Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a largely running game-fueled Week 14 in the NFL, eight weeks shy of Super Bowl Sunday in Atlanta….
* Sorry, but the Patriots defense played it far too passively on the "Miracle in Miami,'' the 69-yard hook-and-ladder play the Dolphins executed to perfection to beat visiting New England 34-33 on the game's final snap. Miami (7-6) almost made that playground staple look easy, instead of the Stanford-band chaos that usually prevails on those kind of desperation plays. And putting tight end Rob Gronkowski in the very back of the defensive pass coverage might have worked well if the Dolphins threw a Hail Mary type of play, but Gronk looked more than mismatched as he was trying to play safety and decide what kind of angle to take on Miami's newest hero, running back Kenyan Drake.
All I kept thinking as Drake weaved his way through New England's defense for his 52 yards of the game-winning play was: None of this double-lateral razzle-dazzle would have mattered, or perhaps even happened, if Tom Brady throws the ball away on the final snap of the first half — rather than takes a brain-cramp of a sack with no timeouts remaining — thereby preserving time for a chip-shot Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Same goes for Gostkowski, who missed both an extra point and a 42-yard attempt, his shortest failure of the season. He entered Week 14 perfect on 37 point-after attempts this year.
The Patriots (9-4) losing a game in Miami is nothing new, of course. New England is now 1-5 in its last six trips to South Florida, and Brady is a puzzling 7-10 playing there in his career. But the painful way New England lost this one could linger a bit.
— The Patriots blocked two Dolphins punts, and still were beaten.
— Tom Brady threw for 358 yards and three scores, without an interception, and it wasn't enough against a Dolphins team that was 6-6 and playing without its best defender in injured cornerback Xavien Howard.
— New England's defense took a significant step back, allowing a season-worst 189 yards rushing to a Miami team that isn't really all that great on the ground.
— And after fighting back all day — the game featured nine lead changes — the Patriots held a five-point lead with seven seconds to play, but gave up the longest game-winning touchdown with no time remaining in regulation in the NFL's Super Bowl era, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Ouch. And we didn't even mention surrendering two rushing touchdowns, covering 60 yards, to former Patriots special teams standout Brandon Bolden on his only two carries of the first half. What a strange and surreal afternoon at Hard Rock Stadium it was for New England, which is now 3-4 on the road this season, its most losses outside of Foxboro since going 4-4 in 2013.
* That was a nothing less than a great escape for the Chiefs at home against Baltimore, with Kansas City twice converting on fourth down late in regulation to either keep its game-tying touchdown drive alive or cap it with the necessary score. But I'd be nervous about Tyreek Hill's injured heel, because that's an injury that can linger as the playoffs loom. Anything that robs Hill of any of his explosiveness is a cause for serious concern, because he's the matchup problem that other teams simply can't account for.
The Chiefs (11-2) clinched a playoff berth with their 27-24 overtime conquest of the visiting Ravens, their fifth in coach Andy Reid's sixth season. And with New England and Houston losing, Kansas City now leads both teams by two games in the fight for the AFC's top seed (New England owns the head-to-head tiebreaker). Not that the Chiefs' regular-season work is remotely done, however. They've got huge games at home against the Chargers (10-3) on Thursday night, and in Week 16 at Seattle, and Kansas City can't afford to let up with Los Angeles just one game behind in the AFC West.
But that was a very close call against Baltimore (7-6), and showed that a quality defense can give the Chiefs a long, tough day at the office. Kansas City scored a season-low 17 points in the first half, and its first points in the second half came in the final minute.
Another potential problem for the Chiefs headed down the stretch? Kicker Harrison Butker endured the first two-miss game of his career, failing from 51 yards earlier, and then 43 yards on a potential game-winner on the final play of regulation. He atoned for that wide-right effort, converting from 36 yards in overtime to give Kansas City its decisive points, but he may not always get such a reprieve in the playoffs.
When they needed him to come through, Chiefs second-year phenom quarterback Patrick Mahomes was unreal once again. Under heavy pressure from the Ravens pass rush, he made several dazzling plays, none bigger than the on-the-run 48-yard completion to Hill on 4th-and-9 with the game on the line. Mahomes finished with 377 yards and took another step toward perhaps winning the league's MVP award.
* Baltimore gave Kansas City everything it had, and this one is going to hurt because the upset was almost in the Ravens' grasp. At 7-6, John Harbaugh's team is still clinging to the AFC's No. 6 seed, even though Miami, Tennessee and Indianapolis all won in Week 14, improving to 7-6 as well.
Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson again had a productive day, running for a team-high 71 yards as Baltimore rumbled for 198 overall on the ground, and throwing for 147 yards and two touchdowns. But his ball security issues are becoming pronounced. Jackson fumbled late in regulation when strip-sacked by Justin Houston, and although that mistake didn't wind up costing Baltimore the game, it could have had Butker converted from 43 yards for Kansas City.
Jackson has fumbled eight times this season, six since he took over the starting job from the injured Joe Flacco four games ago. He's got to be more situationally aware of the pass rush and making sure he holds onto the ball, and maybe Sunday's lesson will be on the one that sinks in. Jackson was injured and on the sideline for the game's final two plays in overtime, and honesty compels me to admit Ravens receiver Willie Snead likely was interfered with by Kansas City on the desperation 4th-and-22 pass thrown by Baltimore backup passer Robert Griffin III. But I'm also not surprised the refs swallowed their whistles on that pivotal play.
* If the Colts somehow make the AFC playoff field, their impressive 24-21 win at Houston on Sunday might be the game that defines their season. And they can thank Andrew Luck for that. Indianapolis snapped the Texans' NFL-high nine-game winning streak, with Luck shaking off a very sluggish start to throw for 399 yards and two touchdowns — 385 of those yards in the final three quarters. He connected nine times with the unstoppable T.Y. Hilton for 199 yards.
Using an up-tempo offense to inject some life into the Colts starting in the second quarter, Luck got hot and led Indianapolis to 17 unanswered points in the second quarter, putting Houston down by double digits at halftime. The outcome makes you question anew how the Colts ever lost 6-0 at Jacksonville last week, but it also keeps Indy's playoff hopes very much alive, in the clump of 7-6 teams in the AFC wild-card chase.
The Texans (9-4) are still in good position to win their third division title in five seasons, but they missed an opportunity to put away the potent Colts and overtake No. 2 New England. Houston's nine-game winning streak started with an overtime win in Indianapolis in Week 4, and it ended with a home loss to the Colts in Week 14. But Houston maintained its grip on the No. 3 seed in the AFC, holding a two-game division lead with three weeks remaining.
* The Browns put the reeling Panthers out of their misery, handing Carolina its fifth consecutive defeat after that 6-2 start. The 26-20 Cleveland victory raises a very legitimate question about the Browns coaching search: Do they have the best candidate right under their noses in interim Gregg Williams?
Williams is building a pretty good case to be the full-time hire, if bottom line results matter most in Cleveland. The Browns are 3-2 since he took over, and that's already more wins than Hue Jackson generated in the season's first half. Jackson was fired with a 2-5-1 record, and just three wins to his credit in his tortured 2 1/2-season tenure in Cleveland (3-36-1).
The Browns (5-7-1) with three games left in the season already have clinched a winning home record this season (4-2-1), and they're 2-1-1 in AFC North games, with games against Cincinnati and at Baltimore still remaining. And under Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has mostly thrived. Mayfield had a superb day against the Panthers, completing 18 of 22 passes for 238 yards, with several drops, for a whopping average of 10.8 yards per attempt. His passer rating was 126.9, he threw no interceptions and had one touchdown, with completions of 51 yards for a score to Jarvis Landry and 66 yards to Breshad Perriman on Cleveland's first snap.
Some how the big-play Browns rolled up 348 yards of offense, but only recorded 12 first downs, with an average play of 7.7 yards. It was Mayfield's 10th career start, and he has at least one touchdown pass in every game, a feat matched only by Kurt Warner in 1999 and Brad Johnson over the course of 1996-97. If I'm Cleveland general manager John Dorsey, I'm taking Williams very seriously as a coaching candidate, because the Browns finally look like a legit NFL team under his guidance.
* That does it for the Panthers' playoff hopes, which were faint to begin with. Head coach Ron Rivera taking over the defensive play-calling this week didn't help, nor did his firing of two defensive coaches. The Browns still gashed them for key chunks of yardage and rallied to earn a fourth-quarter comeback win by scoring the game's final nine points.
With his Panthers at 6-7, with those five consecutive losses and two games still remaining against NFC South division champion New Orleans, Rivera is going to be hard-pressed to snap his streak of never having posted back-to-back winning records in his eight-year Carolina tenure.
The longer the Panthers' losing streak continues, the more it feels like change will definitely be on the way in Charlotte. Rivera may keep his job, but this is a team that needs some reconstruction, especially on defense. That charmed 15-1 Super Bowl season of 2015 suddenly feels very long ago.
* For a while there on Sunday, it seemed as if any minute now somebody was bound to file a missing persons report for the entire Saints offense. And you couldn't blame Sean Payton if he made that call. After last week's lackluster 13-10 Thursday night road loss to Dallas, New Orleans was again getting next to nothing accomplished, this time at Tampa Bay (5-8). The Saints trailed 14-3 in the third quarter, and were beyond lethargic, facing a second consecutive loss and perhaps doing some potential damage in their fight with the Rams for the NFC's top seed.
And then third-team quarterback/multi-purpose weapon Taysom Hill produced the first blocked punt of his career, and suddenly all was again right in Saints-ville. New Orleans (11-2) outscored the Bucs 25-0 the rest of the way and cruised to a 28-14 win to both lock up consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history, and calm the jangled nerves of Who Dat Nation.
Though Dree Brees threw another horrible interception on a short pass near the line of scrimmage, and later lost a fumble for his first two-turnover game of the season, New Orleans ended its six-quarter offensive malaise in resounding fashion and now finishes with two games against the slumping Panthers plus a home date with Pittsburgh. A first-round bye is all but clinched, and the top seed is still within reach for a Saints team that improved to 6-1 on the road.
* Whatever he was doing with his Sunday afternoon, Mike McCarthy probably wondered where that Packers offense has been all season? Green Bay (5-7-1) beat visiting Atlanta rather handily, 34-20, in the first game of the team's post-McCarthy coaching era, and it did seem weird to not see him on the sideline at Lambeau Field for the first time in almost 13 seasons. Aaron Rodgers was sharp against the outmatched Falcons (4-9), completing 21 of 32 for 196 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions to make interim coach Joe Philbin a first-time winner in Green Bay.
On another former Packers coaching note, Winston Moss might want to stop talking and tweeting for the time being. After being let go by Green Bay last week after insinuating via Twitter that the next Packers head coach needs to hold quarterback Aaron Rodgers as accountable as every other player, Moss did more self-inflicted damage on Sunday when he took to FOX and claimed Rodgers has been Green Bay's head coach for the past nine years. He said he was joking, but it didn't sound like strictly a laugh line to me. Keep talking, Winston, and you're going to get Moss-ed in a whole new way on the job front.
* Though admittedly injury-decimated, Washington isn't exactly going down in a blaze of glory, losing 40-16 at home Sunday to a Giants team playing without its superstar, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. It was a third consecutive NFC East loss for Jay Gruden's surrendering team, and fourth overall. Washington lost by eight points at Dallas, by 15 points at Philadelphia, and by 24 points to the Giants in their latest egg-laying.
Mark Sanchez was so helpless as Washington's third starting quarterback of the season that Gruden says the newly signed Josh Johnson will get the nod next week at Jacksonville. And what a barnburner that promises to be, featuring two teams that both started mailing it in in earnest in Week 14. Mid-December can make for some ugly matchups in the NFL, and you can't flex them all away.
Johnson relieved Sanchez in the third quarter when it was 40-0 New York, his first NFL action since 2013. He hasn't started a game since 2011, and that's what this once-promising season has come to in Washington. Four weeks ago, Washington was 6-3 and leading the NFC East. Now its 6-7 and playing out the string in embarrassing fashion.
The Giants for their part are playing hard and having fun, winning for the fourth time in five games. Saquon Barkley was superb against Washington, rumbling for 170 yards, 159 of them by halftime. But here's hoping New York (5-8) doesn't take the cheese and delude itself into thinking Eli Manning's three touchdown passes mean anything for 2019. It's time for the Giants to find its next franchise passer, and Manning's Week 14 highlights came against an opponent that has given up the ghost.
* You can put a bow on the NFC East for the Cowboys. They didn't clinch the division with their 29-23 overtime defeat of plucky Philadelphia in Jerry World, but they put it away all the same. Dallas (8-5) has won five in a row and leads Philadelphia and Washington (both 6-7) by two games with three to play, and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Eagles.
Remember when Dak Prescott couldn't seem to crack 200 yards passing in a game? He threw for a gaudy 455 against the defensive back-starved Eagles, a career high total in his three NFL seasons, offsetting his three turnovers. Once again, receiver Amari Cooper was the difference-maker for Dak, catching 10 passes for 217 yards, and three touchdowns. What a midseason acquisition Cooper has turned out to be, and it was his 15-yard touchdown catch of a deflected pass that settled matters in overtime.
So the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles are on life support and the Cowboys are on fire, on their way to their second NFC East title in three years, and third in five years. And once again, as it has been for every year from 2005 on, there will be no repeat champion in the NFC East.
* Does anybody in the AFC want to wrap up a playoff berth? At the start of Sunday, Kansas City, New England, Houston, Pittsburgh, the Chargers and Baltimore were the six AFC teams in the possession of playoff seeds. All but the Chiefs and Chargers lost in Week 14, and Kansas City needed overtime to get past the Ravens, while the Chargers struggled a bit to put away the punchless Bengals.
The worst loss by a contender was suffered by the Steelers, who fell 24-21 at Oakland, with the Raiders picking up just their third win of seasons. That's three losses in a row for Pittsburgh, and four shaky performances counting the win the Steelers squeaked out at Jacksonville.
The Steelers didn't pay for their upset defeat — just yet — because Baltimore (7-6) lost at Kansas City and remains a half-game behind Pittsburgh (7-5-1). But with the Steelers home next week against their nemesis, New England, and the Ravens home against Tampa Bay, a change atop the AFC North could happen in another seven days. For Pittsburgh, it's turning into another long December.
The Chargers (10-3) did prevail over visiting Cincinnati (5-8), even though at 26-21 it was closer than it probably should have been. It marks the franchise's first 10-win season since going 13-3 in 2009, and sets up next Thursday night's game in Kansas City (11-2) as a showdown for first place in the AFC West. The Chiefs have owned the Chargers in recent seasons and won in Los Angeles in Week 1. If Los Angeles is truly an AFC Super Bowl contender, this is the game to prove it.
* Okay, Sam Darnold. That was one to build on. The Jets won the first time since mid-October, rallying from deficits of 14-3 and 20-13 to clip the Bills 27-23, and I liked the resiliency I saw from the Jets highly-touted rookie quarterback. He faced all kinds of adversity — cold weather, four weeks of rust, a first-quarter foot injury, and limited play-makers around him — and still found a way to record the first fourth-quarter comeback win of his career.
The win hurts New York's draft standing, but helps Darnold's confidence. The Jets (4-9) had lost six in a row, and needed something positive to happen before this awful seasons ends. Darnold's strong fourth quarter against the Bills (4-9), who blew New York out in the Meadowlands in Week 10, was a much-needed salve. Darnold led two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and his improvisational seven-yard scoring strike to Robby Anderson that tied the game gave a hint of more magic to come. For now, Sunday will do.
* Just when you thought the Broncos might be relevant again after all, winning three in row to get to .500 and the fringe of wild-card contention, they lose in gut punch fashion. The two-win 49ers handled visiting Denver 20-14, behind the career-best game of tight end and playmaking machine George Kittle. The second-year veteran caught seven passes for 210 yards and a touchdown (all in the first half), and almost single-handedly did in the Broncos.
By winning, San Francisco (3-10) didn't even lose ground in the competition for the No 1 draft slot, because Oakland (3-10) won as well, upsetting Pittsburgh. But the Broncos weren't as fortunate, and their defeat means they were the only one of the four 6-6 AFC clubs to lose in Week 14. Tennessee, Indianapolis and Miami all won to get to 7-6, and Baltimore is 7-6 as well.
* Neither team was worth watching, but Detroit's 17-3 win at Arizona at least gets the Lions to the five-win mark in coach Matt Patricia's first season. The Cardinals (3-10) really weren't competitive at home against Detroit (5-8) after winning in the cold of Green Bay last week. Go figure. Last week said more about the Packers' demise than Arizona's fight.
At least there was one highlight to this game: the esteemed Larry Fitzgerald made his 1,282 career catch, passing Jerry Rice to record more receptions with one team than anyone in NFL history. The Cardinals veteran receiver just keeps rolling up the records.
* ESPN could do a whole 30 for 30 episode some day on that epic 99-yard Derrick Henry touchdown run against the Jaguars Thursday night, it took that long and had that much intrigue. What a stiff-arm clinic put on by the determined Titans running back on that run, and if one play ever summed up an entire game and the direction of both teams, that was it. Taking nothing away from Henry and his ridiculous team-record 238-yard, four-touchdown rushing game (on just 17 carries!!), Jacksonville's effort all game long was lacking to say the least. Hard to see how coach Doug Marrone survives the embarrassment of that 30-9 loss and this debacle of a season with the 4-9 last-place Jaguars, who almost won the AFC title game a little less than 11 months ago.
Marrone's underachieving team basically mailed it in against Tennessee and appears to be counting down the days until the season concludes and the misery ends. That doesn't speak well for the coaching leadership and the whole year in Jacksonville has been a series of mis-steps in how not to build on a breakthrough season of success. I wonder if Jacksonville football czar Tommy "Two Rings'' Coughlin will be tempted to descend from the front office and attempt to fix this mess himself as the Jaguars' coach? I wouldn't do it if I were Coughlin, who in 2019 will be eight years removed from leading his last playoff team with the Giants (2011) and four years past this most recent season on the sideline (2015).
The Jaguars need a re-boot, but I don't see Coughlin as the guy who can get the most out of this team's obvious talent. Didn't he struggle with getting the Giants to play up to their potential from 2012-2105, so why would the story be drastically different in his second go-round as Jacksonville's coach? Starting over for the Jaguars should mean a fresh face and a fresh voice leading the coaching staff.
* At 7-6, the Titans could find themselves in the AFC's No. 6 seed before all is said and done. And even if they remain at No. 9 for now, I'm starting to really like Tennessee's playoff chances, because it's in pretty good position to run the table and get in at 10-6. That would mark the first time since 2007-2008 the franchise logged consecutive playoff trips, and qualify as a successful first season for rookie head coach Mike Vrabel, whose club has been confounding and inconsistent for much of the year.
The Titans have some extra rest heading into their Week 15 game at the last-place Giants (5-8), then finish with back-to-back home games against quarterback-depleted Washington (6-7) and division rival Indianapolis (7-6). Tennessee is 5-1 at home this season, and while the Colts beat the Titans in Indianapolis in Week 11, if the Titans can hold serve in Week 17, that game might shape up as a winner-take-all showdown for the AFC's final postseason berth.
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
It's hard to believe it's been that long, but the Tennessee Titans were born 20 years ago this month, when team owner Bud Adams re-christened his two-year-old Tennessee Oilers the Titans as they prepared to move into their new stadium in Nashville in 1999. I suppose there's an entire generation of NFL fans now who either weren't around or don't remember much about the Oilers existence, but they were always a colorful team, if not always competitive. In a salute to Titans running back Derrick Henry and his ridiculous performance in Tennessee's 30-9 blowout of Jacksonville Thursday night in Nashville, we give you Oilers play-maker Ken Burrough, who rocked both the mutton-chop sideburns and the old No. 00 back in the day.
Burrough played 11 of his 12 NFL seasons for the Oilers (1971-81), catching more than 400 passes for 7,000-plus yards and making a pair of Pro Bowls. He was a key cog on the 1978 and 1979 Bum Phillips-coached Houston teams that went to consecutive AFC Championship games, losing each time at Pittsburgh, the eventual Super Bowl winner. Here's Burrough, wearing a sweatband on his right wrist and looking ready to roll on his 1972 Topps card. The Oilers that season were a hideous 1-13, and then followed it up by some how going 1-13 again in 1973 — no mean feat. But Phillips was hired by 1975 and better days ensued in Houston.