In week 14, we saw our first playoff spot clinched, as the 49ers took command of the number 1 seed in the NFC. Detroit laid yet another egg, which has become a disturbing trend for this title hopeful. The other NFC contenders, Dallas and Philadelphia, faced off, and Dallas dominated. Over in the AFC, Ravens HC John Harbaugh threw away a timeout in a peculiar challenge but won anyway. KC’s unfamiliar struggles continued, and the AFC West and South divisions are much closer than you might expect. My best advice is to embrace the chaos, and hopefully my week 14 takeaways will help you sort it out!
TNF: Zappe Puts Steelers’ Season on the Brink
I always write about the Thursday Night Football game, but I was thinking about skipping this one. Two putrid offenses operating with their backup QBs…where’s the fun in that? The oddsmakers sure didn’t think we’d see much scoring. Think then of my surprise when the Patriots scored an opening-drive TD! That was nothing compared to the second quarter. New England had scored 13 points total in their past 3 games combined; they put up 14 in the second quarter of this game alone. QB Bailey Zappe had 3 TD passes already that point, and TE Hunter Henry (3/40) caught 2 of them.
I’m not sure what stunned me more: that Zappe was still starting after last week’s shutout or that the Patriots had a 21-3 lead over anyone. Pittsburgh has a good defense that has kept them in games all season, but they appeared helpless in the first half. Pittsburgh scored a late TD to cut the deficit to 11, but things looked bleak. Fortunately for the Steelers, the second half was more like the game we expected. Pittsburgh opened the third quarter with a drive that took longer than 7 minutes…and punted after gaining just 32 yards. QB Mitch Trubisky (22/35, 190 yards, TD, INT) was awful, but he did lead the team in rushing (8/30/1).
The Steelers then picked off Zappe after LB Elandon Roberts deflected his pass into the arms of fellow LB Mykal Walker. Patriots RB Ezekiel Elliott saved it from being a pick six with a hustle tackle. Starting in place of the injured Rhamondre Stevenson, Zeke was a workhorse with 22 carries for just 68 yards but 7 catches for 72 yards and a TD. Naturally, the Steelers got nothing out of the turnover thanks to Trubisky, but on the very next drive, Miles Killebrew blocked a punt after another near-INT from Zappe. Pittsburgh would cash that one in for a TD (thanks to DPI) and a 2-point conversion, but nobody scored again, and NE won 21-18.
Zappe provided a spark this time for the Patriots, but his team was shut out in the second half. At the very least, he should continue to be the starter. Mac Jones‘ NE career looks over. For Pittsburgh, this loss was devastating because it’s their second consecutive defeat at the hands of a 2-10 team (they were manhandled by Arizona last week). At 7-6, they are temporarily out of playoff positioning. Let’s be real though: this isn’t a playoff team. Firing OC Matt Canada helped for a week, but this offense is a mess even when Kenny Pickett is healthy. Forget the playoffs, HC Mike Tomlin‘s non-losing season streak is in serious jeopardy.
NFC South Lead Changes Hands Again
Another week, another shift in the NFC South. The division-leading Falcons had a chance to cement their status as the frontrunners against Tampa. The Buccaneers haven’t been playing great football, but Atlanta did their best to blow the game. Previously the most accurate kicker in league history, Younghoe Koo missed two field goals, foreshadowing what was to come. QB Desmond Ridder, did Desmond Ridder things, like throwing an INT in his own red zone. The admittedly improved run defense also allowed Rachaad White to top 100 yards on the ground (he also added 33 yards and a TD through the air).
In spite of everything, the Falcons led this game late. They imploded though, allowing Baker Mayfield to lead a 75-yard TD drive in under 3 minutes. Atlanta had 31 seconds to come back but failed. That leaves 3 teams (TB/ATL/NO) at 6-7, with Tampa holding the tiebreaker. I know it feels like we’re playing the “does anyone want to win this division?” game again for the second straight year, but last year’s Bucs at least had Tom Brady. You knew he’d pull it out by sheer willpower alone. None of these teams have a legend hanging around on their rosters (WR Mike Evans could become one though).
New Orleans is the most talented team, but it’s becoming harder and harder to believe in their offense. The Saints’ red zone struggles are well documented, but they have now scored under 20 points in 3 of their last 4 games. Atlanta possesses everything but a QB in theory; however, that’s a position where you can’t afford a gap. Tampa Bay seems mediocre across the board, but that may be all it takes to win this division. For the second straight year, we’re trending toward a sub-.500 team hosting a playoff game. An upset Dallas or Philadelphia team that doesn’t win the NFC East is going to feast.
Drew Lock Starts for Smith; Easton Stick Replaces Injured Herbert
The Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers both had to turn to their backup QBs. Seattle’s Geno Smith hurt his groin in practice and was questionable to play. He ended up inactive, forcing Drew Lock to try and win in San Francisco. That didn’t start off as badly as one might expect! Last seen struggling in Denver, Lock came over as part of the Russell Wilson trade and didn’t look great in his first appearance as a Seahawk either. He completed 22/31 passes for 269 yards and 2 TDs, but the wheels fell off in the 4th quarter. Lock forced 2 passes into traffic and saw them picked off; he also took 4 sacks as SF pulled away for good.
Over in Los Angeles, the Chargers weren’t expecting to play Easton Stick at all. However, Justin Herbert left the game late in the 2nd quarter with a finger injury and did not return. We’d learn shortly afterward that he broke a finger on his throwing hand. Stick has been with the Bolts for a few years and hasn’t shown me anything to suggest that he’s a viable backup. This week against Denver, he confirmed my suspicions. He took 2 sacks and somehow lost a total of 31 yards, and he fumbled twice. One fumble was lost, and so was the other, but it was incredibly overturned. Stick went 13/24 for 179 yards and led one garbage-time TD drive.
Seattle is in trouble if Smith misses more time because they face the Eagles next week before their schedule lightens. Falling to 6-8 might be too big a hole to climb out of. The Chargers are basically done at 5-8 in the AFC, but in Stick’s defense, it’s not like he did worse than Herbert against Denver. QB1 completed just 9 of 17 passes for 96 yards and an INT, leaving the game with 0 points on the board. With Brandon Staley as HC, this team was going nowhere anyway. They may as well let Herbert heal and not rush him back. Maybe they can compete next year with a real coach.
Two Games Produce 0-0 Halftime Scores on the Same Day
If you hate offense, you were in for a real treat this Sunday. Once in the early window and again in the late afternoon window, we saw games with absolutely zero points on the board at halftime. This had not happened in the NFL since 1988. First, we had the Texans and Jets. Poor weather with much rain clearly played a role, as did some Texans injuries. With WR Tank Dell already out for the year, Houston could ill afford to lose WR Nico Collins on the first drive of the game with a calf injury. That left star rookie QB CJ Stroud pretty much on his own against a swarming Jets defense and the elements.
Stroud was sacked 4 times and hit numerous other times. He went 10/23 for a career-low 91 yards. The Texans earned just 135 yards of total offense, so it’s no wonder they didn’t score before the half and only managed 1 TD all game (with a missed PAT). Worse still, Stroud was knocked out the game with a concussion in the 4th quarter. New York was back to starting Zach Wilson, and the time off did him a favor. I don’t think he has played a better half of football in his career. After promising drives stalled in the first half without points, he put up 30 in the second half and finished 27/36 for 301 yards and 2 TDs.
Our second scoreless first half of the day did not suddenly produce 36 second-half points. In fact, the Vikings and Raiders went more than 3 quarters without any scoring. Minnesota had one FG attempt in the first half, but K Greg Joseph missed the 49=yard try. Antonio Pierce’s interim HC magic has clearly worn off for the Raiders, and QB Aidan O’Connell (171 yards, INT) is clearly not the answer. RB Josh Jacobs leaving with an injury and 2 lost fumbles didn’t help, but this offense was putrid. The Raiders reached the red zone only once all game, and that possession was short-circuited by one of those fumbles.
No NFL game had gone into OT at 0-0 (multiple games ended with 0-0 scores decades ago before OT existed), and it looked like we might make history. Minnesota HC Kevin O’Connell made a move though, benching the ineffective Josh Dobbs. The Passtronaut like landed for the season, with a 10/23, 63-yard, 5-sack effort being his final appearance. In came previously injured backup Nick Mullens, who came out firing. After a bit of luck on a deflected pass that was caught by TE TJ Hockenson, Mullens (9/13, 84 yards) led a couple of decent drives, finally earning an FG after the 2-minute warning. 3-0 final. Elite offense at its finest.
Pile of 7-6 Teams Making a Mess in the AFC
Putting aside the Cleveland Browns, who beat the Jaguars in a game QB Trevor Lawrence shouldn’t have suited up for (he threw 3 TDs in the loss but also 3 INTs and never looked comfortable due to his high ankle sprain), pretty much every AFC team contending for a wild card spot sits at 7-6 through week 14. Pittsburgh currently holds the 6-seed, but they look dead in the water. That offense is a mess no matter who is at QB or who coordinates it. The Colts, who are in the 7th spot right now, are mercurial. They beat Baltimore but got destroyed by Cincinnati and barely beating the Patriots.
Speaking of Cincinnati, their season looked dead once they lost Joe Burrow. Backup Jake Browning has filled in admirably and won 2 of 3 games, even with an injury scare of his own. Houston has a tiebreaker over the Bengals from an earlier head-to-head victory, but WR Tank Dell broke his leg last week, and rookie phenom CJ Stroud left this week with a concussion. More concerning is how the Texans lost to the Jets. Scoring only 6 points against the defense? Sure, but how did a team give up 30 points against Zach Wilson? Denver looks the hottest, winning 6 of their last 7, but the offense is limited.
Finally, there’s Buffalo. In the worst situation tiebreaker-wise due to a loss against Cincinnati, this team is the epitome of hot and cold. The Bills beat Kansas City this week (with help from the zebras) and smashed Miami. Yet they lost to New England and the Jets. Their turnover tendencies might doom them even if they win out. With Joe Flacco around, Cleveland is likely to take a wild card spot; they’re already a game ahead of everyone else. The other two will come down to the wire. The remaining schedules favor the two AFC South teams, but matchups among these teams should clear quite a bit up.
MNF Double-Header: Giants, Titans Pull off Stunning Comebacks
Two weeks in a row with a 6th takeaway! These Monday night games are getting out of control. On a night where we didn’t anticipate much drama, we got plenty. New York was a solid underdog against the playoff contending Packers, but it was clear early that they wouldn’t roll over. Fan-favorite QB Tommy DeVito was efficient if not flashy, completing 17/21 passes for 158 yards and a TD. He had 10 carries for 71 yards as well, leading the team in rushing until Saquon Barkley (20/86/2) went ahead with a big play. On the other side, Green Bay’s offense couldn’t get in rhythm. Through 3 quarters, the Packers trailed by 8.
A comedy of special teams errors in the second half kept the game tight. Each team muffed a punt, and each team cashed in on their recovery for a TD. Green Bay’s TD led to a late 22-21 lead with 1:33 left, but the moment wasn’t too big for DeVito. He fired a pinpoint pass to the increasingly explosive Wan’Dale Robinson (6/79), and the G-Men ran out the clock from there. K Randy Bullock nailed a game-winning 37-yard FG, sending GB to 6-7. As in the AFC, the NFC wild card picture is a mess now. The difference is that none of the 6-7 teams piled up are very good…except the Rams. I keep coming back to that team.
Simultaneously, Miami hosted Tennessee as 13-point favorites. A poor Titans team with a rookie QB wasn’t a challenge for a team with 0 home losses on the season right? That was true for a series and a half. After forcing a 3-and-out, injuries decimated the Dolphins. CB Xavien Howard left but returned, only to be torched by DeAndre Hopkins (7/124/1) all night. WR Jaylen Waddle briefly left the game on a hit against a defenseless receiver (which went uncalled). The most critical injury on the opening drive though was C Connor Williams, who would not return. That shifted Liam Eichenberg over to center, and it was ugly.
The last time he filled in at C, Eichenberg had a bad snap in the red zone that cost Miami a fumble. This time…he had a bad snap at the TEN 2 that Miami couldn’t recover and led to a turnover. The defense bailed him out, as Zach Seiler picked off a screen pass from Will Levis and took it 5 yards for a TD. Just when it seemed that Williams would be the biggest casualty for Miami, MVP candidate Tyreek Hill went down after horse collar tackle (again, uncalled). Hill (4/61) would return later for a few plays but went back out, clearly not himself. Miami’s offense wasn’t the same from that point on.
QB Tua Tagovailoa (23/33, 240 yards) gave a valiant effort, but he was facing a stacked deck. Already without LT Terron Armstead and G Robert Hunt, he was a sitting duck behind a porous backup offensive line. The explosive element was gone without Hill, even though Jaylen Waddle (6/79) picked up some of the slack. In a dogfight and tied at 13 midway through the 4th quarter, the Dolphins got their break. Tennessee muffed a punt, and Miami recovered it in the red zone. RB Raheem Mostert (21/96/2) quickly scored his first touchdown. The very next play, Levis fumbled a bad snap, Miami recovered and Mostert scored again.
Normally, I’d say that Miami took a 27-13 lead with 5 minutes left and that was the end. Not on this night. The Dolphin defense melted down completely, allowing screens to go for 20 yards, not defending the sidelines, and ceding a TD to Hopkins in under 2 minutes. Tennessee went for 2 and converted to make it 27-21. Going 3 and out offensively, Miami punted the ball back. The defense was sieve again, and thanks to a bad defensive delay of game call near the goal line, Derrick Henry (17/34/2) was able to run in for the go-ahead score. Tua’s line cost him any chance of salvaging the game, and he was sacked on 4th down.
Over 500 straight games had been won by teams with 14-point leads and 3 minutes or less left in their games. That streak is now snapped. Miami has their first home loss, Tennessee has their first road win, and the Dolphins no longer control the path to the 1 seed. The AFC East is tighter now as well. This was an unmitigated disaster that could have ripple effects, and there’s no excuse. However, I’d be remiss not to mention the officials one more time. In addition to the 3 bad calls I described above, Tua was roughed on a late hit below the knees, and Hopkins pushed off on a big catch before the half. Neither foul was called.
Had this game been something like a 16-13 final, I’d blame the refs. It was a horribly officiated game that impacted the result. I just can’t do that when a team collapses like this. There’s nobody to blame when you let a 4-8 team come into your building and make a comeback like that. The only bright side is that if anything, this game makes Hill’s MVP case stronger. We saw the full result of his absence in primetime. Miami’s offense doesn’t flow without #10. Hopefully he can return; otherwise, the “pretender” label everyone puts on the Dolphins will be true. Tomorrow’s Hard Knocks episode should be interesting!