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Key takeaways and analysis from Week 12 in the NFL

Photo illustration by Julian Catalfo / theScore

Sunday Rundown recaps the most important developments from the day's action and examines their significance moving forward.

Payton turns it around

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The Broncos have won five games in a row. Yes, the Broncos.

There were a lot of bad things said about this team after the first month of the season. Surely, there'll be some Denver fans looking for apologies, but make no mistake: it was all true at the time.

But things change quickly in the NFL. After an impressive win over the Browns, the Broncos now find themselves sitting at 6-5 and effectively tied for the final AFC wild-card spot. Is anyone questioning the Sean Payton hire now?

The defense, of course, has been the main factor in Denver's stunning turnaround. Just six weeks ago, it seemed like a matter of time before Payton would have to admit a mistake and move on from defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. Denver was off to a historically bad start on that side of the ball, and the 70 points allowed in Miami was no fluke.

Payton opted to stay the course. Joseph, to his credit, has delivered better results than anyone could've expected. The Broncos have given up just 80 total points across their five-game win streak, including nine to the Chiefs and 22 to the Bills.

The monumental defensive improvements have taken some pressure off the rest of the operation, allowing the offense to play more on schedule. It's still not the most explosive unit, but the consistent play the Broncos have gotten out of Russell Wilson speaks to the upgrade made in the coaching department.

Wilson has just four interceptions on the season and hasn't thrown a pick since Week 6. It also took him only nine games to top last season's 16 touchdowns.

The Broncos probably don't have the pieces for a deep playoff run if they even make the postseason, but the message has been sent. Payton can still coach, and his staff is in the process of laying the foundation for a bright future. The AFC West is going to be fun for a long time.

A new day in Pittsburgh

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It's official: Matt Canada was the problem.

OK, maybe that's a little bit harsh. There were certainly more factors at play for the Steelers' offense, including some terrible quarterback play, but how else are we supposed interpret what we saw this week?

Pittsburgh's offense looked like a completely different unit in Sunday's win over Cincinnati. While it didn't quite show up on the scoreboard, a closer look reveals a largely effective change in philosophy under new offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner and play-caller Mike Sullivan.

Most notably, this version of the Steelers' offense seems to understand the value of pushing the ball downfield and attacking over the middle. It's no coincidence that Kenny Pickett completed 24 of 33 passes for a season-high 278 passing yards.

Pickett's big day, along with an efficient 153 yards in the ground game, helped the Steelers post their first 400-plus-yard game since Week 2 of the 2020 season. That ends a dubious streak of 58 straight games.

Defenses will adjust to the changes made under Faulkner, and it's tough to truly buy in on an offense led by Pickett. But the Steelers don't need much to complement what's always been an outstanding defense.

A midseason coordinator change may be all the Steelers needed to go from befuddling overachievers to legitimate contenders in the AFC. Mike Tomlin does it again.

Enjoy it while it lasts

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An entire generation of fans has grown up hating the Patriots for their success (and probably the cheating scandals). It's only natural, then, that a significant amount of the football world is taking great joy in their downfall. Just don't get used to it.

For anyone who wishes nothing but bad things for the Patriots, I regret to inform you that it's reaching a point where it's almost too bad for it to last.

The Patriots losing to Tommy DeVito and the Giants in a game that featured Mac Jones being benched for the fourth time this season is a new low previously unimaginable under Bill Belichick. New England is now 2-9 and getting worse by the week. Based on everything we've seen to this point, it's tough to pick out a single win on the remaining schedule.

But is that really such a bad thing for the Patriots? Continuing on this path would all but guarantee New England a top-two pick in the draft. Depending on how the Panthers finish the year, the Patriots could even end up in the No. 1 spot. And in case you haven't heard, the incoming quarterback class is pretty good.

Adding either Caleb Williams or Drake Maye - and using their $91 million in cap space to upgrade the roster elsewhere - would give the Patriots an opportunity to build another long-term contender.

Belichick may not be sticking around to see that through, but a dream rebuild scenario, along with the general stability of the organization, would make New England one of the most attractive head coaching jobs this offseason.

The Patriots won't be in the basement for long.

No way out

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The Saints' offense is a painful watch right now. We could probably chalk it up to injuries this week if we really wanted to be charitable, but this also isn't exactly a new development. Just ask a Saints fan how they feel about this group.

The latest sign of mediocrity: managing just five field goals and failing to get in the end zone in a crushing divisional loss to the Falcons.

It's easy to understand why the Saints signed Derek Carr. The NFC South is a winnable division, and New Orleans was going to be a runaway favorite if its new quarterback played anywhere near the top-12(ish) levels he'd occasionally flirted with in the past. That hasn't happened.

Carr, who threw a backbreaking pick-6 in the loss to the Falcons, ranks 21st in EPA/play and 20th in success rate, according to Ben Baldwin's database. Not exactly what you want for a quarterback just starting a four-year, $150-million deal. Baker Mayfield, for reference, ranks 14th in EPA/play after joining the Bucs on a one-year, $4-million deal.

As things currently stand, the Saints could theoretically get out of Carr's contract after the 2024 season. But that's before you consider the ramifications of some truly horrific salary cap management.

The Saints are currently projected to be $71.4 million over the 2024 salary cap, according to Over the Cap. That's a direct result of the organization regularly restructuring contracts and pushing money to the future as a way of avoiding any sort of rebuild. And they've done it so much now that there's little to no cap space to be gained by cutting players; continuing to kick the can down the road is the only option to get under the cap.

Carr's $30-million base salary for next season makes him the most obvious restructure candidate on the roster. Any such maneuver would tie him to the team for at least one more season if not several more. The Saints may have no choice but to make this thing work.

Don't be surprised if their efforts to do so dictate a potential offseason coaching search.

Quick slants

Bates paying off

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Expensive free-agent signings rarely work out. It's hard to live up to price tags set by a competitive market, and there's often a reason why a player's former team let them go. At the very least, conventional wisdom suggests you're making the mistake of paying for past performance. Bates is one of the rare exceptions. The veteran safety has taken his game to another level after joining the Falcons on a four-year, $64-million deal. His pick-6 in the red zone against the Saints gives him four interceptions on the season, already tying a career high. Bates also prevented a go-ahead score with another turnover later in the game, stripping Taysom Hill inside the 10-yard line. The Falcons somehow got a steal with one of the NFL's highest-paid safeties.

Reich on the hot seat

The Panthers are a disaster. Nothing about this situation is conducive to the success of a rookie quarterback, and that falls on the coaching staff. It doesn't get much worse than drawing up a screen play to the perimeter on fourth-and-6 with the game on the line against the Titans. Spoiler: It didn't work. Frank Reich returning next season feels like a long shot. But it's also getting to a point where it's fair to wonder whether he'll even be back next week. The Panthers have to do whatever they can to put Bryce Young in a position to succeed. If that's admitting a mistake with the coaching staff, so be it. Reich getting fired before the end of the year in back-to-back seasons would be one heck of a dubious achievement.

Editor's note: Reich was fired by the Panthers on Monday morning.

Colts in the mix

Don't look now, but Reich's former team is already sniffing around playoff contention. The Colts, who improved to 6-5 with Sunday's win over the Bucs, currently hold the last AFC wild-card spot. While there won't be many experts picking them to be in that position at season's end, Indianapolis doesn't seem to care much for our expectations. This kind of run in Year 1 under Shane Steichen, despite losing No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson to a season-ending injury, is already an incredibly promising sign for what's to come. The AFC South will be a great division sooner rather than later.

Rice emerges for Chiefs

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The Chiefs finally found some success in the passing game in a win over the Raiders. This won't be the end of the discussion surrounding an underwhelming receiving corps, but feeding second-round rookie Rashee Rice was a promising development. Rice is far and away the team's most explosive receiver. He fully displayed those abilities Sunday, posting season highs in catches (eight) and yards (107) to go with a putaway touchdown. High-volume games like this could go a long way toward preparing Rice for a feature role in the playoffs.

Jaguars still on top

An important win over the surging Texans gives Jacksonville a comfortable two-game lead atop the AFC South. With a relatively easy schedule to close out the season, there's no reason the Jaguars shouldn't be able to come away with a second consecutive division title. The gap is closing, though. C.J. Stroud was spectacular again this week, going head-to-head with Trevor Lawrence to give his team a chance. It wasn't quite enough in the end, with a game-tying 58-yard field goal going off the crossbar. But the Texans really are that close. Houston is building a contender.

A critical mistake

The Browns are still alive at 7-4, but Sunday's loss to the Broncos validates any and all concerns about this offense. It was bad enough with Deshaun Watson, but expecting to stay afloat with Dorian Thompson-Robinson or P.J. Walker always felt a little misguided. Do they give you a better chance to win than, say, Matt Ryan? Maybe. But wouldn't you want to be sure? The Browns going next man up at quarterback feels like punting on what had been a promising season. If only they hadn't traded Joshua Dobbs for no reason.

Stat of the week

MNF lookahead

Bears vs. Vikings

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This matchup looks a lot more fun than it did a month ago. Thanks largely to Joshua Dobbs' instant impact, the Vikings have overcome losing Kirk Cousins and re-established themselves as playoff contenders. The Bears aren't playing for much this season, but Justin Fields has looked a lot more comfortable since returning from injury. Could he finally be turning the corner as a passer? Fields' performance against a blitz-heavy Vikings defense could prove to be an important evaluation point for his future in Chicago.

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