32 things we learned from Week 13 of 2021 NFL season: Star players shine with clutch performances – USA TODAY

ff0a14f3 d5d1 4c63 ba57 a7096baceab3 Screen Shot 2021 12 05 at 10.10.18 PM

play

The 32 things we learned from Week 13 of the 2021 NFL season:

1. The Arizona Cardinals maintained the league’s best record (10-2) while welcoming back QB Kyler Murray and WR DeAndre Hopkins, who teamed up for a 20-yard TD in Chicago after both missed five weeks with injuries. Murray burned the Bears for four scores (2 passing, 2 rushing) as the Cards remained unbeaten on the road. 

2. Arizona’s 33-22 triumph at Soldier Field made the Cardinals the third team to win seven straight road games by double-digit margins in one season. The Cards will make history if they can do it again in Week 15 … at Detroit.

3. All-Pro Cardinals S Budda Baker won’t get the same flak he did for getting run down by Seattle’s DK Metcalf last year … but, Budda, shouldn’t you be able to juke Andy Dalton to get that elusive pick-six?

4. Have a day, T.J. Watt. The All-Pro pass rusher and league’s highest-paid defensive player affirmed his bona fides by notching 3½ sacks of Ravens QB Lamar Jackson in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 20-19 escape from Baltimore. Watt, who’s missed two games with injuries and spent last week on the reserve/COVID-19 list, has an NFL-high 16 sacks in just 10 games. He’s on pace to collect 24, which would break Hall of Famer Michael Strahan’s single season record – 22½, set in 2001.

5. The Ravens (8-4), who maintain a one-game lead in the AFC North, chose to go for the win with a two-point attempt after Jackson’s TD pass to WR Sammy Watkins made the score 20-19 with 12 seconds left. However Jackson – with Watt in his grill – didn’t give wide-open TE Mark Andrews a good pass on the decisive play.

6. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin fired off a gem of a postgame quote when asked about Baltimore coach John Harbaugh’s gamble: “They aggressively play analytics, so from that standpoint, they’re predicable.”

7. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger, 39, is, too, the Pittsburgh quarterback left in tears after what could be his final game against the archrival Ravens at Heinz Field. Big Ben (236 yards and 2 TDs passing) would not confirm whether the 2021 season will be his last, but Sunday’s game could mean he’ll still be playing football well into January.

8. Still, nothing’s going to ruin this weekend for the Harbaugh family with Michigan, coached by Jim Harbaugh – with help from former Ravens assistant Mike Macdonald – headed to the College Football Playoff for the first time after winning the Big Ten crown.

9. Baltimore’s setback knocked the Ravens out of first place in the AFC … and catapulted the New England Patriots, who play at Buffalo on Monday, into the top spot. However a Bills win will put them back atop the AFC East while elevating the idle Tennessee Titans back into the conference’s pole position.

NFL PLAYOFF PICTURE: AFC, NFC both wide open with no teams having clinched

10. Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert was drafted after Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa in 2020, but pretty hard to imagine Herbert wouldn’t displace Burrow as No. 1 overall in a redraft scenario. Herbert (317 yards and 3 TDs passing) thoroughly outplayed Burrow (3 turnovers) in their first professional meeting Sunday as the Bolts whacked the Bengals 41-22, overtaking Cincy in the AFC wild-card standings.

10a. Herbert’s 15 career games with at least 300 yards passing is already a record for a player in his second season.

11. For the record, we’d rather see fun teams like the Chargers and Bengals flexed into the Sunday night window rather than the current iteration of the Chiefs.

12. The Los Angeles Rams won for the first time since Halloween and might be figuring out their Robert Woods-less offense. WRs Van Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr. have caught TD passes in each of the past two games.

13. Curious move by the Carolina Panthers to slip in their decision to fire offensive coordinator Joe Brady right after Sunday’s games kicked off and at the conclusion of the team’s bye week. Tough outcome for Brady, who dealt with quarterback turnover and scant availability of RB Christian McCaffrey all season. A highly regarded assistant coming out of LSU following the Tigers’ 2019 national championship run, it remains to be seen if Brady – he interviewed for NFL head coaching jobs last year – stays in the league or returns to the college ranks.

14. Who’s the hottest team in the NFC? Would you guess the Washington Football Team, winners of four in a row and new owners of the conference’s second wild-card position?

15. Who’s the coldest team in the NFC (and NFL)? Would you guess the New Orleans Saints, now in a five-game tailspin that coincides with QB Jameis Winston’s torn ACL?

16. A fresh reminder that Philadelphia QB Gardner Minshew II is more than a serviceable backup. He got the Eagles back into the win column by picking apart the New York Jets with 20 completions on 25 throws for 242 yards and two scores. Now that Philly fans have gotten a good look at what he can do, don’t be surprised if some defect from injured starter Jalen Hurts’ camp …

16a. … especially since Minshew makes a fine Maverick Mitchell.

17. Even without Hurts, the Eagles still managed to run for 185 yards … though their three-game streak of 200+ on the ground was snapped.

18. The Miami Dolphins are the fourth team in NFL history to win five in a row after starting a season with a 1-7 record. They’ll reach .500 if they can beat the Jets on the other side of a Week 14 bye.

COVID-19. Watt wasn’t the only one dealing with the protocol last week. Likewise Titans S Kevin Byard, Vikings CB Patrick Peterson, Colts C Ryan Kelly and Patriots S Kyle Dugger. The Dallas Cowboys seem to be through the worst of their mini-outbreak, including coach Mike McCarthy’s absence Thursday. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers had two players suspended, including WR Antonio Brown, for misrepresenting their vaccination status even though coach Bruce Arians said the team was fully vaccinated before the season. Yet to be seen what Arians and the Bucs will do with AB once his three-game ban is up.

20. WR Jaylen Waddle’s 86 catches are already most ever for a Dolphins rookie. 

21. Philadelphia has a 12-0 all-time record against the Jets, the best mark any team owns against another among the league’s current franchises.

22. Incidentally, Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes is 8-0 all-time against the Denver Broncos.

23. Incidentally, Tom Brady is now 10-0 all-time against the Atlanta Falcons.

23a. TB12 is up to a league-best 34 TD passes after lofting four in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 30-17 win in Atlanta. Brady found longtime teammate Rob Gronkowski for two scores – Gronk’s 24th game with multiple TD grabs (most among tight ends in the Super Bowl era). It also marked the first time Brady has six games in one season with at least four TD throws.

23b. Brady and Gronkowski have now hooked up for 90 TDs in the regular season. Only Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (112) have been a more prolific scoring duo.

24. The Jacksonville Jaguars have lost 16 in a row against NFC competition, their last interconference win coming against the New York Giants … in Week 1 of the 2018 campaign.

25. Not only did the Colts blank the Texans 31-0 Sunday – they swept Houston by a collective 62-3 this season – Indianapolis limited its AFC South foe to 2.8 yards per play.

25a. Colts RB Jonathan Taylor scored twice, giving him at least one rushing TD in 10 consecutive games. His 18 TDs are most in the NFL in 2021 and two shy of Hall of Famer Lenny Moore’s single-season franchise record, established in 1964.

26. Participation trophy to Texans LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, who made 20 tackles Sunday – three behind the line of scrimmage – in a valiant effort mounted amid a hopeless cause.

27. It’s safe to engrave Cowboys LB Micah Parsons as the defensive rookie of the year. But with 10 sacks (a team rookie record), 72 tackles and a league-best 16 tackles for loss following Thursday’s win, Watt may be the only superior defensive player of the year candidate to Parsons.

27a. Parsons spearheads a defense that got Dallas back on track in New Orleans, piling up four turnovers – including a pick-six, the team’s fourth of the season – as the Cowboys improved to 6-1 in games against NFC competition.

28. Give Saints QB Taysom Hill credit for toughness as he played through a finger injury to his passing hand similar to the one that sidelined Seattle’s Russell Wilson this season. But Hill became the first player in 45 years to rush for 100 yards … while serving up at least four interceptions.

29. “My cause, my cleats” – still one of the NFL’s coolest programs, and we wouldn’t mind seeing it expanded.

30. A hearty congratulations to the Detroit Lions, who won their first game in 364 days – while avoiding a winless 2021 season – by toppling the Minnesota Vikings 29-27 on the game’s final play, an 11-yard Jared Goff TD pass to rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown.

30a. The Lions also won their first game since 2010 without QB Matthew Stafford and scored at least 20 points for the first time since their Week 1 loss to San Francisco.

31. Yet leave it to ever-emotional Detroit coach Dan Campbell to share the success of his first win with nearby Oxford High School’s grieving community. Campbell dedicated a game ball to Oxford, which lost four students in last week’s shooting at the school. “I just, I want us to not forget these names,” Campbell said, naming the victims – four dead and seven injured. “Madisyn Baldwin, Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling, Tate Myre, Phoebe Arthur, John Asciutto, Riley Franz, Elijah Mueller, Kylie Ossege, Aiden Watson and Molly Darnell, who’s a teacher.” Well done, Coach.

32. The NFL has put a deserved spotlight on Myre, a tight end for Oxford’s football team, who has been credited with trying to stop the shooter. Myre was also honored by the Michigan Wolverines, who wore a uniform patch with his initials and jersey No. 42 in Saturday’s Big Ten title game. RIP, Tate. You and your classmates were taken much too soon.

***

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.