Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 12: Raiders, Patriots remain on an AFC collision course
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Prisco’s Week 12 Musings
When the new year rolls around and January 19 hits, it will be the 15th anniversary of the Tuck Rule Game. It’s been that long since the Raiders and Patriots last met in the postseason, and this year certainly appears to offer an opportunity to end the drought.
That’s a bittersweet proposition for Raiders fans; the thought of Tom Brady beating Oakland in the snow almost always conjures up painful memories, but the success of Oakland in 2016 should heal some of the wounds. The Raiders fell in the standings despite a win, but it’s on a mere tiebreaking technicality — they have the same record as the Patriots and it’s hard to fathom just about anyone else squaring off for the right to play the NFC in Houston.
Both Oakland and New England are 9-2 after winning their respective Week 12 matchups, and these two teams offer substantially more balance and upside than anyone else in the AFC at the moment.
New England didn’t blast through the Jets Sunday, but it was a divisional road and rivalry game. Tom Brady didn’t bring his A game out of the gate, but he managed to find it in enough time to record his 200th career win, tying Peyton Manning for most all-time.
Brady lost Rob Gronkowski again, with the all-world tight end exiting with a back injury after suiting up to play despite a major lung injury suffered two weeks ago, but the quarterback has some weapons who are starting to emerge.
Dion Lewis (six carries for 24 yards, four catches for 34 yards) is getting more and more snaps as he returns from injury and Malcolm Mitchell is coming along nicely. The rookie wideout finished with five catches for 42 yards and a pair of scores, including the one that put the Pats ahead for good.
New England’s defense isn’t great right now, and they’re moving parts in and out on that side of the ball. But Bill Belichick’s got five more weeks to tinker with the defense, and given their schedule (vs. Rams, vs. Ravens, at Broncos, vs. Jets, at Dolphins), it would be a stunner if they finished worse than 12-4.
How they manage Gronk’s health down the stretch is worth monitoring. And so is Derek Carr‘s finger — the Raiders quarterback dislocated his pinkie finger late against the Panthers in Oakland’s 35-32 win, the latest in a year’s worth of high-octane, close wins for the Raiders.
The Panthers don’t have a good record, but they’re still a pretty good team. And Oakland got their best shot in the second half and still managed to win in a fairly balanced fashion. Carr played well both before and after his injury. There were some questionable coaching moves in this one (more on that below), but what stood out was the big plays the Raiders defense made when the game was on the line.
We know that Carr and Co. can light up a scoreboard — Oakland is a top-five offensive team in points scored per game. But the defense, particularly Khalil Mack, is coming alive a little bit in terms of making plays.
For instance, the game-sealing sack of Cam Newton that effectively snuffed out the Panthers’ playoff hopes and kept Oakland in the hunt for home-field advantage.
The sack by Mack secured an impressive Swiss Army-like day for the superstar that included an incredibly athletic pick-six of Newton before the first half ended.
Thanks to these game-swinging plays, Mack joins current ESPN analyst and former Raiders great Charles Woodson in a pretty rare class of production.
There’s a little bit of 2009 Saints feel to this team, right? That Saints team, which would eventually win the Super Bowl, started out 12-0 and dominated more teams than the Raiders have this year. Carr is not Drew Brees. But the Raiders can score on anyone and are a highly-explosive offense. The defense isn’t great, or even league average (29th in DVOA heading into Week 12), but the Saints weren’t great on defense either, just really opportunistic. The Raiders have a similar feel in a weaker league overall.
Carr coming back from the finger injury and continuing to wing sharp passes is a huge sign for a team with a ton of good mojo right now.
No one else in the AFC really comes close to these two teams either. The Chiefs and Broncos can play a lot of defense, so they’re scary, but they can’t score many points. The Texans are currently a playoff team and might be a hoax. The Steelers are the scariest team left, and they wouldn’t be in the playoffs if the season ended today. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)
History is fairly famous for repeating itself. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Raiders and Patriots became the latest example.
Here are six more takeaways from Sunday’s Week 12 action.
1. A familiar loophole
The Ravens are coached by a man with a lengthy history as a special teams coaching ace in John Harbaugh and it showed on Sunday afternoon. With the Ravens up by seven points and less than 10 seconds remaining in the game against the Bengals, Baltimore’s punting unit exploited an NFL loophole in order to prevent Cincinnati from getting the ball back.
It’s unofficially called the “hold everyone and run out the back of the end zone instead of punting” play.
It’s a genius move, and totally legal too.
It’s also not the first time the Ravens pulled the move off, having attempted the purposeful safety in Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory over the 49ers. It didn’t let them bleed the clock out because Chris Culliver got through to the punter, but the Ravens only saw their lead dip to three with just four seconds left on the clock.