An Oregon reunion in Las Vegas, a farewell to hope in New York, and a potential franchise quarterback in Philadelphia highlight a wild week of football. Here are the NFL Week 15 Divisional Takeaways.
AFC East: Step Away From the Ledge, Jets Fans
Division Leader: Buffalo Bills (11-3)
New Yorkers aren’t all rude and abrasive, that’s just the Jets fans.
Now you know why.
The Jets’ 23-20 win over the Rams on Sunday was a stunner, sure, and it was also the biggest NFL upset of the last 25 years. We can dive into the details more when we look at the Rams, but for the purposes of the Jets, there are really only two storylines that matter here.
- The 2020-21 Jets will not join the begrudgingly famed list of winless NFL teams.
- The 2020-21 Jets have lost, at least for now, the number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
For players and coaches, managing to keep from going 0-16 isn’t just a matter of pride; it also means avoiding a blemish on their resume that cannot be ignored. From a fan’s perspective, though, is there really that much of a difference between 0-16 and 1-15? Usually, I’d say no. For fans, whether it’s zero wins or one win, they’re both completely humiliating. A year to forget. This season, however, that one win would mean something, because it would put their shot at the number one pick in jeopardy. The journey through manure and nails would be all for not. The Jets had their close call in a near-win against Las Vegas in Week 13, but all was well entering Week 15.
To remain winless, all they needed to do was lose to two playoff teams in the Rams and Browns, before ending the season with a road loss to the Patriots. That would guarantee them the top pick in next year’s draft. This was so easy even the Jets couldn’t mess it up, right?
Wrong. They blew it.
Of course they did.
Maybe they’ll get lucky and Mitch Trubisky will find a way to blow the Bears’ Week 16 matchup with the Jaguars. He seems to have hit his groove the last few weeks, and people have stopped hurling expletives his way, so naturally, the pendulum will soon swing back to its natural center. More likely, though, is that the Jaguars will now own the first pick in the upcoming draft. On their way down the home stretch to changing the franchise’s perception and identity, the powers that be in New York decided to step back and let Adam Gase drive the last few miles.
Is it any surprise this man didn’t get them home safely?
AFC North: Pittsburgh’s Honeymoon is Over
Division Leader: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3)
Have you ever had a relationship that started off perfectly?
A few months in and despite some close calls, the instincts you had that something was bound to go wrong continue to be proven false.
Then one day you go see a movie. While it was an enjoyable experience, you’re pretty panicked when the film ends and your seemingly normal partner begins applauding. Internal concern grows. You talk yourself off the ledge and reassure yourself you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. You figure there’s no way after such an incredible beginning to the relationship you could have been so completely wrong about someone.
Then, the next day, the impossible happens. Walking down the street you run into an adorable puppy. You pet the little dog and scratch under their collar. You turn to your partner to see if they want to join in the revelry. They tell you they’re “really more of a cat person.”
This is the story of the 2020-21 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh’s 27-17 Monday night loss to the Bengals was the final straw; the shine is fully off. After starting the season 11-0, the Steelers have now dropped 3 in a row, including this embarrassing upset loss to the now 3-10-1 Cincinnati Bengals. Injuries on defense have hurt them. Their poor rushing attack has caught up with them on offense. Regardless of circumstances, though, for a team with Super Bowl aspirations and so much confidence just a few weeks ago, this is the kind of loss that is simply inexcusable.
A week ago I wrote that this matchup with Cincinnati was Pittsburgh’s fail-safe. As long as they won this game, which seemed obvious, they had the division clinched. With their Week 15 loss, now nothing is certain. They face the Colts and Browns in their final two weeks; two playoff teams looking to solidify their own post-season positioning. The conference’s number one seed a few weeks ago, it’s now possible Pittsburgh could fall to as low as the sixth seed by season’s end.
Oh Pittsburgh, you could have been the one.
AFC South: Jacksonville is Florida’s Team
Division Leader: Indianapolis Colts (10-4)
Bear with me here.
As part of Florida’s blood pact with Satan which awards them unreasonable political power in exchange for being the Devil’s earthly representative, the dark lord deemed fit to also gift the lawless swampland three NFL franchises. At least one will be underwater within the next few decades, but we can chalk that up to some of his patented trickery.
This year, two of those teams (Miami and Tampa Bay), are set to make playoff appearances.
The third, Jacksonville, is the worst team in the league. In true Florida fashion, they will likely be awarded for their horrors with a number one pick in the upcoming draft, and a potentially generational quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. Before you object, I know there’s a case to be made for the Jets being the worst team in the league. I would argue, however, that the Jets are the worst organization in football. I know there’s a lot of sadness in New York this week about losing out on the chance at Lawrence, but if we’re being honest there was a 65% chance they would have spent that pick on a guard from the Big-10.
The Jets are bad without offensive weapons; their yardage leader is 39-year-old Frank Gore. The Jaguars actually have a handful of young playmakers, but between their coaches and system, they’re too bad to even get those players the ball effectively. Maybe we’re splitting hairs and it’s a matter of perception. Maybe it’s like going to multiple Arbys and trying to decide which was worse.
To me, the Jaguars are the worst team in the NFL. An embodiment of their home state, they will never be respected too little or reviled too much.
The Jaguars are Florida’s team.
AFC West: Ducktales Part II
Division Leader: Kansas City Chiefs (13-1)
It might be the closest we’ll ever get to a professional Oregon football game.
With Derek Carr injuring his groin early in the second quarter, the Raiders were forced to turn to their backup quarterback for the remainder of the game. Just like that, it was Justin Herbert vs. Marcus Mariota. The two best Oregon quarterbacks of the past decade were facing off against each other in front of a national audience on Thursday Night Football.
You know the term Sophie’s choice? In reference to the movie Sophies Choice? Wherein a mother (Sophie) has to choose between which of her two children will die? Fuck Sophie. The younger child lives, not too complicated. Do you want to talk about tough decisions? Who was I supposed to root for? I’ve written before about what these two quarterbacks mean to me as a native Oregonian and University of Oregon graduate, and now my allegiance was going to be tested.
The whole game was just wonderful.
After being left for dead following five seasons of mismanagement in Tennessee, Mariota came in and looked like a legitimate NFL quarterback. This was the former Heisman Trophy winner and second overall draft pick we knew. He racked up over 300 total yards and 2 touchdowns, and until a late-game interception, social media was abuzz with hot-takes declaring him the superior signal-caller in Las Vegas.
Herbert, likewise, was sensational. He’s been impressive all season, and this game was no different with the rookie quarterback throwing for 314 yards and 2 touchdowns, tallying a 121.4 QBR. He also added a rushing touchdown, the game-winner, to cap off his team’s 30-27 overtime win. The playoff implications were significant. With the loss, Las Vegas now sits two full games behind the final wild-card spot. That gives them less than a 1% chance at making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.
This wasn’t about playoff positioning, though. This was about two kids from Eugene exchanging blows on a national stage. It was about a mentor versus his mentee. Jedi against Padawan. Big brother battling little brother.
Less than 24-hours before the University of Oregon football team would claim the PAC-12 title with their win over USC, Duck fans watched as two of their greatest quarterbacks of all time added a new chapter to the Oregon Football story. It was the best moment of the weekend. It was the best Oregon football moment of the season.
There’s not a single Duck fan who would say otherwise.
NFC East: A Silver Lining (Playbook?)
Division Leader: Washington Football Team (6-8)
It really looked like he was going to do it.
In just his second professional start and only a week removed from upsetting the New Orleans Saints at home, Jalen Hurts had a chance late in the 4th quarter to continue his run of magic, this time against the Arizona Cardinals on the road. Down 7 points with 1:32 remaining in the game, Hurts and the Eagles got the ball back on their own 22-yard line before marching down the field to the Arizona 31. With 15 seconds remaining, Hurts had 3 shots at the endzone to force overtime. Each time, he evaded pressure. He even forced a final jump-ball as time expired. Unfortunately for the Philly faithful, this time, there was no storybook ending. Fortunately for Eagles fans, they have something to be excited about.
Philadelphia’s 33-26 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday was disappointing, but the positive signs from their young quarterback surely outweigh the frustration of a single loss. Hurts threw for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns. He rushed for 63 yards and another score. More important than any number in the boxscore, his presence has given this Eagles team new life. It’s been particularly visible on defense; last week with the unit turning over Taysom Hill at key points and this week forcing a 3-and-out to get their offense the ball back at the end of the game.
It’s only been two weeks. Whether Hurts will be able to sustain this level of play once his opponents have scouted more of his film and tendencies remains to be seen. For now, though, fans in Philly can relax and be content with the fact that… oh god who am I kidding have you seen what these people are capable of?
Godspeed, Jalen Hurts. Godspeed.
NFC North: Minnesota’s Scheduled Off-Year
Division Leader: Green Bay Packers (11-3)
Next year, watch out for the Vikings.
Since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, Minnesota has never made the playoffs in consecutive seasons. They’ve also never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. With their 33-27 loss to the Bears on Sunday, the Vikings now sit 6-8, with less than a 2% chance to make the playoffs. Recent history tells us that should mean a solid rebound next year, and there’s not much that points to any significant shakeup this offseason. The offensive core of Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen should remain. The defense, which has been atypically poor this season, is likely to improve given Zimmer’s pedigree on that side of the ball. The question, though, is how far this team can go, and what the ceiling is in its current iteration.
Cousins signed a two-year contract extension this past offseason, but despite showing flashes throughout his career, he doesn’t appear to be a quarterback capable of carrying his team to a championship. Cook is likely a top-3 running back in the league, but his young career has been plagued by injuries and an inability to stay on the field. Thielen presents another dilemma; an inarguable talent that has failed to show consistency in the biggest games.
If the defense returns to form as one of the league’s best, perhaps the conversation shifts. If Cousins has a career year and the combination of Cook and Thielen stay healthy and consistent, along with that potentially re-tooled defense, watch out.
For the time being, the Vikings’ most positive indicator for next season will be their failure to make the playoffs this year. They better enjoy it, because the 2022-23 season will be rough.
NFC South: Falcons Concede Ownership to Brady
Division Leader: New Orleans Saints (10-4)
In a lost season for the Falcons, Matt Ryan and company had one thing on their minds: revenge.
Just four seasons removed from their epic Super Bowl collapse against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Atlanta had an opportunity to deliver Brady and his new team in Tampa Bay their 6th loss of the season, potentially throwing a wrench into their playoff plans. At halftime, the Falcons led 17-0 and Brady had just 70 yards passing. The Buccaneers got the ball to start the second half. Brady marched the team down the field in a 7 play, 80-yard drive to set up their first touchdown. Was it happening again? Not so fast. Ryan and the Falcons responded with their own 7-play touchdown drive, making the score 24-7 with just over 7 minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
Then Tampa Bay scored again, and the score was 24-14. Atlanta punted. Again, Buccaneers touchdown, the score 24-21. Atlanta punted. Finally, it was a Ryan Succop field goal that tied the score at 24-24. Just like that, Atlanta’s 17-point lead had vanished. Eventually, the Buccaneers would take the lead for good, beating the Falcons 31-27, forcing Atlanta fans to look in the mirror for self-reflection.
This wasn’t the same as the blown 28-3 Super Bowl lead from 2017. For the sake of the people in Atlanta, I truly hope nothing eclipses that heartbreak. This was more of your garden-variety 2020-21 Falcons disappointment, the 7th one-possession loss of their 10 total losses. Still, this one has to sting. If you’re a Falcons fan or player, you simply want this season to end without more embarrassment.
No one deserves this.
NFC West: Oy Vey, McVay
Division Leader: Seattle Seahawks (10-4)
The Rams 23-20 loss to the previously winless Jets gave us all a lot to think about.
For me, I can’t tell if this game was more a lesson in why you should never gamble or the clearest distillation ever for why people do gamble.
Nevertheless, for the Rams, the question should be whether through 15 weeks they have any confidence in quarterback Jared Goff’s ability to play with consistency. Since their Week 9 bye, Los Angeles is 4-2. In those wins, they’ve looked impressive, with Jared Goff limiting mistakes and distributing the ball well. Excluding Los Angeles’ Week 14 blowout win over the Patriots, where Goff wasn’t asked to do much with a sizable lead and Rams’ running backs racking up 186 rush yards, the 5th year quarterback has averaged 343 passing-yards and a QBR of 100.5 in their other three wins since the bye. In their two losses, Goff has averaged 203.5 yards with a QBR of 70.9 per game. Additionally, their two losses have seen him match his turnover total (4) from those four wins.
Head coach Sean McVay was clearly disappointed with the team’s Week 15 performance. With good reason. Even if you remove the context of the loss, forcing Los Angeles from atop the division and bringing a cloud of doubt over the team’s post-season viability, this loss was historically bad. The talent on the Los Angeles sideline should have beaten this Jets team with ease.
The Rams now face off against the other two playoff contenders in their division, on the road versus Seattle in Week 16 and at home against Arizona in Week 17. Win those two games, and they win the division. For that to happen, they’re going to need Jared Goff.
Which version of their $100-million quarterback shows up?