Here are five things we learned from week 12 of the NFL.
AFC IS SIGNIFICANTLY WEAKER
As the weeks go on, it’s becoming more and more clear that the NFC’s depth of quality teams far outweighs what the opposite conference has.
Whereas the NFC has five teams with a record of 8-3 or better, the AFC only has two in New England and Pittsburgh. After the cream of the crop in the AFC, there’s a severe drop off with Kansas City leading the AFC West with just six wins, while the wild card race could produce a winner with an 8-8 record.
ARIANS WORKING MAGIC WITH BLAINE
Blaine Gabbert may be in the midst of a revival after leading the Cardinals to a win over one of the best defences in the league in Jacksonville.
While he’s made his share of mistakes over his two starts (three interceptions), he’s also moved the ball through the air and looked like a capable quarterback. His 87.6 passer rating doesn’t jump off the page, but it’s impressed coach Bruce Arians enough to say he could see Gabbert as the starter in 2018 if Carson Palmer is no longer around. Arians’ system can work wonders it seems.
CRABTREE, TALIB SUSPENSIONS VALID
Michael Crabtree and Aqib Talib were each handed a two-game suspension for fighting in Sunday’s game, which may sound too harsh, but it’s a worthwhile precedent to set.
Crabtree and Talib are taking their bad blood too far and while the latter’s chain-snatching antics are comical, the fact is both players were representing themselves in a poor light while also hurting their teams by being ejected. Both of them need to grow up, act like adults and not throw hands again when they likely meet next season.
IT’S GO TIME FOR JIMMY G
The universe forced the 49ers hand and thrust Jimmy Garoppolo into action at the end of Sunday’s game after C.J. Beathard was knocked out, but it’s time for coach Kyle Shanahan to make the switch himself.
That’s no knock on Beathard, but San Francisco need to see what they have with Garoppolo before the offseason hits and they have to decide whether or not to hand him a big long-term contract. Beathard’s injuries aren’t serious, but they may provide enough of an excuse to make the move.
EAGLES PUT ON A GOOD SHOW
And that’s not even referring to their quality of play. No team has pulled off consistently fun team celebrations after touchdowns like the Eagles this season.
After hearing players’ gripes for so long that the league was sapping all the fun out with their strict celebration rules, it’s nice to see Philadelphia take advantage of the new lax guidelines and do something seemingly every week that’s worth tuning in for, whether that’s baseball simulations or choreographed dances.
Defence and the Baltimore Ravens are synonymous once again and the unit’s stinginess continues to cover up shortcomings on the other side of the ball.
Baltimore’s two phases have been on opposite ends of the spectrum this season, with the defence proving to be one of the best in the league while the offence has been mediocre at best.
The contrast was evident in the 23-16 win over Houston on Monday night, when the Ravens stymied the Texans in the second half and came up with key turnovers to earn a victory that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but enough to move them to 6-5 and keep them alive in the playoff race.
Their offence, meanwhile, was outgained 303 to 294 by Houston as quarterback Joe Flacco threw for just 155 yards, but the defence allowed just two field goals after the intermission and produced a fumble and interception on the Texans’ final two drives.
“The defence wants the game in their hands,” said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. “If they don’t score, we win – that’s the mentality of those guys.”
The Ravens’ pass defence has been particularly stout this season, ranking first in the league in passer rating allowed at 65.9, while being second in average pass yards given up with 189.9 and completion percentage surrendered at 57.2 per cent.
But perhaps their most impactful attribute has been their knack for timely interceptions, which they now have 18 of to lead the NFL.
“We have a goal,” said safety Tony Jefferson, who had his first pick with Baltimore in the win over Houston. Our mindset is to take the ball away and have the offence protect the ball. We did that, and I think that’s an old saying – ‘If you win the turnover battle, you usually win the game.’ We have to continue to do that.”
As effective as the defence has been, Baltimore is still only one game above .500 and will have to earn a playoff spot the rest of the way.
That’s why Flacco understands he and the rest of the offence will have to turn it around to accomplish their ultimate goal.
“If we believe we can win the Super Bowl with how we’re playing right now, I’m all for it. I really am,” Flacco said.
“[But] we can all take a look at that and say it’s probably not super-realistic. We need to go out there, we need to go get it and we need to be better on our side of the ball.”
Coming into the season, the odds were likely higher of Alex Smith losing his job than being the league’s MVP through the first five weeks.
And yet, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has not only staved off any notion that rookie Patrick Mahomes is the answer for the present, but has spearheaded the attack of the league’s only unbeaten team.
Smith’s hyper-efficient start to the season continued on Sunday when he led the Chiefs to a 42-34 shootout win over the Houston Texans by connecting on 29-of-37 passes for 324 yards and three touchdowns.
The 33-year-old veteran has yet to throw an interception, while posting the highest completion percentage (76.6), yards per attempt (8.8) and passer rating (125.8) of any qualified quarterback in the league.
Alex Smith is the first QB in NFL history to start 5-0 with 250 Pass YPG, at least 10 touchdown passes & 0 interceptions.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 9, 2017
It’s been a surprising start for a signal-caller who has been good, but not great throughout his 13 seasons in the league. The ceiling-capping play over his career led Kansas City to trading up to No10 in this year’s draft to grab Texas Tech prospect Mahomes, who possesses a big arm and is now considered the future of the franchise.
For now, however, Smith has more than just tightened his grasp on the job – he’s consistently playing at a level he’s previously flashed, but never sustained before.
“He’s coming in with a point to prove; I feel like he’s got a point to prove, you know?” said running back Charcandrick West, who caught two of Smith’s scores against the Texans.
“We all know the situation here. We ain’t got to talk about that. He’s coming in, he’s making a lot of decisions hard for a lot of people.”
Some of the credit for Smith’s surge can be accredited to coach Andy Reid’s offensive scheme, which has put his quarterback in position to succeed by playing to his strengths with read-options and plays designed to utilise his mobility.
Smith also has versatile weapons to rely on, with rookie running back Kareem Hunt bursting onto the scene to pair with speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill and dynamic tight end Travis Kelce.
Update: He’s still faster than ya.
Smith ➡️ Hill for a 38-yard gain. pic.twitter.com/a4aX2DiRfK
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) October 9, 2017
Those weapons have allowed Smith to attack downfield – something which he’s been criticised for not doing throughout his career – to the tune of 14 plays of 20-plus yards and three of 40-plus yards.
“As far as the [improved] numbers go, I think it’s a reflection of the guys around me,” Smith said after carving up the Texans. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that make plays. You saw that tonight.”