Week 15: Let the battle(s) begin
Several races — playoff, MVP, No. 1 pick — took a few turns this week. That sets us up for an exciting final stretch of the season.
There was a lot of uncertainty heading into Week 15, largely due to Covid and injuries. Who would be playing? When would they be playing?
We know most of the answers to those questions now, even though we have two more days left of football this week. A lot of this current season, though, remains unsettled — in a good way. With only one playoff spot secured, we’re set up for a thrilling finish to the 2021 year.
This Sunday highlighted several of the best races happening in the NFL and heightened the drama in all of them. Let’s take a look at this week’s — and the rest of the season’s — most compelling battles.
The AFC North, where everyone is still alive
Here are the current AFC North standings, before the Browns (and whoever is available to play for them) take on the Raiders late Monday afternoon/early evening:
For the three squads that played on Sunday, their games were all decided by one monumental play.
The Bengals, despite totaling only 12 first downs, earned their third one-score win of the season. Early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos were on the precipice of taking the lead when Drew Lock — filling in for an injured Teddy Bridgewater (get well soon, Teddy!) — was stripped of the ball. Khalid Kareem picked up the fumble and ran, then was also stripped, but the refs ruled that he had been down by contact earlier:
The score remained 15-10, and the Bengals won by that exact margin and also took the lead in the division shortly after. That was thanks to the Ravens, who did what they always do and turned a double-digit deficit into a nail-biter at the end.
Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, starting for an injured Lamar Jackson, led the Ravens on two straight touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter. An extra point would’ve tied the game with less than a minute left, but John Harbaugh, for the second time in three weeks, decided to go for two. And for the second time in three weeks, the ball juuuuust missed Mark Andrews and Baltimore came up short.
The Ravens entered Sunday with only five healthy cornerbacks and lost another in the second quarter. They were facing Aaron Rodgers. It’s understandable why Harbaugh tried to win the game right then, but now the Ravens have lost three in a row, by a total of four points, and this was the hardest to swallow yet. Not only did they lose their spot atop the AFC North, but they’re currently outside of the playoff picture.
The Steelers are still hanging around too (how else are they going to guarantee Mike Tomlin another non-losing season?). For the third straight week, their matchup was decided in the fourth quarter and for the second time, they came out victorious. They had a little help from the Titans, who followed up their 13-3 first-half lead with a zero-score, three-turnover second half. Joe Haden sealed the game when he tackled Titans receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine on fourth down, just short of the first down marker, with 34 seconds left:
FiveThirtyEight still gives the Ravens the best chance of making the playoffs (54 percent), while the Bengals have the slight edge at winning the division (32 percent). No one is out of this race, though, and the AFC North could be the final division to crown its champion this season.
The NFC West, which should have three teams in the postseason
For the second week in a row, the Cardinals merely needed a win to clinch a playoff berth. They failed both times, this time after getting their butts handed to them by … the Lions?
The Cardinals simply didn’t show up in Detroit on Sunday, letting the Lions dictate the entire game just like almost no one predicted. As embarrassing as a double-digit loss to the Lions is, the Cardinals are still practically a lock to make the postseason (>99 percent, per FiveThirtyEight). However, Arizona’s chances of winning the NFC West keep dropping. Right now, they’re sitting at 65 percent, but that’s before the Rams’ game against the Seahawks on Tuesday. If the Rams win, the Cardinals’ odds will go down even further.
The Cardinals, who have lost four of their last seven, also have to deal with the possibility that they’ve once again peaked too soon. This year, their second-half slump shouldn’t cost them a playoff spot, but their uninspired play lately, DeAndre Hopkins’ injury, and a brutal schedule to close out the season (vs. Colts, at Cowboys, vs. Seahawks) suggest that things might not be getting any better.
If so, the Rams could be ready to take advantage. They already have a 96 percent chance of getting to the postseason. If they beat the Seahawks later this week, then those numbers will only improve, as will their odds of winning the division. The Rams also do not have an easy slate of opponents left and their final regular season contest, at home against the 49ers, could help determine both the NFC West champ and the NFC seeding.
The 49ers only have a 2 percent chance of taking home the division title, but their playoff odds have skyrocketed to 80 percent after their fifth win in the last six weeks. The 49ers made quick work of the Falcons on Sunday by doing what they’ve done for most of that stretch: lean on their defense, running game, and George Kittle. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk thinks they’re peaking at the perfect time, and he could be right. The Cardinals might have the better record and a better shot at the NFC West title, but the 49ers could be in better shape heading into January.
The No. 1 seeds, which keep changing hands
One week ago, the Cardinals held the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Six days later, they fell all the way down to the No. 4 seed. The Packers, the only team with 11 wins and the only team that’s officially punched its playoff ticket, are now in first place after they barely held on against the Ravens. The Bucs could’ve kept the pressure on Green Bay, but then they got shut out at home by the Saints, their seventh straight regular season loss to New Orleans.
That gave the Packers a one-game cushion, with the Cowboys, Bucs, and Cardinals right behind them. Of that group, only the Cardinals face stiff competition each remaining week of the season.
Three weeks ago, the Ravens were the No. 1 seed in the AFC. If the season ended today, though, they wouldn’t even be in the playoff field.
The Patriots just needed to win this week, and they’d maintain the top spot. When they lost on Saturday, the Titans could’ve slid in with a win. They blew a double-digit lead after turning the ball over four times to the Steelers. So now, the Chiefs, who have the longest winning streak in the NFL following their overtime win against the Chargers, are back in the driver’s seat in the AFC. They have the best odds at securing that coveted first-round bye, but the Patriots and Titans — who are a game back — can’t be counted out yet either.
The No. 1 draft pick, which finally changed hands
The Jaguars solved one major problem when they got rid of Urban Meyer a few days ago. Unfortunately for them, the Jags have many more problems than a coach who had no business trying his hand at the NFL.
For the second time this year, Jacksonville fell to the Texans by double digits. The Jags extended their losing streak to six games, the longest in the league. If there’s a silver lining, however, it’s that they are currently in line to land the No. 1 pick in the draft … again. Only seven teams in NFL history have ever picked first overall in back-to-back drafts.
The Jaguars, at 2-12, have the worst record in the league after the Lions pulled off what seemed like the impossible — unless you read our midseason predictions — and won their second game. Jared Goff’s continued dominance over the Cardinals helped Detroit improve its record to 2-11-1 and dropped it to No. 2 in the draft pecking order.
The Texans and Jets, who have three wins apiece, are penciled in at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, though all four of those teams still have a shot at the first pick.
If the Lions play like they did Sunday again, they could beat anyone, starting next week with the Falcons. Or they could lose out, starting next week with the Falcons. The Jaguars and Jets play each other next week. The Texans don’t have any more games left against the Jags, who make up 67 percent of their wins, and finish the season with opponents who are all in the playoff picture.
The battle for Kayvon Thibodeaux/Aidan Hutchinson could take a few more turns before the season ends.
The MVP race, which is no longer guaranteed to go to a quarterback
Tom Brady’s MVP candidacy took a hit this week when his team was shut out for only the third time in his career. Brady turned the ball over twice, averaged just 4.5 yards per throw, and posted a 18.5 QBR against the Saints. Kyler Murray also struggled in a shocking loss to the Lions.
Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes helped themselves. In his last four games, Rodgers has thrown at least two touchdowns and has had zero interceptions. Mahomes rallied the Chiefs back against the Chargers on Thursday, first to send the game to overtime and then to win it.
I’ve been skeptical all season about a running back’s chances of winning MVP. As we said last week, it seems like it’ll go to whichever NFC quarterback winds up with the No. 1 seed. But I also really, really don’t want Rodgers to repeat as MVP, so I’m officially joining Darius Leonard as a member of the JTT — the Jonathan Taylor Train.
The NFL’s leading rusher put up 170 rushing yards against the No. 2 defense in DVOA, just a few weeks after putting up 185 rushing yards against the No. 1 defense in DVOA. In the Colts’ last six games, Taylor has passed the century mark all but once — that one time was a loss to the Bucs in which we criticized Frank Reich for going away from Taylor.
On Saturday night, Taylor iced their win over the Patriots with a 67-yard touchdown run up the gut where he reached the fastest speed by a ballcarrier this season:
The Colts, who are the current No. 6 seed in the AFC, are not in the playoff conversation because of their quarterback. (Carson Wentz completed FIVE passes against the Pats.) They’re there because of Taylor, and they’ll likely make the postseason because of him.
Please, Jonathan Taylor, win this year’s MVP award. You seem nice and not into pseudoscience like Brady/Rodgers. — SH
Christian’s Shit List
All the things I hated in Week 15
1. The NFL’s COVID testing protocols
The NHL, facing a rise of positive COVID-19 tests thanks to the combination of winter weather and the omicron variant, announced players would be tested daily regardless of vaccination status in an effort to stop the spread through team facilities. The NFL and the NFLPA, facing a similar situation and a week that required postponements and Tuesday Night Football like it’s 2020 all over again … made testing optional for players who say they’re asymptomatic.
The league is placing a calculated bet that this latest variant will come with less severe effects than we’ve seen over the past 20 months of pandemic life. It’s also betting players who are asymptomatic carriers won’t be vectors to pass the virus on to any vulnerable people around them. It’s a decision that clearly puts the league first and fully adapts to the growing “the pandemic is over because I feel like it must be over by now, and if we simply ignore it everything will go away” attitude that’s come with nearly two years of completely changing the way we live our lives.
On the plus side, we’ve seen fewer cases of players truly devastated by the virus like Ryquell Armstead was last summer. We’re still, however, dealing with a great unknown at a time where caseloads are skyrocketing and hospitals are once again nearing capacity. The NFL decided not to err on the side of caution but to pretend like everything will be okay as long as its players are honest about their health and safety.
That’s the kind of attitude that allowed concussed players back into games for decades, just morphed into an entirely different crisis. NFL players may not suffer from the reduced testing, but the potential spread of the virus that comes from this new policy is very real. Our only hope is that players act responsibly and take this threat seriously.
I’m not super optimistic about it.
2. The Titans, who got beat on a day when the Steelers gained 168 total yards
Tennessee should have handled the Steelers in Week 15. The Titans took a 13-3 lead into halftime. Pittsburgh gained 104 yards of offense in the second half. This all should just be two massive pieces of the easiest jigsaw puzzle in the world.
BUT NO, THE TITANS HAD TO GO OUT THERE AND CALIBRATE THEIR NEW GUN BY FIRING IT DIRECTLY INTO THEIR OWN FEET.
Pittsburgh gained 40 total yards in its three post-turnover drives late in the second half and still came away with the nine points it needed to secure a 19-13 win. Ryan Tannehill, tasked with leading an offense without Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and, for most of Sunday’s game, Julio Jones, fumbled twice and threw an interception. He also threw a five-yard route on 4th-and-6 on the play that decided the game:
The Titans dropped their claim to the AFC’s top spot by virtue of losing to a team with a noodle-armed quarterback and a running back who gained 18 yards on 12 carries. My god, Derrick Henry can not get healthy fast enough for Tennessee.
3. The Dolphins, who are maybe playing well but mostly beating chumps
After starting the season 1-7, Miami is now a .500 football team. FiveThirtyEight gives the Dolphins a 15 percent shot at making the playoffs. It would be the most unlikely playoff team in league history.
A six-game win streak is a big deal in any context, but the Dolphins’ run has been … less than inspiring. To climb back to 7-7, they’ve beaten the:
3-11 Jets (twice)
That win over Baltimore is great, but the rest of that list is straight doodoo. It also makes Miami impossible to gauge. The Dolphins won 10 games in 2020, so is this just regression to last year’s talent level? Advanced stats loves their pass defense:
And paints Tua Tagovailoa as a low-usage, high-efficiency winning quarterback:
But the rest of the season shows Tagovailoa is prone to stupid decisions and bad interceptions. That defense got cracked for nearly 500 yards by the Raiders and nearly 400 by the Jaguars and Falcons.
So what the hell are the Dolphins, other than a potentially hilarious story about rising from the ashes of a 1-7 start to finish 10-7 and still miss the playoffs? I … genuinely do not know.
4. John Harbaugh’s gut
Harbaugh was playing with house money when Tyler Huntley — the second-string quarterback who wasn’t even invited to the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine — led back-to-back touchdown drives to pull Baltimore within one point of the Green Bay Packers with 42 seconds left in their Week 15 game. So he took that money and let it ride based on his guy feeling … in the most obvious way possible.
Harbaugh’s two-point conversion call — a scenario the Ravens have converted 28 percent of the time in 2021 — was a losing bet. The Packers knew the play was going to Mark Andrews, who’d been Huntley’s huckleberry in big situations all day. Huntley didn’t even look at any other potential destinations, but if he had, he would have found Hollywood Brown wide open in the end zone.
Instead, he forced the ball to his tight end. Darnell Savage, screaming toward Andrews at the very moment the ball was snapped, arrived just in time to get a fingertip on a mis-thrown ball to break up a potential game winning play:
Everything about the decision failed, and it was a poor gut call in the first place. Even if the Ravens had succeeded, they were still giving the ball back to Aaron Rodgers with 42 seconds to go, one timeout, and a “burn the boats” mentality. Without the safety net of overtime, Rodgers would have been aggressively launching passes downfield against a depleted Baltimore secondary. Harbaugh may have had better luck hoping for some coin toss luck and his streaking backup QB.
Ultimately, the backfire helped cost the Ravens their spot atop the AFC North, though they fared better than expected in a game where they were a six-point home underdog. Still, not coming away with a win after that stirring comeback stings. Getting that two-point conversion wouldn’t have guaranteed a victory, either — so why roll the dice when they’ve been loaded against you in this situation even with your former MVP quarterback in the lineup? — CD
Week 15 results, in five words or fewer
Texans 30, Jaguars 16
Bills 31, Panthers 14
Lions 30, Cardinals 12
Dolphins 31, Jets 24
Cowboys 21, Giants 6
Steelers 19, Titans 13
Bengals 15, Broncos 10
49ers 31, Falcons 13
Packers 31, Ravens 30
Saints 9, Bucs 0