The final stretch of the NFL season is upon us, and it’s crunch time for teams looking to clinch playoff berths.
After Monday night’s game between the Steelers and Bengals, each franchise will have just two games left to make their case. Six teams (the Chiefs, Steelers and Bills in the AFC and the Packers, Saints and Seahawks in the NFC) have already claimed their spots, leaving eight still up for grabs.
It’s also time for players to wrap up their arguments for individual awards with some of the tighter races in recent memory possible in the MVP battle and defensive rookie of the year.
Here are the Week 15 winners and losers.
On a day in which they got pasted by the Ravens, 40-14, arguably no team may have won bigger than Jacksonville, who may have secured the No. 1 overall draft selection. That’s because the Jets pulled off the upset of the year, stunning the nine-win Rams, 23-20. Because of a strength of schedule tiebreaker, the Jaguars, who are tied with New York at 1-13, now slide into that top spot, for the time being, in the draft order.
The Jaguars still have to play the Bears (7-7) and the Colts (10-4). The Jets have the Browns (10-4) and the Patriots (6-8), so this can still change. But Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is widely viewed as a generational, franchise-altering type of quarterback who is the presumptive No. 1 pick. To be sure, Jacksonville could also prefer Ohio State’s Justin Fields, or even another player. But if results hold, the Jags will have the flexibility to choose whomever they want. And for a team searching for its first franchise quarterback since Mark Brunell, literally the first full-time starter the team had in its history, this could be a huge step to pull the Jaguars back to relevance.
It has been a rare occurrence to see the Cowboys on this side of this list, but after topping the 49ers, 41-33, to earn their second consecutive victory, Dallas is now one game back of first place in the NFC East. The Cowboys have actually won three of their last five and their defensive improvement has been a big reason why.
To be fair, the unit still allows too many big plays and a ton of points. But there are two specific areas that should give Cowboys fans optimism for an improbable, but potential trip to the playoffs. Firstly, the Cowboys are forcing turnovers. In its last three games, Dallas has forced eight turnovers. The Cowboys are also making teams to settle for field goals; in their last three, the Cowboys have allowed teams to score touchdowns in the red zone in five of 11 trips. To be fair, their last two opposing quarterbacks were Brandon Allen of the Bengals and Nick Mullens of the 49ers. The Cowboys need to prove they can do this against better offenses, but what was once looking like a lost season might be salvageable.
Dolphins’ O-line and rushing game
This was a Miami offensive line that, because of injuries, started three rookies. Yet, despite it being a statistical flaw for this team, the Dolphins rode their rushing game to a 22-12 victory against the Patriots that ended New England’s 11-year streak of playoff trips. The Dolphins entered Sunday ranked 27th in rushing offense, picking up just 95.2 rushing yards a game and dead last in yards per carry (3.63). They mauled the Patriots’ front seven to the tune of 250 rushing yards and 6 yards per carry. That helped keep third downs to a manageable distance and Miami capitalized, converting seven of 12 (58.3%) tries.
While the Dolphins are now 5-2 in games that quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has started, the rookie passer has been inconsistent and Miami’s offense has often stalled. The emergence of a reliable rushing offense could be a massive boost as the team prepares for a potential trip to the postseason. But Miami needs to show a lot more consistency on the ground. If they can couple that with a defense that has now forced a turnover in 20 straight games, the Dolphins could have blueprint that makes them a tough out in January: a clock-chewing offense that can sustain drives opposite a defense that constantly gives them the ball back.
Matt Nagy and Mitchell Trubisky
The Bears have won two in a row, their latest a 33-27 victory against the NFC North rival Vikings, and coach Matt Nagy and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky might be doing just enough to save their jobs. While the performances haven’t been entirely clean, they allowed Chicago to surge past Minnesota in the playoff picture, where the Bears are now the first team out of the postseason in the NFC.
Trubisky has completed 72.2% of his passes for 469 yards with four touchdowns and one interception in his last two games. Those numbers still aren’t quite what the team would expect in Year 4, but they have shown slight progress from his earlier line that led to his eventual benching. Still, the inconsistency remains. Trubisky did throw an interception that could’ve been far more costly, as he forced a throw from inside the 10 into double coverage late in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings didn’t capitalize and the Bears won, but Trubisky has to eliminate those mistakes if he wants to secure his future in Chicago. Nagy, meanwhile, has relied on running back David Montgomery (317 total yards and three total touchdowns in his last two games) to give this offense more balance. Some Bears fans will still want an overhaul in the offseason, but if the team keeps winning, stability might end up being the result.
The Saints as a juggernaut
New Orleans lost to the Chiefs by just three points in what many had been billing as a potential Super Bowl preview, but this defeat felt far more lopsided than the box score indicated. Quarterback Drew Brees, while he should be given a bit of the benefit of the doubt as he’s clearly still recovering from broken ribs and a punctured lung, put up a mixed performance. He started the game with six incompletions, including an interception and didn’t connect on a pass until midway through the second quarter.
He would help bring New Orleans back in it late, but the slow start was too much to overcome. With receiver Michael Thomas now on injured reserve, there are more questions about how New Orleans will sustain drives. Against the Chiefs, the Saints converted just one of their 11 third down attempts. On the other side of the ball, New Orleans’s defense — a unit that had been excelling as of late — gave up 179 rushing yards and allowed nine of 18 third-down conversions. The Saints were outgained 411-285. Kansas City possessed the ball for 41:14; New Orleans had it just 18:46. And, because the Packers (11-3) hold a tiebreaker on head-to-head matchups, the Saints (10-4) are essentially two games back of the No. 1 seed in the NFC. If the Saints struggled this much against the Super Bowl favorites at home, it looks like New Orleans might need vintage Brees performances to overcome their flaws. But now 41 and still hobbled, that might be too much to ask for.
Buccaneers’ slow starts
Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers erased a 17-point deficit and won their game against a division opponent, keeping their standing in the wild-card picture. So Sunday, on the whole, was a good day for the Bucs. But in their 31-27 victory against the Falcons, there were some signs of concern. Atlanta came into Sunday with the 28th-ranked total defense, one that had allowed 390.6 yards a game. At the end of the first half, the Buccaneers had been shutout, gained just 60 and faced that 17-point hole.
The second half was a different story. Tampa Bay gained 356 yards after intermission and quarterback Tom Brady completed 21 of 29 passes for 320 yards and two scores in the final two periods. Slow starts have been a recurring issue for Tampa. It was promising that they were able to overcome that, but consider the opponent, a Falcons team that has a history of blowing leads. Over their last nine games, the Buccaneers have now scored 17 total points in the first quarters of those games. As coach Bruce Arians said after the game: “You’re not going to beat those good teams playing this way. We’ve got to play better in the first half than we played today.”
It’s becoming pretty clear that, barring any injury issues, Wentz has almost certainly played his last down for the Eagles this season. Though Philadelphia lost to the Cardinals, 33-26, quarterback Jalen Hurts again showed that the Eagles offense is far better with the rookie under center than it is with Wentz. Hurts accounted for 401 total yards and four total touchdowns in the loss and had Philadelphia in position to tie the game late.
In fact, the Eagles were hurt by their missing a two-point conversion early in the game and then when tight end Zach Ertz botched a snap on an extra point. While Wentz is blessed with financial security after he signed a four-year extension in June 2019, it becomes almost cost-prohibitive in terms of dead cap space for the Eagles to cut him. That means that as long as Hurts continues to shine, there’s a good chance Wentz might be relegated to serve as a backup. Wentz reportedly would want to be traded if he’s not the starter. But that also presents its own issues. Namely, a team would need to be convinced to give up assets in a trade for Wentz, while taking on that massive contract. All of this makes it look like Wentz is in a spot with no good outcome: slumping, stuck and disgruntled.
New York Giants
With the Washington Football Team’s loss, the Giants had the chance to sneak back into first place in the NFC East, via a tiebreaker of head-to-head victories. Instead, the Giants fell to the Browns, 20-6, in a game in which they were overmatched. That allowed Washington to hold onto the lead in the division and helped bring the Cowboys within striking distance.
Now, New York has lost two in a row, erasing the momentum of a four-game winning streak. Worse yet, the traits that made that winning streak possible, a steady rushing game and a disruptive pass rush, seemed to have vanished. Against the Browns, the Giants gained just 74 rushing yards and sacked Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield only once. Compare that to New York’s average of 162.3 rushing yards a game during their four-game winning streak and 12 sacks in the same span. Now, with games left against the Ravens and Cowboys, New York’s playoff dream looks like it’s done.
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