NFL Week 12 takeaways: Jets, Dolphins win again, plus skunks, scantily clad mascots, more

We got more wins in the AFC East, including a breakout performance from a replacement quarterback. We got a huge performance from Trevor Lawrence in a comeback win over the Ravens. We got a big hat, a nearly nude mascot and skunks in the stands in Cleveland.

What else did we see during โ€” and learn from โ€” Sunday’s early NFL slate? We asked The Athletic‘s Tim Graham, Jeff Howe and Kalyn Kahler to weigh in on the action.

Between the Jets bashing the Bears behind a banner day from quarterback Mike White, the Dolphins holding on to top the Texans and the Bills’ win on Thanksgiving, the AFC East race is shaping up to be one of the NFL’s most exciting. Is New York or Miami the bigger threat to Buffalo?

Graham: As terrific as Mike White looked Sunday, he did it against the Bears, who lost their eighth game in nine tries Sunday. The Jets, despite Robert Saleh’s solid defense, have deeper issues than a fifth-round draft pick making his fourth NFL start can fix. The Dolphins haven’t benched a healthy quarterback this year, as Tua Tagovailoa continues to bolster his MVP case every week. The Dolphins face a grueling schedule down the stretch with their next three games (two of which are on the West Coast) and four of their next five on the road, including at Buffalo and at New England. If Mike McDaniel can survive that stretch, he could win not only the AFC East but also Coach of the Year.

Howe: The Dolphins aren’t just a threat to the Bills. They’re a threat to everyone. They’ve already beaten the Bills, Ravens and Patriots, and they’re 8-0 when Tagovailoa has been healthy. Tagovailoa is an MVP candidate, and Tyreek Hill is in the mix for Offensive Player of the Year. As Tim said, McDaniel is in the conversation for Coach of the Year. And although their defense hasn’t been as good as it was over the past couple of years under Brian Flores, it’s a group with talent. The Dolphins are a legitimately dangerous team that should be fun to watch in the playoffs.

Kahler: I’ll pick the Jets here to be a little contrarian. As expected, Mike White proved Sunday that Zach Wilson was the Jets’ biggest issue as he threw for 315 yards, which is more than Wilson’s last two games combined. Teams have made the postseason with less at quarterback, and the Dolphins defense worries me as we approach the final third of the season. Miami’s defense allows 24.1 points per game and New York’s allows a full touchdown less at 17.1.

Taylor Heinicke and the Commanders topped the Falcons for their sixth win in seven games. They may be in last place in the competitive NFC East, but how would you gauge their playoff chances?

Graham: They are surging and amazingly delivered the Eagles’ first loss a couple of weeks ago, but the Commanders’ other five victories during this stretch came against teams that are a combined 17-38-2. They won’t catch the Eagles for the division crown but are 1.5 games behind the second-place Cowboys with a rematch coming up in the regular-season finale. They’re just half a game behind the Giants, whom the Commanders will face in their next two games (with a bye in between). Washington’s fate lies ahead, but I have no faith it will navigate December and early January well enough to leapfrog the wild-card contenders in their path.

Howe: They’ve absolutely got a chance because they don’t need help from anyone else. With their next two games against the Giants, it’s right there in front of them. However, both the Commanders and Giants โ€” who are starting to head in the wrong direction โ€” have really difficult schedules down the stretch. Washington also plays the 49ers, Browns and Cowboys, and the Giants have the Eagles (twice), Vikings and Colts. The Giants, Commanders and either the 49ers or Seahawks (whoever finishes second in the NFC West) will battle for the final two playoff spots.

Kahler: OK, this is weird. The Commanders will play the Giants in their next two games, Week 13 and Week 15, so those will be crucial to overcoming New York in the division and giving themselves a chance. They are a half-game behind the Giants, who have lost two straight. I’m with Tim, though. This is fun to see Heinicke be something other than Carson Wentz (just like Mike White isn’t Zach Wilson), but I don’t think it’ll be enough in the end.

Who stood out to you as having the most impressive individual performance from the early slate of games?

Graham: Rookie tailback Brian Robinson continues his sensational return from being shot twice during an attempted carjacking three months ago. He ran 18 times for a career-high 105 yards and added two catches for 20 yards and a touchdown in Washington’s victory over Atlanta. But he never looked better than when he sported his “big hat” in the Commanders’ locker room. This fella was not all hat Sunday. He had the cattle.

Howe: Trevor Lawrence delivered an early career-defining moment to lead the Jaguars’ 28-27 comeback victory against the Ravens. He led three consecutive scoring drives to erase a 19-10 deficit and close the game, and Lawrence was 15-of-19 for 173 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion during that stretch. He also completed passes for three third-down conversions and two fourth-down conversions over the last three possessions. His two-pointer was an elite throw to Zay Jones. Another reason this was so pivotal? Lawrence and the offense had the ball late in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie or take the lead in six of Jacksonville’s losses this season, and they failed to score each time. It’s hard for a young group to learn how to win in these situations, and Lawrence finally got over the hump.

Kahler: Mike White. I’m sorry I’m going through a Mike White phase, and it’s probably simply because he isn’t Zach Wilson. This same phenomenon happened last year when White upset the Bengals in his first start in relief of Wilson. He instantly opened up the Jets’ passing attack and made it clear Wilson is the one holding back the offense. Beating the Bears isn’t quite as big as upsetting the Bengals, but White injected so much energy into an offense that sorely needed it.

Which was the most alarming aspect of the day: the outfit worn by the Jaguars mascot, the skunk in the stands in Cleveland or the Broncos offense under Russell Wilson?

Graham: Can what we see from Nathaniel Hackett, Russell Wilson and the Broncos even be considered alarming anymore? We see it every week โ€” and, to make matters worse, an obnoxious number of the subpar performances are on national television. That suggests how much the football world looked forward to seeing Denver resurrect its fortunes, but the more I see of Hackett’s offense, the more it resembles Jaxson de Ville’s getup: naked and regrettable (see the tweet below). I don’t know if Hackett can survive the season. The Broncos have invested far more in Wilson, and coaches don’t carry salary-cap baggage.

Howe: It’s no coincidence the Jaguars came back to win that game after the mascot put on some damn clothes. But maybe now we should live in fear that he’ll believe his half-naked first half was good luck and he’ll do it again. At least you can avert your eyes from that situation, though. You know what’ll ruin your day? A skunk. Browns fans have bought far too many QB jerseys to throw another one away from a skunk attack.

Kahler: It was clearly the Broncos offense, which averages an NFL-worst 14.7 points per game. I’ve seen quite enough, and I’d be shocked if Hackett isn’t one and done in Denver. Did you catch that delay of game on fourth-and-goal Sunday? For your sake, I hope not.

(Photo of Mike White: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)


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