Nothing says fraudulent NFC like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady getting bailed out on Christmas to get to 7-8 and still very much alive for the playoffs. Rodgers was playing an AFC team (Miami), but the fact that Green Bay got help from four NFC teams it needed to lose Saturday (Seahawks-Giants-Commanders-Lions) says all you need to know about this NFC race.
It should just come down to 49ers at Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, but something tells me we are in store for a rude awakening next month. These teams cannot be trusted.
The top three in the AFC (Bills, Chiefs, Bengals) didn’t exactly light it up Saturday, but at least they all won on a day where the league played more games in freezing temperatures than any day since the 1990s. There were nine comeback opportunities in total, and four teams came back from double digits to win, bringing the season total to 46 (new NFL record).
We have just 11 teams with a winning record going into Week 17. Last season, the first 17-game season, finished with 18 teams boasting a winning record, including 10 in the AFC alone.
Embrace the mediocrity?
This season in Stat Oddity:
- Week 15
- Week 14
- Week 13
- Week 12
- Week 11
- Week 10
- Week 9
- Week 8
- Week 7
- Week 6
- Week 5
- Week 4
- Week 3
- Week 2
- Week 1
Eagles at Cowboys: NFC Game of the Year Actually Delivers
Ever since the Eagles beat the Cowboys with Cooper Rush in Week 6 to improve to 6-0, this rematch scheduled for Christmas Eve was circled as potentially the Game of the Year in the NFC. Since last year’s best NFC teams (Rams, Packers, Buccaneers) were falling apart early, and since the 49ers do not play the Eagles in this regular season, it basically was the default choice for Game of the Year. Screw Philly beating up on the Vikings on a Monday night in Week 2. That was expected.
But this game lost so much luster with Dallas blowing big leads in Green Bay and Jacksonville. Then Jalen Hurts was injured last week and out for this game, putting backup Gardner Minshew in his place. It just didn’t have those big hooks anymore like realistically being a game for control of the division and No. 1 seed, not to mention the MVP implications for Hurts.
However, I probably didn’t give this game enough credit on Saturday even when watching most of it. This is the first NFL game since 2020 Bills vs. Seahawks where both teams scored at least 34 points and both quarterbacks passed for over 340 yards.
Minshew held his own on the road, the Eagles twice led by 10 points after Dak Prescott had another pick-six early, and we got many glimpses as to why this team has been the No. 1 seed all year.
But just like in the Washington loss, the Eagles turned the ball over four times, mostly on fixable/fluky plays, and that is what doomed them the most in this loss.
The Eagles had three turnovers while starting 8-0. They have 14 turnovers in the seven games since. Regression happens a lot to freakishly-low turnover offenses, but the Eagles are giving it up more than you’d like to see in the last two months.
In this game, Minshew shouldn’t be getting the blame despite accounting for three of the turnovers on the stat sheet. But both interceptions were the result of Quez Watkins getting outmuscled for the ball on throws that weren’t bad. Minshew also was handing off to a running back who fumbled, but that gets charged to the quarterback for being the last to possess the ball.
The turnover that really hurt the most was Miles Sanders’ late fumble on the first play of the drive after the Cowboys took a 37-34 lead with 2:19 left. That put the Eagles down 40-34, and left Minshew with 101 seconds to get a game-winning touchdown.
But before we get to that last drive, let’s back up to the moment where the Eagles really blew it on defense. After taking a 34-27 lead and sacking Prescott on consecutive plays, the Eagles just had to defend a third-and-30 to get the ball back halfway through the fourth quarter.
Prescott threw deep and T.Y. Hilton was there for a 52-yard gain. Based on the air yards, it was the longest completion of Dak’s career according to Next Gen Stats.
According to Stathead, this is only the third pass play on third-and-30 or longer since 1994 to convert a first down. It’s the only one to happen in the fourth quarter of a one-score game.
The Eagles just made so many mistakes in the fourth quarter after taking the lead for the last time. The Cowboys weren’t exactly clean either. Prescott ran out of bounds with 2:01 left on a first-down run after Minshew’s last interception, buying the Eagles a timeout. Dak also took a bad sack on the next snap.
I really wasn’t a fan of kicking the field goal to go up six with 1:41 left, but I guess you figure you can do that when Minshew is the quarterback instead of Hurts. But Minshew was already working on a 300-yard game, and those skill players are really nice for the Eagles. Tough call.
But after Minshew found DeVonta Smith on the last drive for 19 yards, I thought he should have used his last timeout immediately with about 40 seconds left. That was more than enough time at the 19 in the red zone to get the job done from there. But Minshew spiked the ball with 33 seconds left.
After a couple shot plays that did not work, it was already fourth-and-ballgame. That’s why I hate the spike because you need that extra down more than you need the time, and if you’re just going to chuck shots at the end zone for the touchdown, what value did saving that timeout do? The Eagles never ended up using their third timeout.
On fourth-and-10, the pressure got there and Minshew forced a pass into the end zone that was nowhere close to being caught. The Cowboys pulled it out 40-34.
It would be nice to see a rematch of this in the playoffs, and even nicer to see both Hurts and Dak at quarterback. They’ve only met once so far despite the chance for six such matchups already. The last three Dallas-Philly games Dak played in have been super high scoring, so we’ll have to see if that trend continues should they meet again.
But the outcome of this one really did not change my mind on either team. I still think the Eagles are the better team of the two, but it comes down to protecting the ball better. If either team can limit the turnovers, they can beat anyone this year.
Buccaneers at Cardinals: Brady’s Rope-a-Dope Strikes Again
If Eagles-Cowboys was the NFC’s Game of the Year, then Bucs-Cardinals was its Sham Game of the Holiday Season.
Only Tom Brady can play like ass for 50 minutes against the team that came into the week having allowed the most points in the NFL, with a third-string quarterback (Trace McSorley) making his first start, and still get the praise for a 19-16 overtime win.
This was the third part in a 2022 trilogy of Brady’s rope-a-dope strategy where he plays terrible football against bad teams like the Rams, Saints, and Cardinals, only to suddenly start moving the ball at the end while those teams do all they can to help aid the win.
I’d say this was the most inevitable yet, but still not the most egregious after what the Saints did. Go figure, the NFC South one was the worst one.
For 49 minutes, Brady did not have a completion longer than 12 yards. He threw two more bad picks, so the days of this offense avoiding turnovers are well over. But for as bad as it was, the Cardinals only led 16-6. This was still doable with McSorley’s inaccuracy and inexperience on the other side. Not to mention Kliff Kingsbury’s incompetency.
Sure enough, on the very first play of the comeback, Brady threw a pass Hellen Keller could have made to Leonard Fournette six yards behind the line of scrimmage, and Fournette took off for 50 YAC for a gain of 44 yards. Just instantly changed the game with one little flip to the back in the flat, and that continued to be the popular play on the drive, concluding with a touchdown to Rachaad White.
Now up 16-13, the Cardinals were doing a decent job of working clock before inexplicably calling a timeout and taking James Conner out of the game on a big third-and-1 at midfield. You just called timeout, why are you not going with your best player in the game? The Cardinals tried to pitch the ball to a rookie running back, who fumbled the handoff and the Bucs recovered at their 45 with 4:49 left. Like I said, inevitable.
Surprisingly, this was only the second time in Brady’s career where an opponent fumbled in the final 5:00 while leading by 1-to-3 points. The other time was also Arizona in 2012, but that still ended up being an Arizona win after the only loss in Brady’s career where a kicker screwed him on a clutch kick.
The defense held the Bucs to a tying field goal after getting Brady to finally throw a pass over 6 yards on the drive, but much of the damage was done. In going from 16-6 to a tied game, Brady completed 10 passes with a total of 0 air yards (relative to the line of scrimmage) and 93 YAC. Not a single throw was completed more than 6 yards past the LOS.
The teams exchanged three-and-outs after a shocking decision to run on third down by the Bucs. McSorley finished regulation with a Hail Mary interception. He also was 1-of-10 for 4 yards when targeting DeAndre Hopkins.
It wasn’t a game that deserved overtime, but we got it. McSorley got one third-and-long conversion by a matter of inches, but he of course wasn’t going to get a second. With the ball at his own 12, Brady did finally throw a trio of legit passes to his wideouts, but the Cardinals were not getting home with the pressure like they were earlier in the game. Ryan Succop eventually came on for the 40-yard field goal for the 19-16 win.
In the end, another double-digit Brady comeback without any impressive throws. Another mind-blowing turnover by the opponent helped. The annoying part is when people say, “if it was so easy to score like that, why don’t other quarterbacks do it?”
But the real question should be if it’s that easy for Brady to score like this in the hurry-up offense with the extreme dink and dunking, why doesn’t he do it all game long? Would he ever lose games if he did that?
That’s why rope-a-dope is aptly named for Brady’s strategy, because he thrives on wearing the defense out and taking advantage of their fatigue and stupidity in the fourth quarter. When you have to rush the passer 35 or 40 times in three quarters, it is easy to get worn out by the fourth quarter.
John Elway was also a master of this, and he often used the Mile High altitude to his advantage in the fourth quarter when defenses were tired. Then he would create a lot of big plays and scrambling and finding receivers behind the defensive backs.
But I at least can give Elway credit for creating some of those big plays and a great highlight reel. With Brady, you can go through many of his comebacks and not find a single completion thrown over 15 yards down the field. It’s just paper cut after paper cut, because he knows defenses lose the thread in these moments and play prevent, hoping to eliminate the big play. But he’ll take the same route five snaps in a row if you’re not going to bother covering it. Maybe that’s part of his greatness, but I just see it as taking advantage of incompetence.
It’s also not something this Tampa Bay team can really pull off against an elite team this year. They have to do it against one of the worst in the league, and ideally someone starting a third-choice quarterback. They’ll get another one of those next week with Sam Darnold and Carolina, though that team did already beat them 21-3 with P.J. Walker outplaying Brady.
But it’s just felt inevitable all year long that Brady would win the NFC South because it’s terrible, then draw a Dallas team in the wild card round that they’ll be capable of beating since Dak Prescott had his worst game of the season against them in Week 1 (19-3 loss). If this team gets past the first round, who knows what that confidence can lead to.
Of course, if you just score more than 16 points on the Buccaneers in 2022, you are 7-0 against them. More than ever, Brady is limited in the ways he can win games. But if you leave him enough rope, he’ll find a way to get you to hang yourself.
After two decades, you would think every coaching staff in the league would have a good read on what Brady’s going to do in these situations. But they’d still rather worry about him magically getting good at throwing it 20 yards downfield to Mike Evans when he knows he can get that yardage with a couple plays to the running back in the flat and the slot receivers on 5-yard arrow and out routes.
It is disheartening that highly-paid coaching staffs are still falling victim to this stuff. Make him move off the spot, make him throw the ball past the sticks, and take your chances with that. I guarantee it will work better than what the Cardinals did in the latest Brady rope-a-dope.
Packers at Dolphins: Tua Tanks
If the Dolphins (8-7) miss the playoffs after a fourth-straight loss, they are going to look back at this Christmas game against Green Bay in horror:
- Since 1991, teams who averaged at least 7.4 yards per play and allowed a maximum of two third-down conversions were 59-0.
- Make that 59-1 now.
- The Dolphins lost 26-20 despite averaging 8.4 yards per play and holding Green Bay to 2-of-14 on third down.
- Miami itself was only 2-of-7 on third down while the Packers were 3-of-5 on fourth down even if they failed on an ill-advised fake punt.
Despite hitting big plays early, the Dolphins failed to score a single point in the second half for the third time this season. It also was a historical waste of a game where Miami averaged 8.4 yards per play with Tua Tagovailoa averaging 10.9 yards per pass play.
Of the 187 teams since 1966 to average at least 8.25 yards per play in a game, the Dolphins (20) are the only team to score fewer than 21 points.
After Miami gave Raheem Mostert two carries for 31 yards to start the game, Miami inexplicably gave him six carries for 14 yards the rest of the game.
Miami led the game 20-10 in the first half, but the Packers came back to tie in the third quarter after Aaron Rodgers threw a great pass to veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis for an unexpected 31-yard gain. That set up a tying touchdown run, then the Dolphins missed a 48-yard field goal.
Rodgers threw an interception on a very hot-and-cold day for him, but the Packers immediately returned the favor on defense by intercepting Tua. The Packers ultimately moved the ball 4 yards after that, but it was in great field position for a 28-yard field goal and 23-20 lead.
Tua was intercepted again with 6:02 left despite being in field goal range. The Packers added a field goal after going with the old strategy of running the ball on third down and kicking a field goal to take a fool’s gold 6-point lead with just over 2:00 left.
In the modern NFL, you really have to consider going for the knockout punch or being content with it staying a 3-point game and relying on the conservative nature of coaches to kick a game-tying field goal and go to overtime.
But just two plays into the next drive, Tua threw his third pick of the quarter to end the game. Quarterbacks who threw for over 300 yards on no more than 25 pass attempts are now 110-7-4.
The Packers (7-8) live to fight another day after getting the road win, getting help from four wild card teams losing on Saturday, and their last two games are at home against their dome whipping boys (Vikings and Lions). The playoffs are suddenly realistic again for Green Bay, and it just took the worst quarter of Tua’s career to do it.
Giants at Vikings: Crown the Close Game Kings
If there was a team capable of beating the 2022 Vikings in a close game, it would be the Giants. They were 7-0 at upholding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter this year, and they had five game-winning drives during a 6-1 start. The Giants are also known for upsetting some historic streaks in their franchise’s history as well as spoiling some fine Minnesota seasons.
But the Giants fell victim to Minnesota’s close game magic too. Kirk Cousins ended up leading three scoring drives in the fourth quarter this week. The touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson to start the quarter secured the team’s eighth fourth-quarter comeback win, tying the single-season record by the 2016 Lions, who did it in 13 games.
Later in the quarter, the Vikings blocked a punt by the Giants, and they turned that short field into another touchdown to Justin Jefferson. But instead of going for two to take a 25-16 lead and all but end the game at 3:00 left, the Vikings kicked the extra point to make it 24-16. I hated that call, because you keep it a one-possession game by doing that.
I’ll never understand how anyone could think the two-point conversion is a real saving grace there. If you’re going to allow a 75-yard touchdown drive with the game on the line, what makes me think you’ll stop them on the two-point conversion too? Give me the strategy that makes it more likely they’ll need an onside kick recovery, which succeed at abysmal rates.
But I guess winning 25-16 wouldn’t be dramatic enough for these Vikings. Sure enough, the Giants drove 75 yards on them with Saquon Barkley’s 27-yard touchdown run coming at 2:01. They tied the game with the two-point conversion pass at well.
It just meant more time for Cousins to find Jefferson for more yards. He came up with two big catches for 33 yards, but the Vikings were very cavalier in using clock and could only set up Greg Joseph for a 61-yard field goal.
I like to call these Vikings the worst 12-3 team ever, one of the luckiest teams ever, but there was nothing lucky about this kick. Joseph nailed it down the middle with a few yards to spare too. Great kick for a 27-24 win.
Cousins now ties 2016 Stafford for the most game-winning drives (8) in a regular season too. If you include playoffs, the only other seasons to get to eight game-winning drives are Jake Delhomme (2003 Panthers) and Eli Manning (2011 Giants). Those two were Super Bowl teams.
Time to update the stats I posted in last week’s feature about these Vikings and their comebacks:
Going back to last year’s divisional round, Kevin O’Connell as the Rams coordinator and Vikings head coach has done this:
- 14-0 in close games
- 11-0 at game-winning drive opportunities
- 10 fourth-quarter comebacks (five when trailing by 10+ points)
- First team in NFL history to win three straight playoff games by 3 points
- The most improbable fumble return TD since Joe Pisarcik and the Miracle at the Meadowlands
- Largest comeback in NFL history (33 points)
- Tied records for most fourth-quarter comebacks (eight) and game-winning drives (eight) in a single season
I still have every reason to doubt this team will go all the way doing this in the postseason. But if it means we’re going to get some exciting, memorable playoff games, and we can laugh at that season where Kirk Cousins led 10 or 11 game-winning drives, then I’m all for this continuing through February in Minnesota.
Seahawks at Chiefs: Whole Lotta Nothing Going On
Sure, it was cold in Kansas City, but this was one of the least eventful games in the Patrick Mahomes era. Mahomes was flirting with his lowest passing yardage total in a game he wasn’t injured in his career (that number is 166), but two quick connections to Travis Kelce over the middle led to 72 yards, allowing Mahomes to finish with 224 yards.
He finished the drive with a third-down scramble for a 3-yard touchdown, showing good athleticism to reach for the pylon. The Chiefs led 24-3 before Seattle converted a pair of fourth downs and finally reached the end zone with 2:25 left for the 24-10 final.
Just not much going on here as the Seahawks were 2-of-14 on third down and definitely missing Tyler Lockett at wide receiver. But the Chiefs will take a low-drama win, and if the Bengals can beat the Bills next week, they have a good shot at the No. 1 seed.
Bengals at Patriots: Joe Burrow vs. Bill Belichick Is a Jedi Knight Battle
Oh, how Bill Belichick wishes he had a quarterback like Joe Burrow instead of what he’s stuck with. At halftime, Burrow was 28-of-36 for 284 yards, three touchdowns, and one ill-advised interception in the red zone in an otherwise perfect half the Bengals led 22-0.
Meanwhile, Mac Jones was 5-of-8 for 34 yards as if they were playing different sports. But that second half was a big turnaround with the Patriots scoring a touchdown on defense for the third week in a row after scoring on a Burrow pick-six. Nick Folk missed the extra point in a game with several missed extra points.
Evan McPherson also missed a 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter with the Bengals still up 22-12, so we had a real Jedi duel going on here with Belichick trying to will his team into a comeback.
Luck still seemed to be on Belichick’s side when Jones converted a third-and-29 by throwing a Hail Mary that was tipped volleyball style at the goal line to Jakobi Meyers for a 48-yard touchdown. But another missed extra point kept it at 22-18.
Ja’Marr Chase fumbled for the Bengals on a third-down catch, and the Patriots were 43 yards way from a 22-point comeback. But after getting to a first-and-goal at the 5, the Patriots coughed up the ball on a Rhamondre Stevenson fumble with 59 seconds left. The Bengals just ran it three times to make the Patriots use their timeouts, then punted. The Patriots had to go 76 yards in 41 seconds, and that went about as poorly as you’d expect. On a positive note, no lateral fumbled for a touchdown this week.
This is the third time since 2020 that the Patriots have lost a fumble in the red zone in the final five minutes of a game they were trailing by 1-to-8 points. It never happened from 2001 to 2019 when you know who was the quarterback.
Cam Newton fumbled in the red zone against the 2020 Bills while trailing 24-21 in the final 40 seconds. Running back Damien Harris fumbled in the red zone in a 17-16 game against Miami, in what was Mac Jones’ first NFL start, with 3:35 left. Now this play by Stevenson.
What more can you say about losing the LOAT? Meanwhile, Burrow is the first quarterback in NFL history to win a game wire-to-wire in regulation while completing 40 passes. He is only the third quarterback in NFL history to complete 40 passes in a game where his opponent scored fewer than 20 points, joining Rich Gannon (30-17 vs. 2002 Steelers) and Patrick Mahomes (20-17 vs. 2022 Titans).
Commanders at 49ers: Another Purdy Good Win
Not to sound like a hater, but I am a little bored with Brock Purdy and the 49ers after three starts and three wire-to-wire wins by 8-plus points. Deebo Samuel gets hurt and they just activate George Kittle’s Beast Mode (120 yards and two touchdowns), or Ray-Ray McCloud runs for a 71-yard touchdown. The defense still hasn’t allowed a 60-yard runner this year after Brian Robinson (22 carries for 58 yards) got close.
With the Raiders and Cardinals left on the schedule, I guess clamoring to see Purdy in different situations before the playoffs just isn’t that likely with this team. We’ll have to wait for the playoffs to see what happens if he has to lead a game-winning drive against those crazy Vikings or throw it 40-plus times in a shootout with the Eagles or AFC team.
One thing I’m sure of is that Ron Rivera should not go back to Carson Wentz for these last two games after Taylor Heinicke had a couple turnovers against the top defense. Wentz came in down 16 points and made a few decent plays to get a touchdown, but he took a sack on the two-point conversion attempt.
One thing I really liked was San Francisco going for a fourth-and-3 up 30-20 instead of kicking a field goal to go up 33-20. Screw the 13-point lead. Go for 17 and the death punch, or just run out the clock with the first down. The 49ers got Christian McCaffrey a touchdown on a quiet day for him to end it at 37-20.
The 49ers continue to roll with eight straight wins.
Raiders at Steelers: This One’s for Franco
I am still in shock that Franco Harris passed away just three days before the team was retiring his number and celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Immaculate Reception. If there was a retired player from the 70s that I would say was most synonymous with the Steelers and someone you can see proudly repping the team to this day, I would pick Franco. He was just that kind of humble guy and fan at heart. He put the Steelers on the map with his big playoff moment and the city will never forget him.
So, you knew it was going to be an emotional night on Christmas Eve and one of the coldest games in decades in Pittsburgh. I thought maybe running the ball frequently with Najee Harris would be the best way to limit any mistakes from rookie Kenny Pickett, who was coming off a concussion.
But what do I know when it comes to the Pittsburgh coaching staff? They went with a 42-24 split of Pickett plays to handoffs, and Chris Boswell had his struggles on two missed field goals in a low-scoring game.
The defense was fine outside of an abysmal tackling effort on a third-and-16 that led to an opening-drive touchdown, but it would be the Raiders’ only touchdown of the game. Pickett started the second half with an interception in Vegas territory, but the defense returned the favor immediately by intercepting Carr.
It was that kind of second half. The Steelers had five drives and could only muster one field goal in a 10-6 game as the defense pitched a second-half shutout. Remember, the Raiders forget games are 60 minutes long this year.
With 2:55 left, it was now or never for Pickett from his own 24. The drive was all Harris (as a receiver) and Pat Freiermuth until Pickett converted a fourth-and-1 with a QB sneak. One play later, Pickett ripped a 14-yard throw to George Pickens for the go-ahead touchdown with 46 seconds left. Nice throw, but I’m not sure what the safety was trying to do on the play.
Carr then tossed his third pick of the half on a great diving catch by Cam Sutton. The Steelers had a player come off the bench to celebrate, leading to a 15-yard penalty that could have been costly with the Raiders having all three timeouts. You couldn’t just take three knees to end it. But I’ll give the Steelers (Matt Canada?) credit for an ingenuous call on second down to hand off to backup tight end Connor Heyward (Cam’s brother) for a 21-yard gain to ice it.
The Steelers won 13-10 on Franco’s night. The Immaculate Reception was a 13-7 Pittsburgh win. Pittsburgh (7-8) is still alive for the playoffs.
The Raiders have blown a league-high five fourth-quarter leads this season. Just win until you lose, baby.
Bills at Bears: Beating Chicago at Its Own Game
The final says 35-13 but this was a 21-13 game in the fourth quarter with Chicago having possession. But for the league-high ninth time this year, the Bears were unable to come back from a one-score deficit. They couldn’t even get a first down on their last four drives in the fourth quarter with Justin Fields at quarterback.
On a cold afternoon, the Bills beat the Bears at their own game, winning the rushing battle 254-80. It was the best job any defense did against Chicago’s rushing attack, which saw the return of Khalil Herbert, since Fields started taking off as a runner against Washington.
The Bills held Fields to 11 yards on 7 runs. They stopped him cold for 1 yard on a third-and-13 scramble on that fourth-quarter drive when it was still 21-13. From there, Buffalo’s running backs helped set up Josh Allen for a 4-yard touchdown run of his own to take a 28-13 lead with 3:45 left. The Bills later added a “F You” TD on fourth down to Dawson Knox on a fourth down with 1:02 left.
The versatility of the Bills is appreciated. James Cook was one yard shy of giving them two 100-yard runners in the game to compensate for Allen only passing for 172 yards and a few bad interceptions.
Fields passed for 119 yards (44 on one play that led to no points after coming up short on a fourth-and-3 pass). With Davis Mills leading his first comeback in Tennessee, Fields now has the worst 4QC record (1-11) and the worst 4QC/GWD record (2-11) among active quarterbacks.
Texans at Titans: The AFC South Has No Bottom
My upset pick this week was Houston over Tennessee. I just didn’t like the way the Titans have been playing, and the Ryan Tannehill injury was the last straw. You don’t just repeat the Week 8 strategy of barely throwing with rookie Malik Willis and expecting Derrick Henry to rush for over 200 yards again.
Sure, the fact that he did it four times in a row against Houston is absurd, but after an early 48-yard touchdown run, the Texans clamped down and held Henry to 126 to end the day – good given their past standards. They also forced another big Henry fumble, something he has been doing lately, to start the fourth quarter with the Titans driving into scoring territory with a 14-10 lead.
That was a big one and the Texans turned it into a field goal. They got the ball back, and Davis Mills, the quarterback who was 0-8 at 4QC opportunities, was able to put tougher a 73-yard touchdown drive to take a 19-14 lead with 2:52 left. Nice of Brandin Cooks to make his mark on the season with a 6-yard touchdown.
Missing the two-point conversion could have been bad, but the Titans are one of the worst configured offenses to drive 75 yards in under three minutes, especially without Tannehill.
Into Houston territory, Willis was intercepted. The Texans kind of botched the ensuing drive, so the Titans got it back quickly with 1:10 left and another chance. But this time it had to be a 96-yard drive. A face mask penalty at midfield gave the Titans a shot at a Hail Mary. Willis was intercepted, but what more can you do on that situation?
With the Cowboys and Jaguars left, the Titans are in serious danger of going from 7-3 to 7-10 and missing the playoffs. For now, the 1994 Eagles are the only team to start 7-3 and finish 7-9. That got head coach Rich Kotite fired after four years with the team. We could see Mike Vrabel fall on the sword next in Tennessee after it already fired GM Jon Robinson in early December.
Lions at Panthers: Running Back to Norms
Every once in a while, I put out a narrative that the football gods steal for use that weekend:
While Jared Goff only finished with one official turnover, it was Carolina’s running game that stole the show with D’Onta Foreman (165) and Chuba Hubbard (125) combining for 290 of the team’s 320 rushing yards. They had 240 rushing yards at halftime.
This was just a massacre on the ground for a team that had 21 rushing yards against the Steelers last week. Crazy league. But I just felt like the season-long trend said the Lions are a liability on defense, and we know the Panthers want to run this type of offense under Steve Wilks. They traded Christian McCaffrey and instantly became a better rushing team. Imagine that.
But the Lions were just dominated in the trenches, trailing 31-7 early in the third quarter. They couldn’t get any closer than 17 points while having the ball in the fourth quarter.
Detroit is now No. 9 in the NFC, and the playoffs are not looking optimistic anymore. The Panthers can win the NFC South by winning their last two games. That would be a crazy story, but just as I expected the other shoe to drop on a Detroit run, I think Carolina will suffer the same fate in Tampa Bay next week.
But a sweep there would be glorious.
Saints at Browns: Dome Team Beats Predator in Deep Freeze
With the gamebook showing a minus-16 wind chill, this game in Cleveland looked like the coldest of all the games this weekend. The total settling at 32 points made it the lowest betting total in an NFL game since 2009.
But these offenses were actually better in the frigid conditions than some of the slop games we have seen in recent years. While neither team hit 250 yards of offense, that had more to do with a lack of passing. It wasn’t a punt and turnover fest and each team only had 10 legit possessions. Their third-down numbers were even solid with the Saints at 7-of-15 (46.7%) and Browns at 7-of-16 (43.8%).
An interception by each quarterback setting up a short-field touchdown drive threatened to hit the over with ease. But all the scoring stopped after the Saints, who were down 10-0 as the dome team, warmed up and made it 17-10 in the third quarter.
With 5:16 left, Deshaun Watson tried to mount an 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. With a couple big catches by Amari Cooper, it got to the New Orleans 15. But from there, Watson’s passes were incomplete, and on fourth down, the pressure got to him for the game-ending sack.
The weather did not help in this one, but for those keeping track at home, that is now three offensive touchdown drives in four games for the Watson-led offense. Jacoby Brissett led three touchdown drives in his last start against the Buccaneers, an overtime win.
Falcons at Ravens: Tyler Huntley Is the 4th AFC Pro Bowl Alternate?
You may have missed that the Falcons and Ravens played a 17-9 snoozer. Desmond Ridder was able to throw for 218 yards in his second start, but the Falcons never found the end zone after Drake London fumbled another completion like last week, and the Falcons had some of the worst spacing you’ll ever see in short-yardage runs in the red zone.
They also were strategically inconsistent by going for a fourth-and-1 at the 1 with 6:49 left in a 17-6 game, then later settling for a field goal with 2:03 left. That second one was handled so poorly that the Falcons went from running a play with 2:58 left to giving the Ravens the ball back with 1:57 left, burning the two-minute warning stoppage on the kickoff.
But in the end, none of it mattered. Two runs and the Ravens had another first down to end the game. The Ravens (10-5) have clinched a playoff spot thanks to the Patriots losing, but they still are looking like a team who will be the No. 5 seed and have to play the AFC South winner (likely Jacksonville). Can they win that game if Lamar Jackson returns? Sure, but I just don’t see the scoring ability with this roster to keep up with the likes of the Bills, Chiefs, and Bengals in the postseason.
Broncos at Rams: Nathaniel Hackett Swansong?
After two Russell Wilson interceptions set up the Rams for two touchdown drives that covered a total of 45 yards, this one was basically over at 17-0 just over 10 minutes in.
The Rams ended up winning 51-14, which is a hilarious point total for a team that has scored 51 points in its five lowest-scoring games of the season combined. The Broncos also had one of the best defenses this season, yet they watched Baker Mayfield go 24-of-28 for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Even Cam Akers rushed for 118 yards and three touchdowns.
After such an embarrassing performance on Christmas, do the Broncos fire Nathaniel Hackett on Monday and just go with an interim coach for the last two games? If anyone has demonstrated they can’t hack it at this job after one season, it is this guy.
- Cowboys-Titans to mercifully close out TNF?
- Every game leading up to MNF involves a losing team.
- So, believe me when I say Week 17 is all about Bills-Bengals on MNF, the sequel to the AFC’s Game of the Year. It’s the first Allen-Burrow matchup in the NFL. Should be a great one.