• The San Juan Daily Star

What we learned from Week 14 in the NFL

Mike Hughes, a cornerback, returned a fumble 23 yards for a touchdown on Kansas City’s first defensive play against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.

By Tyler Dunne

A strange thing happened as quarterback Patrick Mahomes continued to struggle with the Rubik’s cube known as the two-deep shell. As he looked so unfathomably human against NFL defenses that played their two safeties deep to prevent long passes, the Kansas City Chiefs methodically built a juggernaut in a less celebrated area: their defense.

The team’s latest beatdown — a 48-9 home drubbing of the Las Vegas Raiders (6-7) — added a sixth game to the Chiefs’ win streak, gave them the same 9-4 record as the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans, and gave us our top takeaway of Week 14:

Defense has Kansas City ready to challenge New England for the AFC’s top spot.

This has been a cluttered mess of a conference. Titans running back Derrick Henry had been on a pace to set the career rushing record when he broke his foot in November. That was right when Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens, who had looked like contenders for the Most Valuable Player Award, began to stammer against inferior opponents.

One trend over the past two months has been the Kansas City defense hammering opponents, which, if it continues, could catapult the team to a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.

Mahomes was sharp, completing 20 of 24 passes for 258 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, but he is not the most dangerous man in Kansas City right now. That is Steve Spagnuolo, the team’s defensive coordinator, who is stupefying opposing quarterbacks with his endless scroll of blitzes.

On Sunday, Kansas City forced five turnovers and hit Raiders quarterback Derek Carr 11 times. With Kansas City up 21-0 at the start of the second quarter, safety Tyrann Mathieu picked off a Carr pass that tight end Foster Moreau had dropped. In his ninth season, Mathieu remains brilliant playing the back end of the secondary, an assuring presence who gives Spagnuolo the freedom to send extra bodies at the quarterback.

Josh Allen always gives the Bills a shot.

Bills coach Sean McDermott, who is too often stuck in 1995, yet again punted and kicked field goals far too often in Buffalo’s 33-27 overtime road loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But if there’s a takeaway from the most dramatic game in Week 14, it’s that as long as Josh Allen is the Bills’ quarterback, they’ve got a shot.

Nothing went right for the sinking Bills early Sunday. The run defense was gashed and Tom Brady picked apart McDermott’s defense with ease, as the Buccaneers built a 24-3 halftime lead. McDermott both settled for a 21-yard field goal in the first half while trailing 10-0 and punted from his own 43-yard line with 2:18 left in the third quarter when the Bills still trailed by two touchdowns.

Those decisions were in line with his past. McDermott, the defensive-minded coach, hovering his foot above the gas pedal but never stomping down, settled for chip-shot field goals in a loss to Kansas City in last season’s AFC championship game.

Stymied by timidity and a porous run defense, and down 27-10, Allen led scoring drives of 75, 46, and 70 yards in the fourth quarter to force an overtime Buffalo had no business being in. Allen threw for 308 yards and two touchdowns, and led the ground game with a rushing touchdown and 109 yards, more than double the team’s next closest runner.

Of course, Tampa Bay pulled through in the end. Brady’s 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman dropped the Bills to 7-6, two games behind the New England Patriots, who had a bye, in the AFC East.

Micah Parsons and the Cowboys defense made good on Mike McCarthy’s guarantee.

The guarantee was odd, to say the least. Coaches of first-place teams rarely sound so desperate in mid-December, but with the Dallas Cowboys having lost two of their past three entering Sunday’s game against an NFC East rival, Mike McCarthy declared that the Cowboys (9-4) would beat the Washington Football Team (6-7).

His counterpart, Ron Rivera, didn’t like that. He called McCarthy’s proclamation a “big mistake.”

The Cowboys of the 1990s could back up guarantees like that. But in the new millennium, prognostications have usually been followed by a bunch of things going wrong for Dallas.

Not so in the 27-20 win at Washington.

McCarthy could speak with such confidence because his two top receivers, CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper, were back on the field at the same time after Lamb missed Week 12 and Cooper sat in Weeks 11 and 12. Dallas’ ascending defense had been historically bad in 2020, but has played with tenacity this season behind linebacker Micah Parsons, who had two sacks and a forced fumble Sunday, bringing him to 12 sacks in his rookie season.

Around the NFL

49ers 26, Bengals 23 (OT): San Francisco receiver Brandon Aiyuk had a banner rookie season in 2020 and a very quiet start to 2021. On Sunday, he delivered the game-winning touchdown catch, going airborne to cross the goal line in overtime for a win the 49ers needed to keep their playoff dream alive. Despite all of its injuries and despite the occasional, maddening erratic play of its quarterback, San Francisco is 7-6.

Broncos 38, Lions 10: Denver would like to run the ball early and often, and some opponents can’t stop that. Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams shredded the Detroit defense for 184 yards and three touchdowns on 39 attempts, and the Broncos remain in the AFC playoff picture with a massively important game against the Bengals awaiting them next week.

Chargers 37, Giants 21: The Giants are speeding toward another rebuild, but the Chargers have to be thrilled with how Justin Herbert has rebounded from a brief midseason lull. Los Angeles has thrown the ball more than 30 times in every game this season.

Falcons 29, Panthers 21: Atlanta linebacker Mykal Walker stepped in front of a Cam Newton pass and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown, reaching a top speed of 21.05 mph — the fastest speed recorded by a linebacker with the ball in his hands in the past five years. Newton was benched in the second quarter for his backup, P.J. Walker, who returned to the pine after throwing a pick on his second pass attempt.

Saints 30, Jets 9: Navigating the post-Drew Brees era hasn’t been pretty for New Orleans. After beating the defending champion Buccaneers in Week 8, the Saints lost five straight. The team’s slide ended Sunday with the return of Alvin Kamara from a knee injury. He punished the Jets with 120 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries.

Seahawks 33, Texans 13: Too little, too late in Seattle. There’s a good chance this is Russell Wilson’s final season with the Seahawks, so plays like his 55-yard moon ball to Tyler Lockett only tease what could have been in 2021.

Browns 24, Ravens 22: Baltimore lost Lamar Jackson to an ankle injury in the second quarter, the one injury the team cannot afford in a season that has been rife with them. The bye week helped Cleveland’s battered quarterback, Baker Mayfield, who threw for 190 yards and a pair of scores.

Titans 20, Jaguars 0: Things have gotten ugly in Jacksonville, where coach Urban Meyer threatened to fire whichever of his assistant coaches leaked that he had called them “losers” last week. Meanwhile, the Titans have gone 3-2 without Derrick Henry, who could return as soon as Week 18 from surgery on his fractured foot.

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