For those of you who like a bit of precision, you’ll no doubt be keen to know we’re exactly 83% of the way through the regular season. What you may be less keen on is the state of the playoff race: a messy, scrappy logjam. The AFC is particularly tight, with 13 teams currently poised at .500 or better and the team in 13th only one game back from the #4 seed. It’s crazy!
With three teams poised to secure post-season football this week, two of them – the Cardinals and Buccaneers – fluffed their lines with unexpected defeats. Only Green Bay, who retained the NFC North after a one-point win over the Ravens, can be sure of mid-January action. If Week 15 proved anything, it’s that any team can win on any given Sunday… or Thursday, Saturday, Monday or Tuesday…
Let’s check in and see who gets a game ball from Santa.
Offensive player of the week
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
For our whistle-stop round-up of the week’s top offensive players, let’s start in Baltimore where tight end Mark Andrews grabbed 10 catches for 136 yards and two first-half TDs in their 31-30 loss to Green Bay, while stand-in QB Tyler Huntley threw 2 TD passes and rushed for two more. In turn, the Packers clinched their third straight NFC North title under Matt LaFleur on a day in which Aaron Rodgers’ three touchdowns takes him level with Brett Favre’s franchise record (442). The Dolphins’ win over the Jets will also be remembered for Duke Johnson notching 107 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns – both firsts in his seven-year career.
Then on Tuesday night – yes, Tuesday! – Cooper Kupp again came to the rescue for the Rams, adding 136 yards and two TDs from nine receptions in a 20-10 win over the Seahawks. Kupp still leads the field in his pursuit of the Triple Crown of receptions, receiving yardage and receiving TDs (a feat only achieved three times since 1970). And in the other Tuesday game, Eagles TE Dallas Goedert racked up a career-high 135 yards on just seven catches in a comfortable 27-17 win over the Washington Football Team (as well as a rare off-the-heel fumble). But reflecting Philly’s balanced attack, the league’s no.1 rushing offence also played its part, led by Miles Sanders (131 yards) and Jalen Hurts (two rushing touchdowns).
If you’ve been reading this column every week – and thank you for that if you have – you’ll have seen Jonathan Taylor’s name crop up once or twice… and this week is no exception. On Saturday night – yes, Saturday! – the Indianapolis running back was again the difference-maker in the 27-17 win over the New England Patriots. When the game reached the final two minutes with the Colts up by three, Taylor reeled off yet another stunning home run, jinking past a couple of defensive backs before racing off into the wild blue yonder for a 67-yard TD to kill the game. The score capped a 29-carry, 170-yard night for the second-year RB, who walked off Lucas Field to chants of “MVP! MVP!” Almost single-handedly keeping Indy in the hunt for the AFC South title, the 22-year-old has now scored in 11 straight games and leads the league with 18 total TDs and 1,518 rushing yards – over 400 more than his closest rival and just 192 shy of the franchise record.
But for the game ball winner, let’s cast our mind back to Thursday night, when the Kansas City Chiefs overcame the Los Angeles Chargers 34-28 in OT, went two wins clear of the Bolts in the AFC West and became the conference’s top seed. After a decidedly shaky 3-4 start, KC have now won seven straight and are back to their ominous best, with Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce – arguably the most destructive trio in football – firing on all cylinders on TNF. Mahomes did have an interception and a fumble, but his 31 passes for 410 yards and 3 TDs made up for it. No.15 led his team (down by seven in the final minutes of regulation) on a 75-yard, eight-play drive in just 93 seconds to tie the score at 28, with a 20-yard scrambling throw to Hill and a 39-yard scamper just two of the highlights.
On a night when Kansas’ running backs should’ve feasted against one of the league’s weakest run defences (Clyde Edwards-Hilaire managed just 32 yards), Hill and Kelce combined for three scores and 339 yards. Hill’s 12 catches for 148 yards and a TD were special enough and take him over 1,000 receiving yards for the season, but our game-ball winner TRAVIS KELCE was at the heart of this victory. He finished with 10 of 13 for 191 yards and two touchdowns, rattling off five catches for 142 yards in the fourth quarter and OT alone.
Like a postie at Christmas, he delivered when it mattered most: with his team down 21-13 in the fourth quarter, a 69-yard rumble took him to the 1-yard line. Trailing 28-21 with under two minutes remaining, he snatched a seven-yard touchdown pass to force overtime. And then, on just the fifth play in OT, he and Mahomes connected once more. Having cut across the field and taken a catch over the middle, the ‘elder statesman’, as HC Andy Reid calls him (he’s only 32), charged through the LA secondary for a 34-yard game-winner.
Kelce had averaged just 4.7 catches for 57 yards over the Chiefs’ previous six games and had just one TD in that time. But in SoFi Stadium, he had season highs for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, and topped 1,000 total yards for the sixth straight season.
Defensive player of the week
DJ Wonnum, DE, Minnesota Vikings
On Sunday night, the Saints’ Cameron Jordan was a key factor in their shutout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jordan posted five tackles, three QB hits, two tackles for loss, two sacks and forced a huge fumble on Tom Brady. Jordan’s efforts make him only the second Saint ever to reached 100 career sacks.
The Steelers’ TJ Watt also made mischief again in their 19-13 win over the misfiring Titans. Watt notched 1.5 sacks to maintain a league-leading total of 17.5 on the season (and set a franchise record to boot), in addition to three QB hits, seven pressures and a fumble recovery.
There were a couple of fine defensive displays in the Seahawks/Rams game last night, with Quandre Diggs intercepting his former Lions teammate Matthew Stafford for the second time this season; he’s now posted five INTs in back-to-back seasons. Seattle’s Carlos Dunlap did his best to stifle Stafford too with three sacks and three tackles for loss.
Monday’s 17-9 win for the Vikings against their divisional foes from Chicago was, not surprisingly, more about the defences of both teams. The Bears’ Akiem Hicks led a defensive unit that restricted the league’s No.3 offence to just 193 yards. Hicks had five tackles, two sacks, four quarterback hits and two tackles for loss while teammate Robert Quinn recorded two more sacks, taking his sack streak to six straight games and his total to 16 for the season.
But the game ball goes to Minnesota’s second-year defensive lineman DJ WONNUM who, I confess, I’ve never heard of before now! He led the way as the Vikes D ensured that 17 points was enough was for the W. Wonnum sacked Justin Fields three times (doubling his season’s tally) and racked up a career-high eight tackles, as well as two tackles for loss and four QB hits. His name is on my radar now for sure.
Coach of the week
Dennis Allen, DC, New Orleans Saints
Franck Reich’s Colts saw off the AFC pace-setters from New England with an impressive 27-17 win that keeps them in the hunt for the AFC South title. As previously mentioned, Reich leant on Jonathan Taylor’s rushing abilities, especially with Carson Wentz having a tough ol’ time of it (5-of-12 for 57 yards), but they were far from one-dimensional. Their defence blocked and recovered a punt for a touchdown, and linebackers Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke each intercepted Mac Jones, maintaining the Colts’ record as the only team with at least one takeaway in each game this season.
Two weeks ago, I awarded Dan Campbell the coach of the week for securing Detroit’s first win of the season and he certainly deserved another this week with his feisty Lions destroying the Cardinals 30-12. Everything clicked: Jared Goff was accurate and reliable (21 of 26, 3 TDs, 0 INT) and Craig Reynolds (who?) gashed the Cards for 122 yards, keeping Kyler Murray on the sideline. And the defence did the business, with Charles Harris bagging 1.5 sacks, two QB hits and three tackles for loss, and Amani Oruwariye making a diving interception (a play of the week contender for sure). On paper, it looked like a rout waiting to happen, with the Lions’ 28th overall defence facing the #4 scoring offence as 13-point underdogs. It was indeed very one-sided, but just not in the way we’d all imagined. Detroit may end up losing the first draft pick with their second win in three games, but I guess it’s more important for Campbell to right this sinking ship.
But for me, the game ball has to go to DENNIS ALLEN, the New Orleans Defensive Coordinator – and stand-in Head Coach, with Sean Payton testing positive for COVID-19 – for shutting out Tampa Bay in a 9-0 win. The current champions could’ve secured their passage to the playoffs but the Saints had other ideas, with their own post-season hopes on the line. OK, we have to concede that the Bucs lost Leonard Fournette, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans to injuries during the game, but Allen’s charges shut out Tom Brady for just the third time in his highly decorated career (the last time it happened, in 2006, none of his current teammates were even in the league).
Brady was sacked four times, threw an interception and fumbled the ball, while the Buccaneers’ top-ranked scoring offence posted just 302 total yards. Thanks to the defensive performance of the aforementioned Cameron Jordan, as well as Marcus Davenport, Demario Davis and David Onyemata, the Saints are now tied for the last playoff spot in the NFC at 7-7 and postseason action is still within their grasp.
Well handled, Mr Allen.
Play of the week
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Going back to Saturday night against the Pats, the Colts’ Matthew Adams blocked a Jake Bailey punt and EJ Speed hunted it down for his second blocked punt TD of the season –becoming the first player with multiple punt block return TDs in a season since 2003.
If you like a long lump downfield, the mahoosive Mahomes throw to Tyreek Hill in the third quarter of KC’s game with the LA Chargers was quite something. On a 3rd-and-10 from his own 38, Mahomes dropped back a further 10 yards or so before unleashing an absolute howitzer to Hill, who’d burst up the left side. The diminutive WR hauled in the catch at about the LAC 24, gaining half the field in one play. Chunk!
For balance, let’s also give props to the Chargers’ Uchenna Nwosu, who snagged his team’s only INT of the night. With KC penned back on their own 9-yard line on a 3rd-and-2 in the final quarter, Mahomes lofted a screen pass that was well spotted by the linebacker. Nwosu used all of his 6’2” to jump vertically (like in the Combine) and finger-tip the ball back to himself as he fell to earth. It was a vital play as it set up an Auston Ekeler TD on the very next snap, giving the Chargers a 21-13 lead.
For the Giants against Dallas, one of the few highlights in a 21-6 loss was Saquon Barkley making a block at the line of scrimmage, then stepping away to make an amazing one-handed catch, snaring the very end of the ball with his fingertips on a short throw from Mike Glennon. The move prompted the Fox TV commentator to enthuse “Come on, Saquon – wow! God, I love this game!”
You want more reasons why we love this game? How about Chester Rodgers bashing out an amazing 55-yard punt return for the Tennessee Titans against Pittsburgh? With the score still at 0-0 in the first quarter, Rodgers collected the ball on his own 20-yard line, headed left and tore up the sideline. With more sharp cuts than a sashimi chef, he then went diagonally across midfield, leaving would-be tacklers in his wake, and well into opposition territory before finally getting hauled down at the Steelers’ 35.
And travelling even further, Tremon Smith’s kick-off return in their 30-16 vanquishing of the Jaguars went for a 98-yard touchdown. With the Jaguars kicking a FG to close to 7-3 with a minute left in the first quarter, Smith collected the ensuing kick-off on his own 2-yard line. He then charged through a pack of Jags defenders like a battering ram and broke free around the halfway line to deliver Houston’s first kick-off return TD for 12 years.
But the game ball goes to KYLER MURRAY for some escapology exploits against Detroit (check out 3:40 in this link). On a 3rd-and-9 on his own 38, Murray got chased, harried and hustled all the way back to the 12 by the on-rushing pride of Lions. Yet somehow, with a bit of ducking and diving, he found enough time and space to launch a missile to a (well-guarded) AJ Green on the ARI 44 for the first down. An absolutely magical play by the mercurial Murray – just a shame for him that a game ball was all he won this week.
Gaffe of the week
The New York Giants PR team
I don’t think we can call it a gaffe, but Ravens HC John Harbaugh played to win and came unstuck for the second time in three weeks. Backup Tyler Huntley led his team to within a point of the Packers and Harbaugh faced the choice of kicking a game-tying PAT or attempting a go-ahead two-point conversion. Harbaugh went for two, Huntley’s pass to TE Mark Andrews fell incomplete and they lost 31-30. Baltimore faced this exact scenario against the Steelers just two weeks ago and again, Andrews was unable to reel it in. Add last week’s 24-22 loss to the Browns, and the Ravens has lost three consecutive games by a total of four points.
Harbaugh’s logic is easy to understand. His team had 17 players on IR, five more on the COVID list, plus four other starters inactive. They could be the most beat-up team in NFL history, if such a stat has ever been tracked, and by the end of the game, he only had fourth- and fifth-string cornerbacks able to face another 10 minutes of MVP favourite Aaron Rodgers. With all those injuries and an undrafted rookie at QB, reducing the game to a single offensive play made perfect sense. It just didn’t pay off.
Tom Brady having a toddler temper tantrum isn’t quite a ‘gaffe’ either but watching his increasingly irate reaction to scoring nul points was quite fun for the neutral. The Saints only scored nine points so the game was there for the taking but Brady played badly. After an interception, TB12 ran over to the Saints bench and – according to the top lipreaders on social media – told them to go and do something unmentionable to themselves (where does that rank on the taunting scale?!). He also yelled at the officials and took out his frustrations on a tablet while sitting on the sidelines. You’d like to think that the GOAT could handle defeat with a little more grace and humility.
But for the gaffe of the week, we travel to the Big Apple. On the week before Christmas, the NEW YORK GIANTS organisation decided to hold a Fan Appreciation Day. Unfortunately, it appears supporters enduring their fifth-straight losing campaign aren’t that appreciated after all. Season ticket holders (not even all fans) were given a free gift, which was… drum roll please… a voucher for a medium soda! Big wow. Cue PR disaster.
With Mike Glennon throwing three INTs and no touchdowns in their 21-6 loss to the Cowboys, Giants fans got pretty much nothing for Christmas – not even a large Pepsi. Let’s hope they all headed home and found a stiffer beverage with which to drown their sorrows.
And with that fairytale from New York, I’d like to wish you a Merry Christmas from everyone at Full 10 Yards – we’ll see you on the other side!
Feature image: Nathan Ray Seebeck – USA TODAY Sports