Option 1, Week 14’s Burning Question: How will the AFC Wild Card race shake out?
The addition of a seventh playoff team for each conference has made one of the best parts of the NFL season, the playoff hunt, even better. And with multiple games between playoff contenders on the slate, Week 14 promised to give some answers, or to make the picture even more confusing than before.
Meaningful Week 14 games were not difficult to find in any time slot, whether the 2 seed Chiefs against the 7 seed Dolphins at 1 pm EST, the 6 seed Colts against the 8 seed Raiders at 4:15 EST, the 3 seed Bills against the 1 seed Steelers on Sunday Night Football or division rivals and Wild Card hopefuls Cleveland (5) and Baltimore (9) duking it out on Monday night. That’s eight of the top nine teams in the conference playing each other in the same week. The results? One seismic upset, one fired defensive coordinator, one victorious three-touchdown performance and two sad AFC North teams.
The Colts and Chiefs emerged as clear victors as visiting teams. The Indianapolis running attack pounded the Raider defense to the tune of 44 points, entrenching the Colts as a Wild Card team, if not AFC South contender. Patrick Mahomes threw for 393 yards despite three interceptions and the Chiefs held onto an advantage that at one point was 20 points. Both teams clearly deserved to win their games, while the losers moved to the bottom of the AFC Wild Card totem pole. New England, which was on the periphery entering Week 14, was virtually eliminated in a 24-3 knockout by the Los Angeles Rams.
Buffalo topped Sunday off with a statement game to end all statement games. After a pick-six right before halftime, the Bills woke up and opened up a 23-7 lead over 11-1 Pittsburgh. The win, Buffalo’s first time hosting Sunday Night Football in over a decade, puts the Bills in firm control of the AFC North and signals them as major contenders in a crowded AFC. With two straight losses (and four straight subpar performances), the Steelers are experiencing turbulence as the playoffs near.
I also heard something about a Cleveland-Baltimore matchup.
So, who will win the AFC? The Chiefs, probably. But all of this intrigue signals that the AFC has no shortage of contenders, and any of the top eight teams could make a strong case for being number two to the Chiefs. And with the possible exception of Pittsburgh, these eight teams are poised to rule the conference for years to come.
Option 2A, Week 14’s Huge Performance: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Full disclosure: I already wrote option 2 heading into Monday Night Football, but I can’t let the season’s best performance by a quarterback (or maybe any player) fall by the wayside. I’ll let the numbers tell the story:
–99.5 QBR. The fourth time in the last two seasons Lamar Jackson has finished a game with an ESPN QBR higher than 99.5 out of 100. In that same span, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson have zero. Wilson and Mahomes have yet to hit that mark in any games in their careers.
–124 rushing yards. On 13.8 yards per carry! With two touchdowns! Jackson’s elusivity was on full display Monday night, with a couple of his daring pocket escapes resulting in first downs and keeping drives alive. Even the threat of him rushing helped open up Mark Andrews for a huge gain at the end of the first half and Marquise Brown for the late touchdown.
–4-4 for 36 yards on the GW drive. Lamar Jackson was perfect on the final drive, finding Andrews three times to lead the Ravens into Justin Tucker’s field goal range. All of this after going into the locker room for cramps during the fourth quarter.
Lamar Jackson obviously won’t win MVP for the 2020 season, but this may be his career-defining performance to this point. Jackson flashed a big play ability that no one outside of Derrick Henry possesses and was the reason the Ravens kept up with Cleveland’s high-powered offense in the first half. He was also their savior on the final drive after coming back from cramps, hitting his last five attempts for 80 yards.
Going in, Cleveland’s game plan had to be to stop the Baltimore rushing attack, which ranks tops in the league, and force Lamar Jackson to pass. They couldn’t do either. The passing game had negative yardage for the first half, but the offense still put up 21 points on the merits of its rushing attack. Even Baltimore’s longest plays through the air came when the threat of Jackson made defenders think twice about their coverage. For an offense that looked stagnant and unimpressive since the first Cleveland game in Week 1, the 47-point showing could not be more emphatic.
The win also could not have come at a better time. The Ravens improved to 8-5 on the year and moved into a tie for seventh in the AFC playoff picture. If Baltimore avoids trip up games, 11-5 could be in the works — a great record for a “down year.” And against division rival Cleveland, a potential playoff opponent, the win just meant more.
Option 2B, Week 14’s Huge Performance Not Named Lamar Jackson: Drew Lock, Denver Broncos
Drew Lock hasn’t been having the sophomore breakout that many predicted and the Broncos are out of the playoff picture, but Lock answered questions about his long-term future with Denver in a four-touchdown performance against Carolina. On the road against a feisty Panther defense, Lock was nearly perfect and picked apart each level of the Carolina secondary.
Lock’s start wasn’t the prettiest — the Broncos first scored on a rare punt return touchdown, then found themselves down a point when Lock failed to secure the football and the Panthers returned a fumble deep into Denver territory. But by the end of the first half, Lock got the offense moving with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead before the break. A 31-yard toss to a wide-open Jerry Jeudy was on the money and set up a short Lock touchdown pass to Nick Vannett.
After the break, Lock broke the game open with his arm. On second-and-10 in Carolina territory, he locked onto his primary read, K.J. Hamler, and launched a beautiful arc down the sideline when Hamler separated from his stumbling defender. Hamler caught the perfectly placed ball in stride for an easy touchdown, giving Denver a 19-7 lead. On the following drive, Lock worked the short area of the defense, finding Troy Fumagalli for a 31-yard gain off a screen and Tim Patrick in the end zone for his third score of the day. 25-10 Broncos.
A chance for Denver to put the game away for good ended in a Bronco punt, but after Carolina cut their deficit to just 5 points, Lock showed up and showed out. Lock flashed his rushing ability with a six-yard scramble, then found Melvin Gordon for a 20-yard gain to move just inside Panther territory. Instead of playing it safe, Lock looked to end the game and launched a pass to the end zone, where K.J. Hamler came up with the ball once again for a 49-yard score, Lock’s fourth touchdown of the day.
2020 has not been kind to sophomores, whether it’s injuries to guys like Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones or ineffectiveness for Dwayne Haskins. Drew Lock probably fits in the former category, but his play across the season (27th in ESPN QBR, dead-last and behind Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold in completion percentage) could easily be categorized in the latter. And for Denver fans, who have endured inept quarterbacks since Peyton Manning retired, 2020 might seem to be a step back. Lock’s four touchdown day should push back from immediate judgment. If healthy next year, Lock and his trio of young receivers, along with a loaded backfield, promise to make noise in the AFC West, and the Broncos have the potential to spoil playoff trips for their AFC foes this month.
Option 3, Week 14’s Crucial Decision: Eagles Switch Out Wentz for Hurts, Score Upset
I’ve talked about plenty of quarterback changes in the Crucial Decision category of this column over the season. Philly’s change tops them all.
Carson Wentz’s total regression is one of the most shocking storylines of the 2020 season. Wentz’s confidence has eroded along with his statistics, and while the Eagles aren’t out of the playoff hunt thanks to a historically awful NFC East, Philly is not where they should be at this point in the season. Still, Wentz’s massive contract and status as the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft make a move off him a tough pill to swallow.
Coach Doug Peterson finally made the call to bench Wentz heading into Philadelphia’s home contest against the New Orleans Saints. Backup Jalen Hurts, a star college player at Alabama and Oklahoma, flashed his big play ability late against the Green Bay Packers, but the move was more about Wentz’s ineptitude than Hurts’ readiness. The Eagles pulled off the upset against the 10-2 Saints and their backup-turned-starter, Taysom Hill. It might be time to shift the spotlight back to Jalen Hurts.
Hurts was electrifying in his debut in the starting lineup playing for an offense that hasn’t had much of a spark all season. On the ground, Hurts rushed for 106 yards and formed an unstoppable two-back attack with running back Miles Sanders (115 yards, 2 touchdowns). Though Hurts had a modest 167 yards on 17 for 30 passing, he didn’t turn the ball over and found Alshon Jeffery for a highlight reel-worthy back-shoulder touchdown.
Philadelphia’s ability to pivot into a new offensive attack midway through the season against a talented New Orleans defense was reminiscent of the 2018 Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson. Who knows if the Eagles will ride the quarterback change to a playoff berth, but it’s not easy to overhaul the offensive strategy and actually win. Hurts was not only a liability — he was the reason that Philadelphia won and didn’t make rookie mistakes to allow the Saints to take over. Philadelphia will be inclined to wait until after the season to sort out the long-term quarterback situation given their contractual obligations to Wentz, but it’s a winning move to put their best foot (feet?) forward.
Checkdown: It Doesn’t Get Sweeter Than This
The Ravens-Browns was an instant classic and, for me, an all-time favorite football memory. On gut instinct, I’d rank the last-second win as my number two game, between the Mile High Miracle in the 2012 AFC Divisional and the Super Bowl win from that same year. And while I hope to infuse this column with plenty of impartial analysis, there is going to be no impartiality here. These were the seven greatest points of the Ravens-Browns game, from a Ravens fan’s perspective.
-Mark Andrews’ Clutch Catches- Going into the game-winning drive, Lamar Jackson had only completed seven passes all game and was battling cramps. Watching him pick apart the defense with three throws to his favorite target, each for significant yardage, was breathtaking.
-Lamar Jackson 44-Yard Run- Jackson almost broke it all the way, but it was still thrilling to see him juking defenders out of their shoes and dodging around blocks. That rush set up the Ravens’ for yet another score early in the second half.
-Lamar Jackson 17-Yard Touchdown Run- You could tell as soon as Jackson passed the line of scrimmage that he was going to be into the end zone untouched 17 yards later. The shorter of Jackson’s two touchdown ones, this one was also punctuated by his throw at the wall that bounced right back into his hands. At this point, I thought the game was a rout.
-Tyus Bowser Interception- Right before the play, I told my brother Nate that the Ravens needed an interception. Then Tyus Bowser hopped in front of a route and held onto the football, giving the Ravens the game’s only interception. One play later, Baltimore was up two scores.
-Justin Tucker GW Field Goal- Somewhat of an afterthought given the game’s earlier miracles, but a 55-yarder being anticlimactic is as much an indictment on Justin Tucker’s historic accuracy as anything else. He also kicked the game-winner against Denver in my favorite game of all time. What a stud.
-Marquise Brown Go-Ahead Touchdown- As close as you can get to a miracle on the field. Jackson rolls out to his left, and from watching him run through the Cleveland defense all night, I thought for sure he was rushing for the fourth-down conversion. Then, he pulls up and passes over the defense to, of all people, Marquise Brown, who took it to the end zone. My scream was so high pitched that you would have thought I was the fourth Bee Gee. The shock compounded in each element of the play: the unlikeliness of a conversion, the confusion of Jackson’s halted momentum, the expectation of a drop by Brown, and the ecstasy once Brown hit the open field and took it to the end zone. An all-time play, even if Cleveland managed to tie it up.
-Return of the Jedi- The highest peak of the Ravens’ season was preceded by the lowest point. With Lamar Jackson in the locker room with cramps, Trace McSorley took the reins. When he suffered a leg injury on third down near midfield, my mind raced to figure out who could play quarterback on the active roster (Tyler Huntley?). Right on cue, the camera cut to Jackson trudging out of the locker room and grabbing his helmet, with broadcaster Steve Levy giving him a hero’s welcome. He didn’t disappoint.
Game Notes: Between a Northwestern win over intrastate rival Illinois, a Cowboys’ blowout of Cincinnati, and the aforementioned Baltimore-Cleveland classic, this was a pretty great weekend of football. Baltimore has a strong case for being the number two team in the AFC, and if something happens to the Chiefs, Lamar Jackson has the talent and momentum to bring the Ravens all the way…The Rams have enjoyed a fantastic first season in their new stadium and lead the NFL’s best division. A 24-3 Super Bowl revenge game against the Patriots had to feel great for the 9-4 Rams…Dallas has had a mess of a year and there are plenty of problems on defense that need to be sorted out. That said, Mike McCarthy doesn’t need to go. Sure, Dallas started 1-3 before Dak Prescott went down, but look at those opponents: 9-4 Cleveland, 9-4 Los Angeles and 9-4 Seattle. No team short of a quarterback and entire starting offensive line is going to be a serious playoff contender, either. The 30-7 win felt good even with the Cowboys’ prospects of a high draft pick…The Chargers pulled out a win against their NFC twin, the Atlanta Falcons. Not going to save coach Anthony Lynn’s job, but good to see Los Angeles’s valiant efforts finally rewarded…Las Vegas looks unhinged. The Raiders are very close to having lost three straight games, including games to the Falcons and Jets, and fired their defensive coordinator. In a crowded AFC playoff picture, they’re falling out…I also don’t buy the Steelers, who slid past inferior opponents in Dallas and Baltimore before consecutive losses to Washington and Buffalo. Maybe they win a playoff game, but the Steelers don’t feel like the alpha dog their record would suggest…Haason Reddick had five sacks this week for the Cardinals, along with five tackles. Arizona needs all the defensive playmakers it can get to keep up with the NFC powers…Derrick Henry needed to be mentioned at least once. Henry is the dream running back, a perfect blend of size and speed, and has been so good that 200 yards is almost an afterthought. Worth the money, a rare feat for a running back.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Panthers-Broncos, Buccaneers-Vikings, Dolphins-Chiefs, Packers-Lions, Colts-Raiders
Best Sunday: Baltimore Ravens- What a win.
Worst Sunday: New England Patriots- Los Angeles seemed to treat the Patriots well after a rout over the Chargers, until the Patriots scored just three against the Rams.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 11-17, 163 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 115.6 passer rating, 9 rushes, 124 yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 1 potential poop, 47-42 win over Cleveland.
The Skinny: See above.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 15-23, 196 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 120.9 passer rating, 26-14 win over Minnesota
The Skinny: The story of the Minnesota-Tampa Bay game is an 0-for-4 performance from Viking kicker Dan Bailey. Though Tom Brady certainly didn’t light it up with just 15 completions, he deserves credit for a much-needed win off the bye week to push the Buccaneers firmly into the Wild Card hunt.
Brady’s Buccaneers avoided a three-game slide by taking care of a fellow Wild Card rival at home. It looked every bit the trap game early as the Bucs managed just 24 yards across their first two possessions, and with Minnesota up 6-0 and in field goal range, it looked to be a two-possession deficit early. Then, Dan Bailey missed a 36-yard field goal, and the game flipped. Brady aimed deep on a 3rd-and-4 and connected with Scotty Miller in stride.
Each drive followed a similar script — a Bailey miss followed by a Tampa score. A Brady pick-turned-pass interference gave the Bucs the ball at the one for another touchdown, and a pair of passes, an Antonio Brown bolt up the middle and a pass interference on a Hail Mary to Rob Gronkowski, set Tampa Bay up for another field goal in the final seconds of the first half. A first half that Minnesota appeared to dominate was 17-6, and threatening to open up further.
Brady enjoyed his finest drive of the game right after halftime. The ageless wonder found Mike Evans between two defenders along the sideline for an impressive 29-yard completion. A couple plays later, Brady rolled to his right and found Gronk wide open in the end zone. 23-6, Bucs. Minnesota could not muster the offense to will the Vikings back into the game.
The Tampa Bay offense isn’t quite smooth yet, but that’s what happens when a downfield play caller and a quick throwing quarterback team up in Year One. The Bucs were certainly aided by 10 would-be Minnesota points. That offensive spark is still there, and with Tampa firmly in playoff position, it looks like they might have a couple chances in January to flip the switch.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 24-35, 244 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 97.8 passer rating, 47 rushing yards, 26-7 win over New York Giants
The Skinny: The Cardinals and Giants entered the 1 EST East Coast battle in opposite directions, with Arizona tumbling out of the playoff picture and the Giants, fresh off an upset of Seattle, soaring upward. That made the contest a must-win for the Cardinals and fading MVP candidate Kyler Murray, and No. 1 delivered.
While the Cardinals’ defense deserves the most credit for their shutdown of another sophomore quarterback, Daniel Jones, the electric Murray was a force on the ground and in the air. Murray had his most rushing yards in a month (also the Cards’ last win before their slump) and took care of the football. He also found his favorite target, DeAndre Hopkins, early and often — Hopkins’ 136 yards topped the Cards’ seven other receivers combined. Arizona had only one drive over 35 yards thanks to the Giants’ fumbling issues and frequent utilization of their punting unit, but against a vastly improved New York defense, the Cardinals couldn’t have asked for a much better performance.
The Cardinals won’t have much chance to catch their breaths, but going against undermanned defenses in Philadelphia and San Francisco should give Murray time to get rolling and healthy before a crucial Week 17 battle against the Rams. Most importantly, Arizona is over .500 and back in the playoff picture, and if the defense can hold up and Murray can be a viable rushing option, the Cardinals have a winning formula.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 24-43, 238 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 77.5 passer rating, 28 rushing yards, 26-15 win over Pittsburgh
The Skinny: Pittsburgh’s defense was the story of the first half in Sunday Night Football, holding Josh Allen and the potent Bills attack to just three points across seven possessions. Thankfully for Allen, he had his defense to bail him out. A Buffalo pick-six of Ben Roethlisberger closed out the half with a Buffalo 9-7 lead, and the momentum swing put the juice back in the Bills’ offense.
In his sixth game over 40 attempts, Allen looked shaky for most of the first half, then unstoppable to start the second. Allen was 8-for-8 across two touchdown drives to start the second half, including 6-for-6 with a touchdown to Stefon Diggs. Suddenly, the Bills were up 23-7 on the first place team in football. The rest of the game was keepaway, and a 13-play dagger drive highlighted by two Allen third-down conversions sealed a statement win for Buffalo.
Josh Allen won’t be the MVP for 2020, but his Brett Favre-like brashness and athleticism makes him must-watch football. His audacity as a quarterback is unmatched. Sometimes that doesn’t hit, like in the abysmal first half performance, but when he gets going, it’s fun to watch. And as a huge Lamar Jackson fan, I have to concede that Allen has nearly closed the gap between the 2018 draftmates. Now with home field and plenty of momentum on their side, the Bills (?) will be a team no AFC squad wants to face in January.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 28-48, 316 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 83.3 passer rating, 1 rushing touchdown, 33-27 loss to Kansas City
The Skinny: On one hand, the Miami defense forced Patrick Mahomes into three interceptions and a 30-yard sack and still failed to knock off the Chiefs. On the other hand, an inexperienced and surging Dolphins squad took it to the defending Super Bowl champs and didn’t let up when faced with a 20-point deficit. The 33-27 loss should be an encouraging sign for Miami, especially its quarterback.
There is no easing in of Tagovailoa any more — with the Dolphins’ top three running backs out, it should have been no surprise that Tagovailoa had a career-high 48 passing attempts. Tagovailoa tossed his first interception of the season, but also flashed his big-play ability with a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Mike Gesicki (a favorite target) and a rushing touchdown of his own. Switch the two quarterbacks and Tagovailoa surely would have earned the win. Ultimately, the Dolphins’ deficiencies in the backfield, receiving corps and offensive line worked against them as the Chiefs raced into the top seed in the AFC.
Given the personnel disadvantages, Miami was wise in its utilization of Tagovailoa. The overwhelming majority of his throws targeted the left side of the field (expected given Tagovailoa’s status as the NFL’s only lefty thrower) and focused on the short attack. A 58.3% completion percentage isn’t exactly ideal, but Tagovailoa’s top two receivers were Lynn Bowden and Mack Hollins — not exactly Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
The last-minute loss dealt a blow to Miami’s playoff hopes, but if the Dolphins can sneak in, the performance in this one should signal them as a dangerous Wild Card.
Gardner Minshew Watch
Stat Line: 18-31, 178 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 85.1 passer rating, 31-10 loss to Tennessee
The Skinny: After a couple weeks on the sideline while Jake Luton and Mike Glennon took turns leading the Jaguars to losses, Gardner Minshew returned to the action. Minshew, the only Jaguars quarterback with a 2020 win under his belt, didn’t have much to work with as the Titans were in firm control, but with 31 second-half passes, he got quite the workload.
Minshew did not wow in action, but a touchdown with no turnovers is an improvement over any other options the 1-12 Jags have on the roster. The Washington State alumnus came in down 31-3 and proceeded to lead Jacksonville on its only scoring drive of the game, a 11-play, 60-yard drive capped off with a short flick to D.J. Chark for the score. The next two drives were longer, reaching 74 yards and 70 yards respectively, but with Jacksonville down so heavily, the Jags had to go for every fourth down opportunity and ceded possession on a pair of 4th-and-10s within the Tennessee red zone.
Jacksonville is in freefall now, with games against three defensive-centric playoff contenders comprising the rest of their slate. But at least we can get three more games of Minshew, who hasn’t lost his composure even in the ugliest of circumstances. With all avenues already explored, Jacksonville would be wise to keep Minshew under center for the final games as a last audition for the young gunslinger, but expect a fresh-faced rookie to be in the black and teal next season.