Third straight holiday weekend, so Happy New Year! The resolution for most teams: make the playoffs. Now that we’re in the final two weeks of the regular season, we’re going to focus on the playoff races around the league. Of course, if something really notable happens with an eliminated team (such as #1 overall pick news), we’ll cover it. For example, congrats to Falcons QB Desmond Ridder getting his first win on a walk-off field goal! Congratulations are also in order for the New York Giants, who clinched their first playoff berth in 6 years with an easy win over the hapless Colts. They’re locked into the 6 seed. Let’s have a look at the most intriguing races remaining. Onward with my week 17 takeaways!
NOTE: This article was written and posted before the completion of the Bills-Bengals MNF game. As you may know, Bills S Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field, required CPR, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. I’m not waiting for the game to be completed before posting, because it simply doesn’t matter. Only Hamlin’s health is important right now. We at Takeaways hope that he makes a full recovery, and we hope that his family is alright in this terrifying situation.
TNF Finale: Cowboys Take Care of Business Against Titans
There isn’t a whole lot to say about TNF for once, mostly because Tennessee basically quit before the game started. Without Derrick Henry, Jefferey Simmons, Amani Hooker, Bud Dupree, and Denico Autry, the most notable fact from the Titans’ side is that they started Josh Dobbs, a practice squad poach, over 3rd-round rookie Malik Willis at QB. As I stated last week and in week 8, Willis looks woeful. He’s raw and even when polished, he’ll likely be a bust. The Titans might be realizing that, and I wonder if this game was a tune-up for Dobbs to start their winner-take-all matchup in week 18 against Jacksonville. We’ll definitely be talking about the Titans again next week given the stakes of that game. Dobbs looked fine; nothing special, but better than Willis by far.
Dallas might be concerned by this performance. Dak Prescott threw TWO MORE INTs. One was not his fault at all; he threw a good ball that was dropped by TE Peyton Hendershot and tipped right to S Kevin Byard. Dak was also charged with a lost fumble on a bad exchange with his center. As usual, Prescott balanced the bad with a lot of good, throwing for 282 yards and 2 TDs. CeeDee Lamb had 100 yards receiving, and TE Dalton Schultz caught 7 passes for 56 yards and both of Prescott’s TDs. The team could not run the ball without Tony Pollard despite Tennessee missing half their unit. The defense, led by Micah Parsons with a club on his hand, forced two timely turnovers and allowed just 13 points. However, they gave up chunks of yardage and needed big plays to escape scoring drives. Dallas is basically locked into the 5 seed unless Philadelphia completely implodes, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Cowboys simply looked past this Titans squad. That must end in 2 weeks.
Two More QBs Benched by Struggling Teams
Willis wasn’t the only QB to get benched this week. Raiders coach Josh McDaniels announced that he would be benching Derek Carr for the final 2 games of the season, and Carr has since stepped away from the team. Additionally, as foreshadowed by last week’s game, Commanders coach Ron Rivera went back to Carson Wentz with their playoff hopes on the line instead of Taylor Heinicke. How did Wentz and new LV starter Jarrett Stidham do, and what do these QB situations look like moving forward?
Jarrett Stidham actually had a fantastic opening drive. He went a perfect 3-3 for 58 yards and a TD. His first half as a whole was stellar, going 11/14 for 145 yards and 2 TDs. Following his predecessor, Stidham targeted Davante Adams often. The excellent receiver had 7 catches for 153 yards and 2 TDs. Unlike his time in NE, where he often seemed lost, Stidham looked decisive. He stood tall in the pocket and delivered bullets while taking hits. Stidham mostly took care of the football, throwing one INT on a batted ball. Surprisingly, this was all accomplished against the #1 49ers defense. The effort wasn’t enough to win the game (his INT in OT was a heartbreaker), and his team is eliminated as a result, but Stidham definitely opened some eyes. He finished 23/34 for 365 yards, 3 TDs, and 2 INTs. I still have my doubts that he can be the franchise guy, but you never know. The Raiders presumably want to trade Carr, but that will be hard. His contract converts $33M in injury guarantees to full guarantees a few days after the Super Bowl, which is before he can be traded. They would have to accept a team’s unenforceable word regarding a trade, which feels unlikely. The most probable result is a release, and the team might draft a rookie to compete with Stidham to start next season.
I don’t think Rivera got what he wanted out of Carson Wentz. The enigmatic signal caller threw an INT on his very first drive of the day, one of 3 total on the day. He moved the ball at times, but the mistakes really undercut his team’s chances against the Browns, who gave Washington plenty of chances to steal this game. Wentz didn’t really make too many bad throws. Typically, his mistakes came on poor decisions. I understand being aggressive, but taking a deep shot into triple coverage is not likely to go your way no matter who you are. Despite the issues, Washington actually led at half. The defense just couldn’t hold on when the offense made them come back out onto the field so often. The Commanders are now eliminated, and I would implore them to start Sam Howell in week 18. He’s a 5th-round rookie that can’t play any worse than Wentz and Heinicke have in the past two weeks. There’s really nothing to lose with the playoffs out of the picture, and a loss would even help their draft pick. I regard Howell highly, and maybe the team will see something that makes them give him a shot in 2023.
Buccaneers Clinch NFC South With Vintage Brady Performance
Carolina seemed like the better team coming into this game. No matter what though, betting against Brady when his back is against the wall rarely serves you well. Tampa was able to do one thing that few teams have been able to accomplish: they stopped the Panther rushing attack. Carolina earned less than 75 yards on the ground at 3.4 yards per carry. Still, for the first two possessions, it seemed like Carolina would comfortably win. They scored a TD to start the game, and they recovered a Chris Godwin fumble on Tampa’s first series. QB Sam Darnold had his most productive passing day of the season (perhaps his entire Carolina tenure), going 23/37 for 341 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 INT on a deep shot. At 14-0 Carolina, the Buccaneers looked to be in big trouble. Tom Brady wouldn’t let things stay that way.
Brady turned in his finest performance of the season. The most encouraging part was that WR Mike Evans, who had disappeared for much of the season, was in perfect sync with Brady in this game. Brady hit him for 3 deep TDs, and Evans caught 10 passes for 207 yards overall. Brady committed 0 turnovers, and he went 34/45 for 432 yards and 3 TDs. As usual, his team’s running game was stuck in the mud. Their other problem has been red zone scoring, so he and Evans apparently decided to just score from outside it! Down 21-16 in the 4th, Brady led two signature TD drives to take a late lead. Carolina actually had time for one last drive since they made TB punt with a minute left. The snap was bad, but Jake Camarda scooped it up, ran left, and fired the ball away. That triggered an illegal man downfield penalty due to the timing, but nobody cared. Camarda had saved the game, keeping the Panthers from getting the ball in TB territory.
Carolina is eliminated with this loss, as Tampa clinched the NFC South. This version of the Buccaneers could make some noise in the playoffs, but we’ve seen this team for too long. We know that they aren’t able to consistently barrage foes. However, we’re also aware that Brady can make magic. A team should not let the Bucs hang around, because even at 45 years old, Brady will make them pay. Todd Bowles’ defense is playing better than they were before, and that should travel. The offense will have to pull its weight. They will host one playoff game as division champions, either against Dallas or Philadelphia. TB beat Dallas in week 1, but both teams were drastically different then. I’d rather see PHI if I’m a TB fan, as they’re the ones that are more banged up. To win a Super Bowl, you first have to get into the dance. That’s exactly what the Bucs have done, even if they haven’t really looked like a playoff-quality team while doing it.
Eagles Upset by NO; NFC East and #1 Seed Still Available
Is it time for a little panic to set in for the Eagles? They’ve now lost 2 straight for the first time all year, and even though both games have featured Gardner Minshew at QB, he isn’t at fault for the losses. Unlike last week, the offense struggled mightily in this one. That said, perhaps some of the credit should go to the Saints defense. The unit was uncharacteristically poor for much of the season, but they’ve quietly bounced back in a big way. Dennis Allen’s group has now held opponents to 20 points or less in each of their last 7 games. New Orleans pitched a first-half shutout and led from wire to wire. Minshew finished 18/32 for 274 yards, 1 TD, and a pick six. Would the team have won with Hurts? I don’t know; the Saints are normally stout against the run. RT Lane Johnson’s injury really holds them back, and the defense has been suspect.
Sadly for New Orleans, their upset win did not net them anything. Tampa’s victory knocked the Saints out of the division race, and Detroit and Green Bay winning eliminated them from playoff contention altogether. For the Eagles, everything is still in front of them. Hurts may be back next week, and as with the last two weeks, a win in week 18 guarantees them the NFC East title and the #1 seed. All they have to do is beat the Giants, who may not have much to play for. Should they lose, Dallas could steal the division with a win against Washington, and they’d have a chance to nab the #1 seed while they’re at it. San Francisco is also still alive for the #1 seed as well, and they hold a tiebreaker over the Cowboys. Minnesota’s loss takes them out of that race. In spite of their red-hot start, the Eagles could still drop from 1 to 5 in the playoff standings based on next week’s results.
NE Controls Last Spot in AFC Playoffs; NFC’s 7 Seed in Packers’ Hands
New England seemed like they’d be haunted by their ghastly lateral play at the end of the season. Instead, they now control their own destiny. They took care of Miami on their own, but the Dolphins are still in contention. The Jets and Raiders both lost, eliminating them. Las Vegas essentially punted on the season when they benched Derek Carr, despite an inspired showing against San Francisco. Jacksonville happens to have a singular path to a wild card; should NE, MIA, PIT, and NYJ all lose while Jacksonville falls to Tennessee, the Jags would be in based on conference record. However, I think it’s more likely that JAX beats TEN, claiming the AFC South crown. Putting that result aside, we’re left with Miami, New England, and Pittsburgh. Kansas City did the chasers a favor by winning, forcing Buffalo to try against NE next week to earn the number 1 seed. The Patriots are in with a win, but a loss opens the door for the other teams, with Pittsburgh having the easiest opponent.
The biggest result in the NFC was Green Bay obliterating Minnesota. Aaron Rodgers rarely gets swept by divisional opponents, so this outcome almost felt inevitable. The Packers have needed a TON of help the past couple of weeks, and amazingly, they’ve gotten it all. Their win instantly ended the seasons of New Orleans and Washington. Wins by Detroit and Seattle keep both of them alive, but Green Bay is in the best position. The Cheeseheads play Detroit next week and make the playoffs with a win. They no longer need help; it’s all in their hands. I might need confirmation on this, but I believe GB wins a 2-team or 3-team tiebreaker over anyone still alive based on conference record. Seattle needs some help from Detroit, and the reverse is true for the Lions. The difference is, Seattle needs a Detroit win, while the Lions need a Seattle loss. Based on their head-to-head result, SEA would win a tiebreaker over DET. The simplest path is a win by the Packers, but if they lose, one of the other two teams gets in.