It wasn't long ago that the San Francisco 49ers were momentarily written off as also rans.
Suddenly, the Niners' three-game losing streak in October, with Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams sidelined and Brock Purdy looking as irrelevant as his draft position indicated, feels like both a distant memory and merely a blip on the radar screen for arguably the NFL's most complete team.
Now with just five games remaining, the 49ers are playing the most dominant football, peaking at the right time, and sending a message to the rest of the league.
"They just dismantled the team many thought was the best in the league, in their building," a veteran AFC Scout told FanBuzz. "Good luck stopping that freight train."
Sunday in Philadelphia, the 49ers humbled and humiliated the Eagles before walking out of Lincoln Financial Field with the banner as the NFL's team to beat.
Here's how the NFC Playoff picture looks after the 49ers completed an 11-month long mission for revenge:
1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) - Amid the most grueling stretch of their season, a suddenly even more important game than Sunday's drubbing looms in Dallas that could wind up deciding the NFC East.
2. San Francisco 49ers (9-3) - If the 49ers go 3-0 against the Ravens, Seahawks, and Rams, there's a very real possibility the road to the Super Bowl goes through Santa Clara
3. Detroit Lions (9-3) - They might be inconsistent, but the explosiveness of Jahmyr Gibbs and Jameson Williams combined with a strangling pass-rush and consistently disruptive linebacker corps give the Lions a puncher's chance against anyone.
4. Atlanta Falcons (6-6) - This year's argument that a division championship shouldn't guarantee a home game.
5. Dallas Cowboys (9-3) - Dak Prescott is leading the NFL's most prolific offense over the past three weeks, and there's enough star power here for Dallas to upend the Eagles and make a real run at the No. 1 seed.
Would any of the teams above hosting the NFC Championship Game be a surprise?
For all the talk of the AFC being loaded, on the basis of the elite quarterbacks housed in that side of the bracket, the race for the top-seed in the NFC is going to be the most compelling finishing stretch to an NFL season that we have seen in recent memory. Buckle Up.
Here are the biggest takeaways, and awards, from Week 13 of the NFL season.
First Down: 49ers Make Emphatic Statement
The San Francisco 49ers talked trash, almost relentlessly, from the moment they boarded the busses for the airport after a disappointing NFC Championship Game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and then brought their 2023 Wrecking Ball Tour to Lincoln Financial Field Sunday.
Beyond the scoreboard, a 42-19 blowout victory, the 49ers completely embarrassed and outclassed the reigning conference champions while boarding the flight back to Santa Clara, Calif. with a victory that reshapes the NFC race.
It wasn't just a victory for the 49ers, but as emphatic a statement as an NFL team can make, just a thorough domination over the top seed in their conference in every phase of the game.
San Francisco's stars shone the brightest, on a rainy South Philadelphia afternoon, delivering a message that the 49ers are the team to beat.
Christian McCaffrey rushed for 93 yards and a score, Deebo Samuel produced 138 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, as Brock Purdy avenged a title game performance that saw him fracture his thumb early and deal with months upon months of questions about whether he was anything more than a one-year wonder. Purdy answered his critics Sunday by posting a 148.8 passer rating while completing 19-of-27 attempts for 314 yards with four touchdowns, setting his playmakers up for success after the catch.
Adding Insult to the beat down, 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw was tossed for making contact with Eagles head of security Dom DiSandro during a sideline fracas and DiSandro was barred from the sideline. Then, with the outcome of the game long since decided, 49ers cornerback Deommodore Lenoir lowered his shoulder and delivered a crushing but clean hit that de-cleated Eagles running back D'Andre Swift over the middle of the field.
Between holding the Eagles to 4.8 yards per play, while averaging eight yards per offensive snap, the chippiness both between the lines and along the sideline, it was obvious that the 49ers had had this matchup circled on the schedule since boarding the busses at Lincoln Financial Field to head to the airport dejected back in January.
The Eagles are going to be in the mix the entire way, and there's a certain element to the 49ers catching Philadelphia at the right time (Sunday marked the Eagles' third game in 13 days, with the 49ers coming off the mini-bye week post Thanksgiving). But, the Eagles better be careful because with four teams within just one game as the top-seed, Philadelphia's edge in the race for homefield advantage is as tenuous as it has been all season.
"That was a great win for the 49ers," an NFC coach told FanBuzz Sunday evening. "The Eagles haven't been very good the last two or three wees, and it finally caught up to them."
Philadelphia drops to 10-2, as the 49ers improved to 9-3 with the head-to-head tiebreaker now tucked away for safe keeping.
Not only did the 49ers dramatically improve their own chances of hosting the NFC Championship Game next month, but they also transformed the NFC East into a competitive race. Suddenly, the Eagles' are hanging onto the division lead by just one game, ahead of next Sunday night's clash with the Cowboys in Arlington.
Make no mistake, the 49ers' victory was arguably not only the most impressive that any team has produced all season, but easily the most consequential.
Second Down: Lions Return to Form, Find New Way to Win
As the Lions raced out 24-7 halftime lead, it appeared Sunday's game would be over by the break and some of Detroit's backups could get some quality work in against the Saints.
But, after New Orleans came roaring back, Dan Campbell's team was dragged into a bit of a title fight in the Bayou.
Saints running back Alvin Kamara did everything but literally put the Saints on his back, while scoring a pair of touchdowns and accounting for 109 of New Orleans' 362 yards of total offense. Taysom Hill left his mark with 59 rushing yards and a touchdown.
At times, it looked like the Saints were primed to pull off the kind of upset that would bring them right back into the NFC South race. But, Jameson Williams' electrifying speed resulted in a 19-yard touchdown run and Aaron Glenn's defense recovered a fumble and forced a turnover on downs on two of the Saints' final three possessions.
Ultimately, like championship contenders do, the Lions got enough key contributions from all phases of the game to hop the plane back to Motown with a 33-28 victory that now moves Detroit to within one game of the Eagles for the NFC's top seed.
Games like Sunday presented the kind of adversity that young Lions such as rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who rushed for 60 yards while averaging 7.5 yards per carry, and rookie tight end Sam Laporta, who caught all nine of his targets for 140 yards with a touchdown, can draw on as the stakes get higher over the next two months.
For the first time since 1962 the Lions are 9-3, and playing the kind of football capable of erasing generations' worth of disappointment in Detroit.
For today's Lions, being able to withstand the kind of counter-punch the Saints lobbed the Dan Campbell's team's way is going to serve Detroit well. Not only down the stretch this season, but in the NFC Playoffs.
Third Down: Bill Belichick's Past Only Thing Helping Him Survive Present
Frank Reich was fired after going 1-10 in Carolina this season, and Josh McDaniels was shown the door after posting a 9-16 mark through a season and a half at the helm of the Raiders.
If Bill Belichick was any other coach, would he survive beyond Monday morning after falling to the Los Angeles Chargers 6-0 on Sunday afternoon?
Among executives and marquee agents, Belichick's name is near the top of the list of coaches facing the most pressure between now and season's end. However, after Sunday, Belichick's fate might already be sealed.
Last week, we reported that one AFC evaluator believes there could be a bidding war between the Chargers and Commanders for Belichick's services, should he become available. If the Patriots continue to stack performances like Sunday's Los Angeles and Washington might get their chance sooner than many expected.
But, Belichick is now just 27-35 since Tom Brady's departure from Patriot Place, and "The Patriot Way" is suddenly more of a cautionary tale than gold standard to be measured against. New England has now been shut out twice this season and held to fewer than 10 points four times through the first 12 games of the season.
It suddenly seems inevitable, and a matter of when rather than if, some sort of mutual parting of the ways occurs for Belichick and the Patriots.
Fourth Down: It's time the NFL bans the 'Hip-Drop' Tackle
Each week, it seems that an NFL star goes down with an injury after a defender uses the hip-drop tackle, and Sunday afternoon was no different.
This week, it was Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson who sprained his ankle when Chargers linebacker Tuli Tuipulotu seemed to use the hip-drop tackle to bring Stevenson down in the first half on Sunday afternoon in Foxboro.
Looks like a hip-drop tackle is what injured Rhamondre Stevenson?
Stevenson has been ruled out of the game with an ankle injury because of this tackle. pic.twitter.com/6IAzUSS7v0
— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) December 3, 2023
Earlier this season, Ravens tight end Mark Andrews suffered a fractured fibula and an ankle injury when he was tackled by a defender who used the hip-drop tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11.
Pro Football Talk points out that there is a chance that the league will eliminate the play this offseason, after a failed attempt by the competition committee to have the play banned following the 2022 campaign.
If injuries continue to mount over the season's final month, expect the calls to ban the controversial tackle to intensify.
MVP of Week 13: Deebo Samuel, WR San Francisco 49ers
Few players in the entire NFL are as electrifying as Deebo Samuel, who can change the trajectory of a game in an instant, and that is exactly what the 49ers wide receiver did on Sunday against the Eagles.
Following the NFC Championship Game, Samuel called Eagles cornerback James Bradberry "trash," and then Sunday afternoon proceeded to catch all four of his targets from quarterback Brock Purdy for 116 yards with two touchdowns. As if that weren't enough, Samuel added three carries for 22 yards and another score.
"He's everything I would want in a wide receiver," an AFC coach told FanBuzz. "He's physical, he can block, he's dangerous as a runner out of the backfield, can make plays from the slot, can line up outside, and he's a very smart football player."
Samuel backed up his offseason's worth of trash talk directed Philadelphia's direction with the kind of performance that not only sparks an offense for an afternoon but can ignite a team ahead of the stretch run.
Breakout Star of Week 13: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, Houston Texans
So much has been made all season long about C.J. Stroud's rapid ascension among the game's top quarterbacks, and the Houston Texans' offense as a driving force behind the team's success, but on Sunday afternoon it was the defense that paved the way to an impressive win.
Namely, it was Texans cornerback Derek Stingley who had one of the finest performances of his career, against veteran quarterback Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos, who entered Week 13 as one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
Stingley intercepted Wilson twice on Sunday afternoon, including with 9:33 remaining in the game, by jumping the route against Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton to hand the ball back to Stroud and the offense at a critical juncture.
Sunday's dominant performance from Stingley is the crescendo of a three game stretch that has seen the 22-year-old pull down four interceptions. Stingley's surge underscores that the Texans have the balance to play complementary football, which makes them extra dangerous as the postseason looms.
Team of The Week: Indianapolis Colts
One of the NFL's best kept secrets should be a secret no more; Indianapolis Colts rookie head coach Shane Steichen belongs in the Coach of The Year conversation.
Despite losing promising rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson for the season, back on Oct. 8, forcing Gardner Minshew into action and now losing running back Jonathan Taylor for the foreseeable future, Steichen's Colts have won four straight after surviving in overtime, 31-28, over Tennessee.
Steichen is drawing up innovative plays on offense, the Colts are getting key contributions from a defense that is starting to really jell, and suddenly at 7-5 Indianapolis is in the throes of the AFC Playoff race.
This is a roster, led the rest of the way by a 27-year-old journeyman quarterback, that won just four games last season. If the Colts are able to withstand a finishing stretch that includes games against the Steelers, Texans, and Falcons and emerge on the right side of the AFC Wild Card, Steichen is going to deserve every Coach of The Year vote he winds up garnering and his team could be capable of surprising some people.
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