The NFL is rolling into Christmas with the playoffs just a few weeks away, yet which teams will actually be competing for a Super Bowl are as unpredictable as any point in the season. The Detroit Lions are in the thick of the NFC wild card race, as all four NFC East teams are currently in the playoffs with three weeks to play. The New England Patriots had a massive blunder that cost them their playoff spot, as the Los Angeles Chargers ran right through the door to take control of the seventh and final postseason seed in the conference. The New York Jets are still in the hunt, too, even if they lost three in a row. What’s setting up to be a wild final three weeks of the regular season started with what we learned from each team in Week 15. J.J. Watt still got it: Lost in the shuffle of the Cardinals’ anemic offense and poor run defense was Watt turning back the clock in Sunday’s loss to the Broncos. Watt finished with three sacks, three quarterback hits, a pass defensed and five pressures for the Cardinals — leading a pass rush that generated 13 pressures and seven sacks.
Watt has 48 pressures and 9.5 sacks this season, playing 13 games at the age of 33. He can still get after the quarterback at a high rate, despite injuries slowing him down over the past several seasons. Desmond Ridder didn’t make the passing game better: Ridder looked like a rookie making his first career start, missing his first throw on a deep ball to Cordarrelle Patterson — which ended up being a microcosm of his day.Ridder missed on a number of throws as the Falcons’ passing offense was essentially nonexistent, finishing with 89 yards as Ridder averaged a paltry 3.0 yards per attempt. Ridder finished 13 of 26 for 97 yards, along with six carries for 38 yards. He didn’t turn the ball over, so there’s one positive on the day.
The Falcons just need to let Ridder develop in the final three games. Easy to improve from this week’s performance. Greg Roman is likely in his final games as offensive coordinator: The Ravens offense was anemic Saturday, putting up just three points and 324 yards of offense in the loss to the Browns. There’s no passing game in Baltimore with Lamar Jackson out, as Tyler Huntley went 17 of 30 for 138 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, throwing to the likes of Demarcus Robinson, Devin Duvernay, and DeSean Jackson. Even Mark Andrews is ineffective in the passing game, thanks to the lack of weapons at wide receiver. The Ravens can run the ball, but the only real explosive play was a J.K. Dobbins 37-yard run in which he was surprisingly caught from behind (Dobbins is still getting his speed back from his knee injury).
This offense needs Jackson back to save face, but Roman probably shouldn’t be back in 2023 regardless. The mistakes are still there, but they were overcome: Perhaps it was Josh Allen’s heroics that made the mistakes from Buffalo feel like a misnomer in an impressive comeback, but the same small errors almost were disastrous from the Bills. A miscommunication from the secondary allowed a long touchdown to Jaylen Waddle and a roughing the punter penalty extended a drive and ultimately led to a Tyreek Hill touchdown. That’s 14 points on the board after a first half the Bills controlled. Allen even got in on the action, fumbling on a sack that the Bills were fortunate only led to a field goal. If it weren’t for Allen being Allen, the Bills wouldn’t be essentially wrapping up the AFC East and having the inside track toward home-field advantage in the conference right now.
This team is a Super Bowl contender, but the mistakes need to be corrected. Bully ball went the other way around: The Panthers established an identity of being a hard-nosed team that can run the football since Steve Wilks became the interim coach. The Steelers basically copied a page out of the Panthers playbook to beat Carolina — and the Panthers had no answer.Pittsburgh rushed 45 times for 156 yards against Carolina, the most rushing yards the Panthers have given up since Week 9. The Panthers also allowed the Steelers to convert 12-of-16 third downs and control the ball for 36:11. This is the strategy Carolina used to get back in the NFC South race.As for the Panthers? They couldn’t get anything going on the ground. Carolina mustered just 21 rushing yards, its lowest output in a game in 10 years.
Offensive line struggled without Teven Jenkins: The Bears had a scare early in the game when Jenkins went down with a neck injury and was taken off on a cart, leaving Chicago without its best offensive lineman. Without Jenkins, Alex Leatherwood struggled filling in for him — allowing a sack and three pressures. The Bears’ offensive line allowed six sacks and 11 pressures, and Justin Fields still went 14 of 21 for 152 yards and two touchdowns while having 15 carries for 95 yards. The offensive line has been better this year, but needs some tinkering this offseason in order to protect Fields.The vulnerability showed against the Eagles defense. Slow starts are a minor concern: For the third time in four games, the Bengals didn’t have the most ideal start for a football team. Cincinnati ran 14 plays to start the game, throwing an interception on the first possession followed by three consecutive three-and-outs.
The Bengals couldn’t get their run game going early (and never really did throughout the game), relying on Joe Burrow and his ability to provide the quick strike to recover from that slow start. The defense allowing two touchdowns and a field goal in the first half to an anemic Buccaneers offense is a small cause for concern as well.Cincinnati is averaging just 2.3 points per game in the first quarter over the past three games and 10 points per game in the first half of that stretch. This is a minor concern, but these slow starts could be a problem in the playoffs. Takeaways keep coming for the defense: The Browns forced two Ravens turnovers in Saturday’s win over the Ravens, giving them seven over their last three games. Denzel Ward’s interception in the third quarter was a perfect read off Tyler Huntley, setting up a 12-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that gave Cleveland a 13-3 lead. That interception was ultimately a 10-point swing in favor of the Browns.
Late in the second half, the Browns forced a Demarcus Robinson fumble and added to the frustration within the Ravens offense. The Browns also held the Ravens to 0 of 3 on fourth down and 0 of 2 in the red zone, with a crucial stop at the 7-yard line in the first quarter that set the tone for the game. This defense is finally starting to live up to preseason expectations, but is it too little, too late? This team got caught looking ahead: Dallas couldn’t afford to look past a surging Jacksonville team, but Micah Parsons played the team’s hand by making a comment about Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. That wasn’t who the Cowboys were facing this week, as the team had to answer questions regarding Parsons’ comments.
Not only did the defense blow a 17-point lead, it allowed 34 points and 503 total yards to the Jaguars. To cap off the comeback, the defense got the ball back for Dak Prescott, who threw an interception in OT that was returned for a touchdown, which represented the game-winning score.Perhaps Dallas still would have lost if Parsons didn’t make the comments, but the Cowboys proved they looked past an opponent the week prior by struggling for three-and-a-half quarters against the Texans. Those comments didn’t help matters as Dallas needed to beat Jacksonville to keep pace with Philadelphia. Latavius Murray has been their best running back this year: Sure, it was the Cardinals’ run defense, but Murray still put up 130 rushing yards and a touchdown on 5.4 yards per carry in Denver’s win over Arizona. A midseason pick-up from the Saints, Murray has been just what Denver’s run game has needed since becoming the starter four games ago, rushing for 301 yards and averaging 4.9 yards per carry in that stretch.
Javonte Williams was lost for the year in Week 4 and Melvin Gordon was cut after Week 11, leaving Murray and Marlon Mack to fill the void. The Broncos have gotten good carries out of Murray, and should consider brining him back in 2023. Romeo Okwara makes his mark on a resurgent defense: Okwara has spent the majority of the year rehabbing from an Achilles injury, as the Lions have been patient in getting the edge rusher back to 100%. Okwara rewarded that patience in a big way Sunday, finishing with three pressures and two sacks in just his second game back from the injury. Getting Okwara back on an edge-rushing rotation with Aiden Hutchinson and James Houston is massive for the stretch run, especially if Okwara returns to 2020 form. The Lions have been incredibly patient with injured players this year (D.J. Chark, Jameson Williams, Josh Reynolds and Okwara) and each move has paid off during this 6-1 stretch. Matt LaFleur makes wise call to have running backs carry offense: The Packers are still alive in the playoff race because LaFleur has decided to have Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon take some pressure off Aaron Rodgers and the young pass catchers (which he should have been doing all along). One week after rushing for 175 yards against the Bears, LaFleur turned to Jones and Dillon again Monday night vs. the Rams. Both players combined for 28 carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns, with Jones averaging 5.3 yards per carry and Dillon finishing off red zone situations (Packers finished 3 for 5). Jones’ 7-yard touchdown reception also put the game out of reach in the third quarter. Outside of Christian Watson, Jones and Dillon are the two best assets Rodgers has. LaFleur would be wise to keep using them for the rest of the year. Thirty-five runs to 30 passes is a good sign for this team. Davis Mills still has costly turnover at most inopportune time: Mills was fine in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs, completing 12-of-24 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns (92.5 rating), along with a 17-yard rushing touchdown as the Texans took the Chiefs to overtime. Even though Mills didn’t throw an interception in his second start back with the team, the Texans quarterback had a costly turnover in overtime that paved the way for the Chiefs’ victory. Mills fumbled on a scramble on the Texans’ first play of overtime after the defense forced Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense to punt. The Chiefs recovered and got the ball at the Texans’ 26-yard line, as Jerick McKinnon took the ensuing play in for the winning touchdown.The 12 interceptions and five fumbles are why Mills lost his starting job. Even in a solid performance, a turnover proved costly for the Texans — and resulted in another loss. Changes need to be made off the field: This isn’t exactly breaking the mold here, but Jeff Saturday isn’t qualified to be an NFL head coach. Since upsetting the Raiders in Week 10, the Colts have lost four straight games — the last two in grand fashion. Indianapolis allowed 33 points in the fourth quarter to Dallas in a blowout loss and blew a 33-0 halftime lead against Minnesota — allowing the Vikings to have the biggest comeback in NFL history. Saturday’s hire as an interim was made by Colts owner Jim Irsay, who may need to take a step back and allow his front office to run the football operations. Here’s the problem — does Chris Ballard deserve to still be general manager? This Colts mess is his to blame as well, and two straight seasons of missing the playoffs isn’t going to cut it in Indianapolis. The Colts have to revamp the front office and start over. That’s on Irsay to fix — and then he needs to let his new team run the business. The 33-point blown lead was the icing on the cake. Doug Pederson’s heart has an impact on this program: The Jaguars aren’t just going to roll over and play dead under Pederson, as evidenced by Sunday’s 17-point comeback against the Cowboys. Heading into this season, Jacksonville had just one win in franchise history (27 years) when trailing by 17-plus points in a game. The Jaguars have two such wins this year — all in the last six games. That’s the culture of Pederson, who snapped the franchise’s 20-game losing streak to NFC opponents. They also scored 40 points in a game for the first time since 2017. Trevor Lawrence has 14 touchdowns to just one interception in the last six games. The culture has changed in Jacksonville and the Jaguars are starting to win games as a result. The two comeback wins this season prove the Jaguars aren’t an easy out anymore. Running game is clicking at the right time: The Chiefs ran for 189 yards in Sunday’s win over the Texans, with Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon combining for 25 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown (5.5 yards per carry). Not only did the 189 rushing yards tie a season high, but the Chiefs are averaging 133.5 rushing yards a game over the last six games, going 5-1 in that stretch. Kansas City threw the ball 41 times and ran it 33, so there is a commitment to running the ball from Andy Reid. Even better is the usage of McKinnon, who has 266 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns over the last two games (including the walk-off 26-yard touchdown run in overtime). If the Chiefs go to the Super Bowl, the running game will play a vital role in taking the pressure off Patrick Mahomes.Embarrassing streak ended in win: Prior to Sunday’s win over the Patriots, the Raiders have allowed 32 consecutive touchdowns in goal-to-go situations. That streak ended in the second quarter, which played a role in the final outcome. The streak-buster didn’t come easy. The Patriots actually scored a touchdown in the goal-to-go situation two plays earlier, but called a timeout that negated the score. On fourth-and-goal, the Patriots had a false start penalty that took away a Mac Jones touchdown on a quarterback sneak — forcing Bill Belichick to kick a field goal in that situation. If the Raiders don’t hold the Patriots at that spot in the game, the crazy final play doesn’t happen. Self-inflicted by the Patriots or not, the Raiders got it done. Defense rose to occasion in season-defining stretch: Credit to defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill’s unit, which allowed just 31 points against the Dolphins and Titans — and one of those touchdowns was on Tyreek Hill’s fluky fumble return. The defense allowed just 251.5 yards per game and allowed only 109.5 rushing yards per game in that stretch. Los Angeles deserves a lot of credit for a standout defensive performance in consecutive weeks, allowing Justin Herbert to make the plays necessary to get his team consecutive wins. If the defense can keep up this play, the Chargers could be a very dangerous team in the playoffs. Cam Akers turned in his best game of the year: While it’s officially on to the 2023 season for the Rams, head coach Sean McVay has to figure out which players are worth keeping around if Los Angeles is going to make a Super Bowl run next year. Cam Akers is definitely one of those players on the bubble, so having a strong finish to the season will help his chances toward making the team in 2023.Akers finished with 12 carries for 65 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and led the Rams with three catches fro 35 yards. The Rams had an anemic performance on offense, so Akers getting 100 scrimmage yards and averaging 6.7 yards per touch was encouraging. Easily the best game of the year for Akers. Tua Tagovailoa erased the cold weather narrative: Tagovailoa never played in a game below freezing temperatures before Saturday’s showdown in Orchard Park, yet the Dolphins quarterback held his own in a game with lake effect snow on display. Tagovailoa finished 17 of 30 for 234 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions for a 104.0 passer rating, significantly higher than the 61.6 passer rating he carried in the four previous cold-weather games at that point in his career. A few Tagovailoa throws were off, but he made plays to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle when needed. The Dolphins offense did put up 29 points, after all. The Dolphins can hang with the Bills in Western New York late in the season, and Tagovailoa can play well in cold weather. That bodes well if Miami plays in late January. Who is this team?: Hard to believe a team that’s 11-3 and won its division title is as inconsistent as they are. The Vikings have the lowest point differential for any 10-win team after 14 games in league history (+2), thanks to winning all 10 of its one-score games and getting blown out in two of their three losses. Saturday’s first half was one to forget, as the Vikings had a punt blocked, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, gave up a long kickoff return, and Kirk Cousins tripped over his lineman’s foot — resulting in a 33-0 halftime deficit. The Vikings decided to have the biggest comeback in NFL history, as Cousins set a record for passing yards in the second half and overtime (417), going to his talented pass catchers, resulting in four touchdown passes in the second half. We saw the worst of the Vikings in the first half and the best in the second half and overtime. Can this team be trusted to win the NFC and go to the Super Bowl? We just don’t know yet. Hard to explain that final play: Fair if Bill Belichick or Matt Patricia doesn’t want to try a “Hail Mary” on the final play of regulation, but how does Rhamondre Stevenson not just go down on a draw play? The Raiders didn’t even have to bait Stevenson into lateraling that ball — he just surprised Jakobi Meyers with a football on a flip back.What was Meyers doing running around after he got the ball? Not only did Meyers fail to go down, but he tried a lateral to Mac Jones 12 yards behind where Meyers actually was on the field. The end result was Chandler Jones catching the ball and scoring a touchdown — as Jones had no chance to even make a game-saving tackle (and the attempt wasn’t great anyway). Just an all-time blunder by a Belichick-coached team. Hard to see the Patriots recovering from that and making the playoffs. Young core played a key role in win: The Saints have some nice young players on offense to build with in the coming years. Chris Olave (three catches for 53 yards in Sunday’s win) has the makings of a No. 1 wide receiver while Juwan Johnson (four catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns) is proving he’s a No. 1 tight end. Johnson actually has seven receiving touchdowns since Week 7, trailing only A.J. Brown for most in the NFL. Rashid Shaheed (three catches for 95 yards and a touchdown) is a big-play threat in the offense as well. All three of these players are 26 years old or under and figure to be part of the Saints offense for a long time. Add Michael Thomas (if he can get healthy again) and Alvin Kamara to the equation and the Saints have quite a set of skill players.Now, if only New Orleans can get a quarterback. Kayvon Thibodeaux was made for prime time: The Giants’ edge rusher — and top-five pick in this year’s draft — said he was “made for prime time.” Thibodeaux backed up that statement in a huge way, totaling 12 tackles (three for loss) with a sack, forced fumble and defensive touchdown in the Giants’ crucial victory over the Commanders. Not only did the Giants win by eight points, Thibodeaux is the first rookie since at least 1991 to have 10-plus tackles, a sack and a touchdown in the same game. Thibodeaux was the driving force behind the Giants’ excellent defensive effort against the Commanders. The Giants may make the playoffs because of Thibodeaux, who picked a perfect time to have his breakout game in the NFL. Robert Saleh’s time management cost his team: Credit to Saleh for having all three of his timeouts in a three-point game (20-17 deficit) with 1:49 left, but not using any of them is the problem. Saleh didn’t use any of the timeouts until Zach Wilson was sacked at the Jets’ 40-yard line with 25 seconds left, this was two plays after he let 22 seconds run off the clock after a Garrett Wilson reception that went for 10 yards.Saleh admitted he should have called a timeout with 49 seconds left after the Wilson reception, but the mismanagement of the clock evidently caused Greg Zuerlein having to attempt a 58-yard field goal with one second left. With better clock management, Zuerlein could have attempted a shorter kick or Wilson didn’t have to maneuver his heroic throw on fourth-and-18 to even set up that field goal in the first place. A poor sequence of events could have forced overtime. Good for Saleh to admit he has to be better handling the clock in that situation. Jalen Hurts can overcome a bad start: The last time Hurts struggled mightily in the first half of a game was over a year ago — on the road against the Giants in the Meadowlands. Hurts threw three interceptions and compiled a 17.5 passer rating in the loss. Hurts threw two interceptions in the first half of that one, just like he did on Sunday against the Bears. Showing his maturation as a quarterback, Hurts still threw for 315 yards, rushed for 61 yards, and scored three touchdowns in leading the Eagles to a Week 15 victory. To top off the performance, Hurts went 6 of 9 for 102 yards in the fourth quarter with a rushing touchdown (104.9 rating) on a sprained shoulder. Hurts became the first player in league history to throw for 300-plus yards, rush for 50-plus yards and rush for three touchdowns in a game. Not bad for a player who had two interceptions through a quarter and a half. Hurts has played like a top five quarterback all year, even when he turns in a subpar performance. Only the great quarterbacks can do that. A surprising connection for Mitchell Trubisky: Who figured Diontae Johnson would catch 10 passes — yet alone receive 10 targets — from Trubisky? Johnson and Trubisky have a checkered past, but Trubisky went to Pittsburgh’s most consistent receiver in a game Pittsburgh needed to stay alive in a playoff race.Johnson rewarded Trubisky for targeting him, catching all 10 of his targets for 98 yards. The last time Trubisky started a game, there was a reported locker room fight with Johnson that led to Trubisky’s benching for Kenny Pickett. The two let bygones be bygones Sunday. In fairness to Trubisky, Johnson did receive 10-plus targets in Trubisky’s first three starts this year. The connection was there from early in the year, it was just surprising given everything that transpired. Time healed all wounds here. Christian McCaffrey’s impact changed the running game: Who knew adding the best running back in football would make the running game better? San Francisco’s ground game has changed dramatically since trading for McCaffrey, having over 100 yards in seven of the eight games since his arrival (averaging 140.5 rushing yards per game).Over the last two games, the 49ers are averaging 189.5 rushing yards per game — while McCaffrey has 227 yards and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He also has three total touchdowns in that stretch (two rushing, one receiving). The 49ers’ ground game has stepped up since Brock Purdy has been the starter, that’s not a coincidence. McCaffrey could get this team out of the NFC and into the Super Bowl with the way he’s been playing over the last several weeks. Tyler Lockett injury a backbreaker: The Seahawks had trouble moving the ball on the ground Thursday, so naturally Seattle resorted to the pass to get things going. Lockett suffering a finger injury didn’t help matters, as the wide receiver may miss a few weeks (or the rest of the season). Lockett had a receiving touchdown in six straight games prior to Thursday night — and had seven catches for 68 yards before the injury. D.K. Metcalf will be relied on to carry the passing game in his place, but the Seahawks offense is much more efficient with Lockett and a healthy Kenneth Walker in the lineup. Metcalf hasn’t been the big-play receiver (11.7 yards per catch) he’s been in previous seasons either. The Seahawks already have problems on both sides of the ball, mainly the offensive line and run defense. Losing Lockett could be the nail in the coffin for their playoff chances. Did this team forget Mike Evans was on it?: Evans had five catches for 83 yards in the first half of Sunday’s loss to the Bengals, as Tom Brady found him for a 16-yard gain on third-and-8 in the first quarter that led to a field goal, followed by a 33-yard gain (some yardage after the catch was negated by a penalty) on the next possession.The Buccaneers scored 17 points in the first half in what was arguably their best offensive half of football all year. They didn’t even bother to target Evans in the second half outside of one call that drew a pass interference. Just inexplicable for a team that turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions and couldn’t get out of its own way. Ryan Tannehill’s ankle injury limited offense even more: Tannehill left the game in the first half with an ankle injury but quickly returned — yet it was clear the Titans quarterback wasn’t the same player. Not only did Tannehill take four sacks because his mobility was limited, but the Titans ran 47 plays for 273 yards on their final 10 possessions. Tannehill was just 14 of 21 for 163 yards and an interception the rest of the way (70.1 rating) as Derrick Henry (153 scrimmage yards and a touchdown) was the only player keeping the offense afloat. The Titans just don’t have enough weapons on offense to have Tannehill limited to just throwing from the pocket. If Tannehill has to miss a game or two, there goes the Titans’ playoff chances. Brian Robinson didn’t get the ball enough: On a night where scoring points was hard to come by for the Commanders, the one player who provided a spark in the offense just didn’t get enough touches. Robinson finished with 12 carries for 89 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry — by far the best running back on Washington. Robinson played just 24 offensive snaps and received only 13 touches. Antonio Gibson played 38 offensive snaps and had seven touches. Whether Gibson was in the game for blocking purposes or because he’s more experienced, it was coaching malpractice by Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner not to give him the ball more. Robinson was the only one that moved the offense on the ground. The Commanders basically decided to ignore him for half the game.