The sum of those meetings shaped the season in a week that amplified the playoff picture more than any other yet. Here is what to know:
The Chiefs have a defense. Holding the Patriots to 16 points, as odd as it seems, is no grand accomplishment. But Kansas City has been routinely complementing Mahomes with a defense that has improved to serviceable and may be getting even better under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
“We’re simply building, man,” defensive end Frank Clark said. “We’re not perfect. We don’t got it down. We’re just simply building, and we’re building to the point where we’re getting comfortable with each other as a defense. We’re getting comfortable with the scheme. We enjoy being around each other. We got some guys, man. We got some pieces. There’s nobody going to be able to stop us if we just keep trusting each other.”
In the locker room Sunday, the Chiefs donned T-shirts that proved they had clinched the AFC West title. They also hold a hammerlock on the conference’s No. 3 seed. And if the Patriots stumble again, they’ll be in position to steal a first-round bye.
Jimmy Garoppolo can win a Super Bowl. If you can beat the firing-on-all-cylinders Saints in New Orleans, you can beat anyone anywhere. And if you can do it even after Drew Brees executes a last-minute touchdown drive, you have to be considered a Super Bowl favorite.
At the end of their Packers-Ravens-Saints gantlet, Garoppolo led the 49ers to a 48-46 victory, a game-of-the-year epic in which he outdueled Brees in the Superdome and tight end George Kittle had the highlight with a bullying, fourth-down catch-and-rumble.
As the 49ers rose to the top of the NFC with a fearsome defensive front and a dominant running attack, Garoppolo was often along for the ride. He was the driving force Sunday. Garoppolo threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns. His only interception, one of just nine incompletions, was on target and deflected off Emmanuel Sanders’s hands.
San Francisco improved to 11-2 and seized control of the NFC. The 49ers still have wood to chop because the Seahawks are just a game back in the NFC West. But if they handle their business in Weeks 15 and 16 against the Atlanta Falcons and Rams at home, they can claim the No. 1 seed by beating the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 17. The road to the Super Bowl runs through San Francisco, and the 49ers’ quarterback makes them a legitimate heavyweight.
The officiating remains in crisis. In the biggest games of Week 14, the Superdome and Gillette Stadium crowds chanted the same thing: “Refs, you suck! Refs, you suck!”
In New Orleans, fans were angry at how Tre’Quan Smith was mugged down the sideline on a fake punt. While the 49ers couldn’t have been called for pass interference because it was a punt formation, the officials could have called holding, for which Payton lobbied.
In New England, the missed calls were more egregious. As the Chiefs marched at the end of the third quarter, tight end Travis Kelce caught a pass that gave them a first down in field goal range. Then the ball squirted loose and Stephon Gilmore scooped it up with open turf ahead, but officials ruled Kelce down. Gilmore would have almost certainly scored a touchdown had officials ruled it a fumble on the field — and after Belichick challenged, it was ruled a fumble. Officials are instructed to let those plays go and have replay sort it out, but by ruling Kelce down, they cost the Patriots a potential touchdown.
On the Patriots’ ensuing drive, wideout N’Keal Harry appeared to score after diving for the pylon, but officials ruled he had stepped out of bounds. Replays showed he stayed in, but Belichick couldn’t challenge because he had already used two — including after the Kelce fumble — and lost one. Alex Okafor sacked Brady on third down, and New England settled for a field goal.
“It was taken away from us,” safety Duron Harmon said.
The Patriots did not deserve to win, but that sentiment has filled up too many locker rooms and stadium stands this season.
The Texans made too much out of beating the Patriots. Last week, Houston declared its thumping of New England a franchise-affirming victory. In a show of its significance, Deshaun Watson handed the game ball to Coach Bill O’Brien, who gave his players a day off. This week brought a reminder that teams aren’t supposed to think those kinds of thoughts after Week 13 because, in the NFL, Week 14 will make you pay for it.
The Texans’ Patriots hangover showed in a staggering score Sunday. They trailed the Broncos 31-3 at halftime at home and lost, 38-24, in a game that cost them control of the AFC South. When the onrushing Tennessee Titans put up another huge offensive performance behind Ryan Tannehill in Oakland, they knocked Houston into a first-place tie and potentially into a dogfight for a wild card. The Texans and Titans meet twice in the next three weeks. The Texans blew the slight edge they had heading into the decisive stretch.
The rest of the NFC would be wise to keep the Rams out of the playoffs. Despite their struggles this season, the Rams still have as much high-end talent as any team in the NFL. They provided a reminder Sunday night in their 28-12 thrashing of the Seahawks, a game that wasn’t even as close as the final score suggested.
The Rams still face an uphill climb to make the playoffs, given the records and schedules of the contenders ahead of them. But if they can sneak into the postseason, the Rams have the roster to do damage.
Jared Goff adapted slowly to the adjustments the league made to him, but he’s the same guy who overcame a 13-0 deficit in New Orleans in the NFC title game. Any defense with Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald is terrifying. This is a team, even after a handful of clunkers, capable of damage in the playoffs.
The Bills will be a tough out. The first instinct when picturing Allen starting a playoff game on the road is to shudder. But Buffalo’s performance Sunday, in a 24-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at home, reiterated what the Bills have spent all year proving: Buffalo is a physical, disciplined team that refuses to beat itself and will give opponents headaches even if it doesn’t win. As Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh said, “That’s a team that’s going to be around.”
Even after his team fell behind 24-9, slot wideout Cole Beasley scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to make it a seven-point game. The Bills drove inside the Baltimore 20-yard line with 1:08 left, and Allen’s pass to John Brown at the goal line had to be swatted away by Marcus Peters, who was trailing in excellent one-on-one coverage. (Peters proceeded to leap into the stands, snatch a beer and sloppily chug it.)
The NFL is overflowing with coach of the year candidates, and Sean McDermott is one of them. The Bills stifled Jackson like no other team has, holding him to 145 passing yards and 40 rushing yards while forcing him to throw his first interception since Week 5. Whoever they face in the wild-card round is in for a fight.
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