This late into the season, we’re going to be focusing more on the extremes: the teams trying to make the playoffs and those whose only goals relate to the draft. The Commanders, Titans, Jets, and Cardinals have all been eliminated from postseason contention, while Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Dallas booked their spots. San Francisco, as dominant as ever, won the NFC West yet again. The wild card races are as messy as ever, but hopefully we’ll get some clarity soon. 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: LAC Fires Brandon Staley/Tom Telesco After Blowout Loss to LV
When the NFL scheduled Chargers-Raiders, I doubt they anticipated the teams starting QBs Easton Stick and Aidan O’Connell, respectively. Regardless of intent, they got themselves quite a show! If you look at Stick’s raw passing numbers (23/32, 257 yards, 3 TDs), you’d think he had a good night. The Chargers had the worst night of anyone all season long except MAYBE the Broncos against Miami in week 3. After getting the ball first, LA went 3 and out, committed kick catch interference, and ceded a TD to the Raiders. On the next possession, DE Malcolm Koonce strip sacked Stick, and fellow DE Tyree Wilson recovered it.
Koonce had a fantastic game, providing 2 strip sacks (the second was taken by DT John Jenkins for a TD to end the 3rd quarter) and beating LT Rashawn Slater all game. Ironically, much-maligned RT Trey Pipkins held his own against All-Pro pass rusher Maxx Crosby (0 sacks). After Koonce’s first strip sack, the Raiders scored another touchdown. Already up 14-0, LV’s Jerry Tillery, a former LAC first-round pick, forced another fumble. The Raiders converted that one too on a Jakobi Meyers (2/32/1) TD catch. Meyers later completed two passes of his own to Davante Adams (8/101) for 12 yards and another TD (probably in poor taste).
Tillery sacked Stick (why didn’t rookie Max Duggan play?) on the next drive, and that merely ended the first quarter! The game felt over at 21-0, and it pretty much was. LV would take a 42-0 halftime lead, with O’Connell (20/34, 248, 4 TDs) having his best game as a pro. LAC fumbled a punt return, and the Raiders scored again 2 plays later. Las Vegas scored TDs on all 5 of their turnovers. Former Patriots CB Jack Jones earned a pick six as well; he jumped the route like he knew the play and caught it behind his back with 1 hand. The Raiders have never scored more points; the Chargers have never given up more points.
Think about how these teams looked coming in. LAC just lost QB Justin Herbert to a broken finger, and WR Keenan Allen was injured and inactive. The Raiders were just shut out 3-0 a week ago and didn’t have injured RB Josh Jacobs or LT Kolton Miller. Interim coach Antonio Pierce deserves credit for getting his guys ready to play, because they came out on fire and never let up. The #32 rushing offense ran wild (124 yards, 2 TDs) without their top back. After allowing 7 sacks to the Bolts in their first matchup, O’Connell only went down once this time. LV likely has no playoff hopes, but this was an incredible game on their part.
Turning to the Chargers, they finally fired HC Brandon Staley (and GM Tom Telesco). I’ve gone after him once or twice before. Is this loss worse than his Wild Card meltdown last year? Or his incredible blunder in January of 2022? That’s hard to say, but this was bad. The most damning thing is that the Bolts quit in the first half; they stopped tackling and shedding blocks on defense. I don’t care that they rallied for 21 garbage-time points after the Raiders called off the attack. Richard Sherman said on Prime Video that Staley should’ve been fired at halftime. Better late than never I suppose; for (much) more on Staley’s firing, click here.
Saturday Special: Bengals Stun Vikings in OT Despite Injuries
We had two blowouts as part of our Saturday triple-header, but one game was a thriller. Two 7-6 teams in the thick of the playoff race badly needed a win, especially the Bengals (because the AFC is tougher). Cincy QB Jake Browning also had a personal reason to want a W: he was originally signed by Minnesota as a UDFA and then subsequently cut by the team. After an opening-drive FG, Minnesota took over. New starting QB Nick Mullens led the Vikings to 17 unanswered points, and the Bengals looked lifeless well into the third quarter. Injuries also continued to mount for Cincinnati, who lost 3 key players during the game.
DT DJ Reader tore his quad, CB DJ Ivey tore his ACL, and late in the game, elite WR Ja’Marr Chase sprained his AC joint/separated his shoulder, and he’s now out at least a week. Unfazed, Browning led a pair of TD drives to tie the game at 17. The defense was instrumental in this comeback, picking Mullens off twice. They did cede a late TD though, so the Bengals had to respond once more. Cincy did just that, with Browning hitting WR Tee Higgins (4/61/2) for what may have been the catch of the week. That led to OT, where the teams traded punts. Browning tossed a 44-yard pass to WR Tyler Boyd, setting up the game-winning FG.
The Bengals needed this 27-24 victory more because the AFC is so tough. At 8-6, they occupy the 6 seed, but their remaining schedule is daunting (PIT/KC/CLE). Pittsburgh losing took Cincy out of last place in the AFC North for the first time all year, and Denver losing was a bonus. Browning ultimately got his revenge, as well as a hilarious “random” drug test from the league. Minnesota got the full Mullens experience, with 303 yards and 2 TDs but also 2 INTs. He at least moves the offense though, and that’s why coach Kevin O’Connell named him the starter again as the Vikings, still 6th in the NFC, continue their playoff push.
AFC South Now Anyone’s to Win
Jacksonville’s AFC South lead, which once looked insurmountable, has completely evaporated. Though the Jaguars’ division record currently has them ahead of the Texans and Colts, all 3 teams are now 8-6. The convergence started on Saturday, when the Colts beat the Steelers. Indy quickly fell into a 13-0 hole after a blocked punt, but they scored the final 30 points of the game and whipped Pittsburgh so hard that HC Mike Tomlin benched QB Mitch Trubisky for Mason Rudolph. It has since been announced that Rudolph would start next week if Kenny Pickett isn’t cleared to play. As the Colts get healthier, they’ll be a bigger threat.
Houston, without concussed rookie QB CJ Stroud, surprisingly opted for veteran Case Keenum over Davis Mills, which I agreed with. Like the Colts, the Texans also started out with a 13-0 hole. Instead of a blocked punt, it was a pick six by CB Elijah Molden that gave Tennessee the big lead. The play appeared to be a miscommunication between Keenum and RB Dare Ogunbowale. Tennessee only scored a field goal from there on out, and Houston trudged back to tie the game at 16 to force OT. Welcome back to K Ka’imi Fairbairn, who hit a 54-yard FG to win it in his return from IR. That game would’ve been a loss with Matt Ammendola.
Jacksonville was the only one of the trio who lost. They have nobody to blame but themselves, as they had numerous opportunities. In the first half alone, they reached the Ravens’ 40 four times and scored 0 points. Two missed field goals (one doinked off the upright), an inexplicable fumble lost by QB Trevor Lawrence on a run during which he wasn’t touched, and a weird sequence to end the half cost them every time. Lawrence hit WR Zay Jones for 36 yards with time ticking down. Instead of spiking the ball with 11 seconds left, the Jags threw a 1-yard pass in bounds. The time ran out, squandering the scoring chance.
The Jaguars defense actually did a good job. They gave up 23 points, but that was with 2 turnovers by their offense. Lamar Jackson was kept below 175 yards passing, and Jacksonville could’ve easily won with some simple execution. The loss is their third straight, and they’re suddenly vulnerable. Games against the Buccaneers, Panthers, and Titans are very winnable, and doing so would clinch a 2nd consecutive AFC South title. Unless their offense starts looking like it did in the middle of the season (and Lawrence is healthy), they won’t last more than a round in the postseason.
Jets and Falcons Struggle in Embarrassing Defeats
Two seasons that got off to promising starts hit their definitive lows this week. The New York Jets, armed with the news that QB Aaron Rodgers could return next week, needed a win to keep their season alive. All they did was post their worst showing in a very long time against the Dolphins. Miami bounced back in a big way after their staggering loss to Tennessee, even without WR Tyreek Hill and half their defense available. That was no matter, as Jaylen Waddle (8/142/1) shredded the vaunted NYJ defense in his stead, and the defense pitched a shutout. No Jet had more than 30 yards, and OLB Bradley Chubb had 3 of Miami’s 6 sacks.
New York’s offensive line was whipped so badly that QB Zach Wilson left the game with a concussion. He was only 4/11 before he left, but Trevor Siemian was somehow worse, throwing 2 INTs and losing a fumble. The Dolphins went to a backup QB as well; Tua Tagovailoa (21/24, 224 yards, TD) was pulled with the game well in hand. Mike White closed out the 30-0 win. Jets coach Robert Saleh can probably feel his seat heating up. New York was officially eliminated from playoff contention for the 13th straight year and clinched yet another losing season. Even without Rodgers, this season can’t be viewed as anything but a failure.
In poor weather in Carolina, it was fair to expect a low-scoring affair. However, Atlanta’s excellent ground game seemed to be a great fit for sloop conditions. Once again, Atlanta’s offense sabotaged itself. QB Desmond Ridder (12/20, 152 yards, TD, INT) continues to be ineffective, and coach Arthur Smith bafflingly gave Tyler Allgeier double Bijan Robinson‘s carries (14-7). Robinson did lose a fumble, but this has been a season-long theme. When you draft an RB #8 overall, why on earth wouldn’t you use him as much as possible? The team clearly recognized his talent, but they seem hesitant to trust him for some reason.
The defense played its tail off, holding Carolina to a measly 9 points on 3 field goals. Unfortunately for them, that third field goal was too much, as Atlanta’s offense could only muster 7 points. As Eddy Pineiro’s game-winning kick went through the uprights as time expired to give Carolina only their 2nd win of the year, I was half expecting NFL insider Ian Rappoport to announce that Smith had been fired minutes later. That would admittedly have been a kneejerk reaction, but with the NFC South as bad as it is, Atlanta had every reason to believe they could win it. With this offensive “attack”, that dream is quickly fading.
Cowboys/Eagles Lose in Different Ways; Bills/Seahawks Have Life
Is it time to say that Buffalo is completely back? Or was this game more of a Dallas problem? In one of the weirder week 15 results, Buffalo thrashed Dallas 31-10 with Josh Allen failing to hit 100 yards passing. Whether the game plan or the weather dictated that result, the Bills ran their offense through RB James Cook (25/179/1, 2/42/1 through the air), who responded with the best game of his career. The injury-plagued defense had no trouble stifling Dallas, who had only 3 points until one garbage-time drive. At 8-6, Buffalo is in 9th place in the AFC due to tiebreakers, but with 2 easy games remaining, they can easily rise.
If you’re a Cowboys fan, it’s time to face the truth: this is a wildly different team on the road. In Jerry World, Dallas is nearly unstoppable. As a matter of fact, nobody has come close to stopping the Cowboys in Dallas all year. On the road, they’re a 3-4 team that has been blown out by San Francisco (understandable) and now Buffalo (less acceptable). The normally great defense allows many more points on enemy turf, and QB Dak Prescott (21/34, 134 yards, INT) played his worst game of the year. This team NEEDS home field advantage more than any other, so they first need to win their division. They got some help there because…
…the Eagles blew an extremely winnable game in Seattle. Both teams came in with QB trouble: Jalen Hurts flew in separately from the team due to an illness, while Seattle’s Geno Smith (groin injury) was active but did not play. That gave Drew Lock the start, and he couldn’t get anything going in the first half, only mustering one FG drive. Seattle’s defense, without excellent rookie CB Devon Witherspoon, held Philly in check. After an opening drive TD, the Eagles struggled, particularly through the air. On the ground, the team ran for 178 yards and 2 Hurts TDs. The sick QB looked fine, but he did not throw the ball well.
Seattle tied the game in the second half behind the great play of RB Kenneth Walker (19/86/1, 26 receiving yards), who was a tackle breaking machine. Philadelphia went back up 17-13, but Hurts threw an INT to S Julian Love on an ill-advised deep ball. The Seahawks got one more chance, and Lock led a 92-yard drive in 1:24. He was greatly assisted by WR DK Metcalf (5/78), who made 2 unreal catches on the drive. It was rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba who finished off the drive and gave Seattle a 20-17 lead on a 29-yard TD reception. With time still remaining, Hurts threw another INT to Love, who made a great play on the ball.
I don’t think Seattle had a chance if they fell to 6-8. Their outlook appears totally different at 7-7, tied with other teams such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Minnesota. One drive may have saved their entire season. Meanwhile, the Eagles are reeling. Losers of 3 in a row, Hurts has become a turnover machine, and the defense is playing terribly. Matt Patricia was given defensive play calling duties this week, with DC Sean Desai heading to the booth. The plan didn’t really work. This is still a very good, playoff-bound roster. A repeat Super Bowl appearance isn’t in the cards for the current version of this team though.