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Key takeaways and analysis from Week 14 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.

Now do you believe?

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Everyone knows the deal with the Cowboys: You either love them or you hate them. The haters have surely taken great joy in a few decades of playoff failures. But it might finally be time for the other side to have some fun.

Sunday night's game against the Philadelphia Eagles was supposed to be the ultimate battle of NFC East powerhouses. The Cowboys sought revenge after a missed opportunity earlier this season, while the Eagles were hoping to bounce back from a demoralizing loss to the 49ers. In the end, the marquee event was nothing but a mismatch.

A 33-13 thrashing of the reigning NFC champs is the ultimate confirmation of everything the Cowboys have been building to this point. There have been some letdowns along the way, with a blowout loss to the 49ers causing some to suggest that this was simply a team taking advantage of a cupcake schedule. It was a fair concern at the time, but that logic won't fly anymore.

The Cowboys have been doing everything necessary to earn their status among the league's elite. Dak Prescott is enjoying an MVP-caliber season, CeeDee Lamb is emerging as one of the game's best high-volume playmakers, and Mike McCarthy is quieting plenty of critics with his work in designing the offense. The defense, meanwhile, entered this week ranked third in yards allowed, fourth in scoring, and third in EPA/play, according to Ben Baldwin's database. Holding the Eagles without an offensive touchdown for the first time since 2019 might be the unit's most impressive showing yet.

Philly remains a legitimate contender with a terrifying collection of talent on both sides of the ball. It would come as no surprise to anyone if they get hot down the stretch and make another run, but that's simply not the team we've seen for the better part of the season. There are some very real issues at the second and third levels of the defense, and Jalen Hurts isn't playing anywhere near the level he did last year.

A lot can change in a month, so we may see a different result if these two teams meet again in January. But the Cowboys have a major advantage right now, and there's no reason to believe their current level of play is unsustainable.

It's time to buy in.

Champs are scuffling

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A penalty call will, unfortunately, be the big storyline coming out of Sunday's game between the Bills and Chiefs.

Kadarius Toney lining up offside wiped out an all-time great play that saw a midfield lateral from Travis Kelce give Kansas City a late go-ahead touchdown. Was he over the line of scrimmage? Clearly. But the Chiefs are mad about the process from the officials.

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story suggested that the Chiefs have a right to be mad. After further consideration, we take it back. They don’t. Line up onside.)

Once they get over that, they'll probably be even more upset with the state of their offense. It's kind of a problem.

While the underlying stats may suggest they're a perfectly competent unit (7th in EPA/play, 8th in success rate), the Chiefs rank outside the top 10 in scoring for the first time in the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes era. The 20-17 loss to Buffalo marked the fourth instance in the last six games that Kansas City has failed to reach the 20-point mark.

Mahomes will probably face some criticism for the lack of scoring, but he's still the best in the business. This is about the underwhelming talent that surrounds him. It remains difficult to understand why Andy Reid was comfortable entering the season with this group of receivers.

We should never rule out the possibility that Mahomes could go wild in the playoffs and carry the Chiefs to yet another Super Bowl. As things currently stand, though, it seems far more likely that the pass-catchers will continue to hold him back. Kansas City has to get more from that group to compete with the best of the best.

Those are high standards, to be sure, but every season is championship or bust when you have the best quarterback on the planet.

Game of the year

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If your Sundays are spent watching RedZone, do yourself a favor and circle back to this week's battle between the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Ravens. It's worth your time.

The Ravens, as we've discussed, are a juggernaut. They're one of the most well-balanced teams we've seen in years and have everything they need to run through the AFC. It makes sense that the 6-6 Rams rolling into Baltimore didn't generate much buzz.

But here's the thing: the Rams are back. It's been an inconsistent season thus far, with injuries contributing to some letdowns, but this team is much better than its record suggests. Sean McVay is scheming things up with the best in the game and Matthew Stafford is playing out of his mind.

Stafford connected on several wild throws, going shot for shot with another MVP-caliber performance from Lamar. The late drive to get in position for a game-tying field goal, most notably, was some more vintage stuff from the veteran signal-caller.

Both defenses stepped up with three-and-outs to start overtime, setting the stage for Tylan Wallace to emerge as the unlikely hero. In his first game returning punts, the former fourth-round pick ripped off a spectacular 76-yard return score to walk it off for Baltimore.

The early afternoon thriller confirmed everything we already knew about Baltimore. But it also opened our eyes to Los Angeles' potential to make some noise. Upcoming games against the Commanders, Saints, and Giants will give the Rams a real chance to earn a wild-card spot and sneak up on a division winner in the first round.

Lions not quite there

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The Lions were, deservedly, everyone's preseason darling. It was clear to the majority of the football world that this team, fresh off ending the Packers' playoff hopes on the final day of the 2022 campaign, was ready to compete. But competing isn't necessarily contending.

Any goals surrounding the former have been sufficiently achieved: The Lions are well on their way to winning the NFC North. As for the latter, it might be wise to exercise some patience.

A 28-13 loss to the Bears marked the second time in three weeks that the Lions have been outplayed by their basement-dwelling NFC North rivals. It also serves as an important reminder that there's still a sizeable gap between Detroit and the NFL's true contenders.

To that end, the defense remains the most glaring issue. Detroit still had no answer for Justin Fields, as Chicago's quarterback accounted for 281 total yards and two touchdowns. Fields now has three turnover-free games on the year - two of which came against the Lions.

Detroit's offense has largely been stellar this year, but we probably shouldn't let them off the hook here. Turnovers are still an issue, as another pair of interceptions from Jared Goff raised his tally to 12 on the year. With four games still to play, he's on pace to surpass the 15 picks he threw over the previous two seasons combined.

The Lions still have time to sort things out before the playoffs, but it's increasingly clear that this team is still several key pieces away from challenging the teams they'd see in January. That reality once again brings us back to April.

Spending a pair of first-round picks on a running back (Jahmyr Gibbs) and linebacker (Jack Campbell) looks all the more misguided when considering the shortcomings at some other premium positions. Top young talents at cornerback, defensive end, and/or quarterback, for example, would have gone a long way toward accelerating this team's ascent.

Instead, the Lions find themselves needing at least another year to build the roster up right.

Quick slants

Bengals still kicking

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The Bengals aren't about to let a quarterback injury end their season. Their offense has been shockingly competent without Joe Burrow thanks to some stellar play from Jake Browning, who's now led the way in back-to-back wins. The former undrafted free agent followed up his Monday night masterpiece with another 275 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's victory over the Colts. Finishing the job won't be easy, as the Bengals still have a challenging month ahead, but this is no fluke. Burrow wasn't the only reason Cincinnati was a Super Bowl contender.

Texans beat up

Injuries are suddenly threatening to derail a magical season in Houston. The Texans are critically low on playmaking talent after Tank Dell suffered a broken fibula last week and Nico Collins exited Sunday's loss to the Jets with a calf injury. Making matters worse, C.J. Stroud left the contest with a concussion. Houston is still alive in the playoff race, but it'll be tough to hold off the other contenders with so many key players going down. Even with Stroud playing the way he has, the blowout loss in New York was a reminder that there's only so much a quarterback can do.

A best-case scenario

Justin Fields had himself another nice game in Sunday's win over the Lions, throwing for 223 yards and one touchdown while adding another 58 yards and a score on the ground. It's not superstar stuff by any means, but it's yet another sign of some intriguing development after a rough start to the year. With some continued growth, Chicago could still consider Fields the future franchise quarterback. But it's far more likely that every promising performance serves to increase the Bears' return in a trade. They could turn things around by using their pair of early picks on a quarterback and receiver and then moving Fields to replace the second-rounder lost in the Montez Sweat trade.

Wilson balls out

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Did we just witness the best game of Zach Wilson's career? The former No. 2 pick was shockingly competent in his return to the starting lineup this week, leading the Jets past the Texans with a season-high 301 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns. We won't draw too many conclusions from a single-game sample, but he certainly looked more comfortable than ever before. These flashes will encourage another team to take a chance on him as a developmental project.

OBJ making an impact

He's still got it, folks. Odell Beckham Jr. continued his emergence as a reliable playmaker for the Ravens, posting a team-high 97 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's win over the Rams. His first season in Baltimore didn't get off to the best start, but he's quietly been trending up with an increased target share over the last month. Beckham was a key contributor in the Rams' 2021 Super Bowl run, and it's becoming easy to imagine him having the same kind of impact for a Ravens team with similar aspirations.

Lawrence looks OK

The Jaguars didn't get the result they wanted in Cleveland, but that's secondary to their quarterback's health. Trevor Lawrence was somehow in the lineup a mere six days after suffering a high ankle sprain, and he didn't seem all that limited. It was a mistake-filled day for Lawrence and the Jaguars, with the signal-caller's three interceptions being the difference in the defeat. But those will happen against a top defense, and Lawrence made some big plays to keep Jacksonville in it. It doesn't seem like his ankle will be an issue down the stretch.

Stat of the week

MNF lookahead

Titans vs. Dolphins

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Yikes. The Titans are extremely bad, and the Dolphins are extremely not. I'd try to give you a matchup that Tennessee could exploit to make this one interesting, but I've got nothing. Instead, we'll focus on Tyreek Hill's chase for 2,000 yards. The Dolphins superstar needs 519 yards over his last five games to become the first receiver to reach that milestone. The Titans' defense ranks 30th in dropback EPA, so let's set the over/under at 149.5 yards for Hill. Give me the over.

Packers vs. Giants

Double yikes. The Giants are feisty, in fairness, but not exactly in a way that makes for an exciting prime-time game. This one is all about the Packers and Jordan Love. Green Bay rattled off back-to-back wins against the Lions and Chiefs, an impressive feat in which Love demonstrated significant improvement. Avoiding a setback against the Giants will be crucial for the Packers' chances of riding out this momentum and sneaking into the playoffs down the stretch.

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