Game balls – NFL Week 17

The penultimate week of the regular NFL season saw a few pegs drop into their respective holes, with 10 play-off spots now secured. The Green Bay Packers tied up the No.1 seed in the NFC with a comfortable 37-10 win over the Vikings, while the Eagles, 49ers and Saints all did enough to keep their post-season dreams alive.

Across the fence, the Bengals upset the Chiefs to win the AFC North and punch their ticket for the playoffs, while the Titans took the AFC South and jumped into pole position in the conference. The Bills and Patriots are also assured of play-off football after solid wins, while the Raiders and Chargers now face a win-and-in scenario when they meet next week.

Let’s get to the game balls, which were handed out for storming performances or, in one case, for storming off!

Offensive player of the week

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Enquirer

On the ground, this week’s stars included Rashaad Penny (170 rushing yards, 2 TDs) in Seattle’s 51-29 win over Detroit and D’Onta Foreman (132 yards and a score) for Tennessee in their 34-3 mauling of Miami. In the snow of Buffalo, the Bills also turned to the run game, with Devin Singletary (110 yards, 2 TDs) and Josh Allen (81 yards, 2 rushing TDs) starring in a playoff-securing 29-15 win over Atlanta. Then on Monday night, Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris ran 28 times for 188 yards, including a 37-yard TD to seal a 26-14 win. Harris now leads the league in total touches and if it weren’t for him, Big Ben’s last home game (we assume) might have ended differently.

Only four wide receivers scored multiple TDs this week, and three of them scored with exactly halve their catches (we’ll come to the other in a moment). Seattle’s DK Metcalf caught three of his six receptions in the end zone against the Lions, while the Patriots’ Kristian Wilkerson (replacing N’Keal Harry) and Arizona’s Antoine Wesley (in for DeAndre Hopkins) both registered 2 TDs from four catches. Of the rest of the field, Green Bay’s Davante Adams led the way with 136 yards and a score.

Under centre, Russell Wilson finally found some form with four TDs for the Seahawks, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady attempted 50 passes on his way to 410 yards and three passing TDs in their 28-24 victory over the Jets and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow (last week’s offensive player of the week) topped the charts for a second week. He posted 30 of 39 for 446 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs as the Bengals came from two scores down to secure a 34-31 walk-off victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, ending their eight-game winning streak.

Burrow’s tally of 4,611 passing yards (5th in the NFL) is now a new franchise record and his efforts were essential to Cincy sealing the division crown for the first time since 2015. Yet his partner in crime, wide receiver JA’MARR CHASE, gets the game ball for scoring three TDs and posting almost twice as many receiving yards as anyone else in the league. With 11 receptions from 12 passes for 266 yards (that’s an average of 24.2 per catch), the day definitely belonged to the former LSU wideout. He also set new franchise and rookie records for the most receiving yards in a game and became the first rookie with multiple games of 200-plus receiving yards in a season for at least 70 years.

Exemplifying the type of day he had, trailing 14-0, Chase turned a standard short pass into a 72-yard track meet with the KC secondary, which he won for the score. He also caught an 18-yard touchdown in the second quarter and then posted a 69-yard touchdown early in the second half to cut the Chiefs’ lead to 28-24.

Chase’s total of 1,429 receiving yards (4th in the NFL) is a new league-wide rookie record (pipping former LSU buddy Justin Jefferson’s 1,400 from last year) and he currently has 13 receiving TDs, trailing only the Rams’ Cooper Kupp. “Everything is overwhelming right now. I’m excited, but overwhelmed,” Chase said after the victory. That’s what happens when you receive a Full 10 Yards game ball!

Defensive player of the week

TJ Watt, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Matt Freed – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two players closed out Week 17 with a couple of interceptions. Yet another Seahawk who enjoyed his day, cornerback DJ Reed, was responsible for two of the three INTs that Lions’ Tim Boyle threw, while the Baltimore safety Chuck Clark returned the first of his two interceptions of Matt Stafford to the end zone for the week’s only pick-six.  

The Chiefs’ defensive tackle Chris Jones managed to sack Joe Burrow twice, while the Rams’ linebacker Von Miller and Chicago’s Trevis Gipson also bagged a couple of sacks each in their wins over the Ravens and Giants respectively. Gipson also came away with two forced fumbles in a fine display that had him – and Clark – on my shortlist for defensive player of the week.

That said, by Monday evening, I had Cameron Jordan as the game ball winner in my initial draft. The New Orleans Saints’ defensive end racked up 3.5 sacks as they beat the Panthers 18-10 and kept their faint playoff flame flickering. Jordan contributed exactly half of his team’s seven sacks of Sam Darnold and was only half a sack short of his career-best outing from 2019. He was also credited with three tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and eight tackles. Jordan has notched 7.5 sacks in three games and is now at 11.5 sacks – the sixth time he has surpassed 10 in a season.

But thanks to his exploits overnight, I have now rewritten this section to amend my choice to TJ WATTwe’ve been here before, haven’t we? On MNF, poor old Baker Mayfield got sacked by the Steelers nine times, and four of them came courtesy of the irrepressible Watt, including one credited to him on a quarterback slide. Up against rookie RT James Hudson, the Pittsburgh wrecking machine had a field day, repeatedly beating him around the edge to bat down two passes as well as taking his tally to 21.5 sacks on the season. He’s now just one shy of the all-time record (Michael Strahan’s 22.5) and while this has been the first 17-game season, Watt’s only played in 12 full games (and 14 in total) so his achievements are totally legit.

Coach of the week

Zac Taylor, HC, Cincinnati Bengals

Sports Illustrated

Sure, Sean McVay’s Rams fought back to hold off Baltimore 20-19, but the beleaguered Ravens are currently a shell of their former selves and still relying on a second-string QB in Tyler Huntley. And Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals held on to see off the Dallas Cowboys 25-22 in the late Sunday game, ending a run of three straight losses with solid defence and some Kyler Murray magic. They never trailed and now sitting at 11-5, Arizona can still win the NFC West.

We also can’t ignore the Las Vegas Raiders overcoming the hot-trotting Colts in Indianapolis, emerging with a 23-20 win to keep their own playoffs alive. Left with little hope a month ago, interim HC Rich Bisaccia has overseen three consecutive wins to give Las Vegas a shot at the playoffs next week.

But at the risk of being branded a biased Bengal, it’s hard to see past ZAC TAYLOR as our coach of the week for steering Cincinnati to an enthralling come-back victory against the AFC’s former top seeds, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Of course, ZT didn’t call a perfect game but having opted to punt on a 4th-and-short early in the game – and probably regretted it – he got aggressive and went for it twice inside the final minute with the game tied at 31. And it worked, albeit aided by a couple of penalty flags. Having shipped 28 points in the first half, some unspoken-of sorcery took place in the locker-room during the break and the Bengals D only gave up a solitary field goal in the second half. Their high-octane offence, led by the headline-makers Burrow and Chase, fought back from 14 down to seal the game with a walk-off field goal, securing their first winning season – let alone a divisional title – for six years. For long-suffering Cincy fans, it was the perfect victory and long overdue.

You only have to watch the post-game press conference to know how much it also meant to Taylor, who had endured two- and four-win seasons before now. Overcome with emotion, the third-year HC was barely able to utter “very proud” when first asked how he was feeling.

Play of the week

Jonathan Ward, RB, Arizona Cardinals

AP Photo – Roger Steinman

Where on Earth do we start this week? I had so many plays listed in my notebook that I decided to bash out a top 10 instead. Even so, I wasn’t able to squeak in diving catches by Detroit’s KhaDarel Hodge, the Chargers’ Mike Williams or the Cowboys’ Michael Gallup (who injured his ACL in the process), nor eye-catching runs from the Jets’ Michael Carter or D’Wayne Eskridge for Seattle. I didn’t even have room for Tom Brady breaking Jets’ hearts by hitting Cyril Grayson for a 33-yard TD with just seconds left. But here’s my countdown to game-ball glory: 

10: Amon-Ra St Brown’s spinning 26-yard TD run for the Lions was a fine effort for a team still playing with lots of guts.

9. Antoine Wesley nailed this 19-yard TD catch for the Cardinals in their vital win over Dallas.

8. Harking back to Ja’Marr Chase one last time (promise), his 72-yard TD catch-and-run saw him destroy the Kansas D for speed.

7. The fickle finger of fortune gave the Colts’ TY Hilton a poke this week, when this tipped pass landed in his hands for a 45-yard TD.

6. Allen Lazard twisted and turned to make this stunning TD catch for the Packers. Impressive.

5. In the same game, the sizeable Garrett Bradbury recreated Pittsburgh’s historic “Immaculate Reception”, reacting first to make a finger-tip snare from a pass deflected off a helmet before rumbling forward another 20 yards or so for the Vikings.  

4. For the Chargers, Andre Roberts exploded through the entire Denver team for a 101-yard kick-off return score. Electric stuff.

3. For our third-placed play, we return to Minnesota where KJ Osborn made this unbelievable one-handed catch on a pass that came in over his shoulder and his opponent.  

2. And if you like one-handed catches, look at the speed of reaction by George Kittle of the 49ers as he snagged this 29-yard laser by Trey Lance.

And so to our winner. Amid a wide field of strong contenders, our game ball this week goes to Arizona Cardinals running back JONATHAN WARD. With about 10:30 to go in the second quarter, the Cardinals lined up to punt on 4th-and-2 but ran a fake play. Chris Banjo took the snap and tossed the ball downfield, but it was a little short. However, Ward was able to come back for it and somehow catch the ball against the helmet of cornerback Nashon Wright for a spectacular first down.

This was only Ward’s third-ever NFL catch but he may never make a better one. In terms of difficulty, it looks even more impressive than David Tyree’s famous “Helmet Catch” in Super Bowl XLII, largely because he used someone else’s head rather than his own!

Gaffe of the week

Antonio Brown, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Andrew Mills – NJ Advance Media via AP

ANTONIO BROWN has left the building… possibly for the last time. With the Buccaneers in the middle of a third-quarter drive against the New York Jets, the troubled wideout seemed to be having strong words on the bench before he pulled off his helmet, jersey and pads, threw some of his kit into the crowd and ran off down the tunnel. Fellow WR Mike Evans tried to restrain Brown to no avail, and his exit overshadowed a come-from-behind win sealed with just 15 seconds left on the clock. 

The former Pro Bowler had caught three passes for 26 yards at the time. Afterwards, Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians told the media that Brown had twice refused to join the game, prompting him to tell the veteran wideout to leave. At the time, Arians said that AB is no longer with the team, although no official release has been made yet.

Just a week ago, Brown went on a long rant following his first game in two months, objecting to questions about his reinstatement from a suspension for misrepresenting a COVID-19 vaccination certificate. That outburst followed a number of other high-profile incidents (including allegations of sexual misconduct and threatening text messages, as well as assault and burglary charges) that have seen him bounce from team to team.

I think we can safely surmise that, with this latest controversy, AB’s time in the NFL is probably done. Let’s hope he gets the help he clearly needs. As for the Bucs, with Chris Godwin out for the season, Leonard Fournette on IR and Brown now out in the cold, they’ll have to defend their Super Bowl crown with the likes of Cyril Grayson, Scotty Miller and Breshad Perriman instead.

Feature image: Elsa – Getty Images

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