Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 12: Raiders, Patriots remain on an AFC collision course –

 In Sports

When the new year rolls around and Jan. 19 hits, it will be the 15th anniversary of the Tuck Rule Game. It’s been that long since the
Oakland Raiders
New England Patriots
last met in the postseason, and this year certainly appears to offer an opportunity to end the drought.

That’s a bittersweet proposition for Raiders fans. The thought of
Tom Brady
beating Oakland in the snow usually conjures painful memories, but Oakland’s success in 2016 should heal some of those wounds. The Raiders fell in the standings despite a win, but it’s on a mere tiebreaking technicality — they have the same record as the Patriots and it’s hard to fathom just about anyone else squaring off for the right to play the NFC in Houston.

Both Oakland and New England are 9-2 after winning their respective Week 12 matchups, and these two teams offer substantially more balance and upside than anyone else in the AFC at the moment.

New England didn’t blast through the
New York Jets
on Sunday, but it was a divisional road and rivalry game. Tom Brady didn’t bring his A game out of the gate, but he managed to find it in enough time to record his 200th career win, tying
Peyton Manning
for most all-time.

Brady lost
Rob Gronkowski
again, with the all-world tight end exiting with a back injury after suiting up to play despite a major lung injury suffered two weeks ago, but the quarterback has some weapons who are starting to emerge.

Dion Lewis
(six carries for 24 yards, four catches for 34 yards) is getting more and more snaps as he returns from injury and
Malcolm Mitchell
is coming along nicely. The rookie wideout finished with five catches for 42 yards and a pair of scores, including the one that put the Pats ahead for good.

New England’s defense isn’t great right now, and they’re moving parts in and out on that side of the ball. But Bill Belichick has five more weeks to tinker with the defense, and given their schedule (vs.
Los Angeles Rams
, vs.
Baltimore Ravens
, at
Denver Broncos
, vs. Jets, at
Miami Dolphins
), it would be a stunner if they finished worse than 12-4.

How they manage Gronk’s health down the stretch is worth monitoring. And so is
Derek Carr
‘s finger — the Raiders quarterback dislocated his pinkie finger late against the
Carolina Panthers
in Oakland’s 35-32 win, the latest in a year’s worth of high-octane, close wins for the Raiders.

The Panthers don’t have a good record, but they’re still a pretty good team. And Oakland got their best shot in the second half and still managed to win in a fairly balanced fashion. Carr played well both before and after his injury. There were some questionable coaching moves in this one (more on that below), but what stood out was the big plays the Raiders defense made when the game was on the line.

We know that Carr and Co. can light up a scoreboard — Oakland is a top-five offensive team in points scored. But the defense, particularly
Khalil Mack
, is coming alive in terms of making plays.

For instance, the game-sealing sack of
Cam Newton
that effectively snuffed out the Panthers’ playoff hopes and kept Oakland in the hunt for home-field advantage:

The sack by Mack secured an impressive Swiss Army-like day for the superstar that included an incredibly athletic pick-six of Newton before the first half ended.

Thanks to these game-swinging plays, Mack joins current ESPN analyst and former Raiders great
Charles Woodson
in a pretty rare class of production.

There’s a little bit of 2009
New Orleans Saints
feel to this team, right? That Saints team, which would eventually win the Super Bowl, started out 12-0 and dominated more teams than the Raiders have this year. Carr is not
Drew Brees
. But the Raiders can score on anyone and are a highly explosive offense. The defense isn’t great, or even league average (29th in DVOA heading into Week 12), but the Saints weren’t great on defense, either, just very opportunistic. The Raiders have a similar feel in a weaker league overall.

Carr coming back from the finger injury and continuing to wing sharp passes is a huge sign for a team with a ton of good mojo right now.

No one else in the AFC really comes close to these two teams, either. The
Kansas City Chiefs
and Broncos can play a lot of defense, so they’re scary, but they can’t score many points. The
Houston Texans
are currently a playoff team and might be a hoax. The
Pittsburgh Steelers
are the scariest team left, and they wouldn’t be in the playoffs if the season ended today. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)

History is fairly famous for repeating itself. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Raiders and Patriots became the latest example.

Here are six more takeaways from Sunday’s Week 12 action.

1. A familiar loophole

The Ravens are coached by a man with a lengthy history as a special teams coaching ace in John Harbaugh, and it showed on Sunday afternoon. With the Ravens up by seven points and less than 10 seconds remaining in the game against the
Cincinnati Bengals
, Baltimore’s punting unit exploited an NFL loophole in order to prevent Cincinnati from getting the ball back.

It’s unofficially called the “hold everyone and run out the back of the end zone instead of punting” play.

It’s a genius move, and totally legal, too.

It’s also not the first time the Ravens pulled this off, having attempted the purposeful safety in Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory over the 49ers. It didn’t let them bleed the clock out because
Chris Culliver
got through to the punter, but the Ravens only saw their lead dip to three with just four seconds left on the clock.

Smart coaching and excellent execution. This is what competition is all about. Please remind the Ravens about it the next time they whine about someone taking advantage of a rule.

2. Bountygate revenge

Remember Gregg Williams? He was the central figure in the Saints’ Bountygate scandal, being notoriously heard on tapes telling the Saints defense to take out the head in order to kill the snake and allegedly running a bounty program on quarterbacks as far back as 2009. You might have forgotten who he was because of his sweet frosted tips and goatee, but he’s still very much in the league, now coaching for the Los Angeles Rams.

Williams made his return to New Orleans on Sunday, and boy did he get embarrassed all the way around. First off, a security guard demanded to see his identification before he could get in Superdome.

This was probably set up by Sean Payton, who got a year-long suspension as part of the scandal. Payton, according to players, was fairly enthused about this game.

“He was fired up,” safety
Kenny Vaccaro
said. “I’m sure you all know why.”

That attitude manifested itself in an explosion of offense for the Saints. Per Josh Katzenstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Sunday was tied for the second-most points (49) scored by a team against a Williams-run defense in his 18 seasons and tied for the most yards (555) against the defensive coordinator in a regulation game.

The Saints came to play, and they did not let off the gas all afternoon, even letting
Willie Snead
bomb a 50-yard touchdown, which just felt like rubbing it in.

The byproduct of this big day is the Saints being right back in the NFC hunt. They’re the 10th seed in the conference, but are just two games back of the
Atlanta Falcons
in the NFC South. They get Tampa Bay twice, Atlanta once, Detroit once and Arizona once. All of those games save one will take place indoors — don’t rule out the Saints ripping off a big win streak to close out the season.

3. Elsewhere in the NFC South …

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
are coming along nicely, too. They’ve had some really bad games during this season, but as
Jameis Winston
pointed out after the game, the Tampa defense is continuing to play better each week.

Tampa has won three straight, and the last two are particularly impressive: going to Kansas City and winning and hosting Seattle and holding them to five points. The
Seattle Seahawks
were the hottest non-Cowboys team in the NFC prior to Sunday, when
Russell Wilson
Thomas Rawls
were totally bottled up.

Remember how we talked about history? Well, the Raiders were spun into oblivion the year after the Tuck Rule Game by the Buccaneers, who would destroy Oakland in the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers are now over .500 this late in the year for the first time since that 2002 season.

Over those three games, Winston is really starting to up his play. The second-year quarterback is completing 68 percent of his passes for 8.63 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

His improvements been happening longer than that, too. Since a rough first four games to start the year, when the Bucs went 1-3 and Jameis looked like he was going to have a regression year, Winston only has three interceptions in seven games.

And he is feeding his guy,
Mike Evans

Winston is special. You could see it during his first few games at Florida State. He was quite the story for different reasons throughout his college career. He had an up-and-down rookie season and struggled out of the gate. But you can see everything starting to click here for him. If he can continue to elevate his game down the stretch, the Bucs can make a legitimate playoff run for the first time in a long time.

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