Merry Christmas everyone! Due to the fact that the holiday fell on a Sunday, most of our NFL action took place on Saturday this week, which is a rarity. Fittingly for the holiday season, we had some miracle finishes for the second week in a row. Minnesota overcame the Giants on a career-long 61-yard FG by Greg Joseph, moving to an insane 11-0 in one-score games. Cincinnati weathered 3 turnovers, awful luck, and poor officiating to hang on against NE. Tom Brady stole a game in Arizona when his offense was playing horribly. Perhaps nothing more unusual happened than Houston winning their 2nd game of the season. Even if Malik Willis starting at QB for Tennessee made that possible. Jacksonville now leads the AFC South, Buffalo clinched the AFC East, and Baltimore, Cincinnati, and the Chargers clinched playoff spots. Read on for my (hopefully festive?) week 16 takeaways!
TNF: Zach Wilson Benched Again as Jags Throttle Jets
To be fair, “throttling” the Jets when Wilson starts at QB isn’t a particularly difficult task. Offense was difficult to come by due to heavy rain and swirling winds. The elements seemed to have an impact from the opening whistle. Jets DT Quinnen Williams returned, and he made his presence felt on the very first series. He broke through the offensive line and sacked Trevor Lawrence, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Carl Lawson. I mentioned last week that Lawrence really needs to get his fumbling under control, but it didn’t matter this time. The Jets could only score a field goal, much to consternation of the crowd. They booed Wilson relentlessly whenever he threw an incompletion or took a sack. It wasn’t all Wilson’s fault. The protection was shaky, and the RBs combined for 11 yards on 10 attempts. Still, at the end of the half, he threw an INT on a Hail Mary, and the fans nearly lost it, chanting that they wanted Joe Flacco. Wilson finished just 9/18 for 91 yards and that INT. However, it wasn’t Flacco they got.
Practice squad call-up Chris Streveler came in at QB late in the 3rd quarter, and though he didn’t lead a scoring drive, the difference between the two signal callers was palpable. Streveler made quicker decisions, knew when to run, and had a bit of rhythm in the offense. The Jaguar defense deserves credit for shutting down any possible momentum the Jets could have mustered. Wilson set a ridiculously low bar, and Streveler cleared it. This is definitely Mike White’s job once he’s healthy, but Wilson may not play again for NYJ regardless. This all feels even worse for Jets fans knowing that their opponent’s QB, taken 1 pick ahead of Wilson, is making great strides. Lawrence immediately led an FG drive after his fumble, connecting early and often with TE Evan Engram. Engram (7/113/1) has really come on as of late, with 26 receptions in his last 3 games. Nobody else had more than 30 yards receiving, as the weather tempered both teams’ offenses. Lawrence finished 20/31 for 229 yards while adding 7 rushes for 51 yards and a TD on the ground.
The Jaguars looked best on their lone TD drive, an 8-minute march in the middle of the second quarter. The drive relied heavily on the run; some carries were taken by Lawrence himself. I think the weather made coach Doug Pederson more conservative, opting for FG attempts on 4th and 1 and 4th and 3. Riley Patterson made 4 of his 5 FGs, which is pretty good when you don’t know which way the wind will take your kick. Two FGs represented all of the second-half scoring for both teams combined, as Jacksonville left NY with a 19-3 win. The stadium only remained somewhat full because Jets fans were curious about what Streveler could do. The answer was “not much”, but the fact that he, Flacco, and White have ALL looked better than Wilson, a second-year former #2 overall pick, is an indictment of his development. Coach Robert Saleh certainly isn’t helping Wilson’s confidence, but he owes it to his good defense to do what it takes to make a playoff push, however fading that prospect may be.
Bengals Survive Near-Collapse Week After Wild Comeback
This headline feels so odd based on how the game started. Joe Burrow came out firing, throwing 26 times in the first half and passing for 3 TDs with nearly 300 yards. The offense was cooking outside of a poor red zone INT, and the defense was flustering Patriots QB Mac Jones. With a 22-0 halftime lead on the road, Cincinnati looked to be in line for a blowout. After the break though, the Bengals went cold. The offense moved the ball, but the game changed in the 3rd quarter when Burrow seemed to have a miscommunication with WR Ja’Marr Chase and was picked off by Marcus Jones. The elite punt returner showed his speed and shiftiness, breaking several tackles on the way to a pick six. The Patriots missed the subsequent PAT, which must have had something to do with the weather. Nick Folk and Evan McPherson combined for 4 missed PATs and a missed FG.
New England then had the “Kendrick Bourne” drive, as the little-used WR caught 3 passes, including a TD, on the possession. The Pats missed the 2-point conversion that was required due to the PAT miss. Following a Bengal FG miss, NE had a very weird drive. A big Bourne catch was ruled incomplete, but Bill Belichick won a challenge despite the ball moving upon hitting the ground. Two plays later, Mac Jones committed intentional grounding. Zac Taylor challenged that one, which was wise considering Jones lost possession before throwing the ball away, but somehow lost on the review. I don’t know what the Bengals did, but the officials absolutely DESPISE them. On 3rd and 29, Jones heaved a prayer to Scotty Washington, which the WR deflected right to Jakobi Meyers for a TD (this PAT was missed as well). Meyers is certainly involved in weird plays. A week after perhaps the worst play in NFL history, he was on the other end this time.
Cincinnati turned the ball over for the 3rd time on a Chase fumble, and NE looked poised to steal this game. The Patriots worked inside the 5, but RB Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled on a great play by DT DJ Reader and S Von Bell. The Bengals went 3 and out and punted, giving NE one last shot, but they couldn’t take advantage. Jones misfired several times, ultimately turning it over on downs. The situation may have looked different with just 1 converted PAT, as the Pats would have needed an FG instead of a TD. Cincy nearly collapsed worse than the Buccaneers did against them last week, but survived 22-18 to retain their AFC North lead and a small chance at the #1 seed. New England loses another heartbreaker and is likely staying home this postseason unless they win out and enjoy some miracle outcomes for their conference foes. Stranger things have happened, but it’s very unlikely. Belichick might miss the playoffs for 2 out of the 3 years since Tom Brady left.
Texans Have Been Competitive For 3 Weeks, Finally Break Through
Lovie Smith deserved a win. His team has been battling really hard for weeks, especially the last two. They took Dallas to the brink, but failed to punch in a TD at the goal line and then allowed a 98-yard game-winning drive. The next week, they forced OT against the vaunted Chiefs, made them punt, but then fumbled and gave up a TD one play later to lose. In each of these instances, the Texans showed that they are well-coached and never quit. At the same time, they demonstrated their lack of talent relative to their foes. Schemes and grit can only go so far. Sometimes you just need more skill and athleticism. The Texans had to love their opportunity against the Titans then. Tennessee came in losing 4 straight and just lost QB Ryan Tannehill for the season due to ankle surgery. Despite playing on the road, this was Houston’s best chance for an upset. It didn’t matter to Houston that they allowed RB Derrick Henry to run for 200+ yards in each of their last 4 meetings. They were facing Malik Willis!
For a playoff contender like Tennessee, having a raw 3rd-round rookie who can’t throw as your insurance plan at QB is idiotic. Henry did manage to run for 126 yards, including a 48-yard TD, on 23 attempts, but the Texans did force him to fumble. And again, their opposing QB was Malik Willis. I can’t stress that enough. Willis earned his first NFL TD on a 14-yard run, but his day as a passer was horrendous. He didn’t hit 50 yards passing until the 3rd quarter, finishing 14/23 for 99 yards and 2 INTs. Willis also took 4 sacks due to holding onto the ball for an eternity. Still, the Titans held a 14-13 lead halfway through the 4th quarter. QB Davis Mills then led his best drive of the game, capping it off with a TD pass to Brandin Cooks. That ended an up-and-down day for Mills, who also ran to the 2 earlier in the game, only to fumble. He was saved by RB Rex Burkhead, who recovered it in the end zone for a TD.
The Titans got the ball two more times. Willis was picked off on each drive. The loss puts Jacksonville in first place with 2 weeks to go, but the standings don’t matter much; the week 18 matchup with the Jaguars will decide this division. The advantage is firmly Jacksonville’s with Willis remaining at QB. For Houston, the win keeps them from clinching the #1 pick (they need 2 more losses or 1 loss and a Chicago win), but it has to feel good for this team. They haven’t looked nearly as bad within games as their record would suggest, especially on defense. It’s no coincidence that Lovie Smith is a defensive coach. They can still draft a QB at the top of the draft while reaping the confidence boost that a road win over a division rival can provide. Coaches and players don’t tank, and nobody on the field cares about a draft pick that is destined to replace them. Let them enjoy it!
Hot Take: Jalen Hurts is NOT the MVP
That’s my takeaway from the Eagles’ game against the Cowboys. Dallas won, but you might recall me saying that they would do so even if Hurts DID play. If anything, I think Philly fared better with Gardner Minshew under center, particularly in the passing game (obviously not running). Minshew somehow had 3 turnovers charged to him that weren’t his fault at all. On his two INTs, BOTH were well-thrown footballs that WR Quez Watkins let defenders rip out of his hands. His “fumble” was a handoff to Boston Scott, where the latter simply dropped the ball that was between his arms. Otherwise, Minshew was 24/40 for 355 yards and 2 TDs, and he even had a rushing TD for good measure. He showed much better chemistry with DeVonta Smith (8/113/2), whereas Hurts focuses on AJ Brown. Notably, the running game (29/87/1 overall) suffered without the threat of Hurts taking off, but Dallas stacked the box. Dan Quinn had his defense dare Minshew to throw, and that he did.
Dallas rode a sterling game from Dak Prescott (save another pesky INT that was returned for a TD), as well as a great performance from WR CeeDee Lamb and opportunistic play from the defense. I think this game would’ve been easier against Hurts, especially if they followed Chicago’s blueprint from last week with their superior talent. Many will argue that Hurts is a better player than Minshew, but that’s not the point. Philadelphia scored 34 points with their backup QB against a 10-win rival. Micah Parsons was absolutely correct in saying that the Eagles’ system and supporting cast make the team a fantastic environment for any QB. Minshew is a bit more limited, and he proved that he too could thrive with Nick Sirianni calling the plays, the league’s best offensive line, and strong skill position talent. The Eagles lost this game because they surrendered a ton of points. The RBs also could not hold onto the ball (Miles Sanders lost a fumble for the 2nd straight week). None of that is on Minshew.
From where I’m sitting, the MVP right now is Patrick Mahomes. He’s doing more with a lot less, and we risk giving him the Tom Brady treatment. His level of play is so consistently great that we take it for granted. When you lose Tyreek Hill and have to carry a mediocre defense, you shouldn’t be 12-3. Yet that’s where the Chiefs are. Specifically regarding Hurts though, think of it like this. If you take Hurts away, the Eagles are still really good. What happens to KC if you take away Mahomes? Or if you take Josh Allen away from Buffalo, or if you take Joe Burrow away from Cincinnati, or if you take Tua Tagovailoa away from Miami? We actually saw the answer to that last one for a couple weeks and it was ugly. You get the point though. The most “valuable” player is the one a team can least afford to be without in addition to simply the best player in the league. That’s not Hurts, and it hasn’t been all year long. His improvement is laudable and he seems like a really good guy and teammate; he just isn’t the MVP.
Davante Adams Hurt GB, but He Hasn’t Helped LV Either
I said a few weeks ago that we’d come back to a couple of AFC West teams that haven’t lived up to expectations. I dealt with the Broncos the following week, but now I’m finally addressing Las Vegas. The Raiders were a playoff team a year ago, and the addition of WR Davante Adams in a trade with GB was supposed to take the offense to the next level. Instead, they’re 6-9 and almost certainly staying home this postseason. It’s well-documented that Aaron Rodgers has missed his favorite target amid a bitterly disappointing season, but Adams was supposed to take Derek Carr to the next level, as Tyreek Hill did for Tua Tagovailoa.
While Adams has been his usual fantastic self, it hasn’t translated into team success during Josh McDaniels’ first year as coach.
A lot of the blame falls on the defense. Despite the addition of Chandler Jones in free agency, the pass rush hasn’t been able to overcome the weaknesses in the secondary and linebacking corps. That has contributed to LV blowing 4 leads of 13 points or more this year. Coaching and management have also been problems. McDaniels looks in over his head, much like he was in Denver. It’s possible that he simply isn’t a good HC and belongs as an OC. I doubt he’ll be fired, but it’s notable how much better the team looked under interim HC Rich Bisaccia. New GM Dave Ziegler didn’t do much in the draft, partly because of the Adams trade. He also disassembled the offensive line. Somehow, RB Josh Jacobs has had his best pro season regardless of these issues. Even that is problematic, as Ziegler declined his 5th-year option and could lose him in free agency.
Derek Carr hasn’t been an appreciably different QB from last season. He even has 2 more OT wins in 2022! The offense has just been a lot more streaky. Adams has had a great season (88 receptions for 1290 yards and 12 TDs), but he has produced 4 games with less than 50 receiving yards (including the last 2). No game put all of LV’s struggles on display like this week’s matchup against the Steelers. The anemic Pittsburgh offense was held in check, and a 10-3 halftime lead seemed like plenty. The Raiders missed some chances, but they couldn’t lose to the Steelers. Except Las Vegas didn’t score after halftime. Carr had his worst game in some time, throwing 3 INTs and missing on some other routine throws. Pittsburgh got the ball down 10-6 with just over 2 minutes to go, and the defense collapsed once more, allowing a TD. LV couldn’t take advantage of having all 3 timeouts and fell 13-10. They can’t be eliminated just yet, but they’re on the brink. No one can say that they belong in the postseason anyway.