Option 1, Week 15’s Burning Question: Will Drew Brees return to Pro Bowl form?
Drew Brees has earned his reputation as a generational quarterback, but with his team reeling off four straight wins with Taysom Hill at quarterback after Brees went down with an injury, his absence didn’t seem to be the worst thing in the world for the NFC South-leading Saints. But when Brees was ruled healthy to start against the NFL-leading Kansas City Chiefs, coach Sean Payton couldn’t say no to sending the Purdue product back out under center. With Brees’ uncertain injury status and age (41 years) and the underrated Chiefs’ defense, Week 15 begged the question — would we see the great Drew Brees return?
Early on, the answer was an emphatic no. While Patrick Mahomes was lighting up New Orleans’ highly-touted defense in the Super Bowl, Brees was just 0-6 with an uncharacteristically foolish interception on the sideline. An early 14-0 Kansas City lead seemed insurmountable, but Brees rallied the Saints to within three points in the final minutes before Mahomes sealed the deal.
Brees finished the day 15-34 with a paltry QBR of 23.6, but the Saints scored 29 points after scoring just one seemed like a reach early on. Brees hit Emmanuel Sanders on a 51-yard bomb to set up Taysom Hill’s early touchdown run to cut the KC lead in half, then hit Tre’Quan Smith and Latavius Murray on chunk plays to take the lead in the opening minutes of the second half.
Three three-and-outs allowed the Chiefs to boost their lead back up to 14 points before Brees registered another touchdown pass, this one to his other backfield mate Alvin Kamara. After a KC field goal, Brees completed six of eight passes, including a beautiful arc to Lil’Jordan Humphrey for a touchdown, in a vintage New Orleans drive that cut KC’s lead to 3.
Brees didn’t get another chance to play hero as Mahomes and the Chiefs ran out the clock. It wasn’t Brees’ prettiest start, but the second half was a welcome sign as the Saints prepare to battle the NFC’s best teams in the coming month. Brees showed no hesitation in launching the deep ball and got all of his weapons involved in the absence of mega receiver Michael Thomas. At the very least, he proved that a Saints team with Drew Brees is better than a Saints team without Drew Brees, and that should get New Orleans fans very, very excited.
Option 2, Week 15’s Huge Performance: Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
By the end of the first NFL Saturday game of the year, Josh Allen accounted for four touchdowns and led his Bills team to 48 points against the team I expected to draft him in 2018. Remember, this is the Broncos defense that held Patrick Mahomes in check a couple weeks ago. Best of all, the Bills clinched their first AFC East title since 1995, back when they were still losing Super Bowls.
Buffalo punter Corey Bojorquez could have taken the game off — he punted just once all game. Instead, it was Allen that had the heavy workload and he more than delivered. The Bills led the Broncos in nearly every metric, converting 9 of 13 third-down opportunities, racking up over 530 yards on offense, and outgaining Denver through the air and on the ground. The defense and special teams units piled on with return touchdowns of their own, but the extra boost didn’t change a pretty definitive result.
Allen played his best style of football, punishing the Broncos on the ground with 1- and 24-yard touchdown runs and playing mistake-free, inspired football in the passing attack. He threw strikes all across the field and took advantage of his best receivers (Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley combined to catch 19 passes for 259 yards). Allen’s confidence in stepping up in the pocket and trusting his arm and receivers in close windows was on full display, but he didn’t make mistakes and was accurate for his high volume (40 attempts). The dominance continued Buffalo’s momentum from a brilliant second half against Pittsburgh and keeps the Bills rolling as the playoffs move closer.
Option 3, Week 15’s Crucial Decision: NFL Adds Two Wild Card Teams
This is news from the beginning of the season, but it’s becoming more relevant now. The NFL higher-ups and owners voted to expand the playoffs from 12 teams (6 per conference) to 14 teams (7 per conference). The change also cut the number of teams receiving a first-round bye from four to two, meaning only the top team in each conference gets to take a week off in January and still call itself a playoff team. The move was certainly a cash grab — no seventh place team in the last ten years has looked the part of a Super Bowl threat — but the expansion has added plenty of intrigue in the final regular season weeks.
In the AFC, nine teams are vying for seven spots, and that’s with the perennially relevant Patriots already eliminated from postseason contention. Some combination of the Browns, Colts, Ravens, Dolphins and Raiders will move on to the playoffs as Wild Cards and each has the potential to advance a round in the playoffs. Beyond that? Baltimore is rounding into form and coach John Harbaugh has a track record of road playoff victories, but if the Ravens win out (against the Giants and Bengals), they would likely be a five or six seed. But it’s safe to say that the playoffs will be more interesting on the AFC side of the bracket with seven deserving teams.
The NFC is more of a mess, so much so that NFC East teams are still in the running for a Wild Card spot. The Packers have put some distance between themselves and the, uh, pack, and the Saints and Seahawks seem worthy of playoff bids. After that, you have Jared Goff, Mitch Trubisky, Dwayne Haskins, Kirk Cousins and Kyler Murray battling it out for the Wild Cards. This is only after Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard couldn’t get it done after Dallas. The NFC is worse top to bottom, but if the Bears made the playoffs after being one of the worst teams in the NFL for six consecutive weeks, that would be quite a scene. I don’t know if I could call the 2020 Bears deserving of a playoff bid, but that’s what happens when seven teams make the playoffs per conference.
The last component, the one seeds, could actually be tested this year. Kansas City and Green Bay look to be locks to reach those and earn the byes — does the rest help or hurt them? Do 2 seeds get more momentum in the Wild Card round? Is the 2-7 upset the new 1-6 upset? How will the teams decide about resting starters? Say what you will about the new playoff format, but the change certainly makes these next several weeks more interesting.
Checkdown: The NFL Football Playoff
Meaningful football wasn’t only played on Sunday — Saturday saw the Bills and Packers play! Well, aside from that, college football held its conference championships this weekend and crowned the four CFP teams. To the surprise of few, the Alabama Crimson Tide, Clemson Tigers, Ohio State Buckeyes and Notre Dame Fighting Irish made the cut and will compete for the championship, while my Northwestern Wildcats will go to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl (not a bad consolation prize).
Four may seem like an arbitrary number, given the push for eight teams as well as the previous system of a two-team championship known as the BCS. The argument that four teams are legitimate contenders does hold water though — do we think Coastal Carolina could knock off the Crimson Tide on a neutral field? The NFL doesn’t have the same disparity between four contenders and everybody else… or does it? Today, I’ll be making the case for four NFL teams I think have the resumes and rosters to make this make-believe CFP.
To start, I’ll narrow the list down a bit to teams with a winning record and a good resume of wins. So by that rule, we have 14 teams: the Kansas City Chiefs (13-1), Green Bay Packers (11-3), Pittsburgh Steelers (12-2), Buffalo Bills (11-3), Tennessee Titans (10-4), Cleveland Browns (10-4), New Orleans Saints (10-4), Seattle Seahawks (10-4), Indianapolis Colts (10-4), Baltimore Ravens (9-5), Miami Dolphins (9-5), Los Angeles Rams (9-5), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) and the Arizona Cardinals (8-6).
I’ll knock off the teams without double-digit wins as each has significant holes and pencil in the two conference leaders, the Chiefs and Packers. That leaves the Steelers, Bills, Titans, Browns, Saints, Seahawks and Colts battling for the last two spots. Let’s make the cases:
Pittsburgh Steelers– Started the season 11-0 before dropping to Washington, Buffalo and Cleveland, but have swept the Ravens and beaten two other 10-win teams in the Colts and Browns. Arguably the most well-rounded roster in football and very well-coached. One-dimensional offense presents some question marks and the strength of schedule isn’t all that impressive.
Buffalo Bills– AFC East division champs for the first time in who knows how long. Josh Allen has elevated his quarterback play, and the Bills have proven they can win in various ways. A freak Hail Mary and they’re the AFC two seed, and the other two losses are to the Titans and Chiefs.
Tennessee Titans– Derrick Henry has had his way with defenses, but Ryan Tannehill has held his own under center. The Titans look like a Super Bowl contender when not playing teams from Ohio.
Cleveland Browns- One of the best running games in football along with improvement from Baker Mayfield. The Browns were swept by the Ravens and have lost to the Steelers, and the defense is regressing by the week.
New Orleans Saints– A very well-rounded team that has endured quarterback turmoil with Drew Brees’ injury. Losses to the Eagles and Raiders are concerning, but they did beat Tampa Bay 38-3.
Seattle Seahawks– Russell Wilson consistently drops viewers’ jaws with miraculous deep passes and the Hawks’ defense has improved. Still, the majority of Seattle’s impressive wins are within the division.
Indianapolis Colts– One of the best-constructed rosters in football hasn’t run away with the AFC South but they’ll be a tough out in January if they advance. Wins over Tennessee and Green Bay are impressive, though I don’t trust Philip Rivers in this playoff field.
After close consideration, my four NFL Football Playoff teams are the Kansas City Chiefs, the Green Bay Packers, the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans. My decision for the fourth spot was the most difficult, and while the Steelers have one more win and the head-to-head matchup win, that game was close enough for me to consider this a toss-up and it’s also my rankings and I don’t like the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s defense holds a big edge, but Tennessee has the second-most prolific offense in football in yards and points, the NFL’s top turnover differential and has gotten it done against big teams. These four teams won’t be the last four in the current setup (since three are AFC teams), but a playoffs with each of them in the final stages would be must-watch TV.
Game Notes: Pro Bowl voting comes out, which means lots of talk about snubs. I haven’t watched the game in years (the dodgeball is a different story), but I like seeing deserving players get rewarded with a cool accolade. Two of the biggest surprises were A.J. Brown and Justin Jefferson at receiver for the AFC and NFC, respectively. Not that they didn’t deserve it, but neither was on my radar entering the season and made immediate impact for playoff contenders. Happy to see new guys beat out the name recognition, underwhelming regulars. The Cowboys got no one, which is just about right…One of the worst parts of COVID’s impact on the NFL is that we will be robbed of Pro Bowl dodgeball. Imagine D.K. Metcalf and Kyler Murray flinging darts across the line! Here’s to hoping next year’s class makes up for a lost year…So many highlight reel plays from this week. Matthew Stafford hit a no-look touchdown pass that split multiple Tennessee linebackers. Ravens offensive lineman Tyre Phillips picked up a Lamar Jackson fumble, rumbled for a first down and leveled a Jacksonville guy and sent him reeling into 2017. Multiple onside kicks were returned for touchdowns…The NFC East is coming down to the wire, and of all of the things I expected to say coming down the stretch, seeing improvements by all four teams was not one of them. The Eagles look dynamic with Jalen Hurts, Washington is in the lead despite quarterback malaise, the Cowboys are on a win streak and the Giants, well, they’re turning into the Giants again, but they had a good run…Justin Herbert won again in a tough battle between two division rivals. This time, he used his length and rushing abilities to get it done and win a close one…Mitch Trubisky held on. The Bears are in the playoff hunt and could actually make good on my prediction that they would finish above the Vikings in the final standings. I expect them to be on the outside looking in, but if the Packers rest their starters Week 17, they could win their last two and finish with a winning record, a huge step forward given their tragic state at midseason…Speaking of tragic, the Steelers!…Congrats to the Jets on their first win of the season. So many guys won’t be there next season regardless and their hard work deserves to be rewarded at some point. Pretty cool to beat a division leader for that first win…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more undermanned wide receiving group than Miami’s. Hard enough starting a rookie, but surrounding him with practice squad dudes is a dicey proposition. That’s what makes the health of the rushing attack so crucial.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Chargers-Raiders, Cowboys-Niners, Dolphins-Patriots, Bengals-Steelers, Packers-Panthers
Best Sunday: Arizona Cardinals. Other teams looked better, but the Cardinals needed this one so, so bad.
Worst Sunday: Los Angeles Rams. You lost to the Jets. The New York Football Jets. With the division lead on the line.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 17-22, 243 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, 133.1 passer rating, 35 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 40-14 win over Jacksonville
The Skinny: How does one follow up a Canton-worthy performance that seemed right out of a Hollywood script (the receiver’s name was literally Hollywood Brown)? By performing a routine destruction of the Jaguars.
Lamar Jackson brushed off an early interception on a deep throw to Hollywood Brown to post one of his most well-rounded games of the season as the Ravens cruised on their home field, 40-14. Jackson threw three touchdowns to three different receivers, including former Cowboy Dez Bryant, and helped the Ravens race out to a 26-0 halftime lead. Seriously. Technically, there can’t be any more “RG3 games” with RG3 out with a hamstring injury (I’m still mad about that Steeler game), but Tyler Huntley came in for the fourth quarter after Jackson put an appetizing game out of reach.
40+ points in back-to-back games has to feel good for Jackson and the Ravens considering their mid-season struggles. It’s the Jaguars defense, but Jackson found his receivers in stride and showed poise navigating the pocket and backfield, along with his customary breathtaking scrambles. If the Ravens take care of business against the Giants next week and improve to 4-0 against the NFC East, they should be in prime position for Jackson to reverse his playoff narrative.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 31-45, 390 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 110.4 passer rating, 31-27 win over Atlanta
The Skinny: Atlanta’s early pounding of the Buccaneers raised eyebrows early, but the end saw a familiar script — Tom Brady rallying from an early deficit to knock off Matt Ryan.
With the Buccaneers only managing 51 rushing yards on the day, the ball was in Brady’s hands to keep the Tampa Bay playoff hopes afloat. Brady answered with his most prolific passing game of the season by yardage, completing 31 passes to a total of eight receivers. More impressively, Brady turned around the ship at halftime, sparking an offense that failed to score in the first half to 31 second-half points.
Tampa’s offense sputtered early — across four first-half drives, the Bucs amassed above 25 yards once (it was a 26-yard drive). Atlanta had its way with the Tampa Bay defense and took a 17-0 lead into the break, but it wasn’t enough to put the game fully out of reach. In the second half, Brady came out firing. 3-4 for 66 yards on the opening drive of the second half. Next drive, 4-6 for 59 yards. 4-6 for 33 yards, plus a pair of pass interference penalties. Each of the three drives went for touchdowns, and after holding a huge lead, Atlanta was up just 24-21. That’s the Tampa Bay offense.
After an Atlanta punt, Brady led a nine-play drive consisting of only pass plays that set up a game-tying field goal with 11:10 to go. Younghoe Koo made a 52-yarder to give the Falcons the lead back, but in the process gave Brady the ball back with 8:22 in regulation. A mistake. Brady hit Cameron Brate and Chris Godwin for first downs before launching the game-winning, 46-yard score to Antonio Brown. For a guy who isn’t as keen on the deep ball as his head coach (he attempted only two passes beyond 30 yards), Brady is pretty darn lethal with it. Which faction will win the tug-of-war come January?
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 27-36, 406 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, 127.8 passer rating, 29 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 1 fumble, 33-26 win over Philadelphia
The Skinny: Kyler Murray and the Cardinals needed a win against Philadelphia. Though the game threatened to slip away late, Murray made the plays he needed to late and made the most of his favorite target.
The Cardinals took total control in the first quarter despite a once-in-a-blue-moon DeAndre Hopkins red zone fumble. Murray was perfect on the first drive, then made up for Hopkins’ mistake with a sweet touchdown scamper and a toss to Chase Edmonds to put Arizona up 16-0. Just 12 minutes in and the Cardinals looked to be soaring away from their bird brethren. When Murray’s Oklahoma successor Jalen Hurts led the Eagles on a touchdown drive to start the second frame, Murray answered back with a perfect jump ball to Hopkins for a 45-yard completion, setting up an Arizona field goal.
After an Eagle punt, Murray’s reckless one-hand ball handling caught up to him. Twirling back on a sack, Murray kept the ball in his right hand as Philly defender Nickell Robey-Coleman came around the edge with a swipe. The Eagles made it a one-possession game a couple plays later. Then, another immaculate Murray drive (4-4, with passes of 21, 6, 23 and 14 yards) added some breathing room. Hurts slipped in a lightning-quick touchdown drive at the end of the half to close the deficit to 26-20 going into halftime. Murray at the half: 17-20, 265 yards, two total touchdowns.
The second half was neither high-scoring nor immaculate, though the tension was certainly intact. The Cards’ next three drives ended unspectacularly: punt, fumble, turnover on downs. That gave Philly the opportunity to tie the game at 26 at the end of the third quarter and put Arizona’s Wild Card hopes in jeopardy. But with 10 minutes left, Murray gave Arizona the edge they needed with one last touchdown drive. Murray put the ball in Hopkins’ hands and the All Pro delivered, taking a modest Murray pass for 44 yards before outjumping a Philly defender for the go-ahead touchdown. Three straight runs prevented the Cardinals from running out the clock, but the Arizona defense prevented late Jalen Hurts heroics and ran away with a nail-biting 33-26 win.
The game was a little too close for comfort, but Murray and the Cardinals will take it. Murray, who was named to the Pro Bowl team Monday, topped 400 yards passing for the first time in his young career and pieced together multiple perfect drives when it mattered. He still hasn’t found his groove and exploded in the rushing attack since his injury, but with guys like Hopkins on the outside, this Arizona team can win with Murray making plays with his arm. If Arizona can finish strong, a Wild Card berth is very much in the cards.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 28-40, 359 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 114.5 passer rating, 2 rushing touchdowns, 48-19 win over Denver
The Skinny: See above.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 20-26, 145 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 73.4 passer rating, 2 rushing touchdowns, 22-12 win over New England
The Skinny: Tua Tagovailoa mustered 145 passing yards, threw the second interception of his career and didn’t complete a passing touchdown. But make no mistake — Sunday was a dub. Tagovailoa scored two touchdowns on the ground as his Dolphins defeated the big bad New England Patriots. It hardly gets sweeter than that.
Tagovailoa didn’t have to do all too much thanks to a couple key returns in the backfield. Salvon Ahmed returned to the starting lineup in style, rushing for 122 yards and a touchdown. The speedy Matt Breida added 86 yards on 12 carries as well, while Tagovailoa got it done in the red zone with a pair of touchdown carries.
The successes in the rushing game proved to be a winning formula, because how else do you explain Tagovailoa’s passing chart post-game and explain a double-digit Miami win? Tagovailoa attempted *zero* passes beyond 15 yards — even his interception was marked within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins’ leading receivers were Durham Smythe and Lynn Bowden, Jr. The Dolphins need every win they can get to keep pace in the playoff picture, and with the Raiders and Bills next up, they’ll have to hope their rushing success will stick in the stretch run.
Gardner Minshew Watch
Stat Line: 22-29, 226 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 120.8 passer rating, 1 fumble lost, 40-14 loss to Baltimore
The Skinny: Gardner Minshew finished Sunday with a higher passer rating than Lamar Jackson, which should make a clear case why numbers sometimes lie. Minshew was totally overwhelmed by a Ravens defense that featured Minshew’s ex-teammate Yannick Ngakuoe (2 sacks, 1 forced fumble) and only got the Jacksonville offense going late. By halftime, the score was 29-0, not exactly deserving of a 120.8 passer rating regardless of defensive performance.
Minshew had a couple of dimes, including a picture-perfect loft to running back James Robinson and a fourth down gainer to tight end Tyler Eifert. Other than that, it was a forgettable day in Baltimore for the guy who led the Jags’ to their only win of the season, all the way back in Week 1. 22 of 29 doesn’t look too bad, but only six of those completions went beyond 10 yards. Coach Doug Marrone kept sending Minshew out on fourth downs regardless of the situation, ending a couple of first-down drives when the game was theoretically still in reach. Add in five sacks and a non-existent running game and you can see why Baltimore’s defense should feel pretty good about themselves after a high-scoring affair in Cleveland last Monday.
The Jaguars might have actually had a great Sunday — the Jets win puts them in the driver’s seat to earn the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft and presumably select Trevor Lawrence from Clemson. But on the field, Gardner Minshew endured a brutal day on all fronts that wasn’t exactly encouraging for his NFL future. Would Lawrence do much better in Baltimore against that front seven? Who knows, but I bet Jags’ brass would love to find out.