If Week 15 is any indication, the stretch run of the NFL season promises to be filled with drama and intrigue to a level we haven’t seen in the recent history of the league.
A Mr. Irrelevant came through big time against his former squad, keeping his current team in first place. In this, said player proved himself to be more than relevant.
Speaking of relevancy, Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler failed to prove that he had an ounce of that in his body. The $72 million free-agent bust was benched in favor of Tom Savage, only to see the latter lead his team back against a hapless Jacksonville Jaguars squad.
Meanwhile, two of the most-surprising teams in recent league history continued to be the stories around the NFL. In San Diego, the Oakland Raiders clinched their first playoff appearance since 2002. And with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dallas Cowboys inched closer to home-field advantage in the NFC.
These are among the top-10 takeaways from Sunday’s Week 15 NFL action.
1. Texans bench Brock Osweiler
This has to lead off pretty much every list focusing on Week 15 of the NFL season. Think about this for a second. Mere months after handing out a $72 million contract to Brock Osweiler, the Houston Texans had to turn to former mid-round pick Tom Savage. They did so while in the midst of a playoff run. They did so with fans in Houston cheering the benching of Osweiler himself.
This came after the high-priced free-agent signing threw two horrible first-half interceptions. That brought Osweiler’s 14-game total to 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Talk about ugly.
In the end, Savage performed at a much higher clip than his expensive counterpart, completing 23-of-36 passes for 260 yards in a 21-20 win over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
With Houston still in the midst of a playoff race, it will be interesting to see what the team does moving forward. As of right now, the team refused to commit to Savage for next week — a decision that seems more than likely at this point.
Though, this seems to be a bigger issue over the long term. Osweiler’s deal includes $37 million in guaranteed cash, meaning he’s on the books for $19 million with a $25 million dead cap hit in 2017. Needless to say, fans in Houston may have to deal with this well beyond the 2016 season. Maybe their reward will be Savage leading the team to the playoffs.
2. Raiders clinch first playoff appearance since 2002
The Oakland Raiders are 11-3 on the season and have clinched their first playoff appearance since the early years of the George W. Bush Administration. For fans in Oakland, this has been a long time coming. We’re talking about an organization that’s on its 10th head coach since its last postseason appearance. During that span, the Raiders failed to finish above .500 in any one season prior to this year.
The historical significance of the Raiders clinching aside, Sunday turned out extremely well for Jack Del Rio’s squad. When its “home game” against the Chargers in San Diego kicked off Sunday afternoon, Oakland knew that the Kansas City Chiefs had blown a late-game lead at home to Tennessee. While the Raiders could have clinched a playoff regardless of the outcome fo the Chiefs’ game, they now have the inside slant for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
See. We’re no longer simply talking about the upstart Raiders as a potential playoff team. Maybe something to build on for future season. Instead, it’s imperative to turn the conversation to conference championship contention. That’s how far this team has come in such a short period.
Sunday’s win over San Diego wasn’t pretty. The Raiders found themselves down 16-13 late in the fourth quarter before Derek Carr led the team to yet another comeback win. The first score came after San Diego fumbled deep in its own end, leading to a Raiders field goal. Following a Charger punt, Carr would then drive the team down for a go-ahead field goal before Oakland’s defense held the Chargers to end the game.
Much like what we saw with New England and Green Bay, it was a gutsy win for the Raiders. Nothing terrible impressive. Just getting the job done in an all-important December game with wide-ranging playoff implications. Now with wins over Indianapolis and Denver to close the season, Oakland would finish as a top-two seed in the AFC. That’s just bonkers.
3. Jaguars still can’t get it right
The Jacksonville Jaguars fired head coach Gus Bradley following their ninth consecutive loss. It makes perfect sense. Jacksonville has been an utter disaster under Bradley this season. And finding a way to lose to the Houston Texans in the manner that we saw Sunday added to this even more. In reality, the Jags were likely set to fire Bradley shortly after their Week 17 game. So why wait? Again, it made perfect sense.
Unfortunately, even in the process of doing something most NFL observers agree 100 percent with, the Jaguars still found a way to drop the ball. Shortly after they announced the firing of Bradley, reports surfaced that certain Jaguars players found out about the move through the media (more on that here).
That’s absolutely disgusting. Doesn’t the brass in Jacksonville owe it to the players to let them know beforehand? Maybe, a way of showing that the brass itself respects the players enough to give them a heads up. Apparently not.
Then, as news broke about this questionable situation, another report surfaced that the Jaguars were actually having the fired Bradley fly back with the team from Houston to Jacksonville.
Fired HC Gus Bradley is flying back to Jacksonville with the Jaguars.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 18, 2016
Wait, what? That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. Teams tend to either wait until they’ve landed at their home base or charter another flight for members of the organization that were fired. Again, that didn’t happen here.
To make matters even more mind-numbing, the Jaguars are reportedly going to rely on general manager David Caldwell to lead the search for the new head coach. That’s backwards in more ways than one. First off, any coach worth a hill of beans would likely want to bring in his own general manager. Secondly, isn’t Caldwell somewhat to blame for the lack of progression we saw from the Jaguars under Bradley?
There’s a reason why you have the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers of the world. They know how to do things. They know how this business works. And while they are cutthroat at times, it all works within the landscape of what they’re doing. Jacksonville seems to be doing this on the fly without any front office model. And we wonder why this team has won a grand total of 16 games since the start of the 2012 season.
4. Giants defense continues to come up big
A week after holding the high-powered Dallas Cowboys to a grand total of seven points, the surging New York Giants were right back at it against another top-end team on Sunday. Not to be outdone, New York’s defense stepped up big time in a 17-6 win over the Detroit Lions.
When the clock struck zero on Sunday afternoon in New Jersey, the Lions had racked up 324 total yards of offense and two lonely field goals in the team’s first loss since late October.
Matthew Stafford completed 24-of-39 passes for 273 yards without a touchdown. It’s just the third time this season that the MVP candidate has failed to score a touchdown. Meanwhile, on the back end of the Giants’ defense, safety Landon Collins continued his All Pro level play. He recorded eight tackles (seven solo) while breaking up two passes in the process.
It’s an interesting turn for the Giants, who had in the past relied on elite-level play on offense to mask one of the league’s most inept defenses. Now, at 10-4 on the season, the Giants are yielding less than 18 points per game. In fact, they have given up 16 points or less in four of the past five games.
On the other hand, the offense continues to sputter. Despite winning their past two games, the Giants are averaging just 11.5 points per. If Eli Manning and Co. ever get it together, this team will be a force come playoff time. As it is, Sunday’s performance enables the Giants to remain in the NFC East race while inching closer to the top wild card spot in the conference. That didn’t seem too realistic after the team lost three of its first five.
5. Titans shock the Chiefs at Arrowhead
Everything seemed to be working in the Kansas City Chiefs’ favor. They were playing at home in front of a fired-up fan base at Arrowhead. The team had just handed the Oakland Raiders their third loss of the season. If Andy Reid’s squad had found a way to win out, it would be AFC West champions.
The backdrop here was the weather, which showed itself to be two degrees with negative-nine windchill. How would west coast boy Marcus Mariota and his Tennessee Titans handle these conditions?
Early on, it looked like the Titans were going to find themselves frozen in the Missouri winter. In the process, their playoff hopes looked to be crashing down to earth quicker than a drunk Rudolph sledding his way through the sky.
It didn’t happen.
Down 17-7 heading into the final stanza, Tennessee mounted a comeback of epic proportions. It started with an unassuming field goal to pull the game to within seven, giving the Titans a chance. Then, following Chiefs punt, Mariota would lead his squad on a 12-play, touchdown-scoring drive to seemingly set up for the game-tying extra point with 3:12 remaining in the fourth.
It’s in this that the Titans pulled some malarkey. In an attempt to win the game outright there, Tennessee decided to go for two. It failed, and with it, the Titans chances for a comeback looked to be dead in the frozen air.
That’s until the Titans’ defense again showed up, holding the Chiefs to yet another three-and-out. Now, with just over one minute remaining in the game, Mariota and Co. needed to find a way to get into field goal range.
The second-year quarterback proceeded to lead the team down the field to the Chiefs 35-yard line, setting up a potential game-winning field goal for Mr. Irrelvant, Ryan Succop.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) December 18, 2016
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they decided to ice their former kicker on that attempt, a kick that missed the uprights. Then, Succop proved himself to be more than relevant, pushing through the game-winning field goal and giving the Titans an unexpected win (watch here).
The playoff ramifications of this win cannot be overstated. By virtue of the Chiefs’ loss and their win, the Raiders now find themselves in first place in the AFC West and with a clear shot to earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Meanwhile, Tennessee remained one game ahead of Indianapolis in the AFC South while maintaining a first-place tie with the Houston Texans. Whew.
6. Patriots grind out much-needed win
Tom Brady started slowly, missing on his first six passes. The New England Patriots put up their second-lowest point total of the season. It most definitely wasn’t the beautiful offensive performance we’ve seen define this team over the past 15-plus years. Though, the Patriots did what they needed to do in order to remain the top seed in the AFC heading into Week 16.
It primarily had to do with the team’s aggressive defensive scheme. In stacking the box against a Denver Broncos offense that’s become inept from a passing standpoint, New England held the defending champs to 58 yards on 17 attempts. And once it became clear Denver couldn’t do anything on the ground, the Pats dialed up the pressure against Trevor Siemian, sacking him four times in the game.
The 16-3 win won’t look beautiful in comparison to what we’ve seen from New England this season. But it truly does paint a picture of a complete team. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s scheme and the team’s ability to execute it is what stands out the most here. And in reality, that should scare the collective crap out of the likes of the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs heading into January.
7. The Minnesota Vikings embarrass themselves
It’s hard to imagine a team heading into a must-win game and performing the way Minnesota did on Sunday. Really, this is a black mark on the entire organization.
In a game that saw future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson return from injury, many expected the Vikings to play with a sense of purpose. After all, they were getting their best player back in the mix and were just one game out of the final wild card spot in the NFC.
None of this happened. Instead, the Vikings continued to get in their own way during what ended up being a humiliating 34-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Sam Bradford was absolutely horrendous, turning the ball over two times while failing to lead the Vikings to a single touchdown in the game. Meanwhile, Peterson, showing the rust most of us expected to see, ran the ball six times for 22 yards while losing a fumble himself.
As bad as the Vikings’ offense might have been in this one, it’s the team’s previously elite-level defense that failed to show up. This unit yielded 27 points and a ridiculous 292 yards in the first half alone. With the offense failing to do anything of substance, the game was already over by the time these two teams headed to the locker room at halftime.
All this in front of the Vikings’ home fans and against a Colts team that really hasn’t performed well all season.
Now at 7-7 on the season, Minnesota finds its playoff hopes hanging on by a thread. And in truth, it just didn’t look like a playoff team on Sunday. That’s the harsh reality of the situation. It also tells us a story of a Vikings squad that’s seen the bottom fall out following a 5-0 start to the season.
8. Playoff picture clears up a tad
There’s still a lot left up in the air for both conferences, but a ton of settled to a certain extent during this weekend’s NFL action. By virtue of their win over the lowly New York Jets on Saturday and Denver’s loss to New England, the Miami Dolphins boast the sixth seed in the AFC.
If they were to win out with Matt Moore likely remaining under center, the Dolphins will earn their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. For a team that started out 1-4, this is an amazing accomplishment under first-year head coach Adam Gase.
A bit further down on the totem pole, Baltimore, Tennessee and Denver are one game behind Miami at 8-6. Though, Tennessee remains in a tie with the Houston Texans for the top spot in the AFC South. At 8-6 on the season, Denver is eliminated from contention in the AFC West.
Speaking of the west, the Raiders can now clinch a top-two seed and the division crown with wins in their final two games. Under that scenario, Kansas City would be relegated to the fifth seed and a likely matchup with a winner of the AFC South in the wild card round.
Interestingly enough, there’s still a scenario in play here that would enable Oakland to capture home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That would require Jack Del Rio’ squad to win out and the Patriots to lose one of their final two games.
All said, only five teams in the AFC are eliminated from playoff contention. Adding to the intrigue here, every division outside of the AFC East appears to be ripe for the taking with as many as six teams battling for the final wild card spot.
The NFC is less convoluted.
The Seattle Seahawks are the only team to have clinched their division. That came by virtue of their win over the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday night. The NFC North just got a tad more interesting with both Detroit and Minnesota losing on the same day that Green Bay held off the Bears. Simply put, if the Packers win out, they will capture that division.
Back east (if you want to call it that), Dallas still has the upper-hand on the streaking Giants. They are two games up with two games remaining. This means one win in their final two outings or a Giants loss would give the NFC East to the Cowboys. A division crown would also give Dallas home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, setting into motion a battle for the No. 2 seed between the Seattle and the winner of both the NFC North and NFC South.
Over in the south, Atlanta boasts a one-game lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who themselves hold the No. 6 seed (depending on the outcome of Washington’s game Monday night).
Okay, so it’s not less convoluted. But we do know that seven teams are eliminated from playoff contention in the NFC. That enables us to narrow down the matchups of importance in the final two weeks of the season. Also important to note, New York is pretty much locked in as the fifth seed should it not win the NFC East.
9. Packers get out of a dodge with a win
Sunday was a good day for the Green Bay Packers. First off, they saw both the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings lose. At the same time, Aaron Rodgers and Co. hung in with a narrow 30-27 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. It didn’t come without drama. And it surely didn’t show the Packers in the best of lights. Either way, a December road win within the division is never a bad thing.
After opening up a 27-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter, Green Bay did its best to help Chicago get back in the game. Its defense allowed Matt Barkley to lead three consecutive scoring drives of 75-plus yards to tie the game up at 27 with 1:19 remaining in the final stanza.
Not until the Bears’ secondary completely forgot Jordy Nelson existed on a 60-yard pass with 31 seconds left could the Packers smell the sweet scent of victory after blowing it big time earlier in the fourth quarter (watch here). Mason Crosby then nailed a chip-shot field goal as time expired to give Green Bay the win.
It represented the Packers’ fourth consecutive win and now has the team just one game out in the NFC North with two left. Set to take on the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions in the final two games of the season, Mike McCarthy’s squad now controls its own destiny. That was unimaginable just a short month ago. And in reality, Aaron Rodgers’ MVP-caliber performance is one of the primary reasons why.
Though, Sunday’s win over Chicago gave us a glimpse of something completely different from this Packers squad.
156 of Ty Montgomery's 162 rushing yards today came after contact, and he forced seven missed tackles
— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) December 18, 2016
In addition to Montgomery’s career-best 162 rushing yards, Christine Michael added a 42-yard touchdown run. It’s this type of balance Green Bay wasn’t getting on offense before Sunday. If the Packers can see this on a more consistent basis moving forward, they will become incredibly dangerous.
In the end, the Packers did what they needed to do. The same can’t be said for Minnesota and Detroit. And that right there is the difference between the three organizations.
10. Young guns inch Cowboys closer to home field
The Dallas Cowboys entered Sunday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming off a disastrous offensive performance against the New York Giants. Last week’s 10-7 loss to their division rivals forced the Cowboys into the situation where they still had to worry about the NFC East.
And while that’s still the case following Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay, this squad is getting much closer to earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Much like we have seen throughout the season, it was the Cowboys’ young stars that stepped up big time. Taking on a Buccaneers defense that had dominated the likes of Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees over the past three weeks, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott put up the best performance in a rookie season that’s been defined by tremendous play from the youngster.
Prescott completed 32-of-36 passes for 279 yards while adding a score on the ground. His 89 percent completion mark is the second-best in the history of the NFL for a quarterback with 30-plus attempts.
Meanwhile, all-everything rookie Ezekiel Elliott added 159 rushing yards on 23 attempts, including this awesome touchdown run. In the end, Dallas came out on top over Jameis Winston’s squad by the score of 26-20.
With one win in their final two games, the Cowboys will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It’s been an amazing season for the young team, and Sunday’s win represented this to a T.