Game balls – NFL Week 18

One final slate of 16 games. One final shot at making the playoffs for half a dozen teams. One final chance of a regular-season Full 10 Yards game ball. Need I say more?

Oh, OK then, if I must… 

Offensive player of the week

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Sky Sports

The 49ers came from 17-0 down to beat the LA Rams 27-24 in overtime to earn their spot in the play-offs, with wide receiver Deebo Samuel making his mark. Samuel ended the game with 95 receiving yards, 45 rushing yards and a touchdown, and even threw a touchdown pass too. Apologies to Messrs Garoppolo and Lance, but Samuel was probably the Niners’ WR1, RB1 and QB1 this week!

Week 18 brought us quite a few other 100-yard performances. On the ground, Rashaad Penny (190 yards, 1 TD) led the way, followed by Latavius Murray (150, 1 TD), Antonio Gibson (146, 1 TD) and Alvin Kamara (146) while our receiving stars were Rob Gronkowski (137 yards), Darnell Mooney (126) and Russell Gage (126, 1 TD), and Cedrick Wilson (119, 2 TDs). Next up was Cooper Kupp (118), who becomes just the fourth player ever to take the triple crown of league receptions, receptions yardage and receiving TDs, while the Texans’ Danny Amendola also deserves a nod for his 113 yards and 2 TDs.

Despite their loss, the Rams still won the NFC West as their closest rivals, the Cardinals, lost 38-20 to Seattle. Russell Wilson threw three TDs and also ran one in to win what could be his last game for the Seahawks. Other three-TD performances included Tom Brady, Davis Mills, Matt Stafford and Kirk Cousins while Ryan Tannehill went one better with four touchdown passes as the Titans clinched the AFC top seed with a 28-25 win at Houston.

But let’s go back to Saturday night, when the Cowboys eased past the Eagles 51-26, with their opponents resting several key players ahead of the playoffs. The NFC East winners racked up 475 yards of total offence, converted 8 of 13 third-down attempts and DAK PRESCOTT went 21 of 27 for 295 yards and five touchdowns. Yes, almost 20% of Dak’s throws were touchdown passes and that’s not a bad stat line for a QB who was rested in the fourth quarter. As well as Ced Wilson’s two scores, TE Dalton Schultz also snagged a couple, both just before half time, and Corey Clement also bagged an 8-yard touchdown reception.

With this high-five outing, Prescott broke Tony Romo’s single-season franchise record for passing TDs with 37. And a F10Y game ball is a fine way to round off the regular season and set yourself up for a Wild Card tilt against San Francisco.

Defensive player of the week

Bobby McCain, S, Washington Football Team

Bill Kostroun – AP Photo

Some of our regular favourites (Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons for example) sat this week out but TJ Watt did equal the all-time NFL sack record with one against the Ravens. That takes his total to 22.5 for the season as the Steelers squeaked into the playoffs with a 16-13 win.

Elsewhere, the Niners’ Arik Armstead posted 2.5 sacks and seven tackles in their 27-24 win over the Rams, while loads of others players got two sacks, including Anthony Barr, Carlos Dunlap, Julian Okwara, (the other) Josh Allen and Jadeveon Clowney. Another, Maxx Crosby, also piled up six tackles, three tackles for loss, three passes defended, four QB hits and a career-high 11 QB pressures but I have a feeling I may need to keep my powder dry on him for another week.

In addition, 16 players rounded off the regular season with an interception, two of whom – Minnesota’s Patrick Peterson and the Dolphins’ Xavien Howard – were among the five defensive TD scorers this week. Another of those – Washington safety BOBBY McCAIN – wins our Week 18 game ball, as he took one of his two INTs to the house for a pick six, as well as recording three passes defended.

The Football Team struggled to put up points, despite playing the anaemic New York Giants, and managed just two field goals in the first half, even though they outgained Big Blue 177 yards to 48. Luckily, their defence decided to help them out. Late in the third quarter, McCain stepped in front of a pass intended for Evan Engram and sprinted 30 yards for a touchdown and a 12-0 lead for the first of his two takeaways.

Coach of the week

Nick Bisaccia, Interim HC, Los Angeles Raiders

Rick Scuteri – AP Photo

With the Jaguars and Lions beating the Colts and Packers respectively, both Darrel Bevell and Dan Campbell could legitimately lay claim to our coach of the week game ball this week. But I can see no more deserving a recipient than interim Head Coach NICK BISACCIA, whose Las Vegas Raiders pulled off a thrilling OT win against the LA Chargers to reach the NFL play-offs.

It was a win-and-in scenario in this year’s final regular-season game, and even a tie would’ve seen both teams qualify for postseason action. The Chargers fought back from 29-14 down to force overtime and the score was still level with two seconds left – the tie was on (conspiracy theorists, please form an orderly queue). But Daniel Carlson kicked the clutch FG from 47 yards as time expired to make Bisaccia the first interim HC to lead a team to the playoffs in the Super Bowl era. On a night when Raider Nation honoured the late John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach who passed away a couple of weeks ago, Bisaccia’s team revived his famous mantra: “Just win, baby!”

Derek Carr (186 yards and two touchdowns) did enough to win, and he set a new franchise record of 4,804 yards in the process. He is now due to play in his first playoff game, having missed out in 2016 with a broken leg. Maxx Crosby also had himself one helluva game, as outlined above, as the Raiders finished the season with two of the NFL’s top three in QB pressures (Maxx Crosby #1 and Yannick Ngakoue #3.) Then there was Carlson’s game-winning kick – the sixth time this season that they’ve won on the final play, the fifth time it’s been courtesy of Carlson’s leg and the fourth settled in OT.

The tense, dramatic walk-off win is just another example of how Bisaccia has triumphed over adversity in recent weeks, turning things around for Vegas just when it looked like it might implode in catastrophic fashion. Having inherited the hot seat in the wake of Jon Gruden’s departure under a cloud,  it’s been one tough break after another. Their top wideout Henry Ruggs III was released after a fatal car accident. Their starting cornerback Damon Arnette was also let go after making threats on social media while holding a gun. And they lost five of six games from November to early December, including a 48-9 spanking by the Chiefs. Their season looked all but over as they slipped to 6-7 after a strong start.

But Bisaccia has turned this supertanker around, completing four consecutive wins (all by no more than four points) to earn his side a Wild Card game with the Bengals on Saturday. A month ago, that looked unlikely, if not impossible so fair play to Bisaccia for making it a reality – and for making this game so much better than the kneel-a-thon many had tried to wish into existence.

Play of the week

Detroit’s trick play department

Rey Del Rio – Getty Images

Oh my, another toughie!

There was Rashaad Penny’s 62-yard rushing TD, a one-handed interception by the Saints’ Paulson Adebo and a fine helmet-aided TD catch by teammate Tre’Quan Smith. And for the Rams, a huge INT from cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who tipped a Jimmy G pass and juggled it a couple of times before finally completing the interception on his own goal line, was only rivalled by Tyler Higbee’s arching TD catch.

In the aforementioned Jags/Colts game, Trevor Lawrence recovered from a high snap, fended off a Colts defender and rolled out to the right before firing a TD pass on the run to Marvin Jones at the back of the end zone. Incredible stuff from young Trev. I also enjoyed the Davis Mills flea flicker that sent Chris Moore into the end zone for the Texans.

But for the game-ball winner, I couldn’t decide between TWO TRICK PLAYS BY DETROIT… but as they were by the same team, it doesn’t matter! A win against Green Bay meant they avoided the wooden spoon and they certainly threw everything including the kitchen sink at it, emerging the victors by 37-30. With their first bit of discombobulation, Jared Goff handed the ball off, it got shovelled back to WR Tom Kennedy and he floated a well-judged pass to a wide-open Kalif Raymond to run in for a 75-yard score.

Later on, the Lions dialled up another corker from the Magic Circle playbook and again it came off. Like a game of pass the parcel, the ball went through the hands of three players before coming back to Goff in a kind of reverse/flea-flicker/triple handoff hybrid. He picked out Brock Wright, who tore off down the sideline before diving inside the pylon for another superb TD.

Anyway, Dan Campbell seems to have an endless choice of creative plays up his sleeve and he’s not afraid to use them so I look forward to seeing what he dials up next year.

Gaffe of the week

The Colts losing to the Jaguars

Robert Scheer – IndyStar

I’m not wandering down the path marked “Brandon Staley’s late timeout cost the Chargers a playoff place” cos that seems a lot of stuff and nonsense. But where I am going with this can be summed up as JAGUARS 26, COLTS 11. Not so much a gaffe as 60 minutes of unexpectedly error-strewn football.

For Indy, the scenario was simple and seemingly easy: win against a 2-14 Jacksonville team lined up for the No.1 overall pick in the draft, and they were in. But the heavily favoured Colts, having won eight of their last 10 (including victories over the Bills, Patriots and Cardinals), lost. Badly. Even then, a little help from their friends would have saved the day but the Steelers’ OT win over the Ravens eliminated them from the playoffs altogether.

The NFL’s top team in turnover differential lost the turnover battle 2-0 to the league’s worst, and it could have been even more – they recovered two other fumbles and Carson Wentz’s interception was almost two. He was also sacked half-a-dozen times, threw for just 148 yards and completed 58% of his passes, while his O-line was outgunned by the Jacksonville D, who made three big fourth-down stops.

Indy only found the end zone once – on their final possession – which merely cut a 23-point deficit to 15. They were outgained 318 yards to 233, went 4-of-12 on third downs and even would-be MVP Jonathan Taylor rushed for just 77 yards on the day.

“I never expected to be sitting here having this moment right now, not like this,” HC Frank Reich said after the game. “We had a good week of practice. We had good preparation. We just didn’t get it done today – coaching or playing.”

Or as linebacker Darius Leonard put it: “It sucks. To end the way we did, it sucks.”

Feature image: Chris Unger – Getty Images

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