At least some things could be relied upon. The Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs clinched division titles, sewing up the NFC North and AFC West, respectively. Derrick Henry ran for 215 yards and two touchdowns in a December game. The Jets were plastered as Jamal Adams, their best player before trading him this summer, terrorized their offense and brought them within three losses of 0-16.
The complexion of the NFL changed this week, maybe more than in any other week all season. Here is what to know.
Hurts turned out to be what the Philadelphia Eagles needed. The dilemma of what to do with Carson Wentz remains, but for now the Eagles’ choice to bench Wentz for a second-round rookie kept their dimming playoff hopes alive. Facing one of the NFL’s best defenses, Hurts threw a touchdown pass, ran for more than 100 yards, led the Eagles to a 17-0 halftime lead and stunned the Saints with a 24-21 upset.
Coach Doug Pederson said he wanted “a spark” when he turned to Hurts. He got one. Hurts showed the poise you would expect from a quarterback who started a national championship game as a freshman, a player who became the face of two blue-blooded college kingpins. He completed the Eagles’ first scoring drive with a slick back-shoulder touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery. He took zero sacks, notable against the Saints’ pass rush and because Wentz had a bad habit of holding the ball too long.
The Eagles still need a lot of help, and have a lot of work to do, to claim the NFC East. But in a rotten season, Hurts provided a bright spot, if not promise that he could grow into the kind of quarterback the Eagles believed they had in Wentz.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are leaking oil. For a team that started 11-0, the Steelers looked awfully vulnerable Sunday night. The Buffalo Bills provided a blueprint for how to shut down Pittsburgh’s offense in a 26-15 victory. They blitzed Ben Roethlisberger and played tight coverage on excellent wide receivers with little fear Roethlisberger would or could challenge them deep. As Roethlisberger continued to fire short passes into nonexistent windows, including an ill-fated pass returned for a pick-six, they were proved right.
The Steelers lost control of the top seed in the AFC to the Chiefs, and lately they have inspired little confidence they will do much damage in the playoffs. In the past three weeks, they have barely beaten the Baltimore Ravens with Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley splitting quarterback duties, lost to Washington and gotten outclassed by the Bills, who were powered by Josh Allen’s moxie and the great Stefon Diggs’s 10 catches for 130 yards.
The Steelers were disrupted by the Ravens’ coronavirus issues rearranging their schedule. The next three weeks will reveal whether that was the issue or if they have just been exposed. They also have to worry about the AFC North — the Steelers are only 1½ games ahead of Cleveland, with the Browns set to face the Ravens on Monday night.
The NFC playoff race was a snow globe. At the start Sunday, the Saints held the top seed — and the lone bye — while the New York Giants led the NFC East and the Minnesota Vikings were in wild-card position. All of that changed.
The Saints’ loss allowed the Packers to claim the top spot in the NFC with their 31-24 victory over the Detroit Lions. The Arizona Cardinals entered the week having lost four of five — with the one victory coming on a Hail Mary — and in danger of slipping out of playoff contention. They faced the Giants, who had won four straight. And their seasons headed in different directions.
The Cardinals controlled the entirety of their 26-7 victory over the Giants, taking advantage of quarterback Daniel Jones as he returned from a hamstring injury. Jones completed 11 of 21 attempts for 127 yards, took six sacks and fumbled three times, clearly compromised. Backup Colt McCoy, who led the Giants to an upset of the Seattle Seahawks last week, had to finish the game.
Arizona’s victory allowed it to move back into the playoff picture at 7-6, because the Vikings dropped to 6-7 after a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And New York’s loss proved costly when Washington won its fourth straight, a 23-15 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Packers have the inside track to the Super Bowl. In the offensive system deployed by coaches in the Kyle Shanahan tree, the second year is often when a quarterback finds total comfort and takes a leap. Matt LaFleur is one of those coaches, and Aaron Rodgers has played at an MVP level in his second season under LaFleur.
Rodgers continued his blistering second half of the season by throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Lions. Home-field advantage will be muted by the lack of fans, but a week off and making an opponent venture into the cold of Green Bay would be a significant edge. If they finish with wins over the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears, the Packers will get it.
Rodgers and Mahomes have separated themselves in the MVP conversation. For Rodgers, it comes back to his comfort in the offense. Some NFL insiders believe offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, a name that hasn’t publicly surfaced much, could draw head coaching interviews this cycle.
The Buccaneers haven’t figured it out yet. A late-season bye week seemed to be exactly what Tom Brady and Bruce Arians needed to fix an offense that had not coalesced this season. The Buccaneers earned a 26-14 victory over the Vikings that solidified their place in the NFC playoff picture, but their performance didn’t put to rest the notion that they don’t belong among the NFL’s elite.
The Bucs benefited from Minnesota kicker Dan Bailey, who missed all four kicks he attempted — an extra point and three field goals. The Vikings outgained the Bucs 335 yards to 303. Brady was efficient, completing 15 of 23 attempts for 196 yards and two touchdowns, including a 48-yard scoring pass to Scotty Miller, the forgotten wideout once Antonio Brown arrived. And yet Brady still frequently seemed uncomfortable.
The Bucs came out of the bye much the same as they were before it: a team with enough talent to be great that is merely good.
The Los Angeles Rams have a Super Bowl-caliber defense. Tackle Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey is in the conversation for second best. Those building blocks have helped the Rams lead the NFL in yards allowed per play (4.6) and rank third in points allowed per game (18.9).
A deeper statistical dive reveals an astonishing level of dominance in the second halves of games. In their past 10 games, the Rams have yielded 63 points in the second half. But 14 of those points came when an opponent scored on defense, so the Rams’ defense has allowed only 49 points after halftime in that span. Take out Week 13 against the Cardinals, when they yielded three touchdowns in the second half of a 38-28 victory, and the Rams have allowed only one offensive touchdown in the second half since Week 3.
Coach Sean McVay made one of the best hires of the offseason when he replaced defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with Brandon Staley, an acolyte of Denver Broncos Coach Vic Fangio. Staley may be a dark-horse head coaching candidate in January. His in-game adjustments suggest he is already one of the NFL’s brightest defensive minds.
Washington is no joke. Washington validated its upset of the Steelers by manhandling the injury-depleted 49ers. Dwayne Haskins had to replace Alex Smith after Smith left with an injury. Neither quarterback played well. Washington’s defense made it moot. It throttled quarterback Nick Mullens and scored two touchdowns itself. Chase Young, the second pick in this year’s draft, and Montez Sweat, a first-round pick last year, have become one of the league’s most terrifying pass-rush tandems.
Washington is deeply flawed, especially on offense. But no NFC quarterback could have watched Sunday’s game without trepidation. Washington’s defensive front could ruin a season in January. Just imagine Young and Sweat attacking a stationary quarterback such as Brady, whose Bucs are a game out of the No. 5 seed.
It was a great day for incredible interceptions. It would be hard to design a more impressive interception than covering Tyreek Hill one-on-one and leaping to snare a pass from Mahomes. Xavien Howard, the league leader in interceptions with nine, pulled it off, stealing a touchdown from Hill in the process. Mahomes, who had thrown two picks all season, tossed three in a 33-27 victory.
Howard’s interception, amazingly, had stiff competition for best pick of the day. In the late afternoon, Kenny Moore of the Indianapolis Colts drifted back in zone coverage as Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr tried lofting a pass to tight end Darren Waller in the back of the end zone. Moore skied and plucked the ball out of the air with one hand.
The New England Patriots will spend another offseason looking for a quarterback. The Patriots’ roller-coaster season reached two conclusions Thursday night in the wake of the 24-3 thrashing they received in Los Angeles against the Rams. New England will almost certainly miss the postseason for the first time since 2008, and Cam Newton will not be its starting quarterback next season.
The immense promise Newton showed early in the season had fizzled before Thursday, but his indecision and shaky arm removed any doubt that the Patriots need to move on. In brief appearances, 2019 draft pick Jarrett Stidham has shown little reason to believe he could be the answer. And so the Patriots head into 2021 still seeking Brady’s long-term replacement.
How the Patriots finish the season could determine their quarterback path. They could lose enough to sneak into the top 10 or win enough to pick in the mid-teens. The former may allow them to draft a potential franchise quarterback, while the latter may force them into other avenues.