its last 16 in Steel Town – the latest to a Duck, an undrafted free-agent who's the Steelers' third-string QB.
5. Change is not necessarily good. First-year head coaches are a combined 29-54-1, with Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur (9-3) the only winner.
1. If Super Bowl LIV is a replay of the 49ers-Ravens game, sign me up.
2. Baltimore’s second most lethal weapon isn’t running back Mark Ingram. It’s Justin Tucker, and, yes, he’s a kicker. The guy is absolute money when it counts, nailing 38 straight fourth-quarter field goals – including Sunday’s 49- yard game-winner with no time left. There is no kicker in today’s game I trust more.
3. T-shirt you want to mail Freddie Kitchens: “And Pittsburgh finished it.”
4. That Raiders-Kansas City game was one of the season’s biggest mismatches … and I’m not talking about the final score. I’m talking about the penalties. The Raiders were flagged 12 times for 99 yards, and the Chiefs … they weren’t penalized once. It was the first time Kansas City wasn't flagged in a game since Dec. 8, 1974, when they beat -- who else? -- the Raiders at Arrowhead.
5. It's pretty clear what's going on with Tom Brady. He trusts no one outside of Julian Edelman and James White in the passing game. And that's a problem.
6. Not sure which is worse – losing to the 0-8 Dolphins or the 0-11 Bengals. All I know is that Adam Gase and the New York Jets did both – making history. Pathetic.
7. If the Steelers reach the playoffs, and they would if the season ended today, Mike Tomlin gets consideration for Coach of the Year.
8. Since we’re piling on the Jets, let’s not forget that Adam Gase becomes the first team's head coach since Rich Kotite not to have a winning season in his first year on the job.
9. Let me repeat, Houston's Deshaun Watson was the 12th pick and Patrick Mahomes the 10th in a 2017 draft where Mitch Trubisky not only was the first quarterback chosen but where Chicago traded up to make him the second overall choice. Ryan Pace, report to the principal's office.
10. Got to hand it to the Chargers. They keep inventing ways to lose. All eight of their losses are by seven or fewer points, with Sunday's last-second defeat the most inexplicable.
11. Best team in the NFC West? It’s Baltimore. With the win over San Francisco, the Ravens were 4-0 vs. the West this season, outscoring opponents 118-56.
12. There is no overstating the importance of Houston's victory Sunday night. Bill O'Brien had been 0-5 vs. his former coach, Bill Belichick, and there was the feeling that neither he or his team could measure up to the Patriots in a big game. Well, Sunday was a big game. And O'Brien broke the hex. That should help both him and his players moving forward.
13. Adam Vinatieri is one of the greatest kickers in NFL history, and, yes, he’s going to Canton. But he stayed too long at the fair. With three more failed field-goal attempts Sunday (including two blocks), he’s now botched eight of 25 this season and guaranteed this is the last month of his career.
14. Now you know why the Raiders can’t be considered a playoff contender as long as they’re in the same division as Kansas City. Derek Carr is 0-6 at Arrowhead, with four touchdowns and seven interceptions, and Andy Reid is 7-0 vs. the Raiders in Kansas City. Plus, since 2015, the Chiefs are 25-3 within the AFC West.
15. Relax, Bengals’ fans. Your team didn’t blow the No. 1 draft pick with that win. Cincinnati is still a game ahead of the Giants.
16. Say this about Miami’s Brian Flores: He’s done more with less than almost anyone out there. The guy’s won three of his last five games, and he’s done it with Ryan Fitzpatrick and a cast of no-names. Of course, two of those three were vs. the Jets, so that mitigates some of the superlatives.
17. Buffalo fans can no longer complain that their Bills aren't taken seriously. NBC just flexed Buffalo's Dec. 15 game with Pittsburgh to Sunday night, replacing the Chargers-Vikings contest.
18. Since winning Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia is 15-15. Just sayin.’
19. You gotta love what Drew Lock did in his first NFL start: He not only won but became the first Denver quarterback to produce fourth-quarter points in the past five games. We don’t make ‘em up, people.
20. When the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn dumped offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt for Shane Streichen it was supposed to jump-start the Bolts. So what happened? Nothing, that's what. The Chargers are 1-3 since making the switch, and Phillip Rivers is a disaster – with five touchdowns, eight interceptions and rumors of his being benched.
MY TOP FIVE
1. Baltimore … Time to resurrect that "Baltimore's Best" city slogan.
2. New Orleans … First one to clinch a division title.
3. Seattle ... Could be first in NFC West by Tuesday AM.
4. San Francisco ... Next stop: New Orleans.
5. New England ... Maybe they should fly AB back to Foxboro in that second plane.
MY BOTTOM FIVE
32. Adam Gase … Losing to two teams that were a combined 0-19 is no way to go through life.
31. Cincinnati … So they won. It was the Jets, people.
30. N.Y. Giants … Pat Shurmur passes auditions for “Dead Man Walking.”
29. Detroit … Somewhere Jim Caldwell is having a good laugh.
28. Arizona … Someone tell Kliff Kingsbury to give players defensive playbooks.
STAT THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY ME
Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown touchdown passes vs. Philadelphia for seven different teams.
ONE THAT MAY INTEREST YOU
Dallas and Philadelphia – the two top teams in the NFC East – are a combined 0-13 this when trailing in the fourth quarter.
AND ONE THAT MIGHT INTEREST BOTH OF US
From 1970 through 2018, the Cardinals allowed 500 yards of offense 17 times. They’ve done it twice in the past five weeks, hemorrhaging 549 to the Rams Sunday.
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET WINNERS
Houston QB Deshaun Watson. In nine prime-time starts, he has 21 touchdown passes, three interceptions and one touchdown catch. The Texans are 6-3 in those games.
Miami PK Jason Sanders. He clinched the Dolphins’ upset with a 51-yard field goal with five minutes left, but that’s not why he’s trending. This is: He became the first placekicker since Jim Turner in 1977 to catch a touchdown pass, and if you didn’t see it, watch it right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C0D_DVos3I
SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET QUOTE
“As crazy as this is, I would say it’s a long shot, but we’re not out of it.” – Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson on the Eagles’ playoff chances.
SUNDAY'S GOLD JACKET QUOTE, PART DEUX
"I think there's promise there. I really do. I'm just not ready to put him in Canton yet." -- Denver coach Vic Fangio on quarterback Drew Lock.
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