Sports

What We Learned From Week 12 in the N.F.L.

Here we go again.

As long as Tom Brady is eating his avocado ice cream and throwing a football, his team will be peaking heading into December.

It did not look as if that would be the case this year, though, as the Buccaneers were ravaged by injuries to their secondary — making Tampa Bay one of the worst defenses against the pass — and among Brady’s favorite targets, tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Antonio Brown.

Losses to the Trevor Siemian-led New Orleans Saints in Week 8 and the Taylor Heinicke-led Washington Football Team in Week 10 sandwiched a bye week in which the team might have recuperated. Instead, in those two games and a win over the Giants in Week 11, Tampa Bay relied on Brady’s passing to compete.

But at 44 years old, Brady’s shot at winning his eighth Super Bowl can’t depend on him carrying the Bucs on his shoulders. A thrilling, 38-31, win over the Indianapolis Colts supplied the takeaway that the football world expects this time of year.

Despite injuries, the Buccaneers have enough playmakers around Tom Brady to make a Super Bowl run.

Tampa Bay’s Leonard Fournette, left, rushed for 100 yards and scored four total touchdowns.Credit…Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tampa Bay needed a jolt last year, too.

In Week 12 of the 2020 season, the Kansas City Chiefs raced to a 27-10 lead at Tampa Bay with wide receiver Tyreek Hill dropping peace signs and infamously telling Bucs fans “help is on the way.”The Buccaneers’ defense, however, then forced three punts and fought to a 27-24 loss that perhaps gave Tampa Bay a Super Bowl game plan.

The Buccaneers did not lose again that season.

On Sunday, the Colts also appeared set to rout Tampa Bay. When Indianapolis Coach Frank Reich opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 with 22 seconds left in the first half, quarterback Carson Wentz rolled right and found T.Y. Hilton for a 4-yard touchdown that gave the Colts a commanding 24-14 halftime lead. Wentz crackled with 197 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Brady sat on his bench, speechless.

The Colts got the ball to start the second half and drove all the way to Tampa Bay’s 20-yard line. Then, the Bucs turned it on.

Edge rusher Shaq Barrett sacked Wentz, forced a fumble and recovered the ball to end that drive. Six plays later, Tampa Bay cut its deficit to 3 on a Leonard Fournette 4-yard touchdown run, his third score of the game.

The next possession, Wentz’s deep heave to the Bucs’ 5-yard line was intercepted by cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. In a breathtaking duel, the 5-foot-9 Winfield somehow out-positioned and out-muscled the ball away from the 6-foot-4 wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.

Seven plays later, running back Ronald Jones scored on a 1-yard touchdown rush to give the Bucs a 28-24 lead.

Tampa Bay’s run defense, and Reich’s play-calling, mostly kept Jonathan Taylor in check. Taylor, the sizzling Colts running back who scored five touchdowns last week, finished with 83 yards on 16 carries, his longest for 15 yards. He never got into a rhythm against a defense allowed an N.F.L.-low 81 rushing yards per game.

Colts returner Nyheim Hines muffed a fair catch on a punt early in the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers recovered the ball and had a field goal drive to take a 31-24 lead.

And when the Colts tied the game at 31-31, on Taylor’s only touchdown score of the day, Brady did what he’s done 50 times in his career: steered yet another game-winning drive. Only he didn’t need to do too much heavy lifting.

Brady meticulously picked away at the Colts for four completions on the eight-play, 75-yard drive. The key play came on a jet sweep by receiver Chris Godwin. His three yards on second-and-2 kept the clock running and, the next play, Fournette blasted upfield for a 28-yard touchdown.

Granted, the Buccaneers (8-3) needed to survive a 72-yard kick return before the buzzer, but Coach Bruce Arians has to love how his team is rounding into form.

Again.

The bruising Fournette’s physicality was a problem all game for the Colts, as he finished with 131 total yards and four touchdowns.

Defensively, Barrett, Lavonte David, Devin White and Ndamukong Suh are all peaking again. After such a breezy first half, Wentz was a totally different quarterback with the Buccaneers’ relentless pressure getting him off his spot in the second half. They hit Wentz seven times in all.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. These Buccaneers are doing just fine as the playoffs near.

The Bengals are making the A.F.C. North title a race.

Joe Mixon, center, rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-point win over Pittsburgh, giving Cincinnati plenty to celebrate.Credit…Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

As the rest of the A.F.C. stole the spotlight in November, the Cincinnati Bengals quietly got healthier. After getting thrashed by the Cleveland Browns at home in Week 9, the Bengals had a bye week to heal up. The other three teams in the jumbled A.F.C. North showed their warts, while Cincinnati rebounded with a low-key win over the Las Vegas Raiders.

On Sunday, the Bengals absolutely rocked the division’s perennial bully, the Pittsburgh Steelers, 41-10, making realistic their dream of winning the division for the first time since 2015.

The Bengals are good.

Every team with a quarterback on a rookie contract should be capable of going full Lloyd Christmas with its money to produce a winner. Yet, as franchises like the Giants continue to prove, that’s not always a simple proposition. The Bengals’ front office, which historically had botched roster builds, turned the franchise around by targeting the right skill-position players at the top of the draft to surround quarterback Joe Burrow, and spent on the right players in free agency.

After Burrow tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in the 2020 season and the team finished 4-11-1, the Bengals spent like crazy and it’s paying off with a team that is peaking at the perfect time.

Up front, right tackle Riley Reiff (one year, $7.5 million) helped stop the bleeding on the offensive line. Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie (three years, $21.75 million) and Mike Hilton (four years, $24 million) both injected a young defense with needed experience, and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (one year, $6.2 million) has been a steal.

When it was still somewhat of a game on Sunday, with the Bengals leading, 24-3, at the end of the first half, the ex-Steeler Hilton undercut a Ben Roethlisberger floater and took it back for a touchdown.

And the team’s top prize in free agency, defensive end Trey Hendrickson (four years, $60 million) effectively ended the game eight minutes, 30 seconds into the third quarter with a sack-fumble of Roethlisberger. He’s up to 10.5 sacks on the season.

As sublime as Burrow’s connection through the air was early this season with the 2021 draft pick Ja’Marr Chase, this Bengals offense runs best through running back Joe Mixon, who wore the Steelers down Sunday.

Mixon had 19 carries in the first half alone. The only other back to have that many in the last five years was Derrick Henry (2018). Mixon finished with 165 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns, his fourth consecutive game with at least two scores.

What a weird sight it was, the Bengals convincingly, joyfully smashing the Steelers. After Mixon’s final score, he danced with his offensive line in some Temptations-themed choreography. The win briefly put Cincinnati (7-4) a half-game back of the Ravens, but Baltimore (8-3) kept pace by beating the Cleveland Browns, 16-10, in prime time despite Lamar Jackson throwing four interceptions.

The Rams Need to Take Stock

With a tornado of trades in the last three years, the Los Angeles Rams went all-in on a Super Bowl run this season. The team traded draft picks to add cornerback Jalen Ramsey in 2019, to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford this summer and to pick up edge rusher Von Miller during the season, essentially balling up any assets for building for the future and burning them to stay warm this winter.

Ten days after trading for Miller, Los Angeles signed receiver Odell Beckham Jr., only further cementing the team’s one expectation: Playing in the Super Bowl in its home stadium at the end of this season.

After the Rams lost to the Green Bay Packers, 36-28, Sunday, taking their third consecutive loss, General Manager Les Snead and Coach Sean McVay have to be wondering what happens next.

Stafford’s highlights Sunday were rendered null with one backbreaking miscue — a pick-six at the end of the third quarter. With the Rams trailing, 30-17, Stafford’s pass was intercepted by cornerback Rasul Douglas, who returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, and the Rams were never able to catch up.

As in his 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, Stafford provided hope before reverting to making the mistakes that have defined his career in the absence of a signature postseason win. He threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns, but the gap between Green Bay and Los Angeles still remained painfully obvious Sunday.

The Rams’ 2020 season ended with a loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field in the divisional playoff round and, if anything, it was Green Bay’s offense that has improved since, thanks to the emergence of the second-year running back A.J. Dillon. Dillon, a second-round pick in the 2020 draft, finished with 90 hard-earned total yards and a touchdown. Aaron Rodgers was efficient again in throwing for 307 yards on 28 of 45 passing with a pair of scores.

Around the N.F.L.

Cam Newton threw two interceptions, completed only five of his 21 attempts and was benched.Credit…Doug Murray/Associated Press

Dolphins 33, Panthers 10: Cam Newton’s second start with the Panthers (5-7) could not have gone any worse after his 1-yard touchdown run tied it, 7-7, in the first quarter. By the fourth, Newton had a 5.8 passer rating while completing only 5 of 21 passes, and the Panthers benched him for P.J. Walker, who promptly threw a pick. Miami’s defense held Carolina to 198 total yards, and Tua Tagovailoa threw for 230 yards and a touchdown as the Dolphins (5-7) won their fourth straight.

49ers 34, Vikings 26: Don’t look now but the San Francisco 49ers (6-5) are healthy and, at least on offense, looking like the team that steamrollered its way to an N.F.C. Championship two seasons ago. Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel combined for 199 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings not only dropped to 5-6 but also saw their star running back, Dalvin Cook, carted off with a shoulder injury.

Broncos 28, Chargers 13: The Denver Broncos blistered the Chargers with a steady diet of Melvin Gordon (83 yards) and Javonte Williams (54 yards and a touchdown) on the ground with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater attempting only 18 passes. Defensively, rookie Patrick Surtain Jr. had two picks and took one of them back for a touchdown. Is it time to take the 6-5 Broncos seriously? Possibly.

Patriots 36, Titans 13: On the opening drive of the second half, Mac Jones threw a bad ball deep in Titans (8-4) territory that should’ve been intercepted and returned for a touchdown. The ball was dropped, the Patriots kicked a field goal to go up, 19-13, and the rout was on. The Patriots (8-4) rolled to their sixth straight win to set up a massive A.F.C. East showdown at Buffalo next Monday night.

Jets 21, Texans 14: The rookie quarterback Zach Wilson dodgeball-tossed an interception off running back Ty Johnson’s back. That blooper aside, Wilson put his team ahead of the Texans (2-9) in the third quarter with a nifty cut inside on a 4-yard touchdown run as the Jets (3-8) scored the game’s final 18 points.

Giants 13, Eagles 7: So much for any building momentum in Philadelphia. The Eagles (5-7) ran for 208 yards and still lost to the Giants (5-7) because quarterback Jalen Hurts threw three interceptions.

Falcons 21, Jaguars 14: Cordarrelle Patterson’s career renaissance continues. The longtime receiver/returner rushed for 108 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns as the Falcons (5-6) put down the Jaguars (2-9).

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