Playoff tickets were punched, a few others were rejected and the postseason picture clarified a bit during NFL Week 15.
The Oakland Raiders are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 after a hard-earned win in San Diego. The Minnesota Vikings likely played their way out of the playoffs in a stinker of a performance at home against the Indianapolis Colts. One AFC team is still alive for a divisional crown, thanks in large part because it benched the starting quarterback, of all things.
We’re tackling these stories and more as we highlight the biggest winners and losers from NFL Week 15.
Winner: How about them Titans?
The Tennessee Titans did not lead for one second of their game Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn’t until the clock ticked to zeroes in the fourth quarter that Ryan Succop’s 53-yard, game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights to give them a 19-17 win (watch here).
Thanks to another ridiculous play by Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill early in the first quarter (watch here), the Titans found themselves in an early hole.
Still down 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Marcus Mariota engineered a fantastic 12-play drive that resulted in a touchdown with just under four minutes left in the game. Head coach Mike Mularkey got gutsy, calling for an offensive play on 4th-and-5 down at Kansas City’s 16-yard line. Mariota dropped a dime to DeMarco Murray down near the goal line. After Derrick Henry punched in the one-yard touchdown, Mularkey felt the need to go for bust again and called for a two-point conversion, which Tennessee failed to convert.
This gave the ball back to the Chiefs with a one-point lead late. However, Tennessee’s defense forced a three-and-out, giving the ball back to Mariota and Co. with 76 seconds left on the clock. Six plays later, Succop drilled the game-winning field goal — after Andy Reid gifted him a second chance on the old “icing the kicker” timeout that seems to backfire more often than not.
This gutsy win, hammered out on the frozen tundra of Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, kept Tennessee on pace with the Houston Texans atop the AFC South with two weeks left to play. The Titans will face Houston in Week 17 in what could be the game that decides the division.
Loser: Bengals melt down at worst possible time
The Cincinnati Bengals are a five-win team for good reason. And they are inexplicably horrid in the Marvin Lewis era at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Yet, all that seemed like it would disappear for at least one day. The Bengals took an early 17-3 lead and were up 20-9 at halftime, thanks to some dominating play in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Then the wheels came off.
Cincinnati’s offense disappeared in the second half, going punt, interception, punt, punt.
And as if that weren’t bad enough, the defense went limp, allowing four straight scoring drives. Pittsburgh chipped away at the lead with three field goals before finally breaking through with a touchdown midway through the quarter to win 24-20.
And just to put a cherry on top of this sundae of sadness, the biggest reason Pittsburgh was able to move down the field for the game-deciding touchdown is that Cincinnati incurred four penalties on four consecutive plays. These penalties gifted the Steelers 30 yards on the 69-play drive.
The Bengals are melting down. That's FOUR straight defensive penalties.
— Katherine Terrell (@Kat_Terrell) December 18, 2016
Now, the Steelers can be quite potent, so it’s not all that shocking that they came back from an early deficit. But the way in which the Bengals allowed it to happen is the reason they get the nod as one of our losers this week.
Winner: Texans bench Brock Osweiler, DeAndre Hopkins suddenly a factor
The Houston Texans paid a lot of money to bring Brock Osweiler to the franchise, so it’s understandable they wanted to see if somehow he’d improve as the season moved along. That said, it’s a shame it took them until Week 15 to finally bench him — something we said was bound to happen way back in Week 3.
It took two early, bad interceptions by Osweiler for head coach Bill O’Brien to finally pull his starter in favor of Tom Savage. Before being yanked off the stage, Osweiler had completed just 6-of-11 passes for 48 yards. And, as we’ve seen all year, had failed to get DeAndre Hopkins involved in the game.
Reason No. 1 for benching? Osweiler to Hopkins this season: 50.8 comp %, 4 TD, 9 INT, 49.2 rating. pic.twitter.com/ecQHmUkLcJ
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 18, 2016
As soon as Savage was inserted into the game, suddenly Houston’s offense came alive. The Texans, down 13-0 when Savage took over under center, ended up winning 21-20. And while Savage did not throw a touchdown, he did get the ball to his playmakers, Hopkins included.
A resurgent DeAndre Hopkins with Tom Savage throwing to him: eight catches, 87 yards on 15 targets
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) December 18, 2016
Last year, Hopkins had seven games in which he caught at least eight passes. His quarterbacks were Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden.
This season, Hopkins had caught at least eight passes just once before Sunday.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Kicker Nick Novak was a star, making all four of his field goal attempts, and running back Lamar Miller got into the end zone to provide the Texans with their only touchdown of the game. But the biggest reason Houston won is that Osweiler was on the sideline.
If the Texans are smart, they will bite the bullet and keep Osweiler on the bench the rest of the season. Including Sunday’s performance, he has now thrown 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions this year, completing under 60 percent of his passes.
One final note here: Jacksonville finally fired Gus Bradley after the Jags blew a big lead to the Texans Sunday. Just to show how dysfunctional that organization is, players had to ask media members if it was true after finding out via the media in the first place.
Loser: Inability to run has hamstrung the Broncos
Unless you have a top-tier quarterback, winning in the playoffs usually revolves around the running game and a strong defense. The Denver Broncos most certainly do not possess an elite passer, and now, when they need it the most, they can’t run the ball either.
It’s never a winning formula when you have young quarterbacks slinging the ball all over the yard. But thanks to an inability to pound the rock, Trevor Siemian threw the ball 40 times Sunday against the New England Patriots. The Broncos as a team rushed the ball just 17 times, gaining 58 yards.
This isn’t a one-time thing, either. Last weekend, the Broncos had nine rushing attempts for just 18 yards against the Tennessee Titans. Both the Patriots and Titans feature top run defenses, something that is commonplace among most playoff contenders.
Denver has now lost three of its last four and four of its last six games.
The Broncos can still defend the pass about as well as any team in the league. But they are struggling to shut down opponents’ running games and cannot run themselves. That’s exactly the wrong trend you want to see heading into the month of January.
With the loss Sunday, Denver is now the No. 9 seed in the AFC. The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens own tiebreakers with the same 8-6 record, and there really is no more room for error. The Broncos finish the season on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs and then at home against the Oakland Raiders, who have both already beaten them once this season.
Winner: Raiders punch playoff ticket for first time since 2002
The AFC West is still up for grabs with two games left to play. But the Oakland Raiders’ 19-16 win over the San Diego Chargers Sunday in Southern California ensured a playoff berth for the men in silver and black for the first time since 2002.
That year, Rich Gannon led the Raiders all the way to Super Bowl XXXVII, falling short to none other than Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since then, Raiders fans have endured 11 seasons out of 13 before this year in which their team lost more games than it won, the other two being 8-8 campaigns.
And now, after more than a decade of misery, it might feel a bit strange that Oakland is back.
— Nick Hjeltness (@NickHjeltness) December 19, 2016
Derek Carr, who’s been the catalyst for Oakland all year, was not sharp for the second game in a row. He did make some big plays down the stretch, but the Raiders’ offense revolved more around Latavius Murray and the running game, which averaged five yards per carry against a tough San Diego run defense.
Defense sealed it at the end, as safety Reggie Nelson picked off Philip Rivers, who has been awful late in games this year.
It’s fitting that, after so long away from the playoffs, the Raiders had to struggle so hard to clinch a berth with the win over the Chargers Sunday. San Diego did everything in its power to keep its rival from walking away victorious. In the end, however, another strong fourth quarter performance propelled the Raiders to a big win.
Loser: Jets continue to embarrass themselves
It’s been a season of disappointment for the New York Jets, yet they took things to another level in Week 15.
The Miami Dolphins, without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, went into MetLife Stadium and owned the building during their 34-13 win on Saturday night.
Moore had a field day against New York’s no-coverage defense, throwing four touchdowns (a career high). He was able to deal strikes even though Miami’s running game was shut down by the strong front seven of New York, a continuation of what has been happening all year long.
As bad as the Jets were defensively, what happened on offense takes the cake as far as embarrassing moments in Week 15. On the first play of the fourth quarter, New York’s offensive line forgot to block both Ndamukong Suh and Cam Wake — only two of the baddest pass rushers on the face of the earth. Petty got crushed between them as the literally met at the quarterback, forcing him out of the game for good (watch here).
Petty hadn’t been stellar before the hit, but he had some positive moments early in the game. He and Ryan Fitzpatrick finished with one touchdown, three interceptions and completed 25-of-46 passes for just 244 yards.
After the game, even more negativity emerged when it was revealed defensive end Sheldon Richardson had made a Snapchat video before the game in which he made it clear he had no desire to play, along with using a slur to ask where he could find women (more on that here).
Overall it was just a terrible weekend by New York, which has a lot of decisions to make in the offseason.
Winner: Dak Prescott puts on clinic, silences critics for at least one week
After a rough outing on the road against the New York Giants in Week 14, Dak Prescott no doubt heard all the critics who said it was finally time for Tony Romo to take over the offense of the Dallas Cowboys. Heck, he even made a commercial in which he addressed them (watch here).
While he’ll still have them, his critics had to stay silent at least for one week after Prescott was darn near flawless in the team’s 26-20 victory over the red hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Prescott finished with 279 yards on 32-of-36 passing. He didn’t throw a touchdown, but he didn’t throw an interception either and pitched in a rushing score. He distributed the ball to eight different players and connected with Dez Bryant eight times for 82 yards. It was the kind of performance that wins games in January.
On top of that, Ezekiel Elliott was unstoppable on the ground. He gained 159 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, further extending his league-leading rushing totals. Dallas’ defense also did an outstanding job getting pressure on Jameis Winston, sacking him four times and forcing three interceptions.
It was a team win that put to rest any talk that Romo should be starting for the Cowboys unless Prescott gets hurt. Dallas is right back on track after a tough loss to Big Blue on the road last week, and the big win on Sunday night had a lot to do with the play of the rookie quarterback out of Mississippi State.
Loser: Browns one step closer to infamy
Only two more games stand in the way of Cleveland joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to go 0-16.
Based on the way the Browns played Sunday in Buffalo, and based on the fact their final two opponents are the San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers, it seems safe to say they will finish without a single win.
Browns fans, and one fan in particular, are already counting on it to happen.
The Bills had their way with the hapless Browns, winning in blowout fashion, 33-13.
Showing absolutely no resistance on the defensive side of the ball, Cleveland allowed Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Co. to churn out 29 first downs and 451 total yards. And Buffalo’s defense, torched as of late, shut down the Browns’ offense for the most part.
If not for a courageous touchdown run by Robert Griffin III (watch here), the Browns would have lost by an even wider margin. The play of RG3 is really the only silver lining to take away from the game, and even his play was marginal aside from the rushing score.
Despite Hue Jackson’s assurances that the Browns will be competing in the playoffs next year, we’re convinced this franchise will continue to struggle for at least a couple more years. Hopefully in the meantime it can finally land a franchise passer and that it does let Jackson stay along for the ride.
Winner: Ty Montgomery channels Marshawn Lynch
On a cold day in Chicago, a day in which Aaron Rodgers didn’t throw a single touchdown, the Green Bay Packers were able to eke out a 30-27 win over the Chicago Bears. The biggest reason the Packers left with a win is that wide receiver Ty Montgomery channeled Marshawn Lynch and carried the offense to victory.
Thrust into the backfield as a running back due to injuries, Montgomery was a man possessed. He finished with 162 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries. He broke off runs of 61, 36 and 26 yards along the way, often carrying multiple defenders while doing so.
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2016
Chicago kept hanging around and tied the game up at 27-27 near the end of the fourth quarter.
Rodgers ended up making a huge play through the air to Jordy Nelson with time running out to set up the game-winning field goal (watch here). But there is no chance the Packers would have been in a position to win at the end without the outstanding play of Montgomery.
It remains to be seen if he’s going to be the answer for Green Bay down the stretch and into the playoffs, if they make it that far. But there can be no doubt he is the biggest reason they now control their own destiny in the NFC North with two games left to play.
Loser: Vikings lost at sea
What the heck happened to the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at home against the Indianapolis Colts? This did not look like a Mike Zimmer-coached team, to be sure.
Minnesota rolled over on defense, allowing Andrew Luck and Co. to have one of their best games all year in a 34-6 blowout win.
Luck, who came into Week 15 tied with Carson Palmer as the second-most sacked quarterback in the NFL (37), was hit just twice and did not take a single sack. He was a thrifty 21-of-28 passing for 250 with two touchdowns and no interceptions. In fact, the Colts didn’t turn the ball over once.
Frank Gore rushed for 101 yards, Robert Turbin added 32 yards and two touchdowns as Indy gained 160 yards on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Colts, who were among the worst in the league sacking opposing quarterbacks, had a field day against Minnesota’s pathetic offensive line. Sam Bradford was sacked five times and hit four more times. He threw an interception, lost a fumble and was sadly without any running support.
It was just an awful game all around for the entire Vikings team. The only positive is that Kai Forbath didn’t add to the misery by missing an easy field goal.
Making this so much worse is the simple fact that Minnesota really needed a win to keep pace with the other NFC teams vying for playoff spots. Instead of showing the fire you’d expect from a contender, the Vikings laid down in front of their home fans.