NFL Week 13 expert roundtable: Deshaun Watson’s return, Dolphins-49ers, Mahomes vs. Burrow

Buffalo and New England kicked off Week 13 on Thursday night. Well, the Bills were there, at least … the Patriots seemed to have forgotten to show up.

Buffalo (9-3) dominated the time-of-possession battle 38:08 to 21:52 as Josh Allen went 22-of-33 passing for 223 yards and two touchdowns in the Bills’ comfortable 24-10 win. The Patriots fell to 6-6 as the offense continued to struggle, and questions will continue to be asked of Bill Belichick and play caller Matt Patricia.

But wait — much more of Week 13 is still to come. Can Mike White and the Jets keep it rolling in Minnesota? Who has the edge in the intriguing TitansEagles and Dolphins-49ers matchups? Who will win the quarterback showdown between Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow? The Athletic’s Zach Berman, Mike Jones, and Mike Sando dish on what they’ll be watching Sunday and Monday.

Our Kalyn Kahler addressed the past two years of Deshaun Watson’s legal issues and time away from football in a story earlier this week. Now that he is returning to the field for the Browns, though, what should we expect from his play over the final six weeks?

Berman: There will be an adjustment for a new quarterback with a new offense in his first real game in nearly two years. But I also wouldn’t go overboard. There’s a reason Cleveland paid the price it did — Watson has the second-best passer rating in NFL history — and the Browns offense is No. 4 in DVOA. This is a good system to enter, with a strong running game and productive options in the passing game (Amari Cooper). Watson won’t be able to fix the defense, though.

Jones: As Zach said, expectations should be tempered because Watson hasn’t played a full game since 2020. In his lone preseason appearance this year, he was 1-of-5 for 7 yards. The more he plays, the more comfortable he will get. But there’s a lot of rust to knock off. The Browns are hoping he can lead them to a strong finish and help them sneak into the playoff picture, but that’s asking a lot.

Sando: There should be rough spots because Watson has not played in a long time, is new to this system and will not have game-speed rapport with his receivers. Most of the quarterbacks in new systems this season have not had their best years statistically (Tua Tagovailoa is an exception). We should see some spectacular plays. The consistency might require time on task.



Browns roundtable: Deshaun Watson’s on-field expectations and all that’s at stake

Following a huge performance in his first start of the season, Mike White and the Jets (7-4) travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings (9-2). Can White stay hot or are the Vikings too good?

Berman: It’s hard to dismiss White when the Jets offense had its best EPA/drive of the season last week and he had the third-best passer rating by a starting quarterback in 2022. The Vikings rank 22nd in DVOA and have a point differential of just plus-5, which indicates they’re more vulnerable than their 9-2 record suggests. The fun matchups here will be Justin Jefferson versus Sauce Gardner and a Jets defense that ranks seventh in the league in sacks and ninth in pressure rate against a Vikings offensive line that could be without left tackle Christian Darrisaw. But I still have a hard time taking White in the second road start of his career against a veteran defense.

Jones: White had a good start (22-of-28 for 315 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions), but the Bears (3-9) didn’t have any film on what the Jets would try to do with him at quarterback this season. As more defensive coordinators get to study him, I expect White to look more like the guy who went 1-2 as a starter last season while throwing five touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Sando: The efficiency White showed last week was not sustainable, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t regress the longer he plays. But I do see him as a good backup at least, which means he can win when supported by a strong defense/special teams, which the Jets have. I expect Minnesota to play better defensively after getting extra rest and preparation time. I say White stays hot if the Jets defense can give him a couple of short fields.



Justin Jefferson-Sauce Gardner matchup could be where Jets-Vikings game is won

The other New York team, the Giants (7-4), hosts the Commanders (7-5) — winners of six of their past seven — in an NFC East matchup with playoff implications. Which quarterback do you trust more in this game: Taylor Heinicke or Daniel Jones? And who has the edge?

Berman: I trust Jones a bit more than Heinicke because he’s more of a threat with his legs and less prone to throwing interceptions (Jones has an interception rate of 1.3 percent; Heinicke’s rate is 2.9 percent). But I don’t see either quarterback leading his team deep into the postseason. The Commanders defense (11th in DVOA) is far better than the Giants defense (28th), which leads me to give them the edge in this matchup. There’s a reason they’re road favorites. So I’d pick them — but not with much conviction.

Jones: “Trust” is a strong word. Both guys can flash here and there, but they can have a few frightening plays per game as well. The Commanders have the momentum, though, so I guess I’ll pick them.

Sando: I don’t trust either quarterback, and neither do their teams, which we can see based on how they play. Both teams rank among the bottom five in pass frequency on early downs, early in games over the past five weeks. Washington’s defense has been playing better than any unit associated with either team, so I give the Commanders an edge on paper. But this will come down to whether Brian Daboll can provide a sufficient coaching edge to swing things toward the Giants.

Also in Sunday’s early slate: The Titans (7-4) and their third-ranked run defense square off against the Eagles (10-1) and their powerful rushing attack. Who will win this one?

Berman: The Titans will be a good litmus test for the Eagles because they can challenge them in areas where the Eagles are vulnerable: rush defense and special teams. The potential return of Jordan Davis would make a big difference for a rush defense that is 24th in DVOA, and my guess is the Eagles play more odd-man fronts and try to force the Titans to beat them through the air. The Eagles will play without safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is sidelined because of a lacerated kidney. However, Philadelphia has a versatile offense, and the passing game will come alive against a Tennessee pass defense ranked 17th in DVOA but first against the run. The Eagles acquired A.J. Brown from the Titans to have offensive firepower. You’ll see that on display Sunday.

Jones: The Titans just don’t have the firepower to match up with a team like the Eagles. They have a physical defense and a punishing running back, but if the Eagles can limit Derrick Henry, this game is theirs. And you know A.J. Brown wants to have a monster day against his former team.



All eyes on Eagles’ A.J. Brown as he gears up to face his former team

Sando: It’s great to see the Eagles facing a tough, hard-nosed team so we can better evaluate where they stand. I’ll take the Titans plus the five points, as this has the potential to be a tougher game for Jalen Hurts.

The late-afternoon docket features a matchup between two hot division leaders: the Dolphins (8-3), winners of five straight, and the 49ers (7-4), winners of four in a row. Which team (and unit) keeps it rolling: Tua Tagovailoa and the exciting Miami offense or San Francisco’s No. 1-rated defense?

Berman: The status of Dolphins left tackle Terron Armstead will be important to monitor, but I’m expecting the Miami offense to be able to move the ball against San Francisco’s secondary. They’re averaging 33.8 points over the past four games. Those four opponents don’t pressure the quarterback like the 49ers, which is why the health of the Dolphins offensive line is critical. I lean toward teams that are better on the line of scrimmage, and the injuries to Miami’s tackles worry me, so I’d take the 49ers to win. But if you’re betting on this game, the Dolphins getting four points is appealing.

Jones: This will be one of the most fascinating matchups of the weekend. If anybody knows Kyle Shanahan and his offense, it’s Mike McDaniel, who coached with him in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta and San Francisco. But 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans also knows McDaniel quite well, having gone against him in practice every day last year. I don’t know how to call this one! Both have good offenses, but the Dolphins are more potent and a little healthier. I keep going back and forth. But I guess I’ll roll with the superior defense and Shanahan against his former protege.

Sando: The 49ers have played one top offense this season (Kansas City), and their defense was shredded that day. The Dolphins have played a couple of good defenses with Tagovailoa going the distance, and those were just so-so games for them offensively (Buffalo, New England, maybe Pittsburgh).



How Mike McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan put their unique spins on same system

Finally, we turn to what is on paper the best quarterback matchup of the weekend: Joe Burrow and the Bengals (7-4) hosting Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs (9-2). How would you rate Cincinnati’s chances of grounding the league’s top offense?

Berman: Don’t sleep on the Bengals as a Super Bowl contender. However, the Chiefs have the best offense in the NFL, and Mahomes will avenge last season’s postseason upset. The Bengals have played only three teams in the top 10 in pass offense DVOA (Miami, Baltimore and Cleveland); they lost two of those games, and their win was affected by Tagovailoa’s injury. Burrow can keep Cincinnati in the game, but Mahomes will adjust from the game plan the Bengals used to advance to the Super Bowl last season and secure a 10th win.

Jones: The Bengals are rolling despite having to play without two of their top weapons in Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Mixon. But I can’t bet against Mahomes. I have the Chiefs going on the road and making it six in a row.

Sando: The Chiefs have answered a lot of questions about their offense this season with the way they have performed after losing Tyreek Hill. Their offense has been above average statistically in every game. The Bengals, however, are playing good team defense. Still, I expect the Chiefs to have their moments and avoid being grounded to the extent they were when Mahomes melted down against Cincinnati in the playoffs last season.



Chiefs’ defense wants revenge in showdown with Joe Burrow and Bengals’ mighty receivers

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Nick Cammett, Andy Lyons, Ray Del Rio / Getty Images)


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