The Patriots modest winning streak came to an end in Houston, and the team's remote playoff chances likely ended as well.
The Patriots loss in Houston was disappointing for a number of reasons, first and foremost the fact that the Texans entered the game at 2-7 with both wins coming against the 1-win Jags. The loss also did considerable damage to any potential playoff push the Patriots might have managed to mount, dropping them to 4-6 and into 11th place in the AFC.
But the reality of the situation that may have been the most troubling is there was nothing fluky about the defeat. No mess of turnovers or dropped passes. No wild throws to open receivers in the end zone or blatantly missed calls that took points off the board. No missed field goals or PATs to change the complexion of the game.
Instead the 2-7 Texans displayed significantly better talent, especially on offense, and it showed throughout the day. Deshaun Watson was the best player on the field, and his receivers consistently got the better of the Patriots vaunted secondary, which to be honest has been quite ordinary for large stretches of the season. The Patriots often employ multiple defensive backs because that's the deepest and most talented area of the team. Yet, the Texans won matchups at all levels of the passing game, including tight end where Houston's trio of Jordan Akins, Darren Fells and Pharaoh Brown combined for nine catches and 134 yards.
The fact that the loss wasn't really an upset was sobering to say the least.
As for the playoff path, it was already on life support to begin with and the Week 11 results are a good indicator. The Patriots entered the weekend in the 10th slot, needing to leap past three teams that were two games ahead of them in order to get into contention. Three of those teams – Miami, Las Vegas and Baltimore – lost, which ostensibly created an opening the Patriots couldn't make their way through. But the reality is the math was still tough to ignore regardless.
When there are that many teams ahead of you, some are bound to be playing each other and that was the case Sunday. Baltimore and Tennessee matched up, meaning one had to win. Miami and Denver also played, and the Broncos win pushed them into a tie with the Patriots with the head-to-head tiebreaker in hand. Down the road there will be more such games involving teams ahead of New England, and chances are those will even out and keep the Patriots at bay.
In other words, short of winning out, the Patriots path to the playoffs appears closed.
Flores backtracks in Miami
Those of you who check out this column regularly know how I feel about Miami's decision to move quickly to Tua Tagovailoa. Brian Flores made a difficult choice, but it was the correct one in my view because it will allow the Dolphins to progress while their young quarterback gains valuable experience.
Then Flores decided to yank his young QB at the first sign of danger on Sunday in Denver. Trailing by 10 in the second half and having trouble generating offense, Flores put Ryan Fitzpatrick back in. He said Tagovailoa wasn't injured and that he was doing what he felt was best while getting into two-minute mode. Fitzpatrick did what he typically does – made some plays before tossing a game-clinching interception in the end zone as the Dolphins five-game winning streak came to an end.
Assuming Flores is being honest – and I have my doubts – I hated the move. The whole point of playing Tagovailoa is getting him the reps he needs to become a better player. That remains the case when things aren't going well too, perhaps even more so in those cases.
Watching from afar it certainly seemed that the rookie was having a hard time dealing with the Broncos pressure (he was sacked six times) and he looked like he was dealing with some discomfort in his leg. Whether that's related to the devastating hip injury he suffered last year is unclear. If Flores yanked him for health concerns, then that makes sense.
Otherwise, not so much. Few would argue that Fitzpatrick gives the team a better chance to win in the here and now. But even fewer would argue that Fitzpatrick is good enough to lead a team to postseason success. That was the whole point in making the move in the first place. Get Tua up to speed and allow him to develop with what appears to be a good, young team. Pulling the plug instead of letting him fight his way through some adversity sends a bad message.
Again, if Flores had some concerns with his health that's perfectly understandable. Only time will tell.
Mr. Smith wins in Washington
It was hard not to feel good for Alex Smith after he led Washington to a victory on Sunday against Cincinnati. It was his first since the tragic leg injury he suffered back in 2018 that nearly cost him his life. His arduous rehab that included multiple surgeries and complications was documented in ESPN's "Alex Smith: Project 11," which showed just how dire the circumstances were. To watch him return to the field at all is borderline miraculous, but seeing him have success makes it even more remarkable. Most people forget that Washington was actually playing well when Smith got hurt and completely fell apart in the year and a half without him. Playing in the pathetic NFC East, Smith will have a chance to get his 3-7 team atop the standings with a win in Dallas on Thanksgiving. Considering where Smith was a year ago at this time, just having that opportunity qualifies as noteworthy.
Zebras running wild
The game of day in Week 11 may have been the Packers-Colts showdown that turned into a Tale of Two Halves. Green Bay took advantage of Colts turnovers and a huge pass interference penalty late in the half to take a 28-14 lead at the break. Then the Packers started giving the ball away, Indy's defense turned it up a notch, and it appeared as if the Colts would take a 31-28 win. Then the officials got involved, and basically wrecked what had been a wildly entertaining contest.
Lots of twists in the last three minutes of this one to digest. It all started when Matt LaFleur made the decision to pass up a tying field goal attempt to go for a fourth-and-1 at the Indy 34. Aaron Rodgers' pass fell incomplete and Indy went to work melting the clock. Frank Reich wisely remained aggressive and Philip Rivers hit Marcus Johnson for 14 yards to start things. After a couple of defensive penalties provided another first down, things went off the rails. The Colts were called for holding five times over the next seven plays, which not only allowed Green Bay to get the ball back but they did so without having to use all three timeouts because the clock kept stopping.
In the middle of this mess, Reich passed up a punt from the Packers 36 and went for it on fourth-and-4. It was a brilliant decision that gets largely overlooked by the rest of the game's events. Coming out of the two-minute warning Green Bay still had two timeouts, so punting almost certainly would have led to overtime at best. Rodrigo Blankenship had already come up just short from 50 yards, so a 54-yarder wouldn't have made mush sense either.
So, Reich went for it and Rivers hit Nyheim Hines for 13 yards and a first down that should have all but ended the game. But the Colts were called for holding three more times, two coming on the same play, and eventually Reich was forced to punt anyway. Rodgers threw a bomb and easily got the Pack in field goal range, only to lose in overtime when Marquez Valdes-Scantling fumbled deep in Green Bay territory.
The frequency of the holding calls bordered on the theatre of the absurd. Replays showed some of the calls to be legit while others appeared to be borderline at best. With the game on the line it was tough to watch, especially with two quality teams with postseason aspirations going at it. At some point, the players are the reason we watch and they should be allowed to decide the outcome. Blatant calls need to be made, but holding literally on every down was tough to digest.
Despite the Steelers remaining unbeaten, there's a change at the top of this week's power rankings. And we invite two new guests into the rankings.
- Kansas City (9-1, 2nd last week) – Patrick Mahomes' ability to make plays in a variety of ways gives the Chiefs a chance every week.
- Pittsburgh (10-0, 1st last week) – The Steelers notched another easy win, although it didn't appear to be as easy as the final score indicated. Still a very formidable team but Pittsburgh doesn't seem as dangerous as KC at this point.
- New Orleans (8-2, 3rd last week) – Impressive performance by the Saints with Taysom Hill doing just enough and the Saints defense continuing to dominate.
- Indianapolis (7-3, unranked last week) – Colts defense is rock solid, and when Philip Rivers protects the ball Indy is tough to beat.
- Buffalo (7-3, unranked last week) – Buffalo joins Indy as first-time guests in the Power 5. Josh Allen continues to make strides and the Bills should benefit from the bye week and get some defenders back on the field. Now it's time to prove their ready to be favorites.