Happy Hanukkah! It’s a holiday about a miracle, and at least one team took that literally. The Minnesota Vikings completed the largest comeback in NFL history, a perfect start to the current streak of holidays. Only an hour or two later, something even more unthinkable happened: Ravens K Justin Tucker missed a 48-yard FG AND a 50-yard FG (blocked)! Then Sunday, an even more ridiculous finish took place: a WILD walk-off Raider TD…on a Patriots lateral play! One normal thing happened though: the Chiefs clinched their 7th straight AFC West title with an OT win over Houston. I’ll try to cover as much as I can below in my week 15 takeaways, but it certainly won’t be easy this week!
TNF: 49ers Bash Seahawks to Clinch NFC West
I already discussed Seattle’s decline last week, so I’ll be brief about them. The good: they got rookie RB Kenneth Walker back, and he had 79 scrimmage yards. K Jason Meyers also continues to lead the league in FG percentage, as he’s now 26/27. The bad: pretty much everything else. Geno Smith didn’t play poorly, but his line was abused by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, so he had to get rid of the ball well before he wanted to on most plays. RB Travis Homer lost a backbreaking fumble that changed a potential 7-6 halftime score to a 14-3 Niner lead. Untimely penalties cost the Seahawks early and often. This is clearly a team that wasn’t quite ready to contend but overachieved in the first half of the season. They can still be proud despite their recent struggles.
Now let’s talk about the winners, whose 21-13 win was their 7th in a row. Honestly, this was a one-score game, but it wasn’t nearly as close as that score suggests. San Francisco really didn’t do much for the final quarter and a half yet still cruised to victory. QB Brock Purdy continues to look like a draft steal, as Mr. Irrelevant has been anything but. Admittedly, he has benefitted immensely from Kyle Shanahan’s system and play calling, as well as his weapons. It must be said though that Purdy is succeeding in this offense like no non-Garoppolo QB has before. He was efficient yet again, going 17/26 for 217 yards and 2 TDs, and he completed his first 11 passes. Purdy has demonstrated poise in the pocket and an ability to distribute the ball to his playmakers, which is all this offense needs to roll.
George Kittle (4/93/2) is still a game breaker at TE, and Christian McCaffrey has been as advertised since the 49ers acquired him at the trade deadline; he finished with 138 scrimmage yards and a rushing TD. The offensive line, lead by elite LT Trent Williams, is also good. Still, this team is built on the strength of the defense, where SF has playmakers at all 3 levels. Up front, DE Nick Bosa and DT Arik Armstead wreck offensive linemen, stuffing the run and making life miserable for opposing QBs. At LB, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are strong in coverage while also sure tacklers. In the secondary, first-year Niner Charvarius Ward is a shut-down CB, and he held DK Metcalf to just 2 catches for 15 yards as the nearest defender. The league’s #1 defense is the backbone of this team and will definitely travel. With their new NFC West title though, they won’t need to travel for a bit in January.
Colts Dominate Vikings for a Half, Completely Collapse
Jeff Saturday might want to leave this game out of his pitch for the full-time head coaching job. The game started like a dream. Minnesota couldn’t do ANYTHING right. After an opening FG by the Colts, Minnesota went three and out, but their punt was blocked and returned for a TD. Two plays later, RB Dalvin Cook fumbled in Colts territory, and Indy marched down the field for a TD. Minnesota then went 4 and out twice in a row in their own territory, including a fake punt. Each of those led to an Indianapolis FG. The teams traded punts, and then QB Kirk Cousins threw a pick six. On the last drive of the half, the Colts marched to the red zone but got too conservative for my taste. They repeatedly ran the ball to set up a field goal instead of going for the kill shot. Their rationale was to deny the Vikings another possession, but what difference would that have made with how they played?
As great as the Colts looked in their 33-0 first half, they were equally awful after halftime (if not worse). They scored just 3 points the rest of the way as Minnesota finally gathered themselves. Half of the third quarter was already gone, but the Vikings scored their first TD with a pass to KJ Osborn. Osborn was great all game, catching 10 passes for 157 yards and a TD. Once Indy responded with their lone FG of the half, Minnesota struck again with a 75-yard drive for a TD. The Colts punted, and Cousins found the end zone again, this time to Justin Jefferson, who was fantastic as usual (12/123/1). Indy punted again, and Jalen Reagor returned it to the Colts’ 24. However, a phantom facemask call wiped it off the board, and Cousins threw an INT on the drive (coincidentally on a miscommunication with Reagor). After yet ANOTHER Colts punt, Cousins threw a TD to his third good wideout, Adam Thielen. The score at this point was 36-28 with 5 more minutes to go: a one-possession game, which we know the Vikings love.
Indianapolis finally stopped punting, but that’s only because they fumbled. RB Deon Jackson was stripped of the ball while still upright, and the Vikings returned it for a TD. Apparently the officials didn’t see that, as the runner was ruled down by contact. A challenge overturned the play and gave Minnesota the ball, but not the TD. That was the SECOND game-changing play wiped off the board by awful officiating, and the Vikings again failed to overcome it, turning the ball over on downs near midfield. The Colts picked up a first down but then faced 4th and 1 at the Viking 36. Saturday went for it, and I don’t disagree with that decision. Had they picked up the 1 yard, the game would’ve been over. Instead, Matt Ryan was stuffed on a QB sneak, giving the Vikings life. Dalvin Cook caught a short pass and took it 64 yards for a TD on the very next play. The last big weapon, TE TJ Hockenson, caught the two-point conversion, tying the score at 36, and two more punts took us to OT.
Minnesota got the ball first but stalled near midfield. Indianapolis ran 8 plays themselves, but they too punted away. The Vikings drove to the Colts’ 27 with under 10 seconds left and no timeouts. Justin Jefferson tried to return the ball to the official to spike it, but Ifeadi Odenigbo wouldn’t let him go. The officials rightly called him for delay of game, and kicker Greg Joseph connected on the subsequent 40-yard FG to win the game. This may have been the most despicable implosion I’ve ever seen, and I say that knowing that Indy’s QB was the same guy who blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. The offense completely died, and the defense stayed in prevent mode while somehow failing to prevent anything. With the win, Minnesota finally claims the NFC North. It was probably inevitable, but it took longer than expected for them to clinch. Indianapolis goes home to think about what on earth happened to them, and if they do some honest soul searching, they’ll realize that they lost a 12-on-11 game (thanks to the officials) completely on their own.
Falcons Finally Bench Marcus Mariota for Rookie Desmond Ridder
In a welcome development for Falcons fans, coach Arthur Smith finally pulled struggling starter Marcus Mariota in favor of rookie 3rd-round QB Desmond Ridder. Mariota had been hobbling the offense for weeks, and a change was sorely needed. He provided some juice as a runner, but he gave the team next to nothing as a passer. Seemingly every time the Falcons had the ball late in a game with a chance to win, Mariota threw a pick. Smith’s creativity has been allowing Atlanta to remain competitive with their strong running game, but that’s not enough for a talent-poor team. By inserting Ridder now, the front office gets to look at him and see if they need to draft someone else in April, while the coaching staff can hope for a spark on the field.
Ridder’s first start did not inspire much confidence. It’s clear why Smith was so hesitant to make this move in the first place: Ridder was not ready to go, and the bye week wasn’t enough preparation. Ominously, he missed each of his first 4 passes, but he rebounded nicely to hit his next 4. Ridder ultimately completed 13 of 26 passes for just 97 yards. Running the ball went a bit better, as he had 6 carries for 38 yards. He nearly threw a pick on a play where he made an extremely late decision, but the defender was ruled out of bounds on review. As usual, the running game gave Atlanta a chance, but Ridder couldn’t seize any of the opportunities he was given. He smartly force-fed rookie WR Drake London the ball, but that was about all that went right for the passing game. Despite a stagnant foe in New Orleans, the Falcons came up short.
It would be unfair to judge Ridder on his first start. I projected him as a decent backup and not necessarily a high-end starter, but he’s got 3 more games to learn and showcase his talents. Mariota isn’t coming back; he was placed on IR with a chronic knee injury that needed surgery. He could have played through it as the starter, but he wasn’t keen on being the backup and left the team to get the injury dealt with. That means the team belongs to Ridder. It’s up to him to prove his worth to a coaching staff that was hesitant to start him. They’ll put him in position to succeed, most notably with the ground game. I’m not convinced he can do anything to stop Atlanta from taking another QB in the draft. Hopefully he can prove me wrong.
Zach Wilson’s Return Was a Mixed Bag but Ultimately Unsuccessful
Jets’ beleaguered QB Zach Wilson got an unexpected start thanks to Buffalo. The Bills beat Mike White up so badly that he injured his ribs and couldn’t get cleared this week. That offered Wilson perhaps 1 last opportunity to retake the starting job. The fact that he got to play the lowly Lions’ defense made this opportunity even better. After this outing, it’s pretty safe to say that White will get to keep the job. He started off well by doing the little things right. Wilson took what the defense gave him and avoided big mistakes. The offense took few chances in the first half, save for one nice deep TD pass to CJ Uzomah. Riding the strength of the defense, the Jets went into halftime tied 10-10.
Rookie Zach Wilson immediately returned for the second half. He fired a deep pass for Elijah Moore, but he didn’t read the defense. Telegraphing his throw, Wilson failed to notice Jerry Jacobs closing on the route, throwing an awful pick. The defense stiffened to hold Detroit to a field goal, but it probably cost the coaching staff their faith in him. The play calls were noticeably more safe, and the Jets punted on their next 3 drives. They were able to score a TD after a Lions FG miss gave them good field position, but the tired defense couldn’t hold the lead, and Wilson’s last gasp came up short. His stats (18/35, 317 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) don’t look too bad, but it’s the completion percentage that tells the story.
Wilson was inaccurate throughout the game, mostly gaining his yards on chunk plays where his receivers bailed him out. He threw up a wobbler that should’ve ended poorly, but RB Michael Carter came in and snagged it to prevent a catastrophe. It should be noted that the team also only scored 17 points against an improving but still poor defense (bottom 3 in the league). I highly suspect that White would’ve scored more points, possibly changing the outcome. Unless White remains too injured to play, Wilson might not get another start this season. His record is better than White’s, but that’s a product of the opponents each QB has played. White has clearly been the better option. At least Wilson will always have that JetBlue money.
Jaguars Suddenly Alive in AFC South; Dak Has an INT Problem
Midway through the 3rd quarter, this game seemed to be going exactly as expected. Dallas had a 27-10 lead, and Jacksonville looked like a team that was playing decently but was severely overmatched. Then Dallas made two key mistakes to give the Jags life. First, they had a bust in coverage, and a scrambling Trevor Lawrence threw a dime to Zay Jones for a 59-yard TD. Then, two plays later, Dak Prescott threw a bad INT to Rayshawn Jenkins. Jacksonville reached the end zone again, this time with a pass to Marvin Jones. Just like that, the lead was cut to 27-24. After a Cowboys punt, Lawrence hit Zay Jones for another TD, his 3rd of the day, to take a 31-27 lead. To their credit, Dallas scored on their next drive to retake the lead and then stripped Lawrence thereafter. Dallas gained 0 yards on that possession though, and Lawrence was able to lead a game-tying FG drive as time expired.In OT, Jacksonville went 3 and out, giving Dallas another chance to squeak away. Instead, Jenkins picked Prescott off again and took it to the house, handing Jacksonville a shocking 40-34 win.
Lawrence needs to cut down on the fumbles, but he’s coming into his own as a passer. He now has 7 TD passes over his last 2 games and just 1 INT over his last 6. With Tennessee’s loss to the Chargers, the Jags are just 1 game back. Since the two teams play again in week 17, Jacksonville now controls its own destiny: win out, and the AFC South is theirs. If this race is still too close to call before then, that week 17 matchup better get flexed to Sunday Night Football. Meanwhile, Dak Prescott needs to fix his INT issues. That’s 11 now in his 9 games played, and he’s only played 2 games in which he hasn’t thrown a pick. The division race is over for all intents and purposes, so Dallas will be playing on the road in the playoffs. This team can go far, and the offense has been much more explosive since Dak returned. However, good teams capitalize on turnovers. They barely got by the Texans, but that’s worst team in the NFL. An average team burned them, and they won’t beat the Eagles next week if they play the same way. If Prescott can’t get this under control, the Cowboys will flame out of the playoffs. Don’t let Stephen A. Smith be right.
Patriots Might Have Produced Dumbest Play in NFL History
You get a bonus takeaway this week because we HAVE TO discuss the final play of the Patriots-Raiders game. To set the stage, here’s what had transpired. The Raiders had just tied the game on a late TD pass (that was actually out of bounds but the refs royally screwed that up). With 32 seconds left, NE tried to get into field goal range with their 2 timeouts, but it was clear that wasn’t happening. Therefore, they ran a draw with Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson picked up more yards than expected (23), so he tried to make something happen. Keeping in mind that the score was 24-24 and that OT was seemingly assured, Stevenson lateraled the ball to Jakobi Meyers. I was ok with that flip. It was only a couple of yards, and there was no real risk. What Meyers did after that simply defies logic.
Seeming to panic, Meyers heaved a pass across the field and 15 yards backwards to QB Mac Jones. The pass was off the mark, and Raiders OLB Chandler Jones caught it. The large Jones then steamrolled the poor smaller Jones and took the ball back for a game-winning TD. The walk-off win left everyone in disbelief, including the fans, players, coaches, and commentators. So let’s diagnose this. First, can we leave Stevenson alone? I hear people bashing him for starting this but his play was a safe prayer that was mostly harmless. I also don’t want to give any blame to the coaches. Maybe they didn’t explicitly tell the players “do not lateral wildly”, but in a tie game, did that need to be said aloud? I’m going to ascribe a small amount of blame to the officials. If they had not confirmed a clearly incorrect TD, that play would not have taken place. Still, this is all about Meyers to me.
I greatly appreciate him standing tall in the locker room, answering questions, and taking full responsibility. That’s a man right there. But wow, what was he thinking? He took a huge, unnecessary risk in a tie game. The Raiders had been stagnant for most of the second half, so NE might have been in good shape in OT. I don’t expect a player to be thinking about that, but he still should have recognized the tie score and known to not do anything crazy. If the Patriots were losing, then you go ahead and try whatever desperate ploy you can. Next, why did he throw it to Mac Jones of all people? Suppose Jones caught the ball. Then what? He’s not exactly fleet of foot, and any pass would be illegal. There was no upside in that toss, but there was clearly a lot of downside. The Raiders likely don’t gain much from the win, but the Patriots are in the playoff race. If they miss out, remember this play. This dumb, unprecedented, no good, very bad play.