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Sunday football notes

Breaking down an incredible slate of NFL games in Week 13

Joe Burrow has 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions in his last six games, during which time the Bengals have gone 5-1.Wade Payne/Associated Press

Most weeks in this column, I take a look at a trend taking over the NFL, or examine a team that is defying expectations.

But for Week 13, it’s all about ball.

Through a combination of planning and luck, the NFL has an incredible slate of games Sunday. There’s a potential AFC Championship game showdown in Cincinnati. A huge divisional matchup in New York (Jersey). Three games pitting first-place teams against each other. Star quarterbacks facing star quarterbacks. Top offenses facing top defenses. Reunions, familiarity, and drama.

Sunday is going to be a fantastic day on the couch. Let’s take a deeper look at the top games, in order of importance:


1. 9-2 Chiefs at 7-4 Bengals (4:25 p.m.)

This has everything: Two elite quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow, two first-place teams (the Bengals technically are behind the Ravens on tiebreakers), and it’s a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game, when the Bengals erased a 21-3 deficit and earned a 27-24, overtime win.

Mahomes, 27, and Burrow, almost 26, are two of the five most important players in the NFL. They are at once the present and the future.

“I look at it like [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady,” Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd said.

Mahomes is a front-runner for MVP, and the Chiefs’ offense is once again No. 1 in points and yards despite having traded Tyreek Hill last offseason. The Chiefs have won five in a row to grab the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and need to keep winning to fend off Buffalo and Miami.

The Bengals are rounding into last year’s form after an 0-2 start. Burrow has 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions in his last six games (5-1), and he’s getting star receiver Ja’Marr Chase back this week. The Bengals’ defense also made a statement in last week’s win over the Titans, holding Derrick Henry to 38 rushing yards and dominating the line of scrimmage.


2. 8-3 Dolphins at 7-4 49ers (4:05 p.m.)

This was not a game the NFL had circled, as evidenced by the 4:05 regional broadcast that will barely be shown east of the Rockies and north of Orlando. But 49ers-Dolphins will be a fascinating matchup, both of X’s and O’s and of wits between the coaches.

It’s a classic good-on-good matchup. Hill and Jaylen Waddle are the best receiver tandem in the NFL, the Dolphins’ offense has been unstoppable, and they are 7-0 in games started and finished by Tua Tagovailoa. But the 49ers have the NFL’s No. 1 defense and have allowed just 10 points per game over the last four weeks.

The coaching matchup is also captivating. Mike McDaniel and several Dolphins players are intimately familiar with the 49ers’ roster after spending the last five years there. McDaniel coached with Kyle Shanahan for 15 years in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

“I will do everything in my power to make it another game,” McDaniel said.

The Dolphins need a win to maintain their lead in the AFC East over the Bills, while a 49ers win would further cement their standing atop the NFC West.

A.J. Brown will face his old team as a member of the Eagles for the first time.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

3. 7-4 Titans at 10-1 Eagles (1 p.m.)

The “A.J. Brown Revenge Game” certainly will be one story line. The Titans traded Brown to the Eagles before the draft and took his replacement, Treylon Burks, in the first round. Brown has been worth the four-year, $100 million investment from the Eagles, with 831 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 15.7 yards per catch. Burks has yet to catch a touchdown pass, but does have 181 receiving yards in the last two weeks.


This matchup is much more, though. It’s two first-place teams. It’s Jalen Hurts and the Eagles’ dynamic offense against a smart, physical Titans team that is seventh in points allowed. It’s last year’s Coach of the Year (Mike Vrabel) against the front-runner this year (Nick Sirianni).

The Eagles snapped out of their offensive funk last week with 500 yards and 40 points against the Packers, but they’ve committed eight turnovers in their last four games. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill hasn’t thrown an interception in five of his last six games.

4. 7-5 Commanders at 7-4 Giants (1 p.m.)

This hasn’t been a premier matchup in years, but the Giants and Commanders are two of the NFL’s biggest surprises under coaches Brian Daboll and Ron Rivera. The Commanders have won five of their last six since turning to quarterback Taylor Heinicke. But the Commanders’ success is really about the other two phases — they are No. 4 in points allowed (16.8 per game) and No. 1 in yards allowed since Heinicke took over, and their special teams are No. 1 in the NFL in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) since Week 4, per Football Outsiders.

The Giants are headed in the other direction. They have lost consecutive games to the Lions and Cowboys, and have the NFL’s toughest schedule down the stretch. All four NFC East teams are in the playoff bracket, but at least one is going to drop out. This matchup could settle it.


5. 7-4 Jets at 9-2 Vikings (1 p.m.)

Few people expected the Vikings to be running away with the NFC North, and no one expected the Jets to be 7-4 and in the wild-card race. This will be a proving game for the Jets’ Mike White, who joined Kurt Warner as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with 300 passing yards, three touchdowns, and 75 percent completions in two of his first four starts. And the Vikings, who allowed 26 points and 382 yards to Mac Jones and the Patriots on Thanksgiving, could be an accommodating host.

This game will also feature one of the best receiver-cornerback matchups of the season in the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson against the Jets’ Sauce Gardner.

There might not be a more exciting receiver in the league than Minnesota's Justin Jefferson (center).Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

A Jets win, combined with the Patriots’ loss to the Bills, would put them in great position to earn a wild-card spot. A loss would be difficult, as the Jets face another potential loss next week against the Bills. The Vikings have a comfortable five-game lead in their division, and a win plus a Lions loss will clinch the title with five games to go.

Three other games don’t have major stakes involved but are intriguing nonetheless:

6-5 Chargers at 4-7 Raiders (4:25 p.m.): It’s always an entertaining offensive battle when Justin Herbert and Derek Carr take the field (average score in their five matchups: 28-25, Chargers). This is also a rematch of last year’s crazy, dramatic, Week 18 overtime win for the Raiders. Herbert and the Chargers need a win to stay ahead of the Patriots in the playoff race, while Josh McDaniels and the Raiders can keep their season on life support with a third straight victory.


4-7 Jaguars at 4-7 Lions (1 p.m.): Two surprisingly dynamic offenses, facing two shaky defenses, in a potential track meet under the dome? Count me in.

4-7 Browns at 1-9-1 Texans (1 p.m.): The game might be a dud thanks to the Texans, but all eyes will be on Deshaun Watson, making his first regular-season appearance in nearly two years (in Houston, of all places). The Browns need him to shake off the rust quickly if they want to get back into the playoff race.


2020 a good year for quarterbacks

The NFL has some impressive quarterback draft classes in the past few years. The 2017 draft brought Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. The 2018 draft had Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. The 2021 draft had five quarterbacks taken in the top 15 picks.

But the 2020 class is outshining them all. Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts are a combined 31-12 this year, and all four could qualify for the playoffs.

Burrow already has been to a Super Bowl and is an MVP candidate this year with 23 touchdown passes against eight interceptions. Tagovailoa has been a revelation, with 19 TD passes against three picks for an NFL-leading 115.7 passer rating and 9.03 yards per attempt. Hurts is 10-1, has improved immensely as a passer, and is also an MVP candidate. And Herbert is on pace for a third straight season of 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.

The 2020 class still is young but has the potential to match the best quarterback classes of all time: 1983 (John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly) and 2004 (Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers).


Bottom-feeders look to the top

Alabama's Bryce Young is among the biggest prizes in this spring's draft.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Playoff races heat up over the final six weeks, but so does the race for the No. 1 pick. The 2023 draft is shaping up to be another big one for quarterbacks, with Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud projected by Pro Football Focus to go in the first four picks. Anywhere from nine to 12 teams should be looking for a new quarterback next season.

▪ The 1-9-1 Texans are squarely in the quarterback market and have a 1½-game lead over the Bears for the top pick. The Texans might pick off a win at the end of the year against the Jaguars or Colts but look like a good bet for the top pick.

▪ The 3-9 Bears are in line to have the No. 2 pick and have lost five in a row since beating the Patriots. They are rebuilding, need the high draft pick, and should take things nice and slow with Justin Fields’s shoulder injury.

▪ The 3-8 Broncos and 3-8 Rams should be picking Nos. 3 and 4. But the Broncos traded that pick to the Seahawks for Russell Wilson (oof), and the Rams traded their pick to the Lions for Matthew Stafford (at least they got a Super Bowl). The Seahawks currently have picks 3 and 17, while the Lions have 4 and 13.

▪ The Panthers, Saints, Cardinals, and Packers, all with 4-8 records, have outside shots at the top spot. Except the Saints last year traded their pick to the Eagles, who currently would get the No. 6 selection (the rich get richer). Carolina badly needs a quarterback but keeps messing it up by winning.

Are Packers stuck with Rodgers?

The Packers will probably have a dilemma at quarterback this offseason, which they are used to. But it’s a much different dilemma this time. In years past, they had to persuade Aaron Rodgers to stay. Now they may be ready to move on, but could be stuck with him.

The Packers are 4-8, Rodgers turned 39 on Friday, and the magic seems to be gone. But the contract that Rodgers signed last offseason was a whopper, and he has $59.465 million fully guaranteed in 2023. Rodgers has made a lot of money in his career ($41 million this year alone), but few people would voluntarily walk away from nearly $60 million.

Jordan Love wasn’t ready his first three seasons, but he looked pretty good last week, throwing for 113 yards against the Eagles with a 63-yard touchdown. Love has one year left on his rookie contract, at just $2.3 million. If the Packers don’t start Love next year, then the draft pick, and the team-friendly contract, will be wasted.

The Packers could try to trade Rodgers, but if he doesn’t want to play anywhere else, he could threaten to retire and squash any deal. The Packers are in quite the pickle.

Extra points

Sean McVay and the Rams can't seem to catch a break this season.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Everything has gone wrong for the Rams this year, including Stafford’s elbow injury, his concussion, Cooper Kupp’s ankle injury, and Allen Robinson’s ineffectiveness in replacing Odell Beckham Jr. They are 3-8 entering Sunday’s game against the Seahawks, with a .273 win percentage that would make them the worst defending Super Bowl champion in league history. The worst are the 1999 Broncos (6-10, .375), 1987 Giants (6-9, .400), and 1981 Raiders and 1988 Washington (7-9, .438). The 1982 49ers also went 3-6 (.333) in a strike-shortened season . . . A reminder that the Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will make $45,374,285 this year for six starts (assuming he makes all six), or $7,562,380.83 per start, undoubtedly the highest per-game rate in NFL history . . . The Seahawks weren’t sad to see Wilson go, but they are still hurt over parting ways with now-Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner last offseason after 10 seasons. “We miss everything about him,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He knows that I love competing against him. It’s one of the things that I’ve always cherished about him, people that you know really well and want to go against them and battle with them. I know that he will be ready to go.” . . . Kyler Murray’s image has taken a beating this year, since the Cardinals signed him to a contract extension last summer that included a “homework clause” that the Cardinals awkwardly removed after the fact. Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson, who played in Arizona during Murray’s first two seasons, said this past week on his “All Things Covered” podcast that “Kyler Murray doesn’t care about nobody but Kyler Murray.” Peterson walked it back a bit in a subsequent interview, but I didn’t see many players speaking up and defending Murray . . . Given that there are only six weeks left in the regular season, Beckham still hasn’t signed with a team, and he hasn’t even practiced yet as he returns from an ACL, expectations should be pretty low for him making a serious contribution this year. Whichever team signs Beckham will surely want a two-year deal to ensure they have him next year, too . . . The Saints visit Tampa on Sunday, and have established a nice routine there. In their last nine quarters at Raymond James Stadium, the Saints have outscored the Buccaneers, 54-3 . . . Ugly story out of the University of Florida this past week, with Jalen Kitna, a redshirt freshman quarterback and the son of longtime NFL QB Jon Kitna, arrested and released on $80,000 bond for five charges related to child pornography . . . Bill Belichick (327 career wins) has his sights set on Don Shula’s record 347, but maybe he should be worried about Andy Reid. Reid needs one more win for his 17th season of 10-plus, three behind Belichick’s and Shula’s record. Reid’s 261 career wins (including postseason) are fifth most in history, and he is five years younger than Belichick and racking up the wins with Patrick Mahomes . . . The Bears have been the NFL’s winningest franchise every day for the past 101 years, since December 1921. But the Bears and Packers are tied with 786 wins, and square off for the 206th time Sunday at Soldier Field . . . The 21st edition of The Tradition will be held Wednesday at TD Garden, and this year’s Patriots honoree will be former safety Lawyer Milloy, presented by Tedy Bruschi. Other honorees include Johnny Damon, M.L. Carr, and Mark Recchi, presenters include Gerald Henderson and Tuukka Rask, and they will mingle and share stories in a talk-show-style ceremony. Tickets can still be purchased at www.sportsmuseum.org/events/the-tradition.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.