What to know from NFL Week 16: The Ravens are a wrecking crew
The Washington Post December 26, 2023
Week 16 delivered clarity through a series of sudden jolts. The MVP had a clear front-runner in Brock Purdy, and then Lamar Jackson snatched the award out of his hands with help from his defense. The 49ers were the NFL’s clear juggernaut, and then the Ravens blasted them off their home field. The 2024 draft order appeared set, and then a 56-yard field goal jumbled spots two through four.
In the NFL, clarity is always fleeting. Here is what to know.
The Ravens are the favorite. Teams have traded the title of Super Bowl favorite around like a hot potato for the duration of the season, and the Ravens will have to beat the Dolphins in Baltimore next week to maintain their place at the top of the league. But they left no doubt they deserve it with their Christmas night bludgeoning of the 49ers, a 33-19 demolition on the road that made Jackson the clear MVP favorite. The Ravens have led in the fourth quarter of every game they’ve played, haven’t lost by more than seven points all season and own a plus-173 point differential. They are an absolute powerhouse.
The Ravens throttled the 49ers’ luminous offense because they possess the defensive version of the 49ers’ offense: waves of stars at every level. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, linebacker Roquan Smith, safety Kyle Hamilton and cornerback Marlon Humphrey are all among the elite at their positions, and they’re supported by solid players everywhere within rising star defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s system. Their blend of experience, skill and brainpower led Monday night to five interceptions, four of them off Purdy before the Ravens knocked him out of the game with a vicious hit.
Baltimore’s defense cleared the way for Jackson to claim the lead in the MVP race with two games left. Unlike when he ran away with the award in 2019, Jackson does not own the typical statistical résumé of an MVP. But his renewed style under first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken allows him to hold every game in the palm of his hand. He patiently bounces in the pocket, darting around pass rushers and forcing secondaries to cover receivers for a relative eternity.
He ranks outside the top 10 in passing yards (3,360) and has thrown only 19 touchdown passes, but he dominates every play he is on the field. “Anyone that watches football and knows football and [can] see the type of impact he has on the game - not even stat-wise, but just individually,” Smith told reporters Monday night.
The Chiefs are not OK. There was reason to believe the Chiefs would snap the offensive malaise that enveloped them during the middle of the season. Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid have slayed every dragon in their path for years. Mahomes has been particularly adept at working new receivers into Kansas City’s system. Rookie wideout Rashee Rice was emerging more every week. They were the Chiefs, for crying out loud. Even Taylor Swift was on their side.
But Kansas City’s ghastly performance in a 20-14 home loss to the Raiders may have squeezed the last drops of optimism out of their season. The Chiefs gained negative-10 yards on their first three drives, surrendered two defensive touchdowns and generated 4.2 yards per play.
Judging by his style of play, Mahomes has no trust in his offensive line, his receivers, his play caller and probably his water boy. Often, he drops back and essentially disregards the play, his eyes on the pass rush and his instincts telling him nobody is open downfield as he drifts back and attempts to make something from nothing. The majority of snaps end with Mahomes scrambling near the sideline, making a throw that straddles the line between brilliant and reckless. It is no way to run an offense.
For all the justified hand-wringing over the Chiefs’ wideouts, the biggest difference in their offense may be the effectiveness of Travis Kelce. In his age-34 season, Kelce has been merely very good and not the best pass-catching weapon in the NFL. His decline, even if he remains productive, has exposed the Chiefs’ dearth of skill at wideout and left Mahomes without a partner who can take over games. Kelce’s 10.9 yards per catch is the lowest of his career, and he has surpassed 100 yards in only two games, something he did six times last season.
The Chiefs are 3-5 in the past eight games, averaging 19.4 points over that span. At 9-6, they have already ensured their worst record of Mahomes’s tenure. They are squandering a superlative defense; the Raiders passed for 62 yards Monday and scored on just two offensive possessions, both field goals. The dismal AFC West has kept Kansas City safely in first place, but the Chiefs will have to go on the road in the playoffs for the first time in Mahomes’s career — and they may have to beat the Bills in the first round to even get there. Bet against Mahomes at your own peril, still. But the Chiefs may be in for an unfamiliar reckoning.
The Cowboys still can’t be trusted. Dallas seemed like a changed franchise when it blasted the Eagles, 33-13, earlier this month, standing tall in a crucial spot against a quality rival. Then came the past two weeks. The Cowboys have wilted against the Bills and Dolphins, scoring 30 combined points and probably blowing a chance to win the NFC East. The Eagles have their own problems, but they only need to beat the Cardinals and Giants to clinch.
The simple truth is, the Cowboys are a different team at home and on the road. They are 3-5 away from AT&T Stadium with victories against the Giants, Chargers and Panthers while averaging 21.5 points per game, compared to 39.9 at home. That’s bad news for a team likely to spend the entire playoffs on the road. Given the Cowboys’ track record, they would be vulnerable against the Buccaneers, their projected first-round opponent.
Baker Mayfield is reborn. The Bucs were expected to bottom out, contend for one of the top picks and choose their permanent post-Tom Brady replacement in the draft. They may have found their quarterback of the future in a much different way.
The Bucs signed Mayfield to a one-year, $4 million contract with incentives, and he has shown flashes of the talent that once made the No. 1 pick. The Buccaneers are in command of the NFC South after thumping the Jaguars, 30-12, for their fourth straight victory. Over the past three games, Mayfield has completed 61 percent of his passes, averaging 269.3 yards, and has thrown for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions.
In his postgame news conference Sunday, Mayfield said he “would love” to return to the Buccaneers next season. It would make sense for Tampa Bay. Mayfield is still just 28, and he is on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards this season. The Browns gave up on Mayfield only after he played through a severe shoulder injury. The Panthers have proved to be a situation inhospitable to winning football. In a brief cameo with the Rams last season, Mayfield showed glimpses of his best self. Now he’s playing better than ever and headed for a home playoff game. The Buccaneers can clinch the division this week with a victory over the Saints at home.
The Rams’ high-end talent is still there. In what was supposed to be a year to reset the salary cap and rebuild the roster after years of chasing Super Bowls at the expense of the future, the Rams are 8-7 and in playoff position after their convincing, 28-20 victory over the Saints on Thursday. Rams General Manager Les Snead has received credit for savvy drafting, and he deserves it. The Rams have harvested quality depth in late rounds, and landing Puka Nacua — who gained another 164 receiving yards Thursday — in the fifth round was a franchise-changer.
But the Rams are winning mostly because the most important figures from their Super Bowl are still around. Aaron Donald is still a menace who makes the game easier for every teammate because of the blocking resources offenses must allocate to contain him. Cooper Kupp, though diminished by injury, is still an elite wideout. Sean McVay has proved he remains a step ahead on offense. Most of all, Matthew Stafford has been one of the best players in the NFL.
With Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins shelved, Stafford, 35, is carrying the torch for the Manning-Brady-Brees-Rivers-Ryan-Roethlisberger brand of aging quarterback that predominated over the past decade. Among the top 14 quarterbacks in passing yardage, only Stafford is older than 30. He still has the same explosive, elastic arm as ever. Would Nacua be an instant star if he didn’t have Stafford to exploit his skills? With Stafford and McVay leading the way, the Rams have won five of six and look like a terrifying first-round playoff matchup.
Let’s all stop doubting Mike Tomlin. The man who likes to say “the standard is the standard” offered a reminder Saturday evening: Mike Tomlin is still Mike Tomlin.
After George Pickens’s poor effort and the Steelers’ overall lethargy led to a three-game losing streak, many questioned whether Tomlin still had his usual control of his team. On Saturday, the Steelers smoked the Bengals, 34-11, to keep their wild card hopes alive in the jumbled AFC. They galvanized around third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph, who passed for 290 yards. Pickens, rightfully criticized all week, caught four passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including an 86-yarder on Pittsburgh’s opening possession.
The Steelers have must-win games in Seattle and in Baltimore to finish the regular season, a daunting task even if the Ravens could have the top seed locked up by Week 18. They still have plenty of questions, starting with why their offense looked so much crisper with Rudolph than with alleged franchise quarterback Kenny Pickett. But the notion that Tomlin was losing his grip on the steering wheel can be put to bed.
The Lions are hosting a playoff game. For any franchise, that would be a worthy accomplishment. For the Lions, it is earthshaking. The Lions won the NFC North for the first time since the formation of the division, clinching it with a 30-24 victory over the Vikings. They will play their first home playoff game since January 1994.
General Manager Brad Holmes and Coach Dan Campbell deserve credit for a methodical rebuild that took only three seasons. Holmes jump-started it with the brilliant trade of Stafford, acquiring a haul of draft capital and Jared Goff from the Rams at a time when the roster required a reboot. Holmes had been part of the front office that drafted Goff No. 1 with the Rams, and his faith in Goff even after a rocky season in Los Angeles has paid off. Campbell has fostered an aggressive, tough team and allowed handpicked coordinator Ben Johnson to build one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.
It would require an unexpected slip by the 49ers, whose 9-1 conference record puts them in the driver’s seat, but the Lions are not out of the running for the NFC’s top seed. No matter which seed they earn, no stadium will be louder or more joyous than Ford Field on the second weekend of January.
Bears and Cardinals
The Bears and Cardinals could have a lot to think about. When Patriots kicker Chad Ryland booted a game-winning, 56-yard field goal Sunday night, he may have upended the entire offseason. The Patriots’ upset victory over the Broncos dropped them to fourth in the current draft order, nudging the Commanders to third and the Cardinals to second behind the Bears, who own Carolina’s first-round pick.
Caleb Williams and Drake Maye are widely viewed as potential franchise quarterbacks, almost certain to be the first two players chosen. The Bears and Cardinals already have first-round quarterbacks in place, though each has been tantalizing enough to want to keep and maddening enough to justify moving on from.
Would the Bears rather have Justin Fields and another massive haul of draft capital or their choice of Williams or Maye and a few second-day picks? Down the stretch, Fields has shown improved processing and accuracy as a passer while still using the running skill that makes him one of the best ballcarriers in the NFL, at any position. Given how he’s playing and the ceiling he hasn’t yet reached, it would be difficult for the Bears to part with him.
In the end, though, salary cap considerations may make the decision for the Bears. They will have to pay Fields soon, with Daniel Jones’s four-year, $160 million extension with the Giants probably providing a baseline. They could build around Williams or Maye on a rookie contract. If Fields becomes available, he’s played well enough to create a bidding war among quarterback-needy teams.
The Cardinals face a similar calculus, although Murray has accomplished more than Fields, and his contract status makes him harder to move on from. The Cardinals appear more likely to build around their quarterback, but the coach-GM tandem of Jonathan Gannon and Monti Ossenfort didn’t pick Murray, and they may want to build around their own quarterback. If the current order holds, it will be a fascinating offseason with wide-ranging ripple effects.
The Bills have come all the way back from the brink. They did their level best Saturday night to squander an easy victory over the Chargers, committing three turnovers and blowing an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. Once Tyler Bass booted a 29-yard field goal with 28 seconds left, though, nobody had a better Week 16 than the Bills.
The Colts, Texans, Bengals and Broncos all lost, leaving the Bills as the only 9-6 team in the AFC. They have a 94 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to the New York Times’ odds calculation. If they can finish with victories over the Patriots and Dolphins, they have a chance to win the AFC East.
Buffalo’s performance was disconcerting in how it surfaced the issues that dropped the team to 6-6 in the first place. The Bills had surged behind running back James Cook, but he gained only 3.5 yards per carry and fumbled. They couldn’t assert themselves along the lines, a problem they had seemingly solved. If that team shows up in the playoffs, its late-season charge will become moot. But the Bills, once in danger of falling out of the postseason, now have one foot in the playoffs.