After a lackluster 1 p.m. window of games, things really picked up late in the afternoon. The Raiders took another step forward with a victory over the Panthers in a game that had a playoff feel, while the Patriots' defense showed that it’s actually part of the team and not just riding Tom Brady’s coattails. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers put the clamps on the red-hot Seahawks. Ah, the sweet smell of the NFL after Thanksgiving, when the playoff push is on and the field gets separated between contenders and pretenders. There’s nothing like it, so let's dive right in…
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 12 of the 2016 NFL season:
Go crazy, folks:
It’s time for the Texans to sit Osweiler: It wasn’t all his fault because the Chargers play good defense and his receivers had a tough time getting open at times, but the fact remains that Texans QB Brock Osweiler was just not good enough in Houston’s 21–13 loss. The QB was 22 of 37 for 246 yards and three INTs (although one was on the final play) and a 45.6 rating. It’s now time for coach Bill O’Brien to make a move to back up Tom Savage. Osweiler has had 11 games and the bye week to make progress in O’Brien’s offensive system and he looks just as uncomfortable now as he did in a 27–0 Week 3 loss to the Patriots. He should be better than this by now and he’s not—he appears to be a misfit for this system. Savage has been in Houston for three years and the coaching staff likes him. A change needs to be made.
These aren’t the same old Raiders: There's no doubt about it now—the Raiders are no longer that outgunned and pathetic outfit that we’ve seen for most of the past decade. Not only did they improve to 9–2, but but the manner in which they did it (leading 24–7, trailing 32–24, and then prevailing 35–32) against a Panthers team that still has the guts of an NFC champion, showed that the Raiders won’t just be upstarts once the postseason begins. They are indeed very real contenders. This was a rough and tumble playoff-esque game, and the Raiders gave out as much as they received, especially with QB Derek Carr coming back and executing while injured. They’ve already proven they're road warriors (5–0 this season), and wins like this will only serve them well in January. With a great offensive line, playmakers galore and edge rushers that can get home when it matters, the Raiders have the ability to beat anyone.
Buccaneers are right in the thick of things: Take each of them separately, and you could explain Tampa Bay winning at Kansas City (19–17) and at home against the Seahawks (14–5) as nice surprises. That they happened in back-to-back weeks means that the young Bucs (6–5) are growing up before our eyes, especially with Mike Smith’s defense, and will be a factor in the NFC South race until the end with Atlanta (7–4). Both teams split their previous meetings, and have one loss in the division. The Falcons have the Panthers and Saints left, while the Bucs will take on the Saints (twice) and finish with the Panthers. You have to give a lot of credit to the defense, which held the previously rolling Seahawks to just 245 yards and 1 of 11 on third downs (9%). Rookie DE Noah Spence and veteran DT Gerald McCoy (each had 1.5 sacks) have become quite the inside-outside duo, and the secondary has improved greatly each week.
Give it up for the Patriots’ defense: The Patriots’ defense has long been mocked nationally but especially in New England. It always seems that even the most mediocre of quarterbacks and offenses go up and down the field on them, but QB Tom Brady bails them. Well, Brady (because of a very gimpy knee) and the Patriots' offense took their turn being mediocre against the Jets and needed the defense to pull their weight. And it did. Trailing New York 17–16 in the 4th quarter, the Patriots (DT Malcolm Brown) pressured Ryan Fitzpatrick into an intentional grounding penalty and then, with the Patriots leading 22–17 with less than a minute remaining, DE Chris Long stripped Fitzpatrick for a game-clinching fumble. I wouldn't go nuts about it quite yet because the Jets fold a lot down the stretch against the Patriots, but the defense came up big when New England needed it to (a loss would have left Miami just one game back in the AFC East), and that’s not insignificant. If the Patriots are going to win a Super Bowl this year, the defense is going to have to do that more. Though it also helps that they have that Brady guy (career win 200 tied him with Peyton Manning for first all time), and rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who camped out on Revis Island and caught both of Brady’s touchdown passes.
Saints offense is rolling: New Orleans could do no wrong against a good Rams defense as it put up 49 points and totaled 555 yards. Drew Brees threw for 310 yards and had a 139.6 rating. Led by Mark Ingram’s 146 yards, the Saints (5–6) rushed for 209 yards on 32 carries. They could make things really interesting down the stretch in the NFC South with two games against the Buccaneers and the season finale at Atlanta (7–4).
Ryan’s call pays off for Bills: Trailing the Jaguars 7–0 before halftime, Bills coach Rex Ryan decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Jacksonville 13-yard line and it paid off. Fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams picked up six yards on fourth down, and then LeSean McCoy scored from 7 yards out. The Bills ended up prevailing 28–21.
Goff has a pulse: So Rams first overall pick Jared Goff isn’t exactly a stiff. Sure, it came against the Saints’ porous defense, but Goff showed some flashes as he completed 20 of 32 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns against one interception for a passer rating of 100.3 in his second career start.
Bears' receivers were brutal: The Bears had several chances to come back and beat the Titans but their receivers dropped about 10 – 10! – passes from Matt Barkley, including two in the final minute (by Josh Bellamy and Deonte Thompson) that would have resulted in an improbable comeback win after being down 20 points midway through the fourth quarter.
Slow your roll:
The Seahawks' loss not a surprise: Don’t go overboard trying to draw conclusions about Seattle’s future just because it played a stinker at Tampa Bay in a 14–5 loss. In case you haven’t noticed, the Seahawks have a tendency to play down to the level of their opponents on the road (2–2–1), where they previously loss to the Rams and Saints. Yes, this team continues to have big problems on the offensive line that could eventually do them in, but this is still an excellent team that is fully capable of beating anyone anywhere (see Week 10: Seahawks 31, Patriots 24 at Gillette Stadium).
The Ravens are not impressive, but Justin Tucker is: Baltimore beat the Bengals 19–14 to stay in a first-place tie with the Steelers in the AFC North, but a good team shouldn’t struggle like that against a wounded and skidding team like the Bengals (who are playing without A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard).
The Ravens’ kicker is their best player right now, so they clearly have issues. But still—let’s take a moment and acknowledge how awesome Justin Tucker, who became the first kicker in three years to hit three field goals from at least 50 yards (52, 57 and 54 yards), has been. In a year when most kickers are shrinking because they have to kick longer extra points, Tucker is just rock solid.
Sean Payton wasn’t running it up: Yes, there might have been a little message sent from Saints coach Sean Payton to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (he of bounty-scandal infamy, and now the Rams coordinator) when, with 10:26 remaining and New Orleans leading by 21 points, Payton called a receiver-pass to RB Tim Hightower for a 50-yard touchdown. However, I’m not sure it wandered into bush-league territory. The Saints had run five times in six plays leading up to the play, and ran a lot after it. Still, there’s no love lost, obviously, between Payton and Williams, who basically turned league witness against his head coach and led to Payton being suspended for an entire season. Can we at least take this as tacit acknowledgement that the bounty scandal did happen, and it wasn’t just a media creation, as Payton likes to privately contend to this day?
It’s about to get harder for the Giants: Yeah, the Giants are 8–3 after squeaking out an unimpressive 27–13 victory over the winless Browns, and they’re trying to keep within striking distance of the Cowboys, but the only team over .500 they’ve beaten during their six-game winning streak was the Ravens (6–5). Now we get to see if the Giants are contenders or pretenders as they take on the Steelers, Cowboys, Lions, Eagles and Washington to finish the season.
About Sunday Night
I don't even know where to begin with this one except to say the Broncos and Chiefs played one of the wildest Sunday Night Football games in recent memory, and a controversial call by Broncos coach Gary Kubiak that contributed to his team's 30–27 overtime loss could wind up keeping Denver out of the playoffs.
With 1:08 left in overtime, the Broncos faced 4th-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 44-yard line. Kubiak elected to attempt a 62-yard field goal instead of punting and virtually ensuring a tie that would keep both the Broncos and Chiefs in the AFC wild-card spots at 7–3–1. Brandon McManus missed, giving the Chiefs the ball at the 48-yard line. Five plays later, Cairo Santos banked in the game-winning 34-yard field goal off the left goal post and just inside the right one. Right now, the Dolphins are the last wild-card team at 7–4 (5–3 in the AFC) while the Broncos are on the outside looking in at 7–4 (4–3).
This game had it all. A defensive battle to start, with both Von Miller and Justin Houston (three sacks each) dominating for stretches. Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill became the first player with a rushing, receiving and kick return touchdown in a single game since Gale Sayers in 1965. The Chiefs tied the game on a 13-play, 75-yard drive (in a position to be tied because Broncos WR Bennie Fowler scored a 76-yard touchdown with 3:00 remaining instead of going down in the field of play) when Alex Smith hit Hill on a 3-yard score that was originally ruled down at the 1 but went to replay with 1 second remaining. The play was reversed on replay, and KC tied the game on Demetrius Harris’s two-point conversion. And then, Cairo Santos's game-winning field goal doinked off the upright and bounced through anyway.
Like we said, wild.
A look at the worst coaching decisions from Sunday.
• Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had several curious decisions in the loss to the Ravens, but his decision to decline a holding penalty before halftime led to a 57-yard field goal by Justin Tucker.
• It’s rare that Patriots coach Bill Belichick makes a mental error, but he had two near the end of the first half against the Jets. With one timeout remaining in a 10–10 game, Belichick elected not to stop the clock after Tom Brady hit Chris Hogan for a 14-yard gain to the Jets’ 21-yard line. And then after an incompletion, the Patriots were late to come out for the field goal, and a rushed Stephen Gostkowski pulled another field goal to the left.
• With two timeouts left and one minute on the clock at the New Orleans 15-yard line before halftime, the Rams called for QB Jared Goff to clock the ball. What? They were lucky the Saints didn’t score with so much time left.
• It paid off for him because the defense bailed him out, but Raiders coach Jack Del Rio made a huge error not running on second and third down with 1:55 remaining before kicking the game-winning field goal. The Panthers only had one timeout left. You have to run on second down to make them burn the final timeout, and then you run on third down to get the game clock near a minute before kicking the go-ahead field goal. If your defense can’t stop them from kicking a game-tying field goal, you tip your hat and win in overtime.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
— Ravens DB Sam Young should send something to Clete Blakeman’s crew because they let him get away with pretty much everything against the Bengals.
— Hey, Panthers QB Cam Newton got a roughing penalty called when Raiders DT Stacy McGee fell on him too hard. Maybe he’s finally starting to get some calls.
— It wasn’t the reason why the Cardinals lost to the Falcons, but Arizona can’t be happy with John Parry’s crew, which appeared tilted to the home team with several questionable calls on passing plays, including an apparent late hit to Carson Palmer that wasn’t called near the end of the first half.
— The Texans and Chargers are two of the least penalized teams in the league, so leave it to Jeff Triplette’s crew (the worst in the league) to call 19 accepted penalties for 136 yards combined. Just brutal.
Coolest thing(s) I saw
— Seahawks CB Richard Sherman convinced coach Pete Carroll to challenge that the Bucs’ offensive holding penalty occurred in the end zone. Carroll challenged, and the officials gave the Seahawks the safety that they earned.
— Derek Carr, playing with an injured throwing hand, dropping a 49-yard pass in a bucket while being hit with 4:15 left on 3rd-and-9. That pass likely won the game.
— Kelvin Benjamin’s clutch catch with 13:26 left to go up 31-24 against the Raiders and CB Sean Smith. A great, tough catch.
— Bills WR Justin Hunter had a sick jumping and twisting catch for the game-winning touchdown against the Jaguars.
The one-handed interception for a pick six by Raiders OLB Khalil Mack. What an athlete.
Rishard Matthews’s diving catch of a nice Marcus Mariota touchdown pass was a thing of beauty.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Taylor Gabriel, WR, Falcons: The 5’ 7” speedster scored not one but two touchdowns on the same slip screen to the left against the Cardinals—for 35 and 25 yards respectively—to lead Atlanta to a 38–19 victory over Arizona. Gabriel was signed by Cleveland as an 2014 undrafted free agent out of Abilene Christian. Despite making next to nothing, the new Browns’ front office released Gabriel. He has 13 catches for 271 yards and four touchdowns in his last four games for the Falcons.
Numbers sometimes lie
4: Passes from Bengals QB Andy Dalton that were officially deflected by the Ravens. It was probably three times as many, as Dalton had four passes deflected on the final drive before it ended on the third strip-sack of the game by the Ravens, who completely owned the formerly vaunted offensive line of the Bengals (right tackle is an abyss).
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
130.6: The passer rating for Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill in a 31–24 win over the 49ers, as he was 20 of 30 for 285 yards (9.5 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns in Miami’s sixth-straight victory. Of course, a lot of people do that to San Francisco, which is 25th in the league with a 97.3 defensive passer rating. But the Dolphins really needed Tannehill to play well against a 49ers defense that sold out to stop RB Jay Ajayi (45 yards, 2.5 per carry).
After the whistle
Everyone knows that I despise pass interference penalties. Too many are called, and the offense already has too many advantages. They should be some sort of spot foul, and they should be called by the book (substantial contact on catchable passes). However, this season has seen a rise in a technique that needs to be halted by the NFL officials: the one hand or arm grab. You see it now at least once a game in every game where a defensive back grabs one of the hands of the receiver, so he has no chance to catch the ball (although some receivers have adapted and caught passes with one arm). And there’s hardly ever a flag. It’s so pervasive that it wouldn’t be hard to believe that it’s being taught around the league as a technique because officials are looking for contact that disrupts a receiver’s body, and not his hands. But enough is enough. Officials need to start calling those fouls because, unlike a lot of the other stuff they are calling unnecessarily, that is substantial contact.