Game balls – NFL Week 16

With just two regular-season games left to play, the Packers, Buccaneers and Cowboys have now won their respective divisions, while the Rams and Cardinals have each secured a spot in the NFC play-offs. On the other side of the fence, only the Chiefs have punched their ticket for post-season action by taking the AFC West title and now look a lock for the top seed.

The next two weeks will bring yet more chaos to a season as unpredictable as any I can remember, as the chasing pack scrap for the final Wild Card places. But before that, it’s time to highlight Week 16’s top performers. Game balls at the ready, let’s get to it…

Offensive player of the week

Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Aaron Doster – AP Photo

The Titans have been desperate for their playmakers to return from injury and on Thursday night, AJ Brown came off IR and took just 30 minutes to catch fire in a 20-17 win over the 49ers. After posting just 24 receiving yards before the break, Brown’s second half was a different story. With a highlights reel containing a 42-yarder on a 3rd-and-23 and an 18-yard touchdown catch, he finished the game with career highs of 16 targets, 11 catches and 145 yards. When Brown wasn’t on the field, 49ers WR Deebo Samuel was making hay, with nine catches for 159 yards plus five carries for 32 on the ground. Alas, his streak of rushing touchdowns in five consecutive games – the longest run by a wide receiver in NFL history – came to an end.

On Christmas Day, the Packers’ Davante Adams posted 114 receiving yards and 2 TDs in the 24-22 win over a turnover-happy Browns, while Nick Chubb banged out 184 total yards, adding three catches for 58 yards to his 126 yards on the ground. Then, in the early hours (for us in the UK at least), Indy’s Jonathan Taylor had another big night, opening up with a 43-yard run on his way to 108 yards from 27 carries in a 22-16 win over the faltering Cardinals, who have now lost five of the last eight. Elsewhere, the top rusher of Week 16 was unexpectedly Rex Burkhead, who went off for 149 yards and 2 TDs in Houston’s (equally unexpected) 41-29 win over the playoff-chasing Chargers. In doing so, he nearly surpassed his season rushing record in a single game. The Patriots’ Damien Harris also topped 100 yards and led the TD charts with three rushing scores, even though New England slipped to defeat against Buffalo.

Turning to quarterback, several of the usual suspects had solid outings: Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes all ended the weekend with three TDs and no INTs, while Dallas’ Dak Prescott went even bigger with 330 yards, four passing touchdowns (all in the first half) and no interceptions in a 56-14 shellacking of Washington. But I think we have to hand the game ball this week to JOE BURROW, who had a record-breaking day for Cincinnati in a 41-21 win over their divisional rivals from Baltimore. OK, so the Ravens were missing an absurd number of players through injury and COVID-19, and had to start their third-string QB in Josh Johnson, but you can only beat what’s in front of you – and that’s exactly what Cincy did.

Joey B had served up 299 passing yards and three TDs (and a perfect 158.3 passer rating) by the break, and delivered another TD pass in the second half. His final tally of 37 of 46 for a massive 525 yards is a new franchise record and the fourth-highest single-game total of all time (and only three short of the second-best ever). Inevitably, his colleagues benefitted too: Tee Higgins took his 12 catches for 194 yards and 2 TDs – a game-ball worthy performance in most weeks – while Ja’Marr Chase went for 125 yards from just seven receptions.

But it was Burrow that really caught the eye, ripping Baltimore’s decimated secondary to shreds. He was possibly inspired by dismissive comments by Ravens DC Don “Wink” Martindale during the week about not needing to double-team Chase or buy Burrow a gold jacket quite yet. As edge rusher Trey Hendrickson aptly summarised, “I wouldn’t go round p*ssing that guy off.”  Wise words.

Defensive player of the week

William Gholston, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Grant Halverson – Getty Images

Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr, Houston’s Jonathan Owens and Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde all posted two INTs this week, while Philly LB Alex Singleton and Dallas DE DeMarcus Lawrence joined Houston corner Tavierre Thomas in taking an interception to the house for a TD. Welcome to the pick-six club, guys.

With the officials missing a potential holding call on the last of four Green Bay interceptions against Cleveland, some may dispute the validity of Rasul Douglas’ two-interception game, the second of which sealed the win with 50 seconds left. Nonetheless, Baker Mayfield fully embraced the season of giving, and the Packers corner made the most of the opportunity to reach five INTs for the season. The game-winning takeaway, intended for Donovan Peoples-Jones, was as much a game highlight for the missed pass interference call but maybe Kevin Stefanski should’ve been leaning more on the effective Nick Chubb at that point. Signed off the Cardinals’ practice squad in October, Douglas has two defensive touchdowns and four interceptions in the last four weeks.

Elsewhere, linebacker Carlos Dunlap came away with two sacks, five tackles and a forced fumble for the Seahawks in their 25-24 loss to Chicago while Tampa Bay defensive end WILLIAM GHOLSTON posted 2.5 sacks in their 32-6 destruction of the Panthers. Gholston take the game ball this week for a career day that helped the Bucs to secure their first NFC South title since 2007. Two-and-a-half sacks is the most by any Buccaneer in a game this season and makes Gholston the first Tampa interior defensive lineman with that many sacks in a game since the start of the century.

Coach of the week

David Culley, HC, Houston Texans

Eric Christian Smith – AP Photo

While wins for the Bills against the Patriots, and the Colts against the Cardinals, put Sean McDermott and Frank Reich in the frame for our coach of the week accolade, I can only offer them the game-ball equivalent of silver and bronze medals. For the gold, there is only one winner: DAVID CULLEY, who somehow steered his beleaguered Houston Texans outfit to an impressive 41-29 win over the LA Chargers for their third victory in four games.

On both sides of the ball, the Texans exceeded expectations. Rookie QB David Mills was quietly efficient (21 of 27 for 254 yards and 2 TDs) but also made a couple of big splash plays, including a 41-yard TD pass to Chris Conley. As previously stated, Rex Burkhead led all rushers with 149 yards and 2 scores from 22 carries against a Chargers team missing Joey Bosa (as well as Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams). Mills sprayed the ball around, with five Texans players topping three catches and 30 receiving yards, while the aforementioned Tavierre Thomas returned an interception for a 48-yard defensive TD and Jonathan Owens bagged two takeaways.

Their 41 points were a season high for the four-win team, which was missing Brandin Cooks (COVID-19) and nine other starters; some of their replacements were only signed during the week. So, hats off to Culley and his coaching staff for overcoming the odds and posting Week 16’s top upset.

Play of the week

Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets

Dustin Satloff – Getty Images

It wasn’t exactly clear what was happening at first but the Cardinals’ Christian Kirk faked a punt return catch on the left-hand side of the field. Meanwhile, Byron Murphy quietly took the catch on the right and shot up the sideline from his own 10 and into Colts’ territory. Even the cameraman was fooled… and talking of being tricked, I loved the Lions’ fake punt against Atlanta on a 4th-and-6, in which the punter Jack Fox found KhaDarel Hodge in space for an easy first down.

For a great catch, it was hard to top Tee Higgins’ 52-yard reception where he outleapt two Ravens hanging off him like limpets for a jump ball, then held on to the rock with outstretched arms as he landed. There was also Devonta Smith’s sharp toe-dragging effort for the Eagles in their easy win over the Giants.

As for great runs, how about Byron Pringle’s second score for the Chiefs, ducking one way, then the other, to sit three Steelers defenders on their derrieres and then step into the end zone unimpeded? Or Malik Turner’s amazing multi-directional run for the Cowboys that had Washington’s D chasing shadows? He made 61 yards but probably ran twice that. Matching Turner yard for yard, the Rams’ Brandon Powell banged out a 61-yard punt return for a score, as he tore up the right sideline while directing traffic ahead of him, while the Jets’ Braxton Berrios posted an explosive 103-yard kick-off return TD. His run was pretty much a straight line to the opposite end zone, with sheer pace his main weapon.

But the game ball is headed to Berrios’ teammate in the Big Apple, in recognition of ZACH WILSON’s impressive 52-yard TD run. Down 3-0 in the first quarter on a 3rd-and-5, the Jaguars blitzed with a six-man rush but Wilson somehow escaped from an imploding pocket into open field, and just legged it. Around the Jags’ 30-yard line, a little stutter step eluded defensive back Rudy Ford, then he tiptoed along the right sideline before cutting inside at around the 15, taking safety Andrew Wingard out of the game before crossing the line. The run broke the franchise record for a rushing TD by a quarterback.

Gaffe of the week

The Washington Football Team

Sky Sports

If you lose 56-14 to a divisional foe to ensure a fifth successive losing campaign, you can safely assume things aren’t going well. Your team’s players scrapping with each other on the sideline is another clear sign, so I guess Washington fans could see the writing on the wall when two of their squad decided to have a pop at each other when tempers flared.

It’s a shame you can’t declare like in cricket so the Football Team had to stick it out for a full 60 tragic minutes. Taylor Heinicke only led one scoring drive, and his defence gave up five touchdowns and 389 yards in the first half alone. But the team’s low point on a night of lows was a touchline dust-up between defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Trailing 28-7, a heated conversation spilled over, with Payne shoving his finger into Allen’s head and Allen responding by throwing a right hand at his former Alabama colleague. As Allen said afterwards, “Emotions are high, things happen. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist if you look at how that game went.”

Following the game, Head Coach Ron Rivera said he didn’t see the fracas, but had spoken to both players and decided the matter ended there. Just as well it wasn’t captured on national TV and plastered all over the internet for all to see, over and over again…

Happy New Year from all of us at Full 10 Yards – here’s to a happy, healthy and fracas-free 2022!

Feature image: William Glasheen – USA TODAY Sports

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