NFL Week 15 Blanket: The playoff-bound Oakland Raiders are officially back

0:47 | NFL
Sunday's Top Performers: Week 15
Sunday December 18th, 2016

That sure seemed like Separation Sunday, as in separating the contenders from the pretenders. Teams like the Steelers, Texans, Ravens, Packers and Raiders did enough to get the job done but lingering questions remain. The Patriots, Giants and Falcons dominated to stake their claims as contenders in their conferences. And then you had the Lions and Broncos come up woefully short in performances that call into question whether they’ll even be in the postseason. The intensity is ratcheting up with playoff berths and jobs on the line. Let’s get nuts…

Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 3 of the 2016 NFL season:

Go crazy, folks

The Raiders are back: For the first time since 2002, the Oakland Raiders are going back to the playoffs after their 19–16 victory over the Chargers. It was a complete team victory with Latavius Murray running, QB Derek Carr making a few plays,  Sebastian Janikowski hitting four field goals, and a relentless pass rush in crunch time. Just win, baby.

Patriots have a defense: The Broncos might not be the prettiest offense out there (ok, they’re putrid), but for the Patriots to hold Denver without a first down for the entire third quarter (three drives) and most of the fourth (two drives) is an accomplishment for anyone. The Patriots snuffed out the Broncos’ running game (3.4 yards per rush), harassed Trevor Siemian (four sacks) and made Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders no-factors until the game was decided. Who knows how good the Patriots’ defense really is? Does it really matter in today’s NFL? They’re executing at a high level, and can evolve from game to game and down to down. That’s usually a good formula.

Stay classy, Jacksonville: Gus Bradley wasn’t the greatest coach for the Jaguars, to be sure, but he represented the team well and conducted himself with class. He did not deserve to be fired in Houston, and then have to ride the plane with the team. Bradley deserved to be fired with some dignity back home after the flight.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, Mike Mularkey: I don’t care if the Titans eventually beat the Chiefs 19–17, it was not the right call by Titans coach Mike Mularkey to go for the two-point conversion down 17–16 with 3:12 remaining in the game. The Titans should have kicked the extra point to tie it, and if they somehow got a chance at a game-winning field goal, all the better. If they had one timeout left then, yes, I could see them being aggressive, but they had zero remaining when they made that decision. After missing the two-point conversion, the Titans needed such a confluence of events to win, the risk was not worth the reward. As it happened, those events transpired. Chiefs coach Andy Reid called a keeper for QB Alex Smith on third down, and then called a timeout on the Titans’ first field-goal attempt, which was no good. In any event, it was still a great victory by the Titans, who have beaten the Packers, Broncos and Chiefs in the past month. And a tremendous kick by Ryan Succop from 53 yards to beat his old team.

NFL
NFL playoff picture: Seeds, standings and division titles on the line in Week 15

The Chiefs shot themselves in the foot: Kansas City twice had a first down at or inside the Titans’ 10-yard line and came away with zero points. Up 14–7 in the second quarter, the Chiefs went for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1 and failed. In the third quarter, Alex Smith threw a pick in the end zone. That’s why they lost.

O’Brien finally makes the choice he had to make: It’s never easy to admit a mistake, but faced with an embarrassing 13–0 deficit against the lowly Jaguars and after Brock Osweiler threw his second pick in as many quarters, Texans coach Bill O’Brien finally benched Osweiler in favor of Tom Savage. Savage, who might have appeared a few games earlier if not for an elbow infection, isn’t perfect (man, are his feet slow moving back from center) but he operates the offense much more efficiently thanks to better arm strength. Savage completed 23 of 36 passes for 260 yards to help Houston emerge with a 21–20 victory it needed to have.

Giants defense is awesome: New York has now gone 27 drives without giving up a touchdown, and that includes entire games against the Cowboys (sixth in the league in scoring) and the Lions. Even with CB Janoris Jenkins out for much of Sunday’s game, the Giants just kept thwarting Matthew Stafford and the Lions. The Giants’ method of operation is time tested: stop the run, make your opponent one dimensional and mix coverage and rush.

Rodgers, Nelson come up big for Packers: One of the few knocks on Aaron Rodgers is that he doesn’t have many game-winning drives or clutch moments, but he had a huge one to beat the Bears 30–27. On third-and-11 from his own 26-yard line, Rodgers lofted a perfect 60-yard pass to Jody Nelson to set up the game-winning field goal. With that Packers win and the Lions’ loss to the Giants, we’re one step closer to an NFC North championship game between Green Bay and Detroit in Week 17.

There’s no quit in Barkley, Bears: Chicago trailed Green Bay 27–10 in the fourth quarter and, at 3–10, it would have been easy for the Bears and QB Matt Barkley to give up. But they mounted a ferocious comeback, with Barkley completing 30 of 43 passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns, and Jordan Howard posting 90 yards on 17 carries, to tie the game at 27. Don’t know if Barkley is the answer, but he’s played very well at times down the stretch.

Steelers get the job done: It wasn’t anywhere near pretty (they trailed 20–6 in the second quarter) but the Steelers did what they had to do in their 24–20 win over the Bengals. The Steelers couldn’t afford to lose that game, and it would have been just another example of the Steelers failing to live up to their talent. But thanks to six Chris Boswell field goals, they keep trucking along.

Slow your roll

Stop giving Elway credit on Osweiler: A lot of uniformed people are patting Broncos team president John Elway on the back for not signing Brock Osweiler this off-season, after the QB was benched by the Texans on Sunday. Elway is excellent at his job, among the best in the league, but let’s stick with the facts, people: A.) Osweiler did a very good job in Gary Kubiak’s system. B.) The Broncos offered Osweiler $16 million per season. C.) The Texans offered $18 million, which the Broncos declined to match. D.) Osweiler has proved that he’s not as good of a fit for Bill O’Brien’s system as he was in Kubiak’s. E.) The Broncos stand a good chance of not making the playoffs this season, and it’s possible they would have if Osweiler remained in Denver.

 Just because Osweiler has failed thus far in Houston does not mean he would have failed in Denver. They’re two entirely different schemes and situations.

 

 

Ravens are struggling: The Ravens are fortunate that rookie Eagles coach Doug Pederson went for two points and the win—and failed—with 4 seconds remaining, because Baltimore was reeling and in jeopardy of blowing its season. (I’m not a fan of going for the win when your team busts its butt to come back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter; you’ve got momentum on your side, make the other team have to beat you). Again, Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg got too pass-happy having Joe Flacco throw on first down from the Eagles 11 with 6:21 remaining. Just run it three times (the Ravens had been great at running the ball all day) and take the field goal if you have to. The “win” by the Ravens sets up a likely AFC North division title game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh on Christmas day.

Saints-Cardinals played highest scoring game of the season: Yay, that’s awesome for them and fantasy football players. But it also perfectly illustrated why both of those teams, with plenty of talent in a lot of areas, will be watching the playoffs from home come January. That kind of game shouldn't be celebrated, it should be mocked. 

Arrowhead isn’t that scary anymore: Everyone’s afraid of playing the Chiefs in the postseason, partly because Arrowhead Stadium is such a tough place to play. Well, it’s losing a bit of its luster: they’ve lost to both the Buccaneers and Titans at home in the past month.
 
 

About Sunday Night

The Cowboys completely dominated the Buccaneers statistically on Sunday night, in total yards (449 to 276), rushing yards (185 to 52), passing efficiency (99.0 to 55.3) and turnover differential (Cowboys were plus-3), but the Buccaneers still had a chance to win the game with 1:36 to play. As was the case for most of the game, Tampa Bay just wasn’t quite ready for the big stage as QB Jameis Winston couldn’t get the ball down the field thanks to good pressure from the Cowboys (DE David Irving had two sacks overall).

The Cowboys had just enough problems with penalties (8 for 91 yards), poor offensive execution in critical situations (38% third downs), conservative play and two missed field goals to lead you to believe that they’re a good team, but far from a great one. Not many teams will be scared to go into Dallas in the playoffs because it has a hard time pulling away.

Dubious Decisions

A look at the worst coaching decisions from Sunday.

Mike McCarthy going for it on fourth down in the second quarter instead of taking a field goal to go up 10–0. The end of the game might not have been as dramatic as it turned out to be if he had just taken the points.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson going for two points and the win with 4 seconds left against the Ravens.

Titans coach Mike Mularkey going for the win against the Chiefs with no timeouts left.

Bill O’Brien calling a fourth-down fade to DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone.

Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg electing to have Joe Flacco pass with 6 minutes left at the Eagles’ 11-yard line. Flacco threw an interception that allowed Philly to come back.

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley calling an end around to Sammy Coates at the Bengals’ 18 that lost 6 yards with 8:26 left in the fourth quarter. Luckily, Ben Roethlisberger bailed him out on the next play with the game-winning score to Eli Rogers.

Officially speaking

Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today: 

Ed Hochuli announced a touchdown on a Jaguars pass that was incomplete. It was corrected, but still….

— Not sure what Carl Cheffers’s crew saw when it called roughing the passer on Cardinals LB Sio Moore on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter (Arizona was trailing by seven points at the time), but it cost the Cardinals a legit shot at winning that game by basically handing the Saints a 14-point lead. And Bruce Arians had every right to lose his mind.

Tony Corrente’s crew inexplicably called a blatant drop by Odell Beckham Jr. a catch in the Giants-Lions game.

Corrente also missed an obvious forcible blow to the head of Matthew Stafford by Giants NT Damon Harrison on a big third down in the third quarter. 

Coolest thing I saw

— Cardinals RB Kerwynn Williams running 49 yard for a touchdown with one shoe on. I’ve seen runs with one shoe before, but not sure I’ve seen a touchdown that long with one wheel on.

Honorable mention

— The one-handed interception by Chiefs safety Ron Parker.

Giants DB Leon Hall forcing a Lions fumble at the 3-yard line.

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…

A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:

Ty Montgomery, RB, Packers: The converted receiver (he wears No. 88) had 162 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries against the Bears. Of course, this isn’t the first time Montgomery has subbed at RB with Eddie Lacy and James Starks out with injuries, but he hadn’t broken 60 yards previously. Montgomery looked like a natural.

Numbers sometimes lie

76.2: Completion percentage for Vikings QB Sam Bradford. Normally that would translate into a victory. Well, the Vikings scored all of six points in their 34–6 loss to the Colts that wasn’t nearly that close. Bradford completed 32 of 42 passes for 291 yards, or 6.9 yards per attempt.

Numbers sometimes don’t lie

8.1: Average per attempt for Bills RB LeSean McCoy in Buffalo’s 33–13 victory over the Browns. It has turned into a lost season for the Bills, but McCoy has been sensational. He had 153 yards and two touchdowns on 19 attempts against the Browns.

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It's not easy being green: Mike McCarthy's tough, complicated season in Green Bay

After the whistle

It’s all set up now, the AFC North de facto championship on Christmas Day between the Steelers (9–5) and Ravens (8–6). I guess I should be excited. But I’m not. This is the first time in a long time where these two teams are playing a meaningful game late in the season and I’m far from jacked up to watch it. Both teams have been so underwhelming this season. The Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell (for most of the season), have beaten the Chiefs and Giants this season, but they’ve also lost to the Eagles, Dolphins, Patriots, Ravens and Cowboys. Shouldn’t a contender win a few more of those games? Not to mention the Steelers trailed the Bengals 20–6 on Sunday and most of the Steelers’ comeback came off four-straight field goals. Then you have the Ravens, whose signature victories this year have come against the Steelers and … the Dolphins? And the Ravens themselves were fortunate on Sunday to have the Eagles go for two points when the Ravens looked to be on the ropes had the game gone to overtime. Yes, it will be an important game on Christmas that figures to be compelling. And each team has the potential to wreak havoc in the postseason. But it sure doesn’t feel like they will. It’s a shame these teams aren’t better at this point.

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