Game balls – NFL Week 14

This week, wins by the Packers and Buccaneers failed to secure January football because of results elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost to the Rams, making this only the third season since 1978 without a team clinching a postseason spot by Week 14. At the other end of the spectrum, the Jets, Jaguars and Lions officially dropped out of contention, joining the Texans in looking ahead to the 2022 NFL Draft and planning their summer holidays.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s plenty of Week 14 action to pick through, as we find homes for the latest batch of shiny new F10Y game balls.

Moment of the week

Denver Broncos honouring Demaryius Thomas

AP Photo

Before we get started on the game balls, let’s just raise a glass in the general direction of Mile High Stadium where Denver honoured the legendary Demaryius Thomas, who died last week aged just 33. The Broncos lined up with 10 players for the first offensive play of the game against Detroit, while receiver Courtland Sutton stood on a big #88 painted on the sidelines. The team also wore #88 on their helmets. RIP DT.

Right, on to business…

Offensive player of the week

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Brace Hemmelgarn – USA TODAY Sports

In Tampa Bay, the 33-27 OT win over the Bills featured a season-high 113 rushing yards from Leonard Fournette, who seems to be turning into Playoff Lenny with a few weeks to spare. Buffalo’s Josh Allen led a fantastic fightback with 308 passing yards and 109 on the ground (his first 100-yard rushing game of the season) while Tom Brady (363 yards, 2 TDs) surpassed Drew Brees to become the NFL’s all-time record holder for career completions (7,156).    

While we’re taking quarterbacks, it seems that Aaron Rodgers still owns the Bears, improving to 23-5 against them with a 45-30 win. He delivered on 29 of his 37 passing attempts for 341 yards, 4 TDs and, importantly, no interceptions. Two of those touchdowns and 121 of those yards were shared with Davante Adams. The latest win in this one-sided rivalry leaves the Packers on the cusp of a third consecutive NFC North title.

Elsewhere, Niners TE George Kittle left Cincinnati with 13 receptions for 151 yards (the weekend’s top receiving tally), a TD and the W, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to post 150+ receiving yards and a touchdown in back-to-back games. Seattle’s Rashad Penny had a career day against the Texans (137 rushing yards, 2 TDs) while teammate Tyler Lockett tallied 142 receiving yards on just five receptions – including a 55-yard monster – in the 33-13 Seahawks victory. Melvin Gordon III rushed for 111 yards (impressive symmetry with his name there) and 2 TDs on his return from injury as the Broncos demolished the Lions 38-10 while Alvin Kamara also returned to action after four weeks away, helping the Saints to snap a five-game losing streak with 145 scrimmage yards and a TD in a 30-9 victory.

Then, overnight, Cooper Kupp excelled in the Rams’ victory over Arizona, leaving the desert with a career-high 13 receptions, 123 yards and an incredible game-winning touchdown on a tight-window pass from Matt Stafford. Topping 90 receiving yards for the ninth game in a row, Kupp leads the league in terms of receptions (113), receiving yards (1,489) and receiving TDs (12). That’ll be quite the hattrick if he can pull it off.

But for our game ball winner, we have to go back to Thursday night, when DALVIN COOK also returned from injury in time for a rollercoaster ride against Pittsburgh. Just 11 days after dislocating his shoulder and tearing his labrum, Cook not only suited up – albeit with a brace – he poured scorn on the ‘questionable’ status he’d carried earlier in the week by going nuclear, with 27 carries, 205 rushing yards and two TDs in a 36-28 win that keeps the 6-7 Vikings in the playoff hunt.

His initial carries of 20 and 30 yards were a hint of things to come, and by half-time – with the home side 23-0 to the good – #33 had logged 153 rushing yards from 14 carries. The Pittsburgh D (ranked 27th for run defence) offered precious little resistance as he burst through enemy lines and into the secondary with alarming regularity. Kirk Cousins was having an off day with just 14 completed passes but it didn’t matter; Cook carried the load at 7.6 yards a pop. As well as rushing scores of 29 and 7 yards, Cook also caught a 17-yard pass.

Inevitably, he couldn’t keep up the pace and Pittsburgh fought back with 28 second-half points. It proved to be yet another Minnesota game decided in the final possession (that’s 12 of 13 games now), with Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth failing to haul in a would-be TD pass as the clock hit zero. So, all praise to Cook for registering 20 more rushing yards than anyone in a single game this season, leaving him third in this season’s standings (978 rushing yards) and fifth in the all-time list for Vikings rushers.

Defensive player of the week

Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

Getty Images

Let’s get some of the usual names out of the way first, shall we? Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson recorded a sack in his ninth straight game in their OT 26-23 loss to San Francisco, equalling the fourth-longest streak in NFL history and taking his total to 12.5. Micah Parsons was at it again too, beating Brandon Scherff for a strip-sack that was scooped up for a touchdown by Dorance Armstrong. The first-year Cowboy followed up with another sack and five QB pressures. It marked his sixth straight game with at least one sack and takes him to 12 for the season, putting Jevon Kearse’s rookie record of 14.5 in grave danger.

We can’t leave out Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, who recorded a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown in their win over the Ravens. His 15 sacks this season (second only to TJ Watt) is a new franchise record. And while I don’t think Ahkello Witherspoon is a household name yet, the Pittsburgh cornerback did his best to change that with his first two interceptions of the year (only Kirk Cousins’ fourth and fifth INTs of the season), as well as four tackles and three passes defensed against the Vikings on TNF.

Being totally transparent, until this morning, the game ball was heading to San Francisco DE Nick Bosa, who sacked his old college chum from Ohio State, Joe Burrow, twice. The second turned the tide of the game with the score tied at 20 in overtime, forcing Cincy to settle for a field goal; the 49ers responded with a game-winning touchdown drive. Bosa could’ve had three sacks if his first hadn’t been ruled out by a penalty against cornerback Ambry Thomas. Nonetheless, Bosa’s total of 14 is the most for a 49er since Aldon Smith set a franchise record (19.5) in 2012.

So what changed overnight? AARON DONALD doing Aaron Donald things, that’s what. The game-changing defensive tackle sacked Kyler Murray three times in the Rams’ MNF win over the former NFC top seeds, the Arizona Cardinals. Donald called the shots from start to finish, bullrushing Max Garcia to get to Murray on the very first play; getting him again in the second quarter; and, with the game on the line, drawing a holding call that negated a 15-yard run by Murray before sacking the diminutive quarterback with the last play of the game to preserve the 30-23 scoreline. The Aaron Donald Show also featured five tackles and a crucial pass deflection that resulted in an interception on the edge of the end zone.

As Head Coach Sean McVay said, “This guy is the epitome of competitive greatness. Really proud of Aaron, not at all surprised. He’s a special player, special person. You felt his presence from the very first snap to the last one. He was outstanding tonight.”

Coach of the week

Sean McVay, HC, Los Angeles Rams

Gary A. Vasquez – USA TODAY Sports

Talking of SEAN McVAY, I had been umming and ahhing over this game ball all day Monday (hope the boss doesn’t read this) and didn’t even have a shortlist, but I think the Rams’ 30-23 win last night made my mind up for me. Beating the league’s only 10-2 team and moving to within a game of first place in the NFC West definitely caught my eye, especially as LA had been misfiring of late (three consecutive losses after a 7-1 start). Jalen Ramsey and Tyler Higbee joining Darrell Henderson on the COVID-19 list wasn’t going to help matters either.

But I was wrong. Against a top-five defence, McVay called a great game and all his big stars shone under the bright lights of primetime. Matt Stafford (287 yards, 3 TDs) had a solid outing, Cooper Kupp shredded the Arizona D all over the field, Odell Beckham Jr (77 yards, 1 TD) continued to find his feet, Van Jefferson (58 yards, 1 TD) proved he’s a real threat and Sony Michel (79 yards) ran hard. Offensively, it was the NFL equivalent of the totaalvoetbal played by the Dutch in the 1970s – a well-oiled machine with everyone working in harmony. On the other side of the ball, Kyler was intercepted twice and sacked four times, while our game-wrecking defensive player of the week, Aaron Donald, feasted from (literally) the first snap to the last. 

In short, McVay delivered, and also made the most of the opportunities that came his way, while the Cardinals didn’t create enough, and therefore failed to punch their playoff ticket. LA were tough, both mentally and physically, and turned the tables on the Cards, who had bullied them back in Week 4. They’ve won two in a row now and they’re only one game back in the NFC West. Maybe they’ve turned the corner, who knows, but this win – and it was just one win – seems bigger than most. If this is the way the Rams are going to play down the stretch, then everyone else in the NFC, and indeed the league, is on notice.

Play of the week

Chase Claypool, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

AP Photo

Looking back through my notes, one of the first plays I liked was the massive 59-yard TD bomb from Justin Herbert to Jalen Guyton just before half-time as the Chargers overcame the Giants 37-21. Then there was the 97-yard punt return TD against the Packers by Chicago’s Jakeem Grant, who dinked, jinked and exploded down the left sideline to give them a 10-point lead. Grant had already burst through the Green Bay ranks for a 46-yard rushing score a few minutes before, somehow staying in bounds despite a last-gasp attempt from Rasul Douglas to take him down. (Douglas himself scored a 55-yard pick-six earlier in the game, his second in as many weeks.)

What else? Ah yes, the touchdown connection between a scrambling Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase walking a tightrope at the back of the end zone was also a corker in the game with the Niners, while a 52-yarder to Van Jefferson shows that Matt Stafford has a cannon for an arm.

But for sheer athleticism, it’s hard to beat CHASE CLAYPOOL’s spectacular diving backwards catch two minutes from the end of the Pittsburgh/Minnesota game last Thursday. Penned back with his heels almost in his own end zone, and needing a score, Ben Roethlisberger defied the doubters with a huge throw to the rookie receiver near the halfway line on a 2nd-and-4. Vikes CB Bashaud Breeland was all over him like a rabid octopus but despite the pass interference, Claypool – who was on the outside track, close to the sideline – kept his eyes on the ball and hauled it in as he fell to the ground. One of the catches of the season for me.

Gaffe of the week

Darius Phillips, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

Sam Greene – The Cincinnati Enquirer

No messing around here – after last week’s Ja’Marr Chase fumble, I’m … err … cutting to the chase this week. Just one runner-up for now, and we were that close to awarding two game balls to the same player for the first time!

With the Steelers down by eight and trying to tie the game with Minnesota, Pittsburgh had a 4th-and-1 at the Vikings 43 with under a minute left and no timeouts at their disposal. Chase Claypool caught a pass for the first down, but instead of hurrying to get his team in place to spike the ball and stop the clock, he spent time signalling for a first down while on one knee. One of his teammates came over and pulled him up like a parent with an unruly toddler, as Claypool was obviously too focused on himself. Losing valuable time, his celebrations probably cost this team an extra play that could’ve tied the game.

But that’s all ifs and buts so, for the second week in a row, a Bengal takes this unwanted game ball (just to prove there’s no bias in my deliberations!). To make an error once is unfortunate and if it costs you points, that’s not great. But if you do it twice, and both blunders cost your team points, then you’re in gaffe of the week territory, I’m afraid. Step forward DARIUS PHILLIPS for two dropped punt return attempts, both of which were recovered by the 49ers and converted into 10 points. In a game that went to overtime, that’s a killer.

The cornerback’s initial muffed punt return in the first quarter led to a turnover on Cincy’s 23, with WR River Cracraft emerging from the pile of bodies with the ball. While Phillips’ defensive colleagues then forced a three-and-out, the Niners still put three points on the board thanks to a Robbie Gould FG. Injuring his shoulder in the scrum, Phillips left for treatment and the ensuing kick-off return was caught, fumbled and only just recovered by Stanley Morgan. Yikes, who ordered Not-So-Special Teams?!

Phillips returned from the locker room and returned a punt for eight yards before muffing another one at his 31 just before the break. With the Bengals down 10-6, they were set to close the half in the ascendency. Instead, Phillips called for a fair catch but spilled it, letting the 49ers take over at the CIN 30; George Kittle notched a 14-yard TD a few plays later, establishing a 17-6 lead at the half. Not surprisingly, slot receiver Tyler Boyd took over punt return duties for the second half and I think we can expect someone else in the role next week.

As Zac Taylor said afterwards, “We know that’s unacceptable and we have to be better at taking care of the football. It’s kind of been our Achilles heel in a lot of our losses.” If there was a game ball for understatement of the week, that would be going to the Head Coach’s office at Paul Brown Stadium.

Feature image: Brace Hemmelgarn – USA TODAY Sports

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