Before Week 13 began, we knew it would provide stellar matchups and clarify the shape of the postseason. It included a quasi-playoff game at New York, a possible Super Bowl preview at San Francisco and a rematch of the AFC championship game in Cincinnati, not to mention the queasy resurfacing of Deshaun Watson.
By the end of Sunday, a leading Super Bowl contender had moved to a rookie quarterback out of necessity, Patrick Mahomes had a new nemesis, and two NFC East playoff hopefuls needed another 60 minutes.
Here is what to know.
The 49ers’ Super Bowl aspirations are in the hands of Mr. Irrelevant. The Super Bowl-worthiness of the 49ers’ roster had never been clearer than in the final moments of their 33-17 victory over the Dolphins. Before Sunday, Miami had won all eight games Tua Tagovailoa had started and finished, and it had scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games. Despite yielding a 75-yard touchdown on the first snap, San Francisco methodically demolished the Dolphins, taking away Tagovailoa’s preferred throws to the middle of the field with excellent coverage and Nick Bosa’s ferocious pass rushing.
And then Coach Kyle Shanahan stepped to the lectern and, for the second time this season, explained that his starting quarterback was done for the year. Jimmy Garoppolo’s left ankle had bent at a terrible angle with a tackler on top of it in the first quarter, and Shanahan revealed it had led to a season-ending broken foot.
And so Brock Purdy, a rookie out of Iowa State who was the last player taken in the 2022 draft, will try to lead one of the best rosters in the NFL to the Super Bowl.
Don’t dismiss the possibility. Shanahan does not ask his quarterback to carry his offense and instead wants him to be a robot who runs plays as they are designed, makes simple throws and avoids mistakes as the running game does the heavy lifting. Purdy could be capable of all that.
Shanahan has shown through his actions how highly he regards Purdy. The 49ers did not have to keep a third quarterback rostered coming out of training camp after they re-signed Garoppolo as insurance behind Lance. But Shanahan specifically wanted to keep Purdy, cutting reliable backup Nate Sudfeld to do so.
“I thought he was going to be on our practice squad because we were real happy with Nate, but Brock won that job, and we were going to go into the year with him as No. 2,” Shanahan said in August, on the day the 49ers brought back Garoppolo. “And we were good with that, because that’s what he earned.”
Purdy is short (6-1) and slow by NFL quarterback standards, but he plays with poise, throws accurate passes and makes quick decisions. He started 46 games at Iowa State, leading the Cyclones to the Big 12 championship game in 2020. On Sunday, he threw a touchdown pass on his first drive on a three-yard toss to fullback Kyle Juszczyk and finished with 210 yards and two touchdowns.
In the third quarter, Purdy rolled left out of the pocket after a blitz had seemingly killed a third-and-three play and hit Christian McCaffrey for two yards. On the ensuing fourth and one, the Dolphins initially stoned him on a quarterback sneak, but he spun and churned backward for the first down on second effort.
It’s one thing to show grit off the bench in early December. Will Purdy be able to make the plays necessary to beat the Eagles or Cowboys in January? Few NFL fans had heard of Purdy before Sunday. Now he may be one of the most important characters of the season.
The Bengals are becoming Patrick Mahomes’s kryptonite. Last year in Week 17, one day after New Year’s, the Bengals announced their arrival as a full-fledged contender with a late-season victory against the Chiefs. Four weeks later, the Bengals upset Kansas City in the AFC championship game. Given an opportunity to reassert their AFC superiority Sunday, the Chiefs only grew more perplexed.
Of all Sunday’s matchups between likely playoff teams, the one that felt like a postseason game was Chiefs-Bengals, an eventual 27-24 Cincinnati victory. Joe Burrow and Mahomes at times played quarterback at a level no more than a handful of other humans can match, challenged by a creative, experienced coordinator and a battle-hardened defense on the other side.
In the second half of the AFC championship game, the Bengals forced Mahomes into the worst half of professional football he has played. Coordinator Lou Anarumo stifled Mahomes by dropping eight defenders into coverage on almost every play. In the rematch Sunday, Anarumo pressured Mahomes with frequent blitzes as the Bengals built a 14-3 lead.
But Mahomes started to solve Anarumo’s schemes, and the Chiefs held a 24-20 lead early in the fourth quarter. As they drove to take control, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt stripped Travis Kelce of the ball. Burrow made Kansas City pay, leading Cincinnati on a go-ahead drive. Burrow completed 25 of 31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns, running in another score.
The loss could cost the Chiefs beyond just the psychic toll. They fell into a tie with the Bills at 9-3, which gives Buffalo the No. 1 seed because of its head-to-head victory earlier this season.
Deshaun Watson is back. Watson played his first NFL game in nearly two years, making his Cleveland Browns debut after the 11-game suspension he incurred after female massage therapists accused him of sexual misconduct. It was sad all the way around: a terrible football game played in front of a sparse crowd, with Watson’s horrific alleged behavior and the Browns’ craven willingness to ignore it for the sake of winning hovering over it all. The Houston fans who did show up booed Watson, who requested a trade from the Texans after the 2020 season, without relent.
The Browns beat the Texans, the worst team in the league, because they scored two touchdowns on defense and another on a punt return. Watson completed 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards, threw an interception and ran seven times for 21 yards in the 27-14 victory. His rust showed through inaccuracy and indecision. His passes bounced and sailed long all day. He looked more like a Deshaun Watson impersonator than Deshaun Watson.
The Browns improved to 5-7, two games out of playoff position. Neither the way Watson played nor the Browns’ 3-6 conference record — a key factor in a potential tiebreaker — suggests they can make a late-season run.
The Giants and Commanders will settle things in two weeks. In terms of playoff chances, the Giants-Commanders game figured to be the most consequential of the week. Entering Sunday, FiveThirtyEight’s model projected a victory to bump the Giants’ playoff odds to 74 percent and a loss to drop them to 27 percent. For the Commanders, a win would’ve put their probability at 87 percent, a loss at 43 percent.
Turns out, there were no wins and no losses. The Giants and Commanders played to a 20-20 tie after Giants kicker Graham Gano’s 58-yard field goal fell short to conclude an uninspiring overtime. Now, FiveThirtyEight gives the Giants a 56 percent chance to hold on to a playoff spot and pegs the Commanders’ odds at 69 percent.
Those will fluctuate sooner than later. The two teams play again in two weeks, with the Commanders on their bye next week as the Giants host the Eagles. The rematch might determine which team makes the playoffs.
Jalen Hurts can’t be stopped. Last week, Hurts spearheaded the Eagles’ rushing attack that produced an absurd 363 yards against the Green Bay Packers. Philadelphia’s opponent Sunday would not allow that. The Tennessee Titans like to clog the middle of the field and are willing to leave their cornerbacks alone on the outside. Hurts’s perceived strength is his running. He showed Sunday that he has another superpower.
In a showdown of teams that view themselves as bullies, the Eagles dusted Tennessee, 35-10, behind Hurts’s deep passing. He threw touchdown passes of 34, 40 and 29 yards, the last two to A.J. Brown, whom the Titans traded to the Eagles, to Brown’s apparent displeasure, for a first-round pick after deciding they didn’t want to give him a lucrative extension.
A.J. Brown: "This one meant a lot to me. ...I’d be lying to you to say I didn’t circle this game."— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) December 4, 2022
Later, Brown said: "To be honest, it’s been personal since the trade. I've been trying to keep it down. I stated that's where I wanted to be."
Hurts passed for 380 yards despite sitting the majority of the fourth quarter with the score out of hand. It’s hard to argue against Mahomes’s MVP candidacy, but Sunday’s performance would be Hurts’s first exhibit.
Hurts may not be the most complete quarterback in the league, but he might be the toughest to defend. He is a fast and powerful runner, makes excellent decisions and throws a beautiful deep ball. A defense cannot take away one of those strengths without exposing itself to another. Even in the Eagles’ lone loss, Hurts wasn’t shut down; the Commanders kept the ball away from him with their running game, and the Eagles lost a fumble on a long pass.
The Jets are still a quarterback away. They have enough talent not only to make the playoffs but also to be a factor in them. New York’s defensive line is menacing, and rookie Garrett Wilson may be the best of a dynamite rookie wide receiver class; he caught eight passes for 162 yards Sunday.
But in a nail-biting, 27-22 loss at Minnesota, cult-hero quarterback Mike White could not make the pieces fit. White passed for 369 yards and brought the Jets back from a 20-3 deficit, but his offense bogged down in the red zone, settling for five field goals. It was unable to score a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter after having second and goal from the 1-yard line. White can pilot an offense, but he doesn’t make enough of the throws that differentiate contenders from the rest.
The Jets still cling to the seventh seed in the AFC after the Los Angeles Chargers lost to the Las Vegas Raiders. White is a better option than deposed starter Zach Wilson, but the Jets need to improve at quarterback before they can be a serious threat.
The Ravens’ season hangs on Lamar Jackson’s health. Baltimore has operated near the top of the NFL since Jackson became its starter — without much to show for it in January. They have won one playoff game and not advanced past the second weekend. But this season figured to be a prime chance to break through, with Jackson on the final year of his inexpensive rookie contract.
The Ravens remain in first place in the NFC North, but their outlook grew complicated when Jackson landed hard on his left knee while taking a sack. He exited the game, but Coach John Harbaugh said afterward the injury is not expected to be season-ending. Follow-up tests will determine whether Jackson returns in days or weeks.
The Ravens rallied to beat the Broncos, 10-9, because the only two sure things on an NFL Sunday are Scott Hanson’s endurance and Denver finding a way to lose. Backup Tyler Huntley is serviceable and trustworthy, but if the Ravens are going to go anywhere in the postseason, Jackson will take them there.