Happy New Year everyone! This article is a day early because we had Monday Night Football…on Saturday. I guess the league didn’t want to compete with the CFP Semifinals. 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. The Rams clinched a spot, the Chiefs won another AFC West crown by eliminating the Bengals with 6 sacks of Jake Browning, and Mike Tomlin kept his Steelers alive with his 17th-straight non-losing season. Let’s have a look at the most intriguing races remaining, plus any other notable occurrences. Onward with my week 17 takeaways!
TNF Finale: Browns Ride Joe Flacco to Playoff Berth
We heard before kickoff that Browns WR Amari Cooper would be a surprise inactive with a heel injury. As evidenced by last week’s game, this was a massive loss. You wouldn’t know it based on how the offense performed in the first half. Cleveland put up a whopping 34 first-half points against the vaunted Jets defense, with QB Joe Flacco on fire once again. He did throw another INT (a pick six), but that was just a fantastically athletic play by DE Jermaine Johnson (he read a screen, jumped as Flacco pumped, and then jumped again immediately to swat the ball and pick it off himself). Otherwise, he was fantastic for 2 quarters.
He threw for just under 300 yards by halftime and had his 4th straight 300-yard outing by the end of the game. His arrival has rejuvenated TE David Njoku, who had 113 1st-quarter yards and 134 total on 6 catches. The running game got going behind RB Jerome Ford (12/64/1, 2/57/2 through the air), and the offensive line held up. Cleveland could’ve done more damage if they hadn’t gone on 4th and 4 at the NYJ 8 following an Israel Abanikanda fumble on special teams (WR Cedric Tillman didn’t finish his route). About the only thing that went wrong that half was a missed PAT by Riley Patterson, who can’t replace Dustin Hopkins.
The defense had a pick six of their own, and the Jets were the same old team on offense. Their 20 points were misleading; 7 came on Johnson’s pick six. RB Breece Hall (13/84, 9/41/1 receiving) was their best player once again, but he’s all they had. Neither team did anything but an FG each in the second half. Cleveland lost 2 fumbles and seemed to switch to cruise control rather than putting NYJ away. A better team could’ve taken advantage, so they need to be careful when they get to the playoffs, which they have now clinched. New York is on a death spiral, and it really seems like they’re more than a QB away this time around.
Flacco (19/29, 309 yards, 3 TDs), playing against the team that should’ve re-signed him when Aaron Rodgers went down, has Cleveland thinking of themselves as Super Bowl contenders. And why not? Nobody in the AFC is completely consistent, and the AFC North is still not out of the question. HC Kevin Stefanski, previously on the hot seat, now might win coach of the year. His work with 4 different starting QBs has been exceptional. He has won at least one game with all of them! Believeland is in season, and it’s because they were one QB away. The plot twist is that the needed QB was Flacco, not Deshaun Watson.
The QB Carousel Spins Wildly Once Again
It has been the year of the backup quarterback, but this week took things to a whole new level. Four new starters took the field for their teams, while a 5th, Washington’s Jacoby Brissett, was scratched with a hamstring injury just days after being handed the job. We’ll go through each of the other 4, see how they did, and evaluate where their teams stand at the position.
Our first starter was anointed by way of this week’s bombshell: the Broncos benched Russell Wilson. The team says it’s for performance reasons, but don’t be fooled; this is all about Wilson’s injury guarantee. For the second straight year, that meant Jarrett Stidham would be taking over for a team that benched its starter for financial reasons. Stidham (20/32, 224 yards, TD) was fine, but he didn’t do anything special. He simply didn’t screw anything up while the Chargers self-destructed in a 16-9 win. Denver was eliminated from playoff contention despite the victory, and they seem likely to reset the QB position in 2024.
The NY Giants switched from UDFA rookie Tommy DeVito to Tyrod Taylor midway through their loss against the Eagles. HC Brian Daboll announced that Taylor earned the start for this week. I believe this was the correct decision. Against the Rams, Taylor did throw an INT, but he opened up the offense. With no help from the run game (he led the team with 40 yards), Taylor went 27/42 for 319 yards and a TD. If not for a stupid decision to go for 2 when down 26-25 and a missed 54-yard FG, NYG might have won. Taylor should get the start in week 18. As far as 2024, Daniel Jones is the likely choice, but that doesn’t inspire confidence.
Jacksonville had the only QB change among our 4 that was not a coach’s decision. Trevor Lawrence was out with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. Thus, CJ Beathard started with the Jaguars needing to win. Similar to Stidham above, Beathard succeeded by not sabotaging his own team. The stats were pedestrian (17/24, 178 yards), and 4 drives stalled and became field goals. However, he may not have been asked to do more than that. Carolina couldn’t score a single point. Moving the ball and burning clock were the only necessary tasks. This might also be true against Tennessee next week, but JAX wants Lawrence back ASAP.
For Sunday Night Football, Vikings HC Kevin O’Connell turned to rookie 5th-round pick Jaren Hall. Deciding that both Joshua Dobbs and Nick Mullens were turnover machines (fair assessment), O’Connell thought that Hall could stabilize the offense. Oops. That move was an unmitigated disaster. In a game in which the Packers stupidly suspended CB Jaire Alexander, Minnesota’s offense was lifeless. Hall went 5/10 for 67 yards, throwing an INT off of TE Johnny Mundt‘s hands (it was a wayward throw though) and losing a fumble on a strip sacked. The game went so poorly that Hall was benched at halftime for Mullens.
I’d say that benching a rookie is bad for his long-term confidence, but the Vikings needed to win. If Green Bay beats Chicago next week, they go to the playoffs while Minnesota stays home. Mullens (13/22, 113 yards TD) did indeed provide a bit of a spark. I’m not sure how the Vikings would’ve fared had Mullens played the whole game, but I imagine they’d have done better than a 23-3 halftime deficit. The defense was a far bigger issue, but that’s irrelevant when you have QB issues. Minnesota badly needs to re-sign Kirk Cousins as soon as he’s healthy. You don’t know what you had until it’s gone, and Vikings fans understand that now.
Ravens and Niners Lock Down #1 Seeds, Cause Collateral Damage
In what could be called the battle for the AFC’s #1 seed, Miami wasn’t remotely competitive with Baltimore after the first quarter and change. A dropped TD by WR Tyreek Hill, forcing the Dolphins to settle for a field goal, foreshadowed the troubles to come. The offense didn’t have its best game sans RB Raheem Mostert and WR Jaylen Waddle, but the defense was the primary culprit. That unit allowed QB Lamar Jackson (18/21, 321 yards, 5 TDs, 35 rushing yards) to post a perfect passer rating and tighten his grip on the MVP race. RB Justice Hill topped 200 all-purpose yards, and receivers streaked free all game.
Adding injury to insult, Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa left with a shoulder injury but should be fine. CB Xavien Howard was carted off with a foot injury, and OLB Bradley Chubb likely tore his ACL. These injuries might doom Miami in the playoffs, but there are more immediate concerns at hand. Buffalo’s win set up a winner-take-all battle for the AFC East on Sunday Night Football during week 18. The winners gets the 2 seed, while the loser is stuck in the 6 seed. For Baltimore, this win wraps up the AFC North, the #1 seed, and a first-round bye. Jackson and the Ravens will likely go further than they ever have in the postseason.
Over in the NFC, San Francisco bounced back in a big way. That was especially true (and important) for QB Brock Purdy. Shaking off his 4-INT performance against Baltimore, Purdy looked much better this week. Yes, we’re talking about Washington’s putrid secondary. Still, they have a good defensive line, and any sort of positive showing was key after last week’s debacle. He went 22/28 for 230 yards and 2 TDs, playing the clean game everyone wanted to see. WR Brandon Aiyuk (7/114/1) was fully involved again, but SF hopes that the calf injury suffered by RB Christian McCaffrey is very minor.
The 49ers won that #1 seed because in addition to their win, the Eagles lost. That seemed almost impossible given that Philly was playing 3-12 Arizona at home. When Philly jumped out to a dominant 21-6 halftime lead, it felt even more extreme. As they have multiple times this season though, the Eagles fell asleep at the wheel. Arizona scored TDs on all 4 of their second-half drives. QB Kyler Murray (25/31, 232 yards, 3 TDs, INT) had his best performance since returning from injury, and RB James Conner (26/128/1, receiving TD) was also excellent. They clearly (and rightly) don’t care about that #1 pick, while Philadelphia remains overrated.
Bears Clinch #1 Pick Despite Big Win over Flailing Falcons
You know you’re having a good day when you win by 20 points…and still earn the #1 overall draft pick. That’s exactly what happened for the Chicago Bears. By virtue of Carolina’s shutout loss and Arizona’s shocking win (see above), the Panthers are guaranteed to finish with the league’s worst record. The Bears have Carolina’s pick due to last year’s Bryce Young trade. That swap has aged very poorly for the Panthers, but Chicago is enjoying every bit of it. Adding to Chicago’s holiday cheer, NFL Insider Ian Rapoport announced that the team will likely retain HC Matt Eberflus.
While the Bears were taking control of a high-stakes NFL draft, they were also crushing Atlanta. Clinging to faint playoff hopes that were subsequently extinguished by Sunday Night Football, the Bears didn’t trail once. They also made mincemeat out of Falcons QB Taylor Heinicke. Atlanta’s one-time QB2 went 10/29 for 163 yards, a TD, 46 rushing yards, a rushing TD, and 3 INTs. He looked as awful as those stats indicate and was replaced by Desmond Ridder. The one-time QB1 did no better and threw a pick of his own, the second of the day for CB Tyrique Stevenson.
Offensively, Chicago put up 37 points behind one of Justin Fields‘ best days. While the #1 pick may be used on his replacement, Fields tried to convince his team otherwise. For once he committed no turnovers while throwing for a TD and rushing for another. The best part of the Young trade is still DJ Moore (9/159/1), who is a legit WR1. RB Khalil Herbert (18/124/1) had a season-best day, as the offensive line moved Falcons all game. This team has improved all year, going 7-5 after an 0-4 start. That has likely saved Eberflus’ job. We’ll see if the strong finish is enough to save Fields’ tenure in Chicago as well.
Aggression, Hearing Doom Lions in Dallas
I wanted to touch on the Saturday night game because of the play you all probably heard about plus a bit more. This wasn’t the most exciting game by any stretch, but it did feature two teams with double-digit wins who could meet in the playoffs. Ultimately, Dallas got a 20-10 victory, but two specific plays changed this game for Detroit. Early on, trailing 7-3, the Lions faced 4th and goal at Dallas’s 4. Rather than taking the points, HC Dan Campbell rolled the dice. QB Jared Goff missed on a throw to TE Sam LaPorta, turning the ball over on downs. Hindsight is 20/20, but those 2 points seem really useful in a 1-point loss.
The other play was even crazier because technically, it worked. After scoring a TD with under 30 seconds left, Detroit could’ve tied the game with a PAT. Foolishly, they went for 2 instead. This aggressiveness is their identity, but it cost them once early in the game and would do so again. The play itself was great: LT Taylor Decker leaked out to the left and caught a pass in the end zone. You know how much I love catches by eligible linemen. However, after a discussion, referee Brad Allen announced that Decker was ineligible because he did not report. Thus, the conversion was wiped away, and a 5-yard penalty was enforced.
I present you the play in question. It certainly appears to me like Decker went over to the official to report. Allen simply didn’t hear him or didn’t bother to look his way and walked off. Decker said after the game that he did report, as did fellow lineman Dan Skipper. The official report produced after the game says that #70 (Skipper) declared himself eligible, but #68 (Decker) did not. Campbell was irate, and for good reason. Allen refused to take any accountability for the situation, and by all accounts, Detroit ran that play by the book. I’d say this outright cost the Lions this game, but more insanity followed.
The penalty didn’t convince Detroit to kick. Going for 2 again, Goff threw an INT, but it was a free play as Cowboys LB Micah Parsons was offsides. STILL undeterred, Detroit tried one more time, but the pass fell incomplete, and Dallas won. Why wouldn’t you kick the PAT during any of these gifted extra chances or even BEFORE them? A PAT would’ve tied the game at 20 after all. This game could have huge ramifications. Detroit will likely be the 3 seed instead of the 2 seed. Dallas is now in control of that 2 seed following Philadelphia’s loss. Poor hearing, bad officiating, and overaggressive coaching changed the entire playoff picture.