Week 14 of the NFL season presented teams with an opportunity to prove their worth among top contenders heading into the stretch run. While some of these teams failed miserably, others stepped up when it counted the most.
Relying primarily on a ball-hawking defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers maintained their status as a legit playoff contender while sending the New Orleans Saints to irrelevance.
Over in the AFC, the Tennessee Titans’ defense stepped up in a game that saw Marcus Mariota struggle to do anything. The end result here was another Titans victory, one that pushes them closer to a surprise spot in the playoffs.
While these two young quarterbacks are leading their squads to surprising success, other veterans continue to struggle. We mentioned Brees above, but it must be noted that both Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson put up disastrous performances in games their respective teams needed to win.
These are among the top-10 takeaways from Sunday’s Week 14 NFL action.
1. Broncos fall back against Titans
Despite a horrible performance from Marcus Mariota, the Tennessee Titans were able to keep pace with the Houston Texans in the AFC South. It came in the form of an ugly 13-10 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
Tennessee opened up an early 10-0 lead in the first quarter and was able to hold off a Denver comeback throughout the remainder of the game. Mariota struggled to get anything going through the air, completing 6-of-20 passes for 88 yards. Though, Tennessee’s rushing attack absolutely dominated a good Broncos defense to the tune of 180 yards on 42 attempts.
Despite Mariota’s struggles, his team was able to hold the Broncos’ offense in check. First-year starter Trevor Siemian was forced to put the ball up 51 times with Denver’s rushing attack showing itself to be non-existent.
By virtue of this win, Tennessee is tied with the Houston Texans at the top of the AFC South with a 7-6 mark. It is also just one game behind Denver for the final wild card spot in the conference.
As it relates to the Broncos, they’re now two games back in the AFC West with three left. This means that their likeliest path to the playoffs is through the wild card. Even then, Denver finds itself tied with the Miami Dolphins at 8-5 while losing the tiebreaker to the 7-6 Titans.
2. Ryan Tannehill’s injury throws wrench into Dolphins playoff hopes
The Miami Dolphins were having themselves a splendid day in the rain on Sunday. They held the lead over the Arizona Cardinals for most of the game, thanks in large part due to the performance of Tannehill. After all, the much-maligned signal caller finished his day completing 15-of-20 passes for 195 yards with three touchdowns in what ended up being a 26-23 win.
This was most definitely good news for Miami, who now finds itself tied with the Denver Broncos for the final wild card spot in the AFC. That’s the only good news the team received.
Tannehill, who is playing the best football of his career, reportedly suffered a torn ACL in the third quarter of the game and is out for the remainder of the season (more on that here).
Veteran backup Matt More will take over for Miami. In reality, he’s likely one of the top backups in the NFL. It’s in this that there’s no real reason to believe the Dolphins are out of the equation in the AFC.
With road games coming up against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills before they close out the season at home against New England, the Dolphins are still very much alive. Though, the next two weeks will definitely be telling.
3. Le’Veon Bell absolutely dominates hapless Bills
If Bell hadn’t been suspended for the first three games of the season, he’d currently be on a record pace. The do-everything running back just put up an astounding 298 yards on 42 touches en route to scoring three touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. This helped Pittsburgh overcome three interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger to win the game, 27-20.
It was a much-needed win for Pittsburgh, which now awaits the outcome of the Baltimore Ravens’ Monday night game against the New England Patriots to see if it will be alone in first place in the AFC North when Week 15 comes calling.
Bell’s performance adds to what has been an absolutely dominating season for the Pro Bowl running back.
Le'Veon Bell in 10 games this season. 1,616 total yards. On pace for 2,100 total yards in 13 games. pic.twitter.com/QOLZrZ1ZXA
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 11, 2016
In addition to this, Bell is averaging a whopping 29 touches per game. Needless to say, Pittsburgh is relying more on its running back than it is a future Hall of Fame quarterback. That’s an amazing realization considering the weapons Pittsburgh’s passing attack features.
4. The Los Angeles Rams are just brutal
Los Angelenos deserve better than this. They’ve waited over 20 years for professional football and are now watching an NFL team barely act the part. Sunday’s humiliating 41-14 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons was just another example of this. The Rams’ first 10 offensive possessions in this one were about as bad as it gets for an NFL team. No, seriously.
Rams' first 10 possessions Sunday.
Fumble (TD) pic.twitter.com/WGjsIn68tQ
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 12, 2016
If the stink hasn’t worn off yet, get a load of this. The Falcons’ defense scored more points in this game (21) than the Rams have scored in all but three of their games this season. That’s just brutal.
What makes this even more disastrous for Rams fans in Southern California is the fact that it’s being done under a head coach in Jeff Fisher who just recently signed a two-year extension. Can owner Stan Kroenke possibly justify firing Fisher after showing him a ridiculous level of trust? We’re not too sure of this.
How bad is it? Second-year running back Todd Gurley called his team out after the game. In doing so, he put the offense on blast while pretty much indicating that some players simply aren’t showing up at this point in the season (more on that here).
We made the point last week that San Francisco and Cleveland might be the two worst teams in the NFL. That point still stands after both squads tanked again on Sunday. Though, it’s hard to imagine an organization as clueless as the Rams. That’s a travesty considering their fans have waited this long for an NFL team.
5. Mistake-filled outing costs Cardinals relevancy
Three turnovers in the first quarter, one by MVP candidate David Johnson. Despite this, the Arizona Cardinals had an opportunity to win the game against the aforementioned Dolphins.
This failed to come to fruition despite two fourth quarter touchdowns to even the game up. And when Dolphins kicker Andrew Franks nailed a chip-shot 21-yard game-winning field goal as time expired, we pretty much saw the Cardinals’ playoff hopes expire with it.
Carson Palmer was absolutely abysmal throughout the game, completing just 18-of-33 passes for 145 yards with two touchdowns and two untimely interceptions.
The veteran was also faced with a tremendous amount of pressure throughout the game. That’s definitely not a good combination, especially due to Palmer’s struggles with pressure in his face.
On the defensive end, Arizona was picked apart by an average quarterback. Ryan Tannehill completed 15-of-20 passes with three touchdowns before exiting the game to injury.
And in a sure sign of just how poorly Arizona’s previously stout defense played, Jarvis Landry made them look absolutely silly on this 71-yard pass-and-catch (watch here).
By virtue of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ win on Sunday, Arizona find itself three games back in the win column for the final wild card spot in the NFC. That doesn’t inspire too much confidence that this team’s season won’t end in the disappointing manner that it started.
6. Russell Wilson, Seahawks implode at Lambeau
Russell Wilson’s receivers sure didn’t help him out in this one, but the Super Bowl-winning quarterback was absolutely lost Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. Wilson threw a career-high five interceptions and led a Seahawks team that turned the ball over a whopping six times in a 38-10 blowout loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
How bad was it? These six turnovers led directly to 24 points for the Packers in what would end up being a four-touchdown whitewashing of the NFC West leaders.
What makes this so disturbing for Seattle is that it came on the same day the team could have wrapped up the division. It also came at the same time that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions all won. Now, heading into Week 15, Seattle finds itself behind Detroit for the No. 2 seed and just a half game up on Tampa and Atlanta for the third seed.
This is important for two reasons. Since their surprising win over the New England Patriots back in Week 10, the Seahawks have been an absolute disaster on the road. The team has scored a total of 15 points in its last two road dates with Wilson himself accounting for one touchdown and seven interceptions during that span.
Russell Wilson's last two road starts. 15 total points, 1 TD, 7 INT, 34.9 QB rating. pic.twitter.com/2RAekGlHLe
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 12, 2016
There’s not a level-headed person out there who should have confidence that Seattle can win a game away from CenturyLink in January. The good news for fans in the Pacific Northwest is that Seattle’s three remaining games come against losing squads in what has been an embarrassing NFC West this season.
7. Robert Griffin III fails to end Browns’ slide
The Cleveland Browns entered Sunday’s action four losses from becoming just the second team in NFL history to go winless during a 16-game regular season. It ended Sunday’s action 0-13 on the season and with renewed questions at the quarterback position. Imagine that.
There was some hope that RGIII, making his first start since Week 1, would provide the Browns with a shot in the arm. Unfortunately, the only thing that was shot by the end of Cleveland’s 20-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was any hope that he might be the savior.
RGIII was absolutely brutal in the 10-point loss, completing just 12-of-28 passes for 104 yards and an interception. At one point in the game, the much-maligned quarterback had completed 3-of-12 passes for just 24 yards. It was bad. Really bad.
Even with the San Francisco 49ers’ loss to the Jets on Sunday, Cleveland is practically guaranteed of receiving the first pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Add in the selection it will receive from the Philadelphia Eagles, and there’s no reason to believe the Browns won’t completely reboot at quarterback following the season. This, despite recent rumors that the team could target Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett with the first pick (more on that here).
Either way, any thought given to the idea that RGIII would somehow save the Browns from a historically bad 2016 season has been thrown out the window.
8. Huge win for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers
Winston wasn’t terribly good. In fact, Sunday represented the first time in either his college or professional career that Winston failed to account for a touchdown. Though, Winston was far more efficient than his NFC South counterpart, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
The second-year quarterback completed 16-of-26 passes for 184 yards without a touchdown or an interception. Meanwhile, Brees threw three more picks after tossing three interceptions in a loss to the Detroit Lions last week. And in reality, that was pretty much the difference in what ended up being a low-scoring 16-11 Buccaneers win.
What we’re seeing here is a young team rounding into shape and playing tremendous overall football. Not only did the Bucs’ defense pick Brees off three times, it held the Saints’ offense to 4-of-13 on third-down conversions. On the other hand, Tampa Bay’s offense avoided the turnover bug and was able to do just enough to pull out the win.
Now at 8-5 on the season, the Buccaneers find themselves tied with the New York Giants for the fifth seed in the NFC. And despite losing the tiebreaker, Winston and Co. are also tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the top spot in the NFC South.
9. Certain coaches nearing their termination
Reports surfaced early Sunday morning that the Buffalo Bills were likely to fire head coach Rex Ryan at some point soon. This shouldn’t be considered too much of a surprise. Even before the season started, Ryan was said to be on the hot seat.
Now, following Buffalo’s 28-20 loss to the Steelers on Sunday, it’s two games back in the AFC Wild Card race with just three remaining. While teams tend to wait until they’re officially eliminated to send coaches packing, the situation in Buffalo is different. Ryan is reportedly clashing heads with general manager Doug Whaley in a clear sign that things might not be salvageable there.
Also important to note that Buffalo has a coach on staff in Anthony Lynn who was considered for head coaching jobs this past offseason and just recently took over for the fired Greg Roman as the team’s offensive coordinator. Giving him a three-game test run might make sense.
We also know that Gus Bradley is as good as gone in Jacksonville. Following the Jaguars’ latest loss, their eighth consecutive, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see owner Shahid Khan give both Bradley and general manager David Caldwell their walking papers.
Jacksonville had playoff expectations heading into the season. Now at 2-11 on the year, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to keep Bradley around, especially if he’s going to be fired about 10 minutes after the final game anyway.
The same can pretty much be said for San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who also entered the season on the hot seat. San Diego failed to show up in a must-win game against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Philip Rivers threw three more interceptions. Melvin Gordon injured his hip. And in the end, San Diego fell by the score of 28-16. Now at 5-8 on the year, the Chargers are pretty much eliminated from playoff contention. Again, it wouldn’t be surprising to see McCoy get the axe here.
10. Mistake-prone Cowboys struggle on the road
One could say the Dallas Cowboys haven’t been playing their best football. They headed into Sunday’s action winners of 11 consecutive, but barely escaped the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings over the past two weeks. So it wouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to see the Cowboys lose to the division rival New York Giants on Sunday night.
This is exactly what happened after the young Cowboys put up a mistake-filled performance in a game that could have clinched them the division title. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott threw two interceptions, matching his total from the first 12 games of the season. Meanwhile, a terrible fumble by Dez Bryant late in the game cost Dallas dearly.
Outside of the turnovers, Dallas converted just 1-of-15 third-down opportunities. This came on the heels of Prescott and Co. struggling in that category last week against Minnesota.
While this might have been a bad overall performance for the Cowboys, they’re still in the driver’s seat for both the NFC East title and home-field advantage in the NFC Playoffs. Maybe the team needed a wake-up all. And that’s exactly what happened in a 13-10 loss to New York.
On the Giants’ end, this win was absolutely huge. They remain the top wild card team in the NFC and are two games ahead of Washington in the win column for the final playoff spot. A loss here would have stung big time for Eli Manning and Co.