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The Week 14 Wrap

For the second week in a row, the San Francisco 49ers got themselves involved in a true heavyweight battle. And Sunday's 48-46 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome has to go down as the game of the year.

This was my kind of game. There were 94 points scored, 12 offensive touchdowns, 981 yards of offense and just enough defense in the middle to keep the purists happy. And it was a game in which the 49ers proved they truly do have the credentials and the physical and mental muscle to go all the way.

The 49ers have come out of their killer three-game schedule (Green Bay, at Baltimore and at New Orleans) with two wins and one loss to the Ravens on a field goal as time expired. This time around it was the Niners who won with a field goal at the buzzer as Robbie Gould converted from 30 yards.

There was so much to admire about San Francisco in this win. The play-calling of head coach Kyle Shanahan was sublime and he and his team showed tremendous mental fortitude to ride out an early storm as the outstanding Drew Brees led New Orleans to four touchdowns on their opening four possessions.

The Niners fell into an early 20-7 hole but dug their way out of it to lead 28-27 at the break. That proved to me that Shanahan has much more in his locker than some nicely-drawn-up plays. He is a leader of men and his team responded.

In a game of many stars, few shone brighter than quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who threw for 349 yards and four touchdowns. The perception from many pundits and sage minds on the other side of the Atlantic is that the San Francisco 49ers are beatable if you make Jimmy G the one to try to beat you.

That may sound harsh but I think it is more of a nod to Garoppolo still growing as a quarterback whereas the running game and defense have already arrived as top-notch units. But with this critical game on the line, the Niners leaned hard on their passer.

Jimmy G should be able to rip that game manager label off his back now. His team needed him to step forward on Sunday night and he did just that on a fourth down connection with George Kittle that covered 39 yards and set up Gould's game-winning kick.

It was a massive spot and Garoppolo delivered to move the 49ers back into top spot in the NFC playoff seedings.

But let's spare a final thought here for Brees and the Saints, who scored 46 at home and still somehow lost. In the same way the previous week's game between the Ravens and 49ers seemed like a scene setter for the Super Bowl, Sunday's showdown in the Superdome felt like an NFC title game preview, albeit likely to now be played in San Francisco.

And what a mouth-watering prospect that could turn out to be.

Who's Hot...

Ryan Tannehill...The Tennessee Titans have won six of seven and are averaging 31.4 points per game since Tannehill took over for the benched Marcus Mariota. And Tannehill is playing at a level we simply never saw during his time in Miami. He is threading the needle on passes and firing strikes that he never had the confidence to attempt in South Florida. Tannehill threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns in Tennessee's 42-21 win over Oakland on Sunday and he - along with powerhouse rusher Derrick Henry and an aggressive and opportunistic defense - have made the Titans one of the most dangerous teams to face in the second half of the season. Few will relish facing Mike Vrabel's men if they can force their way into the post-season party.

Drew Lock...Who saw this performance coming on Sunday as Denver's rookie quarterback threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns in his team's 38-24 win over Houston that was nowhere near as close as the final score might suggest? Lock's game-opening 14-yard touchdown strike to tight end Noah Fant was a thing of beauty. Lock became the first Broncos rookie quarterback to win his first two starts since his boss, John Elway, in 1983. Two starts does not make an NFL career, but the early returns suggest Elway and the Broncos are onto something with Lock. How he and this team finishes 2019 could very much impact how they are regarded heading into the 2020 campaign.

Baltimore's defense...Lamar Jackson had an okay day in gusty conditions in Buffalo, throwing for 145 yards and three touchdowns; and rushing for 40 yards. But he was by no means blow-your-socks-off great in Baltimore's 24-17 win. But their defense was playing at an elite level, sacking Bills quarterback Josh Allen six times and producing a stunning 25 pressures. This was not a stand-alone showing from a defense that has grown into one of the best in the league. That is not surprising given Baltimore's history on that side of the ball, but it might have been a surprise in the spring when we saw Eric Weddle, CJ Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith depart for new teams. This is a Super Bowl-calibre defense and team.

Who's Not...

Tom Brady...Let's not always put it on the mitigating circumstances and the lack of talent around him. Let's imagine taking the name and number off the back of his jersey on Sunday night and the reports on Tom Brady might be pretty damning after New England's 23-16 loss to Kansas City. Brady was rattled by pressure, on one occasion simply lofting a rainbow downfield in the general direction of Philip Dorsett when he could have stepped into the throw and delivered a strike, albeit while taking a hit. The 42-year-old also missed badly with the game on the line from the Chiefs' five-yard line. On fourth and three, Brady ignored an open Jakobi Meyers when the receiver would definitely have picked up the first down and would likely have scored. Instead, Brady went to the tried and trusted Julian Edelman, but his pass was too close to the defender and Bashaud Breeland swatted it away. Anywhere to the outside or the front of the end zone and Edelman would have been the only one who could make a play on the ball. For context, Brady has a quarterback rating of 86.5 on the season, putting him in the same neighbourhood as the likes of Mitchell Trubisky, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Jameis Winston. It's time for Brady to consider retirement after this season, not when he has played his age 45 season.

Houston Texans...Every time we want to believe in the Texans, they go and let us and, more importantly, themselves down. One week after knocking off the New England Patriots, Houston lost at home to the lowly Denver Broncos. And the reality is that this was much more of a blowout than the final 38-24 score would suggest. Such showings make it hard to fully get on board with this team, that sorely missed Will Fuller at receiver on Sunday. The Texans will be tested fiercely in the final three weeks of the regular season as they face the Titans twice and on the road against Tampa Bay.

Jacksonville Jaguars...The big losses keep on coming in Jacksonville. Since rolling into Wembley Stadium with a 4-4 record and in the midst of the AFC South title race, the Jags have lost by 23, 20, 22, 17 and 35 points. That is a staggering fall from grace and surely signals a pending house cleaning that must not only sweep out head coach Doug Marrone, but also the man above him in Tom Coughlin. There is talent on this team and more must be done to get the best out of the players. And that has to start with a new management and coaching structure in 2020.

The Fast Five...

The up and down nature of the ';Jameis Winston Experience' was in full effect on Sunday night as Tampa Bay won for the third game in a row. Winston served up three interceptions, including a pick six, and the Bucs trailed 35-21 in the second half. But he ended with a career-high 456 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-35 win. I have a sneaky feeling the Bucs are going to sign Winston up to a long-term deal this offseason.

We should, of course, credit the Chiefs for an important road win in New England. But a fast start turned into a sloppy affair. Kansas City were penalised 10 times and had 136 penalty yards to New England's 25. Penalties, a Mahomes interception, a Travis Kelce fumble and a blocked punt all need to go away if these teams meet again in January.

The Los Angeles Rams are still alive after their Sunday night football victory over Seattle. Jared Goff had some good moments and Todd Gurley received an encouraging 27 touches of the ball, but it was the D that shone like a diamond with five sacks and an interception.

If Odell Beckham Jr. is already upset and hinting at an exit after just one season in Cleveland, where will he be truly happy? I thought his life-long dream was to play in the NFL with his best friend, Jarvis Landry? There is trouble in Cleveland's paradise despite Sunday's win over Cincy.

There were some poor and unsettling calls in the New England-Kansas City game. First, a New England fumble recovery was whistled dead early when the Patriots might have scored (Jags fans are pleased with that one). And then N'Keal Harry scored a touchdown but was ruled out of bounds. Bill Belichick was out of challenges and the play could not be reviewed because it was not a scoring play. Simple solution... don't blow the early whistle on the first play and on the Harry play, rule it a touchdown and then sort it out on review. You're welcome.

Fact of the Week

Jimmy Garoppolo and Drew Brees had a combined quarterback rating of 270.1 on Sunday. They led their teams to 12 offensive touchdowns - the most in an NFL game since Week 8 of the 2015 season.

Finish That Sentence

Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we do on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go...

From Mark Sugar (@marksugar)...The Dallas Cowboys should... stay the course for the remainder of this season and stick with Jason Garrett as head coach. He has been a good servant as a player and coach and does not deserve to be embarrassed down the stretch. But it will be time to move in during the offseason and I think Jerry Jones needs to be as aggressive and bold in his coaching search as he was in building his remarkable stadium. I think Dallas should give up as many draft picks as it takes to secure the services of Sean Payton.

From Matthew Nash (@MJNashy)... Ryan Tannehill is now...the clear leader in the race to be Tennessee's starting quarterback in 2020 and for many years to come. Reports out of the United States on Sunday suggest the Titans are ready to offer Tannehill a new deal rather than go the franchise tag route. He has more than proven his worth and looks a changed man when compared to his quarterback days in Miami.

From Tom Marshall (@mjfawcett) George Kittle is...not of this world. He is a throwback who has often reminded me of former New York Giants great Mark Bavaro for his ability to make catches but also impose his physical will on defenders. So it was fitting that Kittle pulled off a 'Bavaro' on his 39-yard catch and run on fourth down. It took multiple Saints defenders to get him down, 33 years this month since Bavaro dragged 49ers downfield on his back at the end of a famous 31-yard catch and run. Check it out online.

From Carl Walker (@CarlWalker1984) The Buccaneers have a real shot at the playoffs next year because...They pile up yards and points at a ridiculous rate when you consider how much Jameis turns the ball over. I'm not even going to bother contemplating a Winston life without turnovers because that is unlikely given his career to date. But this team can still threaten the end zone time and again with those mistakes. So I think they are going to finish strong and be a possible trendy pick in 2020. I also have total faith in Bruce Arians, who is one of the best coaches in recent NFL history.

From Glenn Entwistle (@glennentwistle)... At 10-3, the Green Bay Packers are...misleading and deceiving. I don't think they are playing that well on offense at the moment and Sunday's 20-15 home win over Washington should have been much more inspiring. Aaron Rodgers is not in a rut, but he is hardly lighting it up either. He was held under a quarterback rating of 100 for the ninth time this season and Rodgers threw for just 195 yards and one score. He has been held under 200 passing yards three times in Green Bay's last five games. Ten wins is impressive, but this team is below San Francisco, New Orleans and Seattle in the NFC, by my reckoning.

Final Thought...

The Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in possession of the final wild card spot in the AFC with a 23-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers -who were playing with Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown in their offensive heyday - are a very different team now. But they look fresher and hungrier than they ever did in 2018 and it is reminiscent of when Seattle cleaned house with players rather than get rid of Pete Carroll. Sometimes a coach's message can grow stale and the coach is gone. But the Steelers still have Mike Tomlin and he is doing a heck of a job with a talented bunch, particularly on defense where T.J. Watt is outstanding.

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