Sunday’s Week 14 action was a little light on the drama, but it had some sensational moments. From Le’Veon Bell looking like a virtuoso jazz legend in Buffalo, to the Texans and Redskins finding a way (somehow) to win again, and great defensive performances from the Titans, Packers and Bucs, the action was compelling. We also saw how one team (Seattle) could be at a loss without a key defender (Earl Thomas), but people shouldn’t write a eulogy for the Dolphins just because Ryan Tannehill is likely out for the season. All of that and more in our Blanket Coverage of Week 14.
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 14 of the 2016 NFL season:
Go crazy, folks:
Without Earl Thomas, Seahawks may be doomed: Give the Packers and QB Aaron Rodgers credit, because they were outstanding in beating Seattle 38–10 at Lambeau Field. The defense forced five Russell Wilson interceptions and sacked him three times. Rodgers completed 18 of 23 passes for 246 yards, three touchdowns and a 150.8 passer rating. But the most startling thing about that game was how easy Rodgers made it look against the Seahawks’ pass defense. Since the Legion of Boom came to be in 2011, the Seahawks allowed a passer rating greater than 125 just two times (Kevin Kolb on eight passes in ’12 for the Cardinals; Austin Davis for the Rams in ’14). What Rodgers did just doesn’t happen, so you have to look at the absence of free safety Earl Thomas (leg, injured reserve) being the reason for the drop off (of course, the QB throwing five interceptions doesn’t help a defense’s performance). The Seahawks could be in serious trouble come the postseason.
Bell is a marvel: Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell carried his team on his back in a 27–20 victory in snowy Buffalo. Not only did Bell set a franchise record with 236 rushing yards, he had three touchdowns and 62 yards receiving. He had 42 touches overall, and he has 166 total touches since Week 10, so you worry a little bit about the durability for a player that has had trouble staying healthy at the end of some seasons. But you can see why the Steelers lean on him so heavily: Bell is just a marvelous talent. According to the NFL, Bell’s 1,616 scrimmage yards are the second most in a player’s first 10 games of season in NFL history. Only Jim Brown (1,704 in 1963) had more. The thing that stands out most about him is that at a position where strict instructions are so important, like having the right aiming point or hitting the correct hole, Bell’s a master at improvisation to the point that not even his teammates know where he’s going to end up. Most running attacks are like symphony orchestra; they’re so well coordinated. Bell is like one of those great jazz musicians you’d be lucky enough to catch at some hidden bar in New Orleans—he is the Miles Davis of NFL running backs.
Carson Wentz needs to be better: With 21 seconds left, no timeouts and the ball at the Washington 14-yard line trailing by five points, Eagles QB Carson Wentz has to be more aware of the rush and find a way to throw the ball away. Not only did he go to the ground on the sack by Ryan Kerrigan, but he fumbled as well, and that was the end of the game.
Titans dominate on the ground, as expected: In my Blanket Coverage column last week, I said that “the Titans are built perfectly to control the ball against the Broncos’ defense.” Well, in the first half on Sunday, the Titans had a 20:19–9:41 time of possession advantage as they converted 60% of third downs and rushed for 138 yards on 26 carries to lead 13–0. That’s all they needed to beat the Broncos 13–10 and stay in a first-place AFC South tie with Houston with a 7–6 record.
Douglas hit was dirty: Titans WR Harry Douglas almost ended the season of Broncos CB Chris Harris on a dirty low block to the knee away from the ball. And good on Broncos CB Aqib Talib for going after Douglas on the next play to stick up for his running mate at corner.
Clowney, Miller toughness emblematic of Texans: They haven’t had many pretty victories this season, but Houston has found its way to a 7–6 record and first-place tie in the AFC South. A lot of credit goes to OLB Jadeveon Clowney and RB Lamar Miller. After enduring injuries most of the week, both answered the ball and led the team to victory. Miller had 107 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, and Clowney had a sack, two additional quarterback hits and a forced fumble.
Colts, Luck choke against Texans: Despite falling behind the Texans 16–3, the Colts had every opportunity to win this important AFC South game but didn’t because QB Andrew Luck, his offensive line and some of his receivers just weren’t good enough. Luck threw two interceptions but he was under duress most of the game.
49ers hit a new low: I didn’t know it was possible to lose a game where your running back goes for 193 yards (Carlos Hyde) and your defense produces six sacks (two by DeForest Buckner), but the 49ers figured out a way in a 23–17 overtime loss to the Jets. Guess the 49ers haven’t lost 12 straight games for nothing.
Slow your roll
Tannehill’s injury doesn’t change anything for Dolphins: Even with Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ formula to victory was to run the ball, don’t give up big plays on defense, win the turnover battle and throw the ball with efficiency. With Tannehill, if the Dolphins weren’t good enough in the first three categories, the fourth didn’t matter. Now that Tannehill appears to be out for the season with an ACL injury, none of that changes with Matt Moore taking over. Moore is one of the best backups in the league. Tannehill was an averaging starting quarterback. The gap is not that big. The Dolphins can still play winning football, or they’ll finish 8–8: the same as they would with Tannehill.
It wasn’t a dirty hit on Tannehill’s injury: Dolphins players are grumbling that the low hit to Tannehill’s knee by Cardinals DE Calais Campbell was dirty. Campbell was knocked off balance because he was pushed from behind by LT Brandon Albert. End of story.
If you’re making MVP case for Stafford, I don’t want to hear about this game: Yes, the Lions came back to beat the Bears 20–17 on Sunday. And yes, QB Matthew Stafford scored the game winner on a 7-yard scramble into the end zone. But, please, just take the W and move on. Stafford was neither good (two interceptions, 64.3 rating) nor heroic in that game. The Bears are 3–10 for a reason, and Stafford’s touchdown was more about inept defense than a spectacular play.
About Sunday Night
Give credit to the Giants’ defense because they made the plays, but holy cow was the Cowboys’ passing offense dreadful in Dallas's 10–7 loss to the Giants, who swept the season series and gave Dallas its only two losses of the season. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott looked like a rookie, as he was confused throughout, completing just 17 of 37 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Dez Bryant caught just one of his nine targeted passes for 10 yards, and had a crucial fumble.
Both teams combined to convert three of 29 third downs (10%). The Cowboys converted just 1 of 15, and this isn’t just a one-time thing. They were 1 of 9 in a 17–15 victory over the Vikings the week before. At least Prescott converted 66.7% of his passes in that one.
The Giants, who moved one game ahead of everyone in the wild-card scrum, had constant pressure on Prescott and received a monster game from CB Janoris Jenkins, who had an interception, forced fumble and two passes defensed. That’s why the Giants only needed one big play, a 61-yard catch-and-run by Odell Beckham to win the game, despite another boneheaded interception by Eli Manning.
Things don’t get any easier for either team next week as the Giants (9–4) host the Lions (9–4), and the Cowboys (11–2) host the red-hot Buccaneers (8–5). If Prescott and the Cowboys offense don't get back into a rhythm next week, Tony Romo all of a sudden looms a lot larger on the sidelines, although he’ll certainly be mentioned a few times this week, too.
A look at the best and worst coaching decisions from Sunday.
• I’m guessing the ball was supposed to come out quickly, but when you’re the Colts and trailing the Texans 16–10 with the ball deep in Houston territory, how do you decide to block OLB Jadeveon Clowney with tight end Dwayne Allen? Clowney easily beat the block, stripped Andrew Luck and the Texans recovered.
• Loved the fake punt called by Broncos coach Gary Kubiak against the Titans in the third quarter. Denver needed something to get itself going.
• Did the Colts really call a screen pass on a got-to-have-it 4th-and-1 with the game against the Texans on the line, or did I just dream that?
• Not a coaching decision, but who’s the genius that decided it would be a good idea to sweep a turf field at halftime of the Bills-Steelers game? They ended up churning up the crumb rubber and converted the regular snow to a black variety that caused the game to be delayed.
Everybody loves to hate the refs, but let’s take a closer look at how the zebras performed today:
— The “Jeff Triplette Memorial What The Heck? Award” goes to its namesake for announcing that Lions center Graham Glasgow was guilty of illegal hands to the face when it was blatantly obvious that Bears DT Eddie Goldman committed the infraction. I mean, come on.
— How did the officials not give Miami the ball back after Ryan Tannehill fumbled from center? RB Jay Ajayi clearly recovered the ball with possession.
Coolest thing I saw
— Falcons DE Vic Beasley stripping Rams QB Jared Goff from behind, picking up the ball on one bounce and then making like a running back on a 21-yard fumble return. Beasley now has 13.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles. That’s some video game stuff.
— Loved the quick-hitting screen from Andrew Luck to Frank Gore for an 18-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Guards Jonotthan Harrison and Jack Mewhort made great blocks on the play. The play was well defensed. The Colts and Gore were just better.
— The end around to Packers WR Jeff Janis that capped their big victory over the Seahawks.
Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself…
A look at a previously unheralded player (or players) who popped this week:
Damarious Randall, CB, Packers: The 2015 first-round pick had two of the five interceptions against Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. Randall, who missed five weeks after groin surgery, returned against the Eagles and has been rounding into form during the previous three games. His absence (and some others) was part of the reason why the Packers were so bad in the secondary for a long a stretch.
Kenny Stills, WR, Dolphins: The former Saint had a game-high six receptions, and 97 yards and a touchdown in the Dolphins’ win over the Cardinals. Stills was huge on the game-winning drive for the Dolphins with a 12-yard pass and a 29-yard reception to set up the winning field goal.
Numbers sometimes lie
93.1: Rating for Broncos QB Trevor Siemian, who completed 35 of 51 passes for 334 yards and one touchdown. When your team scores 10 points, converts 3 of 11 third downs and doesn’t score a point until there’s 9:58 remaining, that’s the definition of a meaningless stat line.
Numbers sometimes don’t lie
5: The number of important points the Cardinals’ special teams cost the team in the 26–23 loss to the Dolphins. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed an extra point, a 41-yard field goal, and then had an extra point blocked and returned for a two-point conversion.
After the whistle
Everybody needs to stop sleeping on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They may not be sexy and they got off to a bad 1–3 start to the season, but what they’ve done over the past five weeks can be put up against anybody else in the NFL. You want a blowout against a weak team? Bucs did that against the Bears. You want a tough road win against a good opponent? Bucs beat Chiefs in Kansas City. How about a home win against a tough team? Bucs beat Seattle. A road win in a possible letdown scenario? Bucs went to San Diego and won. How about another great defensive effort against a good offense? Bucs shut down Drew Brees and the Saints 16-11 on Sunday. I don’t know what else Tampa has to do to show it’s a contender in the NFC with its five-game winning streak, but they’ll be at Dallas next Sunday night if you need to see for yourself.