By Around the NFL staff
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As we head down the season’s final stretch, the AFC’s stalwarts are upping their game.
Without their most valuable offensive weapon, the Patriots looked unfazed in their assured win over the listless Rams. New England’s 26-10 victory put Tom Brady into rarified air as the quarterback passed Peyton Manning for most career wins, including playoffs.
In Atlanta, Eric Berry had an emotional homecoming, recording a pick-six and a game-winning pick-two to keep Kansas City afloat in the wild-card race and a half-game back in the AFC West.
Joe Flacco and his veteran Ravens squad proved their worth to the overachieving Dolphins, while the Broncos survived without their starting quarterback in Duval. Oakland came back from 15 points down to drounce the Bills, and the Steelers held off Odell Beckham and the Giants.
Who will keep up? Who will fall off? This AFC playoff race is just getting started. Here’s what we learned from Week 13:
Denver Broncos 20, Jacksonville Jaguars 10
1. Denver scored the perfect week to be forced to start Paxton Lynch. Jacksonville has a defense that, on paper, should be stingy against any offense, even if their record doesn’t show it. Denver wisely remedied early struggles by turning to a ground game that found a little daylight in the second quarter with the combination of Kapri Bibbs and Devontae Booker. But make no mistake — a Denver offense that already had its issues was only worse with Lynch in the lineup.
2. The Jaguars were in it late, but having witnessed three quarters of complete unpredictability on offense, it never felt like they were really in it. Jacksonville turned the ball over twice entering the latter stages of the fourth, including a Bradley Roby pick-six, and as we watched Bortles escape and fire rockets to anyone, anywhere, at any time, it seemed only a matter of time before turnover No. 3 happened. It eventually did, though only when the pocket collapsed on Bortles, forcing him to fumble and bringing a ho-hum finish to a ho-hum day that didn’t appear as such on the scoreboard.
3. In a role reversal early in the contest, it was the Jags getting to the quarterback more often than the Broncos. Jacksonville pressured Lynch plenty, which undoubtedly played a part in his skittishness for much of the game. Denver turned the tables later in the action, forcing Bortles to let it fly or run for his life. That added pressure was encouraging after the Broncos‘ front seven didn’t look like itself early, and accounted for multiple Jaguars drives that stalled before they could become game-tying possessions.
— Nick Shook
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28, San Diego Chargers 21
1. Tampa Bay looked like a team at least a year away from contending after seven weeks this season, but the continued maturation of Jameis Winston has the Bucs’ arrow pointing upward and the team in a battle for the NFC South crown. Tampa Bay has won four straight, including three close victories over contending teams. They face a four-game slate that includes three contests against division opponents, with the lone non-division game being a matchup at Dallas. The going won’t be easy, but thanks to Winston’s growing command of the Tampa Bay offense, and timely play by the Buccaneers‘ defensive front seven, they’re set up to fight to the end of the regular season.
2. There’s a reason these two franchises are so similar in record: They’re essentially the same team. Each possesses budding stars and seasoned veterans, each has holes, each does things well and each makes just as many errors. Case A in point: Philip Rivers dropped deep in San Diego territory and threw a pick-six, then followed that with a 40-yard touchdown pass less than three minutes later. Case B in point: Tampa Bay moved down to San Diego’s 2-yard line, was whistled for illegal touching after Russell Shepard caught a pass in the end zone after stepping out of bounds on third-and-goal, was flagged for a false start on the ensuing field goal attempt and ended up going from two yards away from six points to a 27-yard field goal attempt, which Roberto Aguayo converted. Good comes with the bad with both of these clubs.
3. When I watch Philip Rivers play in 2016, I see a man who is woefully aware that his time in the NFL is running out. Every mistake, every miscommunication angers him even more than usual. He lets the deep ball fly with near reckless abandon. And with the game on the line Sunday, he has too often made the risky throw that doesn’t go his way. It’s as if his anxiety and frustration boiled over when his lob to Dontrelle Inman was intercepted by Keith Tandy, and the shot back to Rivers showed the quarterback having already removed his helmet and grimacing in disgust and anger. San Diego is now 5-7. Rumors continue to fly about their geographical future. It seems no one is feeling that pressure more than Rivers.
— Nick Shook