The playoff races are starting to heat up in the NFL, as four teams are tied for the No. 5 seed in the AFC and four more are tied for the No. 6 spot in the NFC. The San Francisco 49ers closed within a game of the Philadelphia Eagles for the top spot in the NFC, while the Dallas Cowboys continue their hot streak (and actually beat a team .500 or better).
Week 13 was certainly an interesting one for the playoff races, including the teams that are falling out of the playoff hunt and setting their sights on 2024. Here's one thing we learned from each of the 26 teams that played this week.
James Conner motivated by return to Pittsburgh: Conner looked like the running back who rushed for 15 touchdowns in 2021 in Sunday's win. He finished with 25 carries for 105 yards and two scores at Heinz Field, his best game since Week 2. Conner is putting together a good season, rushing for 631 yards and averaging 4.9 yards per carry (the highest of his career). The touchdown numbers are going up with Kyler Murray back at quarterback too. Conner could be in line for a strong finish to the year.
Jessie Bates might be the best free agent signing of offseason: Bates has been dominant in his first season with the Falcons, continuing the success he had in five years with the Bengals. Bates had a career-high fifth interception Sunday, his fifth season of three-plus interceptions. Bates has allowed just two pass touchdowns in 12 games as opposing quarterbacks targeting him have just a 52.2 passer rating. The Falcons were 25th in pass yards allowed last season, which has improved to 11th. Certainly Bates has helped with those improvements. He's worth the $16 million per year.
Chuba Hubbard is engine of offense: The Panthers made it clear who the No. 1 running back is over the last two games -- and it's not the player they paid big money for this offseason. Hubbard is the No. 1 running back after getting 25 carries to Miles Sanders' eight, rushing for 104 yards and two scores. The Panthers offense actually looked competent with Hubbard running the ball, allowing Bryce Young to thrive off play-action. Hubbard is only the second 100-yard rusher the Buccaneers defense has allowed all year. He's the only player who is installing life into a bad offense.
Chase Brown may be answer to running game: The Bengals rushed for a season-high 156 yards, the reason why the offense was incredibly efficient with Jake Browning in his second start. The cog to the newfound running game was the rookie Brown, rushing nine times for 61 yards (6.8 yards per carry). Brown provided a burst the running game hadn't seen all season, which allowed joe Mixon to rush for two scores (the Bengals only had four rushing touchdowns all year heading into the game). Brown had just two carries for 6 yards heading into the game (in six games). He should have more carries going forward.
Pass rush has been neutralized: Thanks to Matthew Stafford getting the ball out quick, the Browns finished with no sacks and had a season-low nine pressures in Sunday's loss. The 24.3% pressure rate was also a season low. The Browns have just one sack over the past two games, with only 21 pressures to show for it. They allowed 32.5 points per game in that stretch, which can't be a coincidence. Teams are figuring out how to score points off Cleveland. The quick passes are working.
Defense shows up when it mattered most: Don't allow the 35 points and 406 yards skew the story. When the Cowboys needed a defensive stop in the fourth quarter, they got it. On the Seahawks' final three possessions, none of them resulted in a score -- all were a turnover on downs. Seattle never got past the Dallas 46 on any of those possessions, running 20 plays for 78 yards. Dallas stopped them on fourth down all three times, the biggest play being the Micah Parsons stop on fourth-and-2 at the 50. When the Cowboys needed the stop, they got it.
Pass defense showcased early season struggles: C.J. Stroud has done this to a lot of defenses in his rookie season, but Sunday's performance by the Broncos was reminiscent of early in the season. Denver allowed 264 passing yards, the most the Broncos have allowed since a loss to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Broncos have the 24th-ranked pass defense, but allowed just 191 yards over the last five games. This reverted back to the unit that allowed 268 pass yards per game over the first six games.
Hank Fraley deserves credit for offensive line holding it together: The Lions suffered another offensive line injury on Sunday, as Frank Ragnow went down (knee). Graham Glasgow had to come in at center and Colby Sorsdal ended up playing right guard. The interior of the offensive line has already missed Jonah Jackson and Taylor Decker has missed time. This group has allowed just 22 sacks (tied for fourth-fewest in NFL). Fraley, the offensive line coach, deserves tremendous credit.
Jordan Love is carrying team to playoffs: For all of Love's early-season struggles, the Packers quarterback is certainly on a roll right now. Love has completed 68.5% of his passes for 857 yards with eight touchdown passes to just zero interceptions for a 116.9 passer rating. Love is tied for second in the league in touchdown passes and tied for third in passer rating in that stretch. He has 22 touchdowns passes to 10 interception through 12 games, two more touchdown passes than Aaron Rodgers had through 12 games in his first full season as the starter. The Packers are tough to beat when Love is playing this well.
High first-round picks shining: Everyone knows how well C.J. Stroud has been playing, but Will Anderson Jr. and Derek Stingley Jr. shined in Sunday's win. Stingley had two interceptions off Russell Wilson, giving him four in his last four games. Anderson had two sacks and eight pressures, giving him three sacks and 16 pressures in his last three games. The Texans defense is 12th in points per game allowed thanks to two cornerstones on defense in Anderson and Stingley. They've only gotten better since Stingley's return (eight passes defended his last three games), allowing just 19 points over that stretch.
Alec Pierce finally becoming deep threat team needs: The Colts could use a deep-ball wideout to complement Michael Pittman Jr., and have been waiting for Pierce to become that player. He had the biggest catch of Sunday's win, a 55-yard snag in overtime that set up the game-winning touchdown pass from Gardner Minshew. Of course, Minshew had his two longest completions in terms of air yards by throwing to Pierce (55-yard completion in overtime and 36-yard touchdown). Without Pierce, the Colts don't win that game. They'll need him to be more involved in the offense with Jonathan Taylor out.
They can survive with C.J. Beathard for a game: Beathard only played two series after Trevor Lawrence went down with an ankle injury, going 9 of 10 for 63 yards with a 92.9 passer rating. Not bad for someone entering in a 31-28 game when his team is trailing and being asked to win the game. Beathard went 4 of 5 for 45 yards on the drive to force overtime. He went 4 of 4 to start overtime before throwing a 43-yard pass to Calvin Ridley that was taken away via a offensive holding penalty. If it wasn't for the penalty, Beathard is a hero. He can manage the Jaguars for a week or two.
Kansas City Chiefs
Another slow start on defense: As good as the Chiefs defense has been, the unit allowed touchdowns to the Packers on consecutive drives to open the game for the second straight contest. This one Kansas City couldn't come back from, which used to be common when the Chiefs had an explosive offense. With the offense not as dynamic as years past, its imperative the defense get off to fast starts -- so 14 points and 150 yards after two possessions and three touchdowns allowed in their first four possessions won't cut it. The Chiefs defense is elite, but has to play that way at the start of games.
Khalil Mack continues his All-Pro season: Mack had two sacks again on Sunday, his third consecutive multi-sack game and his fifth of the season. He leads the NFL with 15 sacks, aided by the six sacks in his last three games. The six-sack game in Week 4 wasn't an aberration, as Mack has backed it up with nine sacks in the eight games since. He's also sixth in pressures (60), with all his quarterback hits (15) resulting in sacks. Mack may not be the best pass rusher in the league, but he's deserving of an All-Pro selection.
Demarcus Robinson may be No. 3 WR going forward: Puka Nacua was able to overcome his injury and battle through it, but the Rams needed someone to help him and Cooper Kupp out. In comes Robinson, who caught four of five targets for 55 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's win over the Browns. His 7-yard touchdown in the second half gave the Rams the lead for good, coming shortly after a 30-yard catch that was the highlight play of that drive. The Rams have a third option in Robinson if they choose to use him more in the offense.
Defense has been a difference-maker: This run the Dolphins defense has been on isn't a recent trend. Miami has been giving up less than 300 yards in seven of its last eight games, including 245 on Sunday. The Dolphins -- sixth in yards allowed per game (300.1) -- have 10 takeaways during that stretch. While the offense has been talked about at length (top three in points and yards per possession), the defense deserves credit for how good it has been over the last two months.
Offense somehow got worse: Perhaps it was the quarterback change. Perhaps it was the Rhamondre Stevenson injury. The Patriots failed to even get into the red zone during Sunday's loss to the Chargers, not even scoring a point. They finished 4 of 14 on third down and 1 of 3 on fourth down. They averaged 3.6 yards per attempt in Bailey Zappe's first start, despite rushing for 148 yards and 4.6 yards per carry in the wake of the Stevenson injury. Again, a quarterback change wasn't fixing the offense.
They have to rely on the run game: Derek Carr is what he is through 13 weeks, and the coaching isn't helping out his flaws in this system. Carr isn't getting benched, but New Orleans can help him out more like it did Sunday with the run game. Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill combined for 110 yards and three touchdowns (Hill had 59 yards and Kamara 51), getting the Saints back in the game and erasing a 21-0 hole. The Saints had just 113 yards and averaged 3.1 yards per carry, but Kamara and Hill need more touches going forward. The passing game certainly isn't getting it done.
What's wrong with Breece Hall?: Another week Hall was ineffective in an inefficient offense, rushing 13 times for 16 yards. Hall averaged just 1.2 yards per carry, as the Jets finished with just 62 yards on the ground (2.5 yards per carry). Hall hasn't rushed for over 28 yards in any of the last four games, having 43 carries for 93 yards (2.1 yards per carry). The poor quarterback situation has affected Hall, as defenses know the Jets can't throw the ball. Defenses are crowding the box and making sure Hall doesn't get any big runs against them -- and it's working.
Linebacker depth is a problem: The Eagles signed Shaquille Leonard one day after their linebackers were torched against the 49ers. Nicholas Morrow allowed 129 yards and a touchdown on seven targets as the 49ers exposed the middle of the field in pass coverage. Morrow will likely be relegated to a No. 3 linebacker once Leonard gets acclimated to the defense, and Zach Cunningham will be healthy for the stretch run. The Eagles have a hole in the middle of the field teams have been exploiting all year. They're hoping Leonard fills that gap.
Run defense picked a bad week to turn in a clunker: The Steelers had to make the Cardinals one-dimensional, yet were unable to stop Arizona on the ground. This was a run defense that allowed just 121 yards over the last two games, but allowed 150 yards on 38 carries. Arizona just imposed its will on a run defense that was starting to turn things around. The run defense played a big role in the Cardinals going 10 of 17 on third down. Just a disappointing performance from a unit that appeared to be trending upward.
San Francisco 49ers
Deebo Samuel is still the most dangerous player on offense: Samuel reminded the league how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands, having seven touches for 138 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday -- averaging 19.7 yards per touch. Samuel scored touchdowns on his last three touches to break the game open, as the Eagles defense had no answer for him. With an offense that has Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, Samuel showcased why he's the difference-maker who gets San Francisco's offense to become the most dangerous unit in the league when healthy. There's a reason why San Francisco wins games when Samuel is on the field.
Throw to DK Metcalf more: Every once in a while Metcalf has a monster game that makes the NFL remember he's a top-10 wide receiver. Those moments are too few and far between. Metcalf finished with six catches for 134 yards and three touchdowns in Thursday's loss, by far his biggest game of the season. The Seahawks have been targeting Metcalf more as this was his fourth consecutive game with eight-plus targets. Metcalf has 21 catches for 358 yards and four touchdowns (17.0 yards per catch) in that stretch. Going to Metcalf is the Seahawks' best option of moving the football.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yaya Diaby growing as a pass rusher: The Buccaneers may have found something in Diaby, as he has elevated into a starting role. Diaby has five sacks in his last six games, including one on Sunday to go with two pressures. The Buccaneers' third-round rookie leads all outside edge rushers on the team in sacks (five), earning his uptick in playing time. With Shaquil Barrett on the other side, Diaby has the opportunity to get after the quarterback.
Special teams coach fired for blunders: Someone had to take the fall for Tennessee's two blocked punts on Sunday, one that resulted in a significant injury to Ryan Stonehouse. With Stonehouse out, Ryan Tannehill was called upon to hold on kicks (an awkward situation for a quarterback who was benched earlier this year). Nick Folk missed a field goal because of that hold. Ten points were a result of the blocked kicks and the Titans gave up three on the missed kick. A 13-point swing in an overtime loss was enough for Mike Vrabel to finally move on from Craig Aukerman.
Disturbing trend for offense: Sam Howell has thrown three interceptions returned for scores in the last three weeks, one in each of the last three games. Andrew Van Ginkel jumped the route and took the pass 33 yards the other way to put Miami up 17-0. Defenses have scored as many touchdowns over the last three weeks as the Commanders offense. Washington has a lot of problems to fix, but the easy reads for defenses Howell has to correct as he continues to learn in his first full season starting.