So much for that narrative.
The New England Patriots are no longer merely surviving the second season of the post-Tom Brady era. With six consecutive victories – five coming by 18 or more points – the NFL’s most successful team of the 21st century finds itself in a most familiar position as the calendar turns to December.
New England currently resides in the No. 2 spot in the AFC by virtue of last week’s dismantling of Tennessee, a result that in turn knocked the injury-riddled Titans out of the conference lead and left the ever-resilient Baltimore Ravens standing as the new team to catch.
It’s still a very fluid situation, however, with six weeks to go in this expanded 2021 season. Just ask the Buffalo Bills.
It wasn’t all that long ago when the Bills held the title of AFC favorites based on a four-game winning streak that mirrored New England’s present run in terms of its dominance. That surge has been followed by a 3-3 stretch in which Buffalo’s play has ranged from uneven to just plain bad, with a punchless loss to lowly Jacksonville in Week 9 and a blowout home defeat to Indianapolis two Sundays later the clear lowlights.
The Patriots’ rise and the Bills’ struggles have collaborated to make Monday night’s clash between the AFC East rivals one of the most important games of the Week 13 schedule, as well as one of the three feature matchups of this weekly segment. We’ll also break down the Ravens’ visit to Pittsburgh to take on the slumping but still-relevant Steelers, a game that could go a long way in ultimately determining who comes out on top of a tightly bunched AFC North.
We’ll also spotlight a key divisional game on the NFC side as that conference’s hottest team, the San Francisco 49ers, heads to Seattle for a showdown that could be among the most competitive of this week’s docket despite the Seahawks’ recent downturn.
Here’s a glimpse of what could happen during the next chapter of a season that’s shown us time and time again it’s best to expect the unexpected.
Baltimore Ravens (8-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1); Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS
Line: Ravens by 4.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Ravens 51%
Why to Watch: It’s one of the NFL’s best rivalries for one, with these two hated foes having a long history of playing tight games. John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin have gone head-to-head 26 times previously in regular-season play, and 20 of those contests were decided by seven points or fewer.
Close finishes also have been nothing new for the 2021 Ravens, whose seven games decided by six points or less are tied with the Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings for the most of any team this season. Baltimore is an astounding 6-1 in those outings, the main reason it owns the AFC’s best record despite an overall negative figure in efficiency versus expected or EVE.
The Ravens have made a habit of winning games they easily could have squandered, as was the case last week when they overcame four Lamar Jackson interceptions to prevail 16-10 over the Cleveland Browns. They’ve been getting by lately with Jackson playing far from his best football, as the 2019 NFL MVP’s 71.4 passer rating since Week 6 is the lowest of 28 quarterbacks with at least 150 pass attempts during that period.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, hasn’t been in top form in any facet of late as it tries to rebound from its second three-game winless drought of the season. Particularly worrisome is the performance of a depleted defense that’s been gashed for an average of 195.3 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per attempt during this 0-2-1 stretch.
That could be a real problem against a Baltimore team that as we pointed out last week, heavily leans towards a smashmouth offensive approach this time of year. Though the Ravens haven’t been quite as effective running the ball as in years past with retreads Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray filling in for injured standouts J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, Baltimore does possess our highest-rated run-blocking unit in the league with its members having won 79.8% of individual matchups for the season.
Key matchup: Najee Harris vs. Ravens run defense
How well – or poorly – the Steelers run the ball may have the biggest impact on the game’s outcome, however. Pittsburgh has been held to 62 rushing yards or below in all five of its 2021 losses, including its most recent defeats to the Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals in which the offense mustered a subpar 106 yards combined on the ground.
It’s probably not a coincidence that those two lackluster displays have come with left guard Kevin Dotson out of the lineup. Dotson, currently on injured reserve, has been the Steelers’ highest graded run blocker who’s won 79.6% of one-on-one matchups this season, above the league average of 74.8%.
Dotson’s absence leaves veteran right guard Trai Turner as the lone member of Pittsburgh’s offensive line with a run-blocking grade above the league norm. And although Najee Harris has proven durable in his role as the Steelers’ feature back, the heralded rookie has been merely league average in yards after contact and yards per carry on plays in which a run disruption (when a defender wins his matchup against a specific blocker(s) and is able to defend multiple gaps successfully) occurs.
It’s imperative for the Steelers to at least offer some semblance of a capable running game in order to ease the burden on Ben Roethlisberger’s aging arm. The 39-year-old QB sports a 102.4 passer rating with no interceptions in the four games – all Pittsburgh wins – in which he’s attempted less than 35 passes this season. When Roethlisberger’s had to chuck it 40 times or more, he’s posted an 82.7 rating with six interceptions with the Steelers going 1-5 in those games.
Getting Harris going won’t be easy, however, against a Baltimore defense that just smothered Cleveland’s potent ground game a week ago, limiting the dangerous duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to a combined 36 yards on 15 carries. The Ravens boast one of the stoutest defensive fronts in the game, with Calais Campbell (36.5 percent) and Justin Madubuike (35.5) ranking among the top five interior linemen in run disruption percentage this season and space-eater Brandon Williams (26.7) also above league average.
San Francisco 49ers (6-5) at Seattle Seahawks (3-8); Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS
Line: 49ers by 3.5
The Analyst Win Probability: 49ers 51%
Why to Watch: The surging 49ers are presently in possession of the NFC’s No. 6 seed, but their path to the playoffs remains a bit bumpy with challenging road games at Cincinnati, Tennessee and Los Angeles against the Rams ahead. With six of the conference’s pursuers currently with five wins, a stumble against the seemingly downtrodden Seahawks wouldn’t leave much margin for error the rest of the way.
This game does appear a mismatch based on recent form. While San Francisco has won three straight in convincing fashion, Seattle’s season has gone off the rails with six losses in seven games as its offense has reached a level of ineptitude never before seen in Russell Wilson’s decade-long run as the team’s starting quarterback. The Seahawks are the fourth team since 2018 to be held under 275 total yards in five consecutive games. The other three (2018 Cardinals, 2018 Jaguars, 2019 Washington) all finished at 5-11 or worse.
There are still reasons to believe the Seahawks haven’t yet sunk into truly bad territory. Their defense has continued to keep them in games despite the offense’s obvious issues and a schedule that’s been demanding (the third toughest in the NFL based on current records). And they’ve still got Wilson, who looked far from finished when he masterfully orchestrated a late 96-yard touchdown drive Monday in Washington in a game Seattle was a failed 2-point try away from taking to overtime.
Seattle also does have a win over the 49ers this season, though that 28-21 triumph in Week 4 did have some extenuating circumstances. San Francisco played the entire second half without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo due to a calf injury and was forced to have punter Mitch Wishnowsky handle kicking duties after Robbie Gould got hurt in warmups. The Seahawks also got a gift touchdown on a fumbled kickoff return in the third quarter to put the Niners in a 14-point hole rookie Trey Lance couldn’t bail them out of.
Injuries could very well balance the scales in this rematch as well. San Francisco will be without far and away its best offensive player with the dynamic Deebo Samuel out with a groin strain, and it’ll likely also be down two of its top linebackers in Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw.
Samuel burned the Seahawks for 156 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches in that previous meeting, and lately the playmaking receiver has been a major part of a running game that’s been relentless during San Francisco’s winning streak with 181 rushing yards and four TDs over those three games.
Key matchup: Russell Wilson vs. 49ers pass defense
First and foremost, the Seahawks must slow down a San Francisco ground attack that punished opponents into submission for most of November. The 49ers have averaged 178.3 rushing yards over their three straight wins and perhaps most impressively, held the ball for at least 37 minutes in each of those games.
The Niners did put up 143 yards on the ground in that Week 4 matchup, but Seattle’s run defense has been quite good since. The Seahawks have limited opponents to 3.55 yards per rush attempt since Week 5 – the second-lowest mark in the NFL – and their 29.2% win rate in individual run matchups is fourth in the league.
Samuel has accounted for over half (15 of 28) of the 49ers’ plays from scrimmage of 25 yards or more this season, and his absence takes most of the big-play threat away from San Francisco’s offense and should increase the chances of this being a low-scoring affair. But for the Seahawks to pull off what would now be considered an upset, they’ll need to consistently move the chains and prevent the Niners from staging another clock-killing clinic.
Simply put, Russ has to start cooking again.
Perhaps that final drive in Washington was a precursor to a return to prominence, but take away that one series and you’re left with some ghastly numbers over the three games since Wilson returned from a fractured right finger. Prior to that possession – which came against a defense ranked 30th in EVE against the pass – Wilson had a 52.2% completion rate, averaged a meager 6.0 yards per attempt with one touchdown pass and a 65.0 passer rating since coming back.
The good news for Seahawks fans is that Wilson can’t possibly be that bad the rest of the way. Though his well-thrown percentage of 75.2 is slightly below league average, it’s above that of Matthew Stafford, Taylor Heinicke and Lamar Jackson – three quarterbacks who have been winning games.
Seattle hasn’t run the ball all that well and was abysmal in that department against Washington, so it’s got to come up with more plays through the air to keep pace. Though San Francisco’s defense has been an overall solid unit, it could be more vulnerable underneath with Warner and Greenlaw, two quality coverage linebackers, both expected to be out.
Exploiting that matchup will require a change in philosophy, though. Just 13.8% of Wilson’s pass attempts this season have gone to running backs, with only Jackson and Stafford sporting a lower percentage among the 31 quarterbacks with at least 200 total attempts.
Getting Wilson back in sync with his two best playmakers, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, would surely help matters as well. Wilson has completed only 44.7% of his throws to the standout duo since coming back – both receivers had catch rates of around 70% for the season prior to their quarterback’s return.
New England Patriots (8-4) at Buffalo Bills (7-4); Monday, 8:15 pm ET, ESPN
Line: Bills by 2.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Bills 57%
Why to Watch: It’s a clash between the AFC East’s top two teams, with the Bills having a chance to leapfrog New England for first place and the Patriots an opportunity to widen their lead with a seventh straight win.
There’s also plenty of potential here for a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire finish, even if points may be at a premium. Buffalo leads our EVE rankings in both total defense (minus-0.907 yards per play) and pass defense (minus-1.260 ypp), while the Patriots stand third (minus-0.404 ypp) and second (minus-0.793 ypp) in both categories while topping the NFL in scoring defense (15.8 points per game), one spot ahead of the Bills (16.5 ppg).
This also marks the Monday Night Football debut of Pats quarterback Mac Jones, the front-runner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and a vital contributor to New England’s resurgence. The 2021 No. 15 overall pick’s 123.0 passer rating since Week 10 is the best in the league during that time frame (min. 60 pass attempts), and his sterling 79.0 completion percentage over that stretch is the best by any rookie in NFL history over any three-game span in a season.
Jones often hasn’t been asked to do much during New England’s unbeaten run thanks to a strong running game and the Patriots’ stellar defensive play, as his 24.8 pass attempts per game over the last four weeks are the third fewest of 34 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts during that period. And in theory, a road matchup against a Buffalo defense that’s held opposing quarterbacks to a completion rate of under 60% a league-high eight times this season should stand as his toughest task to date.
The Bills won’t be at full strength on the back end, however, after star cornerback Tre’Davious White tore his ACL in their Thanksgiving night blowout of New Orleans. The two-time Pro Bowler was in the midst of another terrific season with an open-allowed percentage (the rate at which a defender allows a receiver to be open on targeted throws) of 57.6, well below the league average of 69.5. White’s likely replacement, Dane Jackson, has allowed open receivers on 88.9% of targeted throws in spot duty – a significant drop-off.
It will be interesting to see how White’s injury impacts the strategy of Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The Bills aren’t a heavy blitz team, doing so on just 20.8% of opponents passing attempts for the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL. That number could very well rise when factoring in both the secondary depletion as well as Jones’ impressive numbers in non-blitz situations, where the rookie ranks just ahead of counterpart Josh Allen for the second-highest passer rating in the league.
Key matchup: Josh Allen vs. Patriots pass defense
The Patriots’ recent success has primarily been based on Jones’ ability to hold on to the ball and the defense’s prowess in taking it away. New England has forced 17 turnovers during its six-game winning streak, including 13 interceptions from a back seven led by ball-hawker extraordinaire J.C. Jackson, a player we’ve recently touted as a dark-horse Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Back when the Bills were overwhelming opponents in similar fashion as the Patriots have been lately, we warned of some potential red flags pertaining to Allen, whose pickable pass percentage of 5.12 betters only rookies Zach Wilson and Davis Mills among quarterbacks with 150 or more attempts this season. Allen is now starting to get burned for playing with fire, as seven of his 10 interceptions have come in Buffalo’s last four games.
Turning the ball over against the Patriots often leads to disastrous consequences. New England is 7-0 this season when recording more takeaways than its opponent and has won an eye-popping 91.1% of the time (173-17) during the Bill Belichick era when finishing with a positive turnover differential.
Defensively, the Bills will need to slow down a steady and persistent New England running game that’s helped ease the burden on Jones by averaging 144 yards on the ground during the win streak. Buffalo is allowing a solid minus-0.298 yards below expected on run plays – the fifth-best mark in the league – though it has lost both times (to Indianapolis and Tennessee) when permitting over 140 rushing yards this season.
The Patriots could have trouble reaching that mark, however. Though their tandem of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson have each been above league average in yards after contact, neither back has been as good as the Colts’ Jonathan Taylor or the Titans’ since-injured Derrick Henry.
Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.