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A tribute to… the lateral pass

The lateral pass may sit in the shadow of the far-more-common forward pass in American football but it still plays a crucial role in the strategy and tactics of the game. In this third article in our series about some of the rare-yet-intriguing aspects of gridiron, we examine what defines a lateral pass, look at some of the plays that involve lateral passes and shine a light on some of the most memorable examples – both successful and not – through the years.

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What is a lateral?

While the forward pass was invented specifically for the American game of football, the lateral or backward pass was borrowed from the two codes of rugby, where such passes are the norm (and, of course, where forward passes aren’t allowed). A lateral occurs when a player throws the ball sideways or backwards to a teammate and while only one forward pass may be thrown per down by the offense, there are no such restrictions on lateral passes. Any player carrying the ball may throw a lateral pass from any position on the field at any time. Similarly, any player may receive such a pass and any number of laterals may be thrown on a single play. Additionally, a player receiving a lateral pass behind the line of scrimmage may still throw a forward pass, as long as none has already been thrown during the play.

If there’s a change of possession, the defense can only throw laterals once they get the ball. And unlike a forward pass, a dropped lateral results in a live ball that may be picked up and advanced by either team. Backward passes can also be intercepted, opening up a whole new level of jeopardy. And therein lies the beauty and the fascination of the lateral. It’s a green light for the innovative coach to get scheming and the switched-on player to do something instinctive and unexpected. Furthermore, sometimes – usually when it’s the last play of the game and the attacking teams needs to score by any means – it can be a recipe for unadulterated, multi-pass madness, as we’ll see later.

MOST PLAYS FEATURE A LATERAL: Within the rules of the game, the snap at the line of scrimmage is officially classed as a backward pass.

Categories of lateral pass

The most common lateral pass involves the quarterback quickly ‘pitching’ the ball a short distance to a nearby running back on a rushing play. All pretty standard stuff. And like in rugby, a sideways pass to an adjacent runner in open play isn’t unheard of. Laterals are also used in trick plays – and this is where things get more exotic and interesting. Let’s have a closer look at a couple where a backwards pass is a fundamental element. 

The flea flicker

Who doesn’t love a ‘flea flicker’? The quarterback hands the ball to a running back, who rushes forwards but stops at or before the line of scrimmage and laterals the ball back to the QB, who then throws a forward pass. This trick play draws the defense into defending the run, leaving the quarterback free from an immediate pass rush. The back-and-forth between RB and QB also gives time for the intended receiver to get downfield, opening up an opportunity for a long completion.

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There are many, many examples of flea flickers over the years so we won’t dwell on them too much. But one particular combo – Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald – connected on some notable flea flickers for the Arizona Cardinals, not least in the 2009 playoffs. During the NFC Wild Card game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Cards were struggling to run the ball in the first quarter. Running back Edgerrin James took a handoff, progressed two yards before turning and pitching the ball back to Warner. With the pocket collapsing in on the expected runner, the Falcons secondary couldn’t see the pitch take place, allowing Warner to uncork a 42-yard pass to Fitzgerald in the end zone. The TD set Arizona on their way to winning their first home playoff game in 61 years.

A week later, facing the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, Warner and Fitzgerald did it again. This time, the pitch back to Warner came from JJ Arrington, who ran off to the right before throwing the ball back across to his QB. The ensuing TD pass to Fitzgerald went for 62 yards, sealing a 32-25 win that punched Arizona’s ticket to Super Bowl XLIII.

The hook and lateral

I’m also rather partial to another variant: the ‘hook and lateral’ (sometimes called a ‘hook and ladder’). Here, a receiver (quite often a tight end) runs a hook route, turns and collects a forward pass before tossing the ball backward to a second receiver running in behind, while the initial ball-catcher is closed down or tackled. Looking very much like a rugby move, the Kansas City Chiefs are rather adept at this one, often using Travis Kelce to take the pass before laying it off to a teammate – like this one to Noah Gray against the Broncos that secured a first down or one to LeSean McCoy against the Lions that turned a 12-yard pass into a 35-yard gain. (Maybe this is why they have signed former Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit through the International Player Pathway?)

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The Miami Dolphins also executed a classic hook and lateral that made the top 50 of the best NFL plays ever. Seconds before the break in their AFC playoff game against the San Diego Chargers in January 1982, wide receiver Duriel Harris caught a 20-yard pass from quarterback Don Strock. He immediately flung it, scrum-half style, into the path of running back Tony Nathan, who flew past him and in for the score.

THEY’RE NOTHING NEW: The first documented instance of a lateral occurred in the NFL’s inaugural season in 1920, by the Rock Island Independents against the Muncie Flyers.

Miracles do happen

Ask any Titans fan to name the best lateral play in NFL history and they’ll probably tell you it’s the ‘Music City Miracle’, which happened at the end of Tennessee’s AFC Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills in Nashville in January 2000. Having scored a go-ahead field goal to lead 16-15 with just 16 seconds left on the clock, Buffalo kicked off, expecting to defend their slim lead for a couple of plays and secure the victory. But Alan Lowry, the Titans’ Special Teams Coordinator, had other ideas.

Tennessee’s Lorenzo Neal caught the short, high kick at the 25 and immediately handed the ball off to tight end Frank Wycheck. Wycheck stepped to his right and having drawn the Bills players over to his side, threw the ball horizontally across the field to wide receiver Kevin Dyson. He sprinted down the left sideline for a game-winning touchdown, with only kicker Steve Christie even in the same zip code.

“Do the Titans have a miracle left in them in what has been a magical season to this point? If they do, they need it now. Christie kicks it high and short. Gonna be fielded by Lorenzo Neal at the 25. Pitches it back to Wycheck… he throws it across the field to Dyson… 30, 40, 50, 40… 20, 10, 5 – end zone! Touchdown Titans! There are no flags on the field! It’s a miracle! Tennessee has pulled a miracle! A miracle for the Titans!”
Mike Keith, Titans Radio Network broadcast

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Immediately after the play, there was controversy over whether Wycheck’s throw was an illegal forward pass (remember, they were the defense on this play). While Dyson was undoubtedly standing further forward than the passer, he crouched down and reached back to make the catch. Upon review, the touchdown stood and the Titans marched on to Super Bowl XXXIV.

Amazingly, the two players who had practised the play before the game – kick returner Derrick Mason (concussion) and safety Anthony Dorsett (cramp) – were unable to take the field at the time so Dyson had to step in, getting told what to do on the sideline before the play. The plan was also for him to step out of bounds if he got within field goal range but having the whole field open up, Dyson couldn’t help but go all the way.

When blind hope is all you have

In October 2003, the Minnesota Vikings were tied 7-7 with the Denver Broncos with 12 seconds left before halftime. Facing a 3rd-and-24 in their own territory, the Vikings’ QB Daunte Culpepper rolled right and heaved a Hail Mary to Randy Moss. Alas, the pass fell a bit short and he had to come back to make the catch at the Denver 10. Surrounded by several Broncos, Moss was immediately tackled but as he was going down, he threw the ball blindly over his head to running back Moe Williams, who scampered untouched into the end zone. As the commentators said at the time, the improvisation was worthy of an Academy Award.

The Vikings won 28-20 and the move was also named in the NFL’s top 100 plays. After the game, Moss – who posted 1,632 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns that season – implied he knew what he was doing when he said “Out of my peripheral vision, I saw a purple jersey. Well, purple is purple. That means he’s a teammate of mine. So out of instinct, I just tossed it over my shoulder…”

Multi-lateral mayhem

As we’ve seen, single laterals can be highly effective in the right situation. But there’s been many an instance where two or more lateral passes have been used to orchestrate game-defining plays.

One such example, the ‘River City Relay’, took place in a Week 16 game between the New Orleans Saints and the Jacksonville Jaguars in December 2003. With the Saints trailing by a touchdown and time running out, quarterback Aaron Brooks – at his own 25 on a 2nd-and-10 – completed a pass to Donte’ Stallworth out near the right sideline. The wide receiver cut in and headed back across the field before lateralling the ball to fellow wideout Michael Lewis on the left side. Lewis ran with it, then turned to hand it to Deuce McAllister. The RB ran into a cul-de-sac so swivelled and hurled the ball back across the field to unmarked running back Jerome Pathon, who raced into the end zone back over in the right corner. The fact that he made it into the paint was in no small part due to a timely block on the last defender by his QB Brooks, who’d tracked the play down the field. Unfortunately, that amazing effort – including three lateral passes – was in vain as Saints kicker John Carney missed the PAT attempt, resulting in a heartbreaking 20-19 loss.

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The Miami Dolphins also used two laterals to score a legendary touchdown that defeated the New England Patriots 34-33 on the last play of a game at Hard Rock Stadium in December 2018. Down by five points and with only seven seconds remaining, Ryan Tannehill completed a pass from his own 31-yard line to wide receiver Kenny Stills. He threw a short lateral to DeVante Parker in midfield, who in turn passed it along the line to running back Kenyan Drake. Drake then snaked his way through the Pats D (which included a flailing Rob Gronkowski, on the field to help defend a possible Hail Mary) to the end zone. The 69-yard TD, since dubbed the ‘Miracle in Miami’, was the first walk-off touchdown winner to involve multiple lateral passes in NFL history and the first multi-lateral TD play since the ‘River City Relay’ 15 years earlier.

Close but no cigar

An honourable mention goes to Antonio Brown who looked like he’d put the seal on a multi-lateral TD play for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Dolphins on a snowy field in Week 14, 2013. Trailing 34-28 as the clock ran out, Pittsburgh gave it one last effort. Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass out wide to Emmanuel Sanders, from whence it came back across the field to the quarterback in a series of backward diagonal passes. Big Ben stepped forward and then, as he was tackled, flipped a windmill of an underarm pass out to the left where Brown was waiting. The mercurial wide receiver found the room to race down the sideline and in for the TD, leaving the Miami secondary struggling to keep their feet on the snow-covered turf. Alas for the Steelers, the replays showed that Brown stepped out of bounds about 13 yards from paydirt… but it was a fine effort nonetheless and almost one of the best multi-pass TDs ever. 

THIS PLAY IS LATERALLY INSANE: Although it’s not from the NFL, we have to mention the University of Miami’s amazing eight-lateral game-winning play against Duke in 2015. This 45 seconds of craziness is exactly why we love the lateral.

Col-lateral damage

The lure of glory can be intoxicating but beware, fellow fans of the lateral. It can also go oh-so-wrong, as this cautionary tale illustrates.

In 2022, a week before Christmas, the Patriots were facing the Las Vegas Raiders. With three seconds left and the score tied at 24-24, QB Mac Jones could’ve taken a knee and overtime would have followed. Alternatively, they could have tried to win by hurling a Hail Mary into the Raiders’ end zone. Instead, what ensued was the worst of both worlds. Taking a handoff, Rhamondre Stevenson made 23 yards on a weaving run. But with Raiders safety Duron Harmon closing in, instead of being tackled and accepting the inevitability of overtime (hardly the most terrible of outcomes), he had a rush of blood to the head, raised his arm and pitched it back over a defender to Jakobi Meyers. His teammate also got over-excited and despite running in the wrong direction for eight yards, seemed determined to keep the play alive, so threw a second lateral back across the field towards Jones. Alas for the Patriots, Las Vegas’ own Jones – Chandler Jones – had been watching this madness unfold and stepped in front of his namesake, expecting the QB to be the next likely recipient of the ‘hot potato’. The defensive end inevitably intercepted the ball, stiff-armed Mac Jones to the floor and ran it in for the winning score.

Because the Patriots attempted this play when the game was tied and OT was safely in the bag, the play is widely considered to be one of the biggest howlers in league history. ESPN’s Stephen E Smith called it “the dumbest play ever” while NFL Network’s Rich Eisen christened it “the Hail Moron” before going on to describe it as “the most situationally boneheaded play… maybe ever”.

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When magic meets madness

So that, folks, is the lateral. It may be the poor cousin of the forward pass as far as frequency goes but given how often laterals have featured in the NFL’s most iconic plays throughout history, their impact on the game is undeniable. When used strategically in isolation, lateral passes can unlock a defense and they remain a potent weapon for coaches and players looking to outwit and outmanoeuvre their opponents. But when teams run out of time and have no other option than to wing it, attempting multiple laterals to keep the final play alive, that’s when magic and madness collide.

Long live the lateral!

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A tribute to… the fake punt

In the grand theatre that is American football, few tactics exemplify the art of deception quite like the fake punt. The sneaky trick play dates back to the early days of the National Football League and has shaped countless games, leaving an indelible mark on the sport’s landscape. In this, the second article in our series honouring the game’s rarer plays, we delve into the strategies behind the fake punt and relive some of the great examples from days gone by.

How it all began

While the rules of the sport do not explicitly mention the option to fake a punt attempt, teams have been doing so since the formative days of the league, when coaches and players began experimenting with unconventional ways to try to gain an edge on the field. At its core, the move is designed to deceive the opposing team by lining up in punt formation but executing an alternative play, such as a run or pass, that they aren’t set up to defend.

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The first documented instance of a fake punt in the NFL occurred on 6 November 1932, by the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers at Wrigley Field. Trailing by a point late in the fourth quarter, the Bears needed a big play to turn the tide in their favour and decided to fake a punt. Their legendary quarterback, Bronko Nagurski, received the snap instead of punter Johnny Sisk, faked a punt attempt himself before running with the ball. Catching the Packers off guard, Nagurski secured a pivotal first down that ultimately led to the game-winning touchdown.

The options

That landmark play, almost a century ago, demonstrated the potential impact of having bare-faced deception in the playbook and set the stage for others to follow. As the fake punt gained traction across the league, it became clear that different categories of trickery, each with its own unique approach and execution, were available. These can be loosely classified as follows:

  • The run: In this classic variation, more often used in short yardage situations, the punter receives the snap and runs with the ball. This relies on blockers to help the (usually smaller, lighter) ball-carrier evade defenders.
  • The pass: This more daring approach sees the punter make a downfield throw, targeting an uncovered receiver for a potentially big gain.
  • The direct snap: Bypassing the punter altogether, this variation involves the ball being snapped directly to a running back or quarterback (as in Nagurski’s case), who then executes a predetermined running or passing play.
  • The reverse: Adding another layer of complexity, the reverse fake punt sees the punter hand the ball off to a player executing a reverse run or pass, exploiting the defense’s pursuit of the punter.

DEEP FAKE: During the Cleveland Browns’ game against the Saints in October 2010, punter Reggie Hodges took a snap, bolted through the line of scrimmage and ran it 68 yards to the Saints’ 10-yard line. It’s still the longest run by a punter in NFL history.

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Legendary moments of fake puntory

Through the years, fake punts have etched themselves into the annals of NFL history, captivating audiences with their audacity and execution. Even in the last decade or so, there have been some memorable examples of the passing variety and many illustrate the point that punters don’t have to be particularly good at throwing if the play is enough of a surprise. 

Eight years ago, in 2016, kicker Pat McAfee threw a 35-yard pass on a fake punt for the Indianapolis Colts against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Facing a 4th-and-6 from midfield, McAfee took the snap, crept a few steps to his right and threw a pass to tight end Erik Swoope, who was eventually brought down inside the 10.   

In Week 4 of the 2017 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars literally didn’t defend the New York Jets receiver and punter Lac Edwards just about made the pass on a huge 4th-and-21. Also in 2017, during a Monday night clash with divisional rivals the Minnesota Vikings, Bears punter Pat O’Donnell completed a 38-yard TD pass to Benny Cunningham, who beat two defenders in the open field to score. By his own admission, O’Donnell had never thrown a pass before – not in college or even little league – and while his slow, lofted pass won’t win prizes for style, it still went for seven points.

A year later, the Tennessee Titans notched an impressive 66-yard TD on a fake punt against the Houston Texans. With the game just five minutes old and still scoreless, the long snap bypassed the punter in favour of safety Kevin Byard, lurking in the backfield. He noticed that the gunner on his right, rookie safety Dane Cruikshank, was unguarded and that was all he needed. Cruikshank was so open, he could afford to slow down to catch the ball before speeding past punt returner Bruce Ellington for the score in just his second game as a pro.

Only last year, Ryan Wright of the Vikings suddenly got licence to throw a ball instead of punting – with mixed success. In Week 15, the Vikings tried some sneakiness against the Colts on a fourth down but it went south. Wright lined up, looking to all intents and purposes like he was about to boot the ball away, but instead threw a pass towards Jalen Nailor on the left sideline. Alas, it was an ugly effort that sailed over his intended target’s head, leading to a turnover on downs. However, the two did connect when Minnesota played the New Orleans Saints in London earlier in the season. Leading 16-14 late in the third quarter, they faced a 4th-and-2 from just inside their own half. Wright took the snap, immediately turned to his right and threw a 13-yard pass that just about had the legs to reach Nailor for his first-ever NFL catch.

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Turning our attention to run plays, this fake punt from December 2021 went 73 yards – but it wasn’t the punter running this time. After seemingly going three-and-out on their opening possession against the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks snapped the ball directly to running back Travis Homer. He raced 73 yards to the end zone to give Seattle a 7-0 lead. This is the longest run on fourth down in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and Homer was actually listed as questionable because of a calf injury so extra kudos to him!

WORTH A GO: Historically, fake punt passes on 4th-and-7 or shorter have at least a conversion rate of at least 50%.

Fakes that failed

As much as it’s fun to celebrate every successful fake punt, it’s counterbalanced by many a cautionary tale of failure and miscalculation. There are far too many to recount of failed fakes but here are just a couple.

In the 2020 season, the NFC East (nicknamed the ‘NFC Least’ at the time due to the ineptitude of all four teams) was won, almost by default, by a Washington team with a 7-9 record. Summing up the division that year, the 6-10 Cowboys managed this epic fail on a reverse against the then-Redskins, barely making it back to the line of scrimmage, deep in their own territory. Mike McCarthy, hang your head in shame for calling this one.

And only this season, we saw the Buffalo Bills tried to pull a fast one on their AFC rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, but again failed to convert. Down 27-24 early in the fourth quarter, Bills HC Sean McDermott decided to get aggressive on a 4th-and-5 on their own 30 yard-line, obviously hoping that the field position would suggest conservatism rather than recklessness to his opposite number, Andy Reid. Damar Hamlin took the direct snap from the long snapper, and the offensive line shifted to the left to clear a path. However, the KC defense stopped Hamlin after a gain of two.

The king of fakes: Johnny Hekker

Several names have become synonymous with the art of the fake punt. Back in 1960, when some players still had multiple roles – as both quarterback and punter, for example – the Eagles’ Norm Van Brocklin was second in passer rating and fifth in punting average as he led Philadelphia to an NFL championship. Meanwhile, Dallas’ Danny White threw for three scores and averaged 44.5 yards a punt against the Rams in a 1980 playoff game. 

But in the modern era, no one can hold a candle to Johnny Hekker. The former LA Ram punter was named first-team All-Pro four times and holds the single-season record for net punting average. In 2016, he had the greatest punting season in NFL history, landing 51 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line with just one touchback. But as good as he is at punting, he’s in a league of his own at ‘not punting’.

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Most teams run fake punts once in a blue moon. In 2019, the Ringer stated that combined, the 31 teams other than the Rams attempt about five fake-punt passes a season and convert three. Hekker alone has averaged 2.4 passes per season since 2012, has yet to go a year without at least attempting a pass and has only had one season (2013) without a completion.

In Hekker’s rookie season (2012), all three of his throws went to wide-open players. His first came from inside his own end zone, when the Niners clearly weren’t expecting a pass and failed to defend a Rams’ gunner. His second came in the same game, on what might have been the first run-pass option called for a punter and his third came on a fake field goal attempt (more on them later), during which the Rams pretended to sub wide receiver Danny Amendola out of the game. Instead, he hugged the sideline without a defender anywhere near him, leaving Hekker with a throw that, well, any punter could have made.

“Deep down inside, all punters want to throw,” Rams special teams coach John Fassel said of Hekker, “and he’d much rather throw than punt.” Hekker himself admits, “I’ve got a good release… for a punter.” And the secret to his success? Hekker led his high school team to the Washingston state championship game as a QB.

Hekker has now played 10 NFL seasons – nine with the St Louis/Los Angeles Rams and one with the Carolina Panthers, and is now 15-of-24 (62.5%) for 193 yards – with a long of 28 – with 1 TD and 1 INT as a passer. (He also completed a pass on a two-point conversion but that doesn’t count towards his official statistics.) The guy is undoubtedly the league’s fakiest punter.

Dan, Dan, the diaper man

Switching from the field to the sidelines, current Detroit head coach Dan Campbell is definitely not afraid to call a high-risk, high-reward play. He even stated that Detroit fans should “wear a diaper” because he likes to take risks, specifically on fourth downs. Just last season, in the third quarter against the Packers in November 2023, the Lions attempted a fake punt on a 4th-and-4 from their own 23-yard line. From the moment the ball was snapped, the play never stood a chance. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was stopped for no gain and the Packers scored three plays later, going on to win 29-22. To his credit, Campbell held his hands up. “Yeah, look. That’s a bad call on me,” he said postgame. “I shouldn’t have done that to those guys. That’s a bad call.” 

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But that failure was the exception. Under Campbell, the Lions have converted eight of their 10 fake punt attempts, a stunningly high success rate. Props should also go to special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, who echoes Campbell’s gung-ho style and has helped to turn the Lions’ special teams into one of the league’s best units. In 2021, the Lions converted three of four fake punt attempts, with CJ Moore running for 28 yards on a direct snap against the Rams and punter Jack Fox completing two throws. Last season, Fox completed another pass, Moore ran for two more first downs and Reeves-Maybin rumbled for 3 yards on a 4th-and-2 from his own 17-yard line. Like with Hekker, the element of surprise is long gone with Campbell’s reputation for ballsy play-calling but nonetheless, he still seems to succeed more often than not.

Don’t forget the fake field goal

Before we finish, we must talk about fake field goals. Again, there are a number of different permutations. Usually the holder (often the punter or backup quarterback) will take the snap but rather than place the ball on the ground to be kicked, he’ll throw a pass or run with it.

Less frequently, the kicker, takes a direct snap and serves as the passer or rusher. Former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri received a direct snap and threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown during a game in 2004 and the Seahawks used this play in the 2014 NFC Championship game against the Packers. The box score would have revealed the weirdest touchdown pass description (holder/punter Jon Ryan to eligible offensive lineman Garry Gilliam) as Seattle recovered from a 16-point deficit on their way to Super Bowl XLIX.

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A legacy of innovation and intrigue

Reflecting on the history and evolution of fake kicks, one thing is clear: it’s not just a tactical manoeuvre. Indeed, it’s a testament to the creativity, daring and strategic brilliance of the players and coaches that have shaped the evolution of the game. The fake punt and field goal continue to illicit a knowing nod or even a hysterical squeal, given their potential for glory or disaster. But as the league continues to evolve, you can only imagine the new twists and turns that will define deception and trickery in years to come…

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A tribute to… the Hail Mary

While the rules of American football do not explicitly mention the Hail Mary pass, it remains a thrilling aspect of the game. There’s little else that evokes the same anticipation, or suggests the same desperation, as these all-or-nothing, everything-on-the-line moments. In this first in an occasional series of off-season articles about some of the game’s much-loved but rarer plays, Sean Tyler explores the history of the Hail Mary in the NFL, outlines the tactics and techniques behind it, and revisits some of the greatest Hail Marys from years gone by.

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How it all began

Because it’s not part of the game’s official lexicon, the term wasn’t coined by a coach, owner or even a commentator. In footballing terms, the expression dates back to October 1922, when players from Notre Dame (a Catholic university) twice said a prayer in the huddle before plays against Georgia Tech – and scored touchdowns in both instances.

As for the NFL, the first recorded reference came several decades later from Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback. In a divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in December 1975, with just 32 seconds on the clock and Dallas trailing by four, legendary Head Coach Tom Landry called for a long pass and Staubach launched one from the halfway line. The slightly underthrown ball was tipped by receiver Drew Pearson five yards shy of the paint but he somehow trapped it between his arm and hip before taking it in for the winning score. Afterwards, Landry said “Our only hope was to throw it and hope for a miracle,” while Staubach – a devout Catholic – told reporters, “I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” The term appeared in several newspaper headlines the following day and has been part of NFL folklore ever since.

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Mindset and mechanics

The prayer in question (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”) eludes to summoning help from the powers that be to successfully make a long, low-probability, chuck-it-and-hope throw. Usually attempted when a team is too far from the end zone to try something more conventional, the term implies that it would take a miracle for the play to succeed – which is why we love it when it does. That success relies on several factors coming together in the perfect storm: the strength and technique of the quarterback, whether there’s enough time for the receiver(s) to get downfield, whether the opposing team can defend it and, in most cases, a massive slice of good fortune.

So how do you shift the odds in your favour? Well, according to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, you practice. During his three years as an understudy to Brett Favre, he performed countless reps. “I got used to what it felt like, height and distance wise,” he told ESPN in a great article in 2019. “I’ve always been a little nerdy about that – watching the ball, seeing where it would land, remembering what that throw felt like. Was it all out? Was it 90 percent? Was it 80 percent? And just kind of locking those things away.”

As for Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, who has both a college and an NFL Hail Mary to his name, time is also crucial. “Can you find time in the pocket or can you escape the pocket and step up? By the time you run around a little bit, the receiver is in the end zone where you want them. It helps if you can buy as much time as possible, let the receivers get underneath the ball as it comes down.” And the numbers bear that out. According to ESPN tracking, the average time before a Hail Mary is thrown is 4.75 seconds – almost twice as long as a normal play.

So what about trajectory? The throw must go high and far enough to reach the end zone but not go out of the back – that’s quite a tight window if you’re 50 yards or more away. Quarterbacks tend to pull their arms farther back than normal and Cousins tilts his shoulders, with the front shoulder up and back shoulder down. “That will put the arc on it,” he confirms. “You want the ball coming down at the receivers. You don’t want a driven ball.”

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A RARE TREAT: Due to the degree of difficulty, most attempts aren’t completed. In fact, there have only been 34 successful Hail Marys in the professional game since Staubach’s effort nearly 50 years ago.

All hail King Rodgers

While the Hail Mary is often seen as a last-ditch effort, some players have developed a reputation for launching long, accurate passes in clutch moments. Since Staubach, there have been several successful proponents of the Hail Mary. And where better to start than with the best of the best, Aaron Rodgers, who (thanks to all that practice) is the only quarterback with three successful NFL Hail Marys to his name.

One of the most famous of all time, christened the ‘Miracle in Motown’ by broadcaster Jim Nantz, came on the final play of a Thursday night game in December 2015 against the Packers’ NFC North rivals, the Detroit Lions. Because of a face mask penalty on the previous play, Green Bay – who’d been trailing most of the game – were given an extra play with no time on the clock. After the snap, Rodgers broke left to buy time while his receivers rushed downfield. Then he scrambled to the right to evade pressure and hurled a howitzer from his own 35-yard line. It dropped inside the end zone, where it was caught by the 6’4” Richard Rodgers II in front of a gaggle of Detroit players. (The tight end also caught a 67-yarder from Carson Wentz as a Philadelphia Eagle in 2020.)

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The Rodgers-to-Rodgers connection, which brought a dramatic 27-23 victory, is still the longest Hail Mary touchdown in NFL history. According to estimations at the time, the ball travelled 69 yards and almost hit the rafters at Ford Field. Breaking it down afterwards, then-HC Mike McCarthy said: “When you throw it with that arc, it gives guys a chance to fight for position. And Richard is the perfect guy for that type of situation, with his ability to go up and high-point the football.”

Having won the NFL Play of the Year Award for the 2015 season for that one, Rodgers threw another just weeks later. This time, Green Bay were facing the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game. Down by seven and with seconds remaining, Rodgers heaved another desperation pass into the end zone while Marcus Golden and others rushed to close him down. This time, the ball was caught by receiver Jeff Janis and the 41-yard reception sent the game into overtime (although the Cardinals ultimately prevailed).

Rodgers, the unofficial yet undisputed ‘King of the Hail Mary’, then uncorked a third the following year – again in the postseason. In the NFC Wild Card Game against the New York Giants, he let it fly from the 53-yard-line with the last play of the first half and Randall Cobb took the catch at the back of the end zone. Rodgers’ three career Hail Marys, which came during a span of just 13 months, travelled a combined 172 yards.

Talking on Pat McAfee’s show years later, Rodgers raised another interesting factor: the inability of defensive players to read the flight of the ball. “I think it just comes down to the way you throw it,” he said. “If you take out the Jeff Janis one, the other two I was trying to get to a clean spot and throw it as high as possible. On both of those, I think there was a misjudgement by a majority of the players as to where the ball was going to come down.”

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A LONG SHOT… IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD: According to ESPN Stats and Information, only 9.7% of the 193 attempts from 2009 to 2019 were completed.

Double trouble: Dalton and Couch

Looking back through the annals of NFL history, there have been several other notable exponents of the Hail Mary. In particular, a couple of QBs from the AFC North have managed the feat twice (as has Russell Wilson, and we’ll come to him shortly).

In a 2013 battle with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens were leading 17-10 when, on the last play, Cincy’s Andy Dalton launched a 51-yard lob to the end zone on a 4th-and-15. The ball was deflected twice, once by each team, and while everyone else fell to the deck, the ball fell to AJ Green for a touchdown that forced overtime. The same pair teamed up three years later against the Browns, when the Red Rifle found Green with a 52-yard moonshot with seconds left in the first half. Again, there was some juggling and bobbling before Green pulled it into his chest for a 31-17 Bengals win.

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Staying in the division, in October 1999, the Cleveland Browns secured their first win as a returning expansion team with a Hail Mary against the New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Tim Couch avoided the pass rush and launched a 56-yard bomb that was tipped, then caught, by receiver Kevin Johnson. Three years later, Couch repeated the feat against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when his 50-yarder to a tightly covered Quincy Morgan (and the ensuing extra point) secured a 21-20 win. Couch remains the only player to win two NFL games on game-ending Hail Marys.

Before we move on from the Browns, we ought to mention another so-called ‘miracle’: The Miracle at the Met. This refers to Cleveland’s epic game at the Vikings’ old Metropolitan Stadium in December 1980, in which Minnesota came back from a 23-9 deficit to snatch victory in the last five minutes. The Vikes closed to within a point and, after forcing the Browns to punt, were left with 14 seconds, with the ball at their own 20. A crafty lateral pass (more of them another time) set up a 39-yard gain, leaving 41 yards still to go and just five seconds on the clock. NBC broadcaster Len Dawson predicted, “They’re gonna throw that ball up in the air and hope for a miracle” … and he wasn’t wrong. Three receivers lined up on the right and all ran go routes to the end zone, while Tommy Kramer (456 yards, 4 TDs) dropped back and heaved the ball into the crowd scene. A Browns defender tipped the ball but Ahmad Rashad caught it, with one hand, on the 1-yard line and took it in backwards for the score that sealed the NFC Central division title for Minnesota.

When Hail Marys become Fail Marys…

The original ‘Fail Mary’, as it became known, is a misnomer; it was actually a successful play. It occurred in 2012, during a contractual dispute with referees and umpires, when a replacement crew dominated the headlines in the Packers’ Monday night clash with the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a last-second attempt on a 4th-and-10 to Golden Tate, who was surrounded by three defenders in the end zone. Tate pushed one of them away without drawing a flag (hold that thought) but both he and MD Jennings gripped the ball with both hands as they fell to the ground. One referee signalled for a touchdown while another called it an INT. A replay confirmed the score, which resulted in a controversial 14-12 Seattle victory.

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That play is one of several that confirm the benefits of defensive players knocking the ball away – preferably down – rather that trying to intercept it but even that can go wrong. On the final play of a 2010 game in Jacksonville, Texans safety Glover Quin tried to knock down a David Garrard pass intended for Mike Sims-Walker with a double-handed, volleyball-style swat. Alas, it went straight into the hands of Jags receiver Mike Thomas, who brought the ball under control and stepped into the end zone for the winning score.

The Tate TD also highlights the fact that players on both sides are essentially immune from pass-interference flags on a Hail Mary, largely because the NFL doesn’t want a game to be decided on a penalty. Most attempts turn into rugby scrums and no one seems to bat an eyelid. The other dilemma facing defensive coaches is whether to take your chances at the line of scrimmage and send in the pass rush or pull more bodies back to defend the ball down the field. That’s a case of pick your own poison and there’s no right answer.

HOT AND COLD STREAKS: There have been three seasons (2012, 2015 and 2016) with three successful Hail Marys each, while only one was completed between 2003 and 2009.

… and Oh Hell Marys

Because it’s such a high-risk, high-reward play, a Hail Mary can go spectacularly awry and I don’t mean the ‘it didn’t quite work’ kind of wrong; I mean ‘handing the other team seven points’ wrong. Indeed, that happened just three months ago, in Week 12 of the 2023 season, in what might be one of the most ‘Jets’ plays ever.

Trailing 10-6 with the first half all but over, New York Jets QB Tim Boyle unleashed a ball 57 yards through the air. Alas, it went straight to Miami Dolphins safety Jevon Holland on the 1-yard line, and he ran it back for the first Hail Mary returned for a touchdown since ESPN began tracking them in 2006. Starting from the back-left of the field, he ended up at the opposite corner, having run for 124 yards. Picking up critical blocks from Christian Wilkins, Bradley Chubb and Jerome Baker along the way, he left the Jets players sprawling in his wake as he completed his incredible 99-yard pick six.

Despite going on to lose 34-13, Jets running back Breece Hall had no beef with the decision to try a Hail Mary. “It makes perfect sense to me,” he said. “You get the ball at the 50, you throw it at the end zone. When you stop thinking like that, that’s when you’re passive, and I don’t want to be a part of a passive offense. I’m happy we went for it.”

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THE LATEST (SUCCESSFUL) HAIL MARY: In Week 2 of the 2023 season, the Washington Commanders fought back from 21-3 down to lead the Denver Broncos 35–27. With three seconds remaining, Russell Wilson heaved a pass from midfield that was deflected twice before Brandon Johnson caught the TD, giving the QB his second career Hail Mary completion. Alas, Denver failed to convert the ensuing two-point conversion so it was all in vain.

A personal favourite: the Hail Murray

With 35 Hail Marys in the NFL record books, it’s impossible to summarise them all here. But before we finish, let’s revisit one more corker that wasn’t scripted. It was a play that unravelled and the quarterback in question just had to wing it.

The so-called ‘Hail Murray’ occurred when the Cardinals hosted the Buffalo Bills in November 2020. Down 30-26 with 11 seconds remaining and with no timeouts left, the intended target Andy Isabella – running a crossing route – couldn’t get open on a 1st-and-10. The diminutive Kyler Murray evaded a would-be sack from Mario Addison but with two Bills lineman barrelling towards him, it was clear that the play was breaking down, there was nowhere for him to scramble to and time was ebbing away. He was left with no other choice but to hurl it 43 yards downfield and hope for the best. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the only Arizona player to reach the end zone, somehow climbed the ladder and caught the ball, his hands rising through those of Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde to seal a stunning 32-30 comeback victory.

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Here’s just a taste of how that amazing moment, which won the NFL Play of the Year Award, was described by the radio announcers who cover the Cardinals on KVMP FM. (The fact that it’s nearly all in capitals tells you everything…)

Dave Pasch: “Murray back to throw, flushed out, rolling left in trouble, slips a tackle, gotta launch it, he does, left side, into the end zone, jump ball, and it is… is it caught?! Is it caught?! OH MY GOODNESS, IT’S CAUGHT! DEANDRE HOPKINS CAUGHT IT! HE CAUGHT IT FOR A TOUCHDOWN! WITH ONE SECOND LEFT! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! YOU’VE GOTTA BE JOKING ME! HOPKINS… REACHES UP WITH THREE DEFENDERS AROUND HIM AND PULLS IT IN! THE CARDINALS LEAD 32-30 WITH A SECOND LEFT!”

Ron Wolfley: “YOU! CAN’T! COVER! ‘NUK! YOU’RE NOT GONNA BE ABLE TO COVER HIM! THROW THE BALL UP! THAT’S WHAT KYLER MURRAY DID! HE EXTENDED THE PLAY WITH HIS LEGS! AND JUST CHUCKED THAT THING UP INTO THE AIR! INTO THE DESERT SKY, BABY! AND D-HOP BROUGHT IT DOWN! TOUCHDOWN!”

Wow. Goosebumps.

Long live the long throw

Since Staubach’s post-game comment half a century ago, the Hail Mary has (somewhat fittingly) come a long way. It is now less of a desperate call for divine intervention and more often a deliberate, strategic play that a cannon-armed quarterback can pull out of the bag when needed. It embodies everything we love about football: skill and strength for sure, but also unpredictability, hope and a little bit of luck.

So, please join me in raising a glass to the Hail Mary: a rare beast, but far from endangered. Rather, it has become an integral part of the NFL’s rich tapestry and, as these examples hopefully illustrate, brought us some of the most dramatic and celebrated moments in league history. That’s why I’m certain that, as long as there are a few seconds on the clock, half a field still to gain and a result hanging in the balance, the Hail Mary will continue to captivate NFL fans.

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PICK SIX – Week 17

Happy New Year everyone, we hope you all enjoyed some NFL action to close out 2023. It’s the penultimate week of the regular season and Shaun Blundell is here to complete the holiday season Pick Six with three things that caught his attention as we head into a new calendar year.

MVP now locked and loaded?

As little as a couple of weeks ago, there was no clear favourite for the NFL MVP award. Fast forward a fortnight and a certain Lamar Jackson seemingly has his hands firmly on the trophy. The latest instalment of Lamar brilliance came as the Baltimore Ravens locked up the No.1 seed in the AFC after a completely dominant display against the Miami Dolphins in Week 17. The final score was an eye-opening 56-19.

It was reminiscent of the opening game of the 2019 season when Jackson took over as starter and orchestrated an offensive masterclass that produced 59 points – ironically also against Miami. Jackson used his legs, running six times for 35 yards and picking up some key first downs. This, however, was mostly about Lamar the passer. Living mostly from the pocket, he gashed the Dolphins defense with throws to eight different weapons. Jackson finished the game 18 of 21 for 321 yards and five passing touchdowns, good for a perfect 158.3 passer rating on the day. Surely, it all but secures that MVP crown.

Jackson may well be the shining light but there is no doubt that Baltimore looks like the most complete team in the AFC heading towards the playoffs. The defense was its usual gritty self and caused trouble for Miami after making adjustments at the end of the first quarter. Geno Stone recorded his seventh interception of the season and Roquan Smith added another pick in this game. Justin Madubike continues his career year with his 13th sack as does Kyle Van Noy, who recorded his 8th of the campaign. Special teams also contributed, with a Justice Hill 78-yard kick return to begin the second half that extinguished any hopes of a miracle second-half Miami comeback.

A day to forget for the Dolphins was capped off with injuries to Bradley Chubb, Xavien Howard and Tua Tagovailoa. They head to a must-win game against the Bills to secure the division title, the No.2 seed and at least the chance of a couple of home playoff games. Meanwhile, the Ravens must now decide how to manage their stars as they have secured the first round bye. A couple of years ago, John Harbaugh regretted not getting some reps into guys in Week 18, so let’s see what he does this time around. [SB]

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Anyone for the South?

Both the NFC and AFC South division titles will be on the line in Week 18. It’s advantage Jacksonville and Tampa Bay at the moment, but three teams in both divisions are still alive heading into the finale.

The Bucs could have wrapped up the NFC South on Sunday but chose the wrong time for an offensive stinker against the Saints. A turnover-laden day meant they had a goose egg on the board until the fourth quarter in a game New Orleans comfortably won by 10 points. Baker Mayfield tossed two picks and Trey Palmer had a key fumble when the improbable comeback was threatened. It keeps the Saints alive when they battle the Falcons this week. Atlanta suffered a 37-17 humiliation to the Bears and another loss next week would surely secure the firing of Arthur Smith… so losing might be beneficial. That game will be irrelevant, however, if the Bucs defeat the Panthers.

On the AFC side, it was a different set of performances that set up the grand finale as all three of the teams in contention found wins. The playoff spot is the Jags’ to lose after they were able to ride the legs of Travis Etienne and the boot of Brandon McManus in a comfortable win over the aforementioned Panthers. They will be hoping to get Trevor Lawrence back this week in a must-win game. The Colts got a good day out of Jonathan Taylor as they outlasted the Raiders. His 96 rushing yards were a season-high mark and the Colts will certainly want more out of their investment moving forwards. The Texans welcomed back CJ Stroud in a comfortable victory over the Titans. I’m sure they are wondering what might have been had he not suffered the concussion that meant he missed the Browns matchup.

The NFL schedule means that either the Colts or the Texans will lead the division as we enter the final Sunday as they have been slated to play on Saturday evening. It will then be over to Jacksonville to see how they handle the pressure in what might end up being the last game for Mike Vrabel as HC in Tennessee. The NFC South will be the feature of the early window on Sunday. [SB]

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Chiefs secure West in unfamiliar fashion

The Kansas City Chiefs winning the AFC West is nothing new. In fact, it is getting repetitive now, to the tune of eight consecutive seasons. We usually purr about the explosive offense, the brilliance of speedy wide receivers, the brute strength of their tight ends or the ridiculous angles Patrick Mahomes releases the ball from to make something out of nothing. This year, however, we are talking about the defense and the kicker.

The champs were in another hole on Sunday, down 10 points to the Bengals who themselves were clinging on to their playoff lives. Jake Browning’s 1-yard scramble at the midpoint of the second quarter that opened up that double-digit lead turned out to be their last points of the day as the Chiefs defense and placekicker took over.

The Bengals mustered four punts and a pair of turnovers on downs the rest of the way. The crucial one – on the opening drive of the second half – saw Joe Mixon stuffed in the backfield by Willie Gay when faced with 4th-and-1 at KC’s 6-yard line. It was one of eight tackles for loss, along with six sacks, as the Bengals offensive line’s woes reopened. Back-to-back sacks on the final Cincy drive was the final nail in the coffin of a season that threatened to be over a month ago. It was officially extinguished as the clocks ticked over to 2024.

The Chiefs themselves moved the ball well in the second half in particular but continually stalled in the red zone. It will undoubtedly be an area that they look to tidy up but on this day, the boot of Harrison Butker proved enough. He was a perfect 6-6 on his field goal tries, with four of them coming from at least 43 yards away.

They may not have reached their usual scintillating levels of performance throughout the season but it is another postseason appearance secured and another contest at least in Arrowhead. The tantalising matchup will see whoever loses this Sunday’s game between the Bills and the Dolphins heading West for the contest. Kansas City may need to rely on the formula of defense and special teams to be the difference maker once more. [SB]

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Playoffs: Who’s in and who’s out in the AFC? 

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It’s that time of year when we start seeing graphics on X (formerly known as Twitter) from ESPN, FOX and CBS about who is eliminated from playoff contention and who has clinched a playoff berth. 

While the AFC has some frontrunners the race for the wildcard spots is encapsulating viewing, for example, the AFC South has three teams on 8-6 alone. 

Let’s dive into the playoff picture, see who everyone still has to play and how the playoff picture may end up working itself out. 

The locks: 

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While this article is mostly about discussing the convoluted wildcard picture, we should pay homage to the teams at the top of the conference who are already locks to make it in. 

The Baltimore Ravens have already clinched their place in the playoffs, while the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs are definitely making the playoffs and will be playing at least one home game this January. 

Watch out for the week 17 clash as Miami heads into Baltimore in a matchup that could define who earns the all-important one seed in the AFC.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 

The Jaguars get their own tier because they’re definitely in, but aren’t 100% locked into the top of the AFC South (yet).

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Their schedule is one of the easiest down the stretch, they travel across Florida to play the resurgent, playoff-chasing, Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend before playing the Carolina Panthers and Tennesee Titans who are both out of the playoff picture. 

Jacksonville should win out from here thanks to their head-to-head record against the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans, if they can achieve that they will be top of the AFC South and earn themselves the fourth seed in the AFC.

Cleveland Browns:

The Browns are in and Kevin Stefanski needs to be nominated for Coach of the Year after his miraculous work with this team despite all of their injuries. 

They’re 9-5 and probably need one more win to solidify their position in the playoffs, (albeit a wildcard place due to the Ravens’ record atop the AFC North) their schedule is a tough one though. 

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Facing exclusively AFC opponents, Joe Flacco will be the signal-caller as they head to the Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals on either side of a home meeting with the New York Jets. 

While they’re all but in themselves the Browns could play a huge role in the rest of the AFC Wildcard picture playing two of the chasing pack both on the road.

The rest

Now, we’ve named five teams who are in for sure, most seasons we’d be discussing three or four teams who are fighting it out for the final two wildcard spots. 

Not in 2023, this year the AFC is a gauntlet, we have a six-horse race for the final two wildcard spots as we head into the latter part of December. 

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As of week 15, the Bengals and Colts are occupying the final two spots with 8-6 records, just outside because of tiebreakers are the Bills and Texans, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are a game back at 7-7. 

Four of the six are playing backup quarterbacks and the Broncos and Bills have both experienced torrid runs at some stage this season. 

Yet somehow, with three weeks to go, every team is in the thick of the playoff race and it’s looking to be the most compelling run-in we’ve seen in a while. 

Who does everyone face? :

Buffalo Bills (8-6) – @ Chargers, vs Patriots, @ Dolphins 

Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) – @ Steelers, @ Chiefs, vs Browns 

Denver Broncos (7-7) – vs Patriots, vs Chargers, @ Raiders

Houston Texans (8-6) – vs Browns, vs Titans, @ Colts 

Indianapolis Colts (8-6) – @ Falcons, vs Raiders, vs Texans

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7) – vs Bengals, @ Seahawks, @ Ravens 

Who’s in and who’s out? : 

It’s impossible to call, none of these teams convince you that they’re going to run away with it and stroll into the wildcard places, but we can make some educated predictions. 

By the end of week 18, there’s the possibility that we see three teams with 11-6 records in the wildcard spots and two teams sitting on the outside looking with 10 wins and no postseason to show for it, on the contrary, in the NFC we could see teams with losing records make it into the playoffs.

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Buffalo Bills (Current record: 8-6, vs division 2-2, vs AFC 4-5, AFC games remaining – 3, Ninth seed)

Starting with the Bills, they have been rampant since losing to the Broncos on Monday Night Football in early November, despite being unlucky in the early half of the season they’re now earning their own luck and convincingly stringing together strong performances. 

They beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead and blew out the Dallas Cowboys at home, building some strong momentum ahead of their final three games. 

Given their form they should brush past the Chargers and the Patriots and Bills Mafia will have their trip to division rivals, the Dolphins in week 18 earmarked as a potential ‘win and in’ game. 

What complicates that, of course, is Miami could still be playing for the one seed in week 18 so won’t be pulling any punches, conversely, the Bills could find themselves in a situation where, if they win they win the entire AFC East, but if they lose they don’t make the playoffs at all.

Either way, it promises to be a show-stopping game that will likely head the national Sunday Night Football billing in week 18. 

Key game: Week 18 @ Miami Dolphins

Prediction: 10-7

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Cincinnati Bengals (Current record: 8-6, vs division 0-4, vs AFC 3-6, AFC games rem. 3, sixth seed)

When Joe Burrow got hurt it felt like most of the league had given up on the Bengals, no one would have been talking about them being a leading horse in the AFC playoff picture as of week 16. 

As it turns out, Lou Anarumo’s defence has done excellently keeping them in games allowing backup quarterback Jake Browning to play with little pressure and do enough to get them across the line in close games.

The Bengals face a tough schedule though and it’s difficult to see them going any better than 1-2 over this stretch. 

The best they can hope for is beating Pittsburgh on the road (an extremely tough task) and then beating the Browns who may have nothing to play for in week 18 at home. 

Key game: Week 16 @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Prediction: 8-9

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Denver Broncos (Current record: 7-7, vs div. 2-2, vs AFC 4-5, AFC games rem. 3, 11th seed)

The Broncos have the easiest schedule of the chasing pack and do hold the tiebreaker over the Bills as well as facing three beatable AFC opponents in their final three games. 

After starting 1-5 no one expected the Broncos to be anywhere near this conversation and it’s a credit to Sean Payton and Vance Joseph that the Broncos have a chance to make it in. 

The Texans hold a tiebreaker over the Broncos which could be a key factor to follow but facing three backup quarterbacks against teams that have nothing to play for may come into the Broncos’ favour.

Already being a game back at 7-7 their task is simple, you MUST win out and hope some of the teams around them drop games against other playoff chasers, or perhaps even slip up on a nonchalant game against a team that is already eliminated.

Key game: Week 18 @ Las Vegas Raiders

Prediction: 10-7

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Houston Texans (Current record: 8-6, vs div. 2-2, vs AFC 5-4, AFC games rem. 3, eighth seed)

Demeco Ryans is the probable front-runner for Coach of the Year, and for good reason. He’s totally transformed the Texans from a number-one pick candidate to a playoff contender overnight. 

CJ Stroud’s play at quarterback has been phenomenal and stands him in good stead to pick up the Offensive Rookie of the Year award at NFL Honours this February.

However, with Stroud in concussion protocol and Case Keenum starting at quarterback, partnered with a tough schedule featuring two playoff contenders and a division rival, the Texans face a huge challenge to make it in. 

They’re capable of beating anyone on their day and their next two games being at home helps massively, but they won’t want to be in a position requiring them to win on the road in Indianapolis in week 18 if they can help it.

Key game: Week 18 @ Indianapolis Colts

Prediction: 9-8

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Indianapolis Colts (Current record: 8-6, vs div. 3-2, vs AFC 6-4, AFC games rem. 2, seventh seed

The Colts have been on a rollercoaster ride in 2023, going from inconsistent, yet mesmerising play under rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, to the return of ‘Minshew Mania’, the Colts have continued to defy the odds. 

They have the best standing of any of the teams we’ve discussed because their divisional and conference records are superior to any team, but they also have one of the more inconsistent track records of any of the teams that we’ve looked at. 

They scraped past the Patriots in Germany, had a shootout with the Browns, were blown out against the Bengals and blew the Steelers out themselves, it’s so difficult to try and place the Colts on this list because they can go toe-to-toe with the best, but drop a game to absolutely anyone. 

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In week 16 they will head to the Atlanta Falcons who are a game back from the playoffs in the NFC South but are coming off the back of an embarrassing loss to the Carolina Panthers last week and somewhat mirror the Colts in their inconsistencies. 

Arthur Smith is on the hot seat and has resorted to his third quarterback change of the year opting for Taylor Heinicke and this is a game that the inconsistent Colts could drop given their record across the season as previously highlighted.

In their last two games, they welcome the Raiders who can cause any team problems on their day under interim head coach Antonio Pierce, and then fellow AFC South playoff hopefuls the Houston Texans in week 18. 

They’re the toughest team to place but given their divisional and conference records they’re certainly the favourites to make the wildcard round out of all the teams in the race. 

Key game: Week 18 vs Houston Texans

Prediction: 11-6

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Pittsburgh Steelers (Current record: 7-7, vs div. 3-1, vs AFC 5-5, AFC games rem. 2, 10th seed)

It’s well-documented that the Steelers have never had a losing record under head coach Mike Tomlin in his 16 years as head coach in the Steel City. 

While that streak could very much continue it’s difficult to see a scenario where the Steelers come out of their last three games as a wildcard team. 

They’d need to run the table due to their 7-7 record and they face three teams all with their eyes set on the post-season themselves. 

They welcome the Bengals in a huge game on Saturday before travelling across the country to Seattle to play the Seahawks who are currently one game out of the NFC wildcard picture before heading back across to Baltimore in week 18 who may be playing to secure the one seed. 

It’s certainly plausible that the Steelers win two of those games to preserve Tomlin’s streak but they will need to win out to even stand a chance, of getting into the playoffs. 

Key game: Week 16 vs Bengals 

Prediction: 8-9

Final Prediction: 

  1. Baltimore Ravens (13-4) 
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) Head-to-head tiebreaker vs Miami
  3. Miami Dolphins (12-5)
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6)
  5. Cleveland Browns (11-6) Head-to-head tiebreaker vs Indianapolis (WC)
  6. Indianapolis Colts (11-6) (WC)
  7. Denver Broncos (10-7) Head-to-head record vs Buffalo (WC)
  8. Buffalo Bills (10-7) (OUT)
  9. Houston Texans (9-8) (OUT)
  10. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-9) Division record tiebreaker (OUT)
  11. Cincinnati Bengals (8-9) (OUT)
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PICK SIX – Week 15

With three weeks of the regular season still to go, the playoff picture is starting to take shape. Four teams – the 49ers, Cowboys, Eagles and Ravens – are now guaranteed postseason action while six others – the Titans, Jets, Patriots, Commanders, Cardinals and Panthers – are officially out of the running and looking ahead to next year already. Week 15 saw a lot of movement in the race for the remaining slots so Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler have picked six of the biggest talking points to explore in more depth.

Resurgent Raiders on cloud nine

The Bentley Continental GT, BMW M760i and Subaru Impreza WRX can all go from 0 to 60 in about four seconds. And in the football equivalent, the Las Vegas Raiders went from 0 to 60 in four days.

After one of the year’s worst performances – a 3-0 loss to the Vikings last Sunday – the Raiders didn’t inspire confidence coming into Thursday Night Football. Their offense had the second-fewest passing touchdowns (11), the most interceptions (18) and the fewest yards per carry (3.5). Their opponents, the LA Chargers, eventually put up 21 points so you’d be excused for thinking that Brandon Staley’s Bolts might have secured a win. But no, it was a proper AFC West beatdown the other way, with the Raiders posting three times that total. Yes, they scored 63, with three touchdowns in their first three drives, six in the first half and nine altogether (via a franchise-record eight different scorers). They were in complete control from minute one while the Chargers looked outplayed and outcoached, turning the ball over five times (all of which resulted in TDs).

After the Chargers opened with a three-and-out, Zamir White, standing in for Josh Jacobs, rushed in from 1 yard for his team’s first offensive touchdown since Week 12. And boy, did they make up for lost time after that. On the fourth play of the next drive, a fumble by Easton Stick led to a second Raiders score, tight end Tre Tucker getting the first of his two. And after Joshua Kelley fumbled to open LA’s third drive, Aidan O’Connell found Jakobi Meyers in the end zone three plays later.

The second quarter went much the same way. The Raiders scored three more times while all Los Angeles had to show for their first-half endeavours were four punts, two fumbles, a turnover on downs and a 42-point deficit. Las Vegas’ interim HC Antonio Pierce was informed of the NFL’s regular-season points record (72) and decided to keep his foot on the gas. In the second half, Jakobi Meyers threw his second successful pass of the day to Davonte Adams for a trick play TD and the defense joined in the fun, with a fumble recovery run back by John Jenkins and a pick six by Jack Jones. Unsurprisingly, the Raiders set a new franchise record for points scored – even without Jacobs and two starting O-linemen. After last week’s shutout, O’Connell bounced back with four touchdown passes, equalling his output from his previous seven appearances, and no interceptions. In stark contrast, the Chargers didn’t get into opposition territory until Joshua Palmer’s 79-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

The win won’t do much for the 6-8 Raiders, who would need to beat the Chiefs, Colts and Broncos – and get a lot of unlikely results in other games to go their way – to reach the postseason. However, such an emphatic victory over a division rival might just earn Pierce the HC job full-time next season. In the case of Los Angeles, they were missing Justin Herbert (finger) and Keenan Allen (heel) but even so, this was embarrassing. Their fourth loss in five drops them to 5-9 and, with their chances of making the playoffs effectively over, ownership finally decided to move on from Brandon Staley and General Manager Tom Telesco. Both were fired the following day. [ST]

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36p and still not value for money

Don’t get me wrong, we love our American sports. Heck, we even dedicate time and column inches to it every week right here in this article. The one thing that is always amusing, however, is that everything always has to be the biggest and best. “World Champions” in a sport only competed in the United States is always a personal favourite, but I want to talk about overblown attendance figures. Officially, a crowd of more than 70,000 people turned up to watch the Atlanta Falcons take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Unless there was a memo released for everyone to dress as blue seats, I think it’s safe to say that is quite the exaggeration.

Tickets for the contest were readily available for around $0.45 (36p) ahead of kick-off. Yes the Panthers only had one win on the season before this weekend, but they have the number one overall pick at quarterback, they have just changed their head coach and this was a divisional matchup. None of that mattered though, as the game was played out in the most bizarre of atmospheres, triggering memories of the pandemic era when games were routinely played behind closed doors or with very few fans in attendance. So was it 36p well spent? Well, no.

The game, as expected, was a defensive struggle with Carolina prevailing on the strength of three Eddie Pineiro field goals to take the spoils 9-7. The game-winner came as time expired, as the Falcons relinquished their divisional lead after another head-scratching performance by a team that many expected to be a dark horse in the NFC. The continuing poor play of Desmond Ridder continues to haunt the Falcons as he once again tossed a bizarre interception with his team in a position to score. Also, the season-long usage of Bijan Robinson continued to baffle. He cost many a fantasy football owner their playoff contests with his 11 yards on 7 carries, with a fumble to boot, netting negative fantasy points. The NFC South has no teams over .500 with just three weeks of the season to play and on this evidence, it’s hard to envisage the Falcons adding to the six wins they have somehow accrued at the moment. [SB]

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Kings-in-waiting

The first team to punch their playoff ticket in the AFC were the Ravens, following a surprisingly comfortable 23-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Baltimore’s four-game winning streak is second only to San Francisco (six) and both teams have league-leading records of 11-3. Given the patchy form of the other contenders, a Ravens/49ers Super Bowl looks as good a bet as any at the moment.

The key to Baltimore’s success this season has been their in-the-groove quarterback. Lamar Jackson, who’s jostling with Brock Purdy and Dak Prescott in the MVP race, only threw 14 of 24 for 171 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT on Sunday. But he also led his team in rushing, making 97 yards from 12 carries as part of a team total of 251. Baltimore’s offense has surpassed 100 yards rushing in every game this year and his dual-threat role in that scheme was particularly crucial this weekend, with running back Keaton Mitchell suffering a season-ending knee injury. Jackson himself has hasn’t made it past Week 15 since 2020 so for a change, his greatest ability is his availability.

One all-action hero move summed up his performance this week. With the Ravens 10-7 up late in the third, he ducked under the outspread arms of Dawuane Smoot and somehow spun away from an all-but-certain sack. He dropped back to reset but the Jags linebacker came back for more like a hungry shark. Just as he reached his target again, Jackson heaved the ball 26 yards downfield, where tight end Isaiah Likely – doing an admirable job since Mark Andrews was injured a few weeks back – outjumped two converging defenders to snag the ball on the Jags’ 4-yard line. Two plays later, Gus Edwards rumbled in his side’s second touchdown of the night and the game was as good as done.

With a bevvy of fumbles, drops, missed kicks, penalties and clock mismanagement, Jacksonville had a bad day at the office. Their third straight loss sees them slide to 8-6, creating a three-way tie with the Colts and Texans in the AFC South. On paper, they have the easiest remaining schedule of the three but their cause wasn’t helped by Trevor Lawrence entering concussion protocol. That division is going down to the wire for sure. As for the Ravens, things are much more straightforward. In pole position to take the No.1 seed for only the second time in franchise history, they now face the Niners in the late Christmas Day game (a litmus test for 11 February?) before taking on the Dolphins and Steelers. They’d have to lose all three, and watch the Browns win out, to miss out on the divisional crown – about a 4% chance, according to the bookies – so we could see the coronation of the new kings of the North by Boxing Day. [ST]

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Eagles look like a sitting duck

It seems bizarre to think that a team with double-digit wins could feel so cold heading into the playoffs, but that is exactly where we find the Philadelphia Eagles. It has been a December to forget so far as their 20-17 defeat to Seattle on Monday Night Football extended their winless run to three games and leaves them with the prospect of playing on the road throughout the playoffs. Already blown away by the 49ers and Cowboys in back-to-back weeks, the Eagles could ill-afford any additional slip-ups, particularly against a Seahawks team without Geno Smith. Despite building a 10-point lead, Philly were once again scratching around for answers when the clock struck zeroes and Seattle had come all the way back.

The game-winner was a thing of beauty, and arguably the best pass of Drew Lock’s career, as he dropped a dime on a corner route to Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Earlier in the drive, Lock also made a pivotal connection with DK Metcalf for a 34-yard gain on 3rd-and-10. It sums up where the Eagles have been over the last few weeks. They have gone from finding a way to always be on the right side of these close ball games to being on the opposite end. Handing defensive play-calling duties to Matt Patricia feels like a desperate move at this stage of the season as the team searches for form. Turnovers on the other side of the ball, however, continue to be an Achilles heel.

With two more interceptions in this game, Jalen Hurts is now tied for the league lead in takeaways. The offense continues to play in fits and starts, and it feels like a while since wide receiver AJ Brown dominated a game. The hope for Philadelphia is that, on paper at least, the schedule looks relatively kind. A contest with the Cardinals is on tap, sandwiched between a pair of games against the New York Giants. The first of those is on Christmas Day so I guess it’s safe to say that all the Eagles want for Christmas this year is a return to the win column. [SB]

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Baker bosses battle of the Bays

Well, here are four words I never thought I’d write: “Baker Mayfield is perfect”. OK, maybe not overall, at everything in life, but in Tampa Bay’s 34-20 win over Green Bay on Sunday, he posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

It was easily Mayfield’s best game as a Buccaneer, with four touchdowns to four different recipients (Mike Evans, Rachaad White, Ko Kieft and David Moore) and no interceptions. Meanwhile, Chris Godwin posted 155 receiving yards from 10 catches, both season highs. Mayfield sliced and diced the Packers, going 22 of 28 for 381 yards to become only the second player ever (after Aaron Rodgers) to hit that perfect passer mark at Lambeau Field. Yes, that’s something that even the legendary Brett Favre, Mayfield’s idol, never managed to do.

Mayfield overcame a first-quarter fumble inside his own 5-yard line, which led to Green Bay’s only lead of the game (7-3), to orchestrate touchdown-scoring drives on four of the Bucs’ next five possessions. Not surprisingly, after the game, HC Todd Bowles couldn’t praise his QB enough. “He’s done everything,” he said. “From a mental standpoint to a quarterback standpoint, making plays. From a toughness standpoint. From a leadership standpoint. He’s checked all the boxes. He’s doing all the right things now and I can’t say enough about him.”

As well as being a defining moment for Mayfield, it was also a signature win for the team, who now jump to the top of the congested (if slightly below-par) AFC South at 7-7. They now have a 69% chance of reaching the playoffs, according to ESPN Analytics, as they race down the final straight neck and neck with the Saints, and a game up on the faltering Falcons.

With three straight victories, the Buccaneers – and Mayfield – are hotting up just at the right time. They host divisional foes New Orleans in Week 17 in a game that could well decide who hosts a game in mid-January as the NFC’s fourth seed and who watches from the couch. And it could also decide whether the one-year, prove-it deal that Baker signed in the offseason gets renewed for something longer and more lucrative. So there’s everything to play for. [ST]

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Hail Mooney

The season of the Cleveland Browns was perfectly captured in around five minutes of Sunday afternoon. Down seven points and with the offense struggling, out of nowhere Joe Flacco throws an unbelievable ball into a tight window for Amari Cooper to level the game with Chicago with just over three minutes remaining. The defense stepped up, held the Bears one more time and Flacco connected with tight end David Njoku for 60+ yards on the ensuing drive to allow Dustin Hopkins to kick the Browns in front. Game over with 35 seconds left… or so it should have been.

Out of timeouts, the Bears set about attempting to get into field goal range. An underneath throw from Justin Fields should have netted around 10 yards but inexplicably, so intent on keeping the receiver in bounds, the Browns forgot to tackle Tyler Scott and he scampered 30 yards up the sidelines to their 45. A pair of incompletions later and outside of kicking range for Cairo Santos, the Bears lined up for the last-gasp Hail Mary to try and win the game. It’s a play with a low probability level of success but Darnell Mooney will still be having nightmares that he didn’t come up with the game-winner as things played out.

Fields rolled left to avoid pressure and heaved the ball up. It was a well-directed and well-weighted ball as it was deep enough in the end zone for ricochets and deflections to come into play. Defenders are always told to bat the ball down and not worry about an interception and that is exactly what cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. did. Unfortunately, however, he tipped it straight to Mooney. Probably unable to believe his luck, the Bears receiver was falling back towards the ground when the ball hit him in the belly. He was unable to react and adjust in time and agonisingly deflected the ball back up in the air off his own legs into the arms of a waiting Browns defender, who slid down at the 1-yard line to seal another improbable win. Cleveland moves to 9-5 with over 26% of the team’s salary cap sitting on IR, and with good tie-breakers already in the bag. Maybe just one more win will be enough for them to secure a remarkable play-off berth. [SB]

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PICK SIX – Week 14

Angry quarterbacks. Ineffective quarterbacks. Quarterbacks defying expectations. Quarterbacks orchestrating improbable comebacks. More by luck than design, Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler’s selections seem to focus on the impact – both good and bad – that “the most important position in sports” had across the NFL this week. 

Second big loss steals the headlines

Ten days ago, Pittsburgh (then 7-4) were a good AFC Wild Card bet. Their offense suddenly clicked in their first game post-Matt Canada and their defense remained solid. But two home losses in a week, to two of the league’s worst teams, have dented their postseason aspirations. After losing to the 2-10 Cardinals, they faced the Patriots (also 2-10) on Thursday night and tasted defeat again – their third loss in four.

To right the wrongs of the previous weekend, the Steelers needed to start fast against New England but did the complete opposite, conceding a TD within four minutes. They countered with a field goal but the Pats turned a Mitchell Trubisky interception into another seven points, and soon went 21-3 ahead. Credit where it’s due, Pittsburgh fought back to 21-18 but the damage was done. And the loss was historic, making the Steelers only the second franchise ever to lose consecutive home games to teams with 10+ defeats.

The Patriots did enough. Bailey Zappe threw three TDs, Zeke Elliott posted 140 scrimmage yards and a receiving tuddy, Hunter Henry caught the other two on just three receptions and ex-Steeler Juju Smith-Schuster recorded 90 yards on four catches. In contrast, Trubisky’s 35 passing attempts yielded just 190 yards while Najee Harris (29 rushing yards) and Jaylen Warren (11) trailed their QB in an anaemic ground game. Dionte Johnson was the only Steeler to surpass 29 receiving yards.

Matt Canada may be gone but the offense has clearly stalled again since that coming-out party against Cincinnati three weeks ago. Some players admitted taking Arizona lightly and after Thursday’s loss, Minkah Fitzpatrick suggested history had repeated itself. “Too many people… just walk out here and think they’re going to make plays. We need to have more people who want to work for it, not expect it to be handed to them.” The fact that the home crowd were baying for Rudolph Mason to replace Trubisky speaks volumes about this blunt offense. But the defense – usually their redeeming feature – gave up 21 points before half time to the team ranked dead last in points per game. They’ve trailed by three scores twice in five days, having not done so for a decade, so alarm bells must be ringing.

Despite the win, other results mean the Pats are the first team officially eliminated from the AFC playoff race, leaving them with little to play for but pride and draft order. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh slip from fifth to eighth in the conference standings. Some disgruntled fans are calling for Mike Tomlin’s head but his team would have to go no better than 1-3 against the Colts, Bengals, Seahawks and Ravens to even post his first-ever losing season. Then again, the way they’re playing at the moment, that’s entirely possible. Things need to turn around fast if the SS Pittsburgh is to stay afloat. [ST]

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Flacco has Browns dreaming

Maybe it’s fourth time lucky in Cleveland? If quarterbacks 1, 2 and 3 don’t work, then surely calling up a semi-retired, 38-year-old gunslinger fresh off his couch in November will surely prove to be the tonic? Crazier things have happened, and in an AFC race that nobody seemingly wants to separate themselves in, maybe the old head of Joe Flacco is exactly what the Browns need in this late-season stretch.

After a positive debut in defeat to the Rams a week ago, there was little mystery that Flacco would get the call again against the Jaguars. When it was made official in the hours leading up to kick-off, a sudden sense of calm and optimism came over the Dawg Pound. Flacco has shown his ability to push the ball down the field and set about compiling an opening drive covering 75 yards, finished by a perfect play-action pass of 34 yards to tight end David Njoku.

That was the first of three Flacco touchdown throws, with Njoku snagging another and David Bell recording his first NFL touchdown on another play-action pass on a 4th down. It seems as though Kevin Stefanski is incredibly comfortable calling a game with the veteran at the wheel but the question is how far can this relationship take the Browns?

Flacco was far from perfect on Sunday. He threw a poor interception and also gave up a fumble. The Browns also trotted out their punter on eight separate occasions, which demonstrates that this was a day when the result was all-important against another AFC foe. If Flacco can increase his comfort level, build the chemistry with the weapons around him and limit the turnovers, the Browns (complemented by their solid defense) are well poised to be a tricky opponent come play-off time.

The 31-27 win moves them to 8-5, tied with the Jaguars who benefitted from both the Colts and Texans also losing on the day. With six teams now at 7-6 in the AFC, the playoff race is truly hotting up. A win against the Bears this weekend would see the Browns with one foot in the door of the January matchups and maybe this most bizarre of seasons at the quarterback position, even by Browns standards, could have an unlikely ending. [SB]

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Vikes edge punt-filled snoozefest

Minnesota Vikings 3-0 Las Vegas Raiders. Wow. I honestly can’t remember seeing such a pathetic effort before but NFL.com reliably informs me that it is the eighth such scoreline since 1950. And you don’t need to be a genius to know that this was a 6o-minute stinker.

Neither offense could move the ball, as illustrated by the sheer quantity of third downs (34) and punts (17), and the lack of combined total yards (433). Only one team, the Raiders, made it into the red zone and that solitary excursion ended in a fumble. Even the Vikings’ Greg Joseph, who scored the game’s only points with just two minutes left, had missed an earlier field goal attempt. If you didn’t watch it (lucky you), here’s what you missed:

1st half: Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Missed FG. Punt. Punt.
2nd half: Punt. Fumble. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. FG. Interception. Punt. Fumble.

There’s a solid case for saying both defenses played well but in truth, this game was all about offensive ineptitude and poor quarterback play. Not helped by a leaky O-line and Josh Jacobs’ inconsistent play, Aidan O’Connell was swimming against the tide in shark-infested waters all night. Finishing with a line of 21-of-32 for 171 yards and an INT, it’s hard to see why the coaching staff think he’s a better option that Jimmy G.

And it wasn’t any better on the other side. Josh Dobbs, who almost lost the starting job during Minnesota’s bye week, was overrun with pass rushers and took five sacks, two courtesy of the irrepressible Maxx Crosby. Then Justin Jefferson, finally back from a hamstring injury, left the game after a blow to the ribs and things rather fell apart. Having completed just 10 of 23 passes for 63 yards, Dobbs was pulled in favour of QB3 Nick Mullens, who led the game-winning drive. Alas for Dobbs, there will be questions about whether he starts this weekend. It was fun while it lasted but the Passtronaut seems to have come back down to Earth with a bump.

A third straight loss for the Raiders leaves them at 5-7 and needing snookers to secure January football, while this strangest of victories elevates the Vikings to 7-6 and keeps them in the NFC playoff bracket. But regardless of their differing prospects down the stretch, what either team does next week has to be an improvement, surely? [ST]

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Cry baby

Spoiler alert… officials are human beings and occasionally get calls wrong. But Sunday night at Arrowhead, in the Chiefs’ 20-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills, was not one of those occasions, certainly not when it comes to the play that has made a lot of noise since then. Kadarius Toney was offside, end of story.

Yes, it’s a real shame that a moment of individual brilliance by Travis Kelce was wiped out by a flag. On the receiving end of a Patrick Mahomes toss, Kelce was making his way up field when three Bills defenders converged towards him. He brilliantly threw a lateral to Toney, who high-stepped into the end zone for what would have been the go-ahead score. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, there was yellow laundry on the field. Toney had lined up offside.

Since then, the debate has raged as to whether he should have been given a warning that he was incorrectly aligned. The referees often give players the heads-up but they are not obliged to; they are there to officiate the game. It was a mental error by the wide receiver that cost his team in a big moment of a big game. Three incompletions later and it was game over.

The reaction of Patrick Mahomes, who went off at the referees at the conclusion of the game and also post-match, would have been of more concern to the league. Mahomes rightly or wrongly has been positioned as the face of the product and his reaction would not have gone down well in NFL HQ.

To his credit, Mahomes said he regrets the way he reacted and what he said to Bills quarterback Josh Allen when the two met on the field after the game. “Wildest f—ing call I’ve ever seen,” Mahomes was heard saying to Allen. “Offensive offsides on that play, man. F—ing terrible.” Later, he was more contrite. “I was still hot and emotional but you can’t do that, man. It’s not a great example for kids watching the game.”

The Chiefs are unlikely to receive a lot of sympathy when it comes to refereeing decisions in general and the Mahomes memes will no doubt do the rounds the next time a questionable call goes against them. [SB]

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Let Jake Bake

“He’s a stud. So calm, collected. Overseeing everything so well. He’s just been balling. No other way to put it.” Any guesses which QB this quote refers to? Josh Allen perhaps? Maybe Lamar Jackson? Dak Prescott?

Nope. These words, from the mouth of tight end Tanner Hudson, were about the Bengals’ backup QB, Jake Browning – and he isn’t wrong. Stand-in quarterbacks aren’t starters for a reason. We’ve already touched on what Trubisky, Dobbs, Mullens and O’Connell put on tape this week, but one of the rare exceptions – so far at least – seems to be Joe Burrow’s replacement in Cincinnati.

The unproven 27-year-old was thrown into action midway through their loss to the Ravens three weeks ago when Burrow popped a wrist ligament, ending his season. In that baptism of fire, the former Washington Husky gave us what we expected: not a lot. He improved a bit in another divisional loss to the Steelers but last week, the guy went nuts, earning the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his match-winning performance against the Jaguars (32 of 37 for 354 yards, one passing TD and one rushing TD). And then this Sunday, against another playoff rival in the Indianapolis Colts, he did it again, going 18-of-24 (75%) for 275 yards and two touchdowns, and ran in another score to boot. Let’s just say he seems to have found his footing.

Instead of falling out of contention as expected, the Bengals’ 34-14 win keeps them in the playoff race amid a gaggle of 7-6 teams (the Colts among them). Zac Taylor and his offensive staff deserve credit for calling plays that suit Browning’s game – they’re suddenly killing it with screen passes and leaning way more on the running game to produce a balanced, efficient offense that can also crack out a few explosive plays. The fact that they beat a fellow playoff contender without Burrow, with Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins combining for just five catches and a rookie running back (Chase Brown) as their leading receiver says it all. And if it doesn’t, how about “his 79.3% completion rate is the best by any quarterback in NFL history through three career starts”?

Many Bengals fans – who have suffered more than their fair share of disappointment, believe me – wrote their team off the minute Burrow’s season was done. Numerous national pundits did the same, while chatrooms and social media were awash with talk of tanking and draft order. But the discourse has quickly switched to “what if” scenarios about possibly sneaking into the postseason. Their 0-4 divisional record doesn’t do them any favours and it’s going to be an uphill climb, but the fact that they’re still in the race at all is largely down to JB6’s efforts over the past fortnight. [ST]

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Tennessee win a tight ’un

On Monday Night Football, with just 3:08 left in regulation time, the Tennessee Titans trailed the Miami Dolphins 27-13. At that point, according to Next Gen Stats, they had a 0.4% chance of winning. And yet, with Will Levis recording a career-high 327 passing yards, they turned it around and walked off with an improbable 28-27 victory against a Miami team that would have returned to the top of the AFC rankings had they won.

There’s no doubt that Miami had this game safely in the bag. During the fourth quarter, Tennessee were making the bookies who made them 14-point underdogs look like mind-readers. They muffed a punt and fumbled away a couple of other possessions, two of which led to Miami scores. But despite the killer turnovers, Mike Vrabel’s team didn’t quit. They may be all-but-mathematically out of the play-off race at 5-8 but they kept fighting, despite a two-touchdown deficit and time running out.

Levis led the turnaround, capping a 75-yard drive with a no-look, cross-body TD pass to an on-fire DeAndre Hopkins (seven catches for 124 yards). A successful two-point conversion closed the gap to six points, breathing life into the game as a contest. Then, after a key defensive stop by the Titans, Levis went to work again, matriculating his way down the field to set up the grandstand finish: Derrick Henry rushing in from three yards for the go-ahead score.

As for the Dolphins and their league-best red zone offense, they drove inside Tennessee’s 3-yard line three times but didn’t get a TD on any of them. Raheem Mostert ran in two scores and now leads the league with 18, as well as tying single-season franchise records for total and rushing TDs, but Miami’s offense went off the boil while the enigmatic Tyreek Hill left the game for a spell with an ankle injury. That can’t happen if they are to progress deep into the play-offs.

With Dallas, Baltimore and Buffalo still to come on the schedule, the 9-4 Dolphins really needed to win this one and not doing so may yet come back to bite them when the AFC seedings are calculated. But let’s not take anything away from the Titans, who became the first team in NFL history to win in regulation time after trailing by at least 14 points with under three minutes remaining. Quite the comeback. [ST]

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Takeaways as the Broncos earn huge road win over AFC West rival Los Angeles Chargers

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For the first time since 2019, the Denver Broncos won an AFC West matchup on the road, toppling the Los Angeles Chargers in Sofi Stadium to improve to 7-6 on the year. 

After a disappointing loss last week, Sean Payton’s team needed to bounce back quickly in a road divisional matchup and they did just that in comprehensive fashion. 

So, on that note, let’s get into my takeaways from the Broncos’ 24-7 victory over the Chargers.

Playoff hopes are alive 

The loss in Houston felt like a real gut punch to Broncos fans and losing a tiebreaker to a playoff-chasing team will always sting. 

With that said the Broncos had still earned themselves the right to be in the playoff mix and due to other results going their way on Sunday they’re back in the thick of the wildcard chase. 

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Beating the Chargers all but eliminated them from playoff contention, while the Las Vegas Raiders also fell to a defeat, condemning them to another year without a playoff game.

Elsewhere, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans both lost in week 13 so they now make up two of the six teams with a record of 7-6 in the AFC wildcard hunt. 

The Buffalo Bills won a close game in Arrowhead to move them to 7-6 as well as holding the Cheifs back to 8-5 (one game ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West). 

The Cincinnati Bengals, led by backup quarterback Jake Browning, also demolished the Colts moving both teams to 7-6, completing the six-way tie for the last two wildcard spots. 

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The playoff race is as tight as ever in the AFC with three teams on 8-5 records and the six aforementioned 7-6 teams all gunning for first place in their division as well as wildcard berths.

With their remaining schedule, there’s no reason why the Denver Broncos can’t sneak into that sixth or seventh seed in the AFC come January.

Defence is back to its best 

The Broncos’ early season defensive struggles have been well-documented, as has their recent resurgence over the last seven games. 

Last week they didn’t have the same venom as they have done in recent weeks and they allowed Houston to get comfortable and produce chunk plays around them. 

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This week, Vance Joseph brought the heat and they didn’t allow Justin Herbert or the Chargers offence any chance to settle into the game. 

Herbert was even taken out of the game at halftime because of a suspected fractured index finger on his throwing hand meaning Easton Stick came into the game in the second half. 

The recipe for the Broncos’ success this season has been winning the turnover battle, in Houston they failed to do so, but this week they were around the ball like Hawks. 

They forced two fumbles as well as an interception, which teed up Javonte Williams to rush in for the go-ahead score. 

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Jaquan McMillian had a standout day flying off the edge, blitzing the quarterback from his nickel-corner position all day long and almost had a strip sack fumble recovery which he took to the house only for it to be called back for an incomplete pass instead. 

If the defence can maintain this level of play like we’ve seen during the miraculous mid-season turnaround then they can beat anyone left on their schedule. 

Offence is struggling to find consistency 

Despite the near-flawless play on defence, the scoreline should have been much more convincing than it was, but the offence just couldn’t get into a consistent groove. 

They struggled to move the ball in the first half and needed a Jonathon Cooper interception inside the 10-yard line to allow them to put up any points in the first half.

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It improved somewhat in the second half and Russell Wilson totted up two passing touchdowns, one to Adam Trautman wide open in the endzone and the other a deep ball to Courtland Sutton which was impressively hauled in taking him to double-digit touchdown receptions in 2023.

Brandon Staley’s defence has been playing well in recent weeks and that can’t be ignored, but if the Broncos are going to make a run the offence needs to back up the great play by the defence and string some drives together to get an early advantage in games.

Six doesn’t go into two

We’ve spoken about all the 7-6 playoff teams, but when it comes down to seeding there are only two wild card spots left to fill. 

The Cleveland Browns are 8-5 and the chances are they will be in the first wildcard spot, with the Baltimore Ravens currently having the one-seed at 10-3.

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In the AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars lost to the Browns and are now 8-5 themselves, they’re currently the four-seed in the AFC but the Houston Texans are also lingering at 7-6 just outside of the playoffs coming off of a disappointing loss to the New York Jets. 

Elsewhere, the Steelers, Bengals and Colts are all playing with backup quarterbacks and have shown holes in their games recently. 

The Texans might have to field Davis Mills in their divisional road matchup with the Tennessee Titans next week because CJ Stroud entered concussion protocol in their game against the Jets.

That leaves the Broncos and the Bills, who both have their starting quarterbacks still on the field and both are playing with momentum down the stretch. 

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The Bills have a difficult schedule, in week 15 they welcome the Dallas Cowboys before travelling to Miami in week 18 to face the Dolphins. 

As for Denver, they will take a trip to the faltering Detroit Lions next Saturday before hosting the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders in their final three games. 

A 3-1 record across that run would see the Broncos finish the season 10-7 and most would hope that gets you into the playoffs. 

However, in such a stacked AFC wildcard race you would be a brave person to place any bets on which of the six 7-6 teams will make the playoffs at the end of the season.

Week 15 preview 

In week 15 the Broncos will headline the NFL’s Saturday Showcase window when they enter Ford Field to take on Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions in primetime. 

The Lions started the season hot and were the subject of conversations having them in the conversion with the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers atop the NFC playoff picture.

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Fast forward eight weeks and their performances have been unconvincing and they’ve lost three games across that stretch including a demolition at the hands of Justin Fields.

They scraped over the line against the Bears as well during that stretch, as well as having narrow victories over the Chargers and the New Orleans Saints, winning by less than a touchdown in each game. 

They’re certainly a team to be got at and the way the Broncos have been playing recently there is no reason to be afraid of the Lions. 

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This could be a huge road win that propels the Broncos into the playoffs ahead of a key two-game home stretch before finishing the year on the road in Las Vegas.

UK viewers can catch the game live on Sky Sports in the early hours of Sunday morning with coverage starting at 1:15 am GMT.

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PICK SIX – Week 13

Week 13, eh? Unlucky for some. As Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler discuss below, DK Metcalf failed to secure a Seahawks win despite his supersonic exploits, the Titans’ special teams unit had a rough day and two more starting QBs got injured. But maybe fans of the Dolphins, Niners and Packers aren’t quite so superstitious, as things turned out all right for them. Let’s dig into the details.

Not very special teams

The third phase of the game doesn’t get talked about half as much as it probably should do. Maybe the sign of a good special teams unit is that they don’t get much attention because they’re efficient in their operation. Unfortunately, this week, the Tennessee Titans have some column inches heading their way after a disastrous showing from the now former Craig Aukerman-led unit. Yes, we have a Week 13 coaching change – it was that bad!

It’s not unfair to say the unit cost the Titans what would have been an unlikely win against the suddenly charging Colts (winners of five straight games now). They had a lead in the fourth quarter when the wheels started to come off. Lining up to punt the ball away, the unit failed to shift its protection as Indianapolis overloaded to one side. It allowed safety Nick Cross a free run at Ryan Stonehouse and he got home comfortably, blocking the kick with ease. 

A fortunate bounce of the ball later and linebacker Grant Stuard was rumbling 18 yards into the end zone. In a bizarre sequence, the Colts went for two and ended up conceding a rare “pick-two” when Amani Hooker picked off the Minshew throw and returned it the distance for a five-point swing. Surely lightning wouldn’t strike again on the next Titans drive? 

Just three plays later, the punting unit was out again. This time, the Colts blitzed their gunner, Tony Brown, from out wide. The Titans had squeezed an extra lineman in the middle to help prevent another free rusher like the last go-around, which meant that due to his exquisite timing, Brown had a free run at Stonehouse. The collision this time happened before the punter even had a chance to begin the kick process so technically this goes in the book as a fumble. The Colts recovered and settled for a field goal.

It was a crazy game that ended up in overtime with Nick Folk taking on punting duties, as Stonehouse got injured on the second gaffe. The Colts ultimately won it in overtime with a Michael Pitman Jr. TD. The Titans will rue those nine points given up by their punt unit. It has cost Craig Aukerman his job and you have to think that, even with credit in the bag, Mike Vrabel has a warm backside of his own after yet another loss. [SB]

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DK ignores speed limit signs

Six receptions from eight targets, 134 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Sounds like an MVP performance for a winning team, right? But unfortunately for DK Metcalf, that wasn’t quite the case. The Seahawks receiver may have been a one-man highlight reel but his team came up short, losing 41-35 to the Dallas Cowboys in a humdinger at AT&T Stadium on Thursday night.

Seattle started fast. They bagged touchdowns on five of the first seven drives, ending a run of only three TDs over the last four weeks in some style, and Geno Smith passed for 334 yards, 3 TDs and an INT. Metcalf put his team on the board on their third play of the game. Facing a 3rd-and-9, Smith fired a perfectly placed dart between two defenders, Metcalf snagged it in stride and took it to the house for a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

TV viewers could’ve been mistaken for thinking they’d hit the fast-forward button as, during the play, he hit 22.23 mph – making him the fastest ball-carrier this season. He topped Tyreek Hill’s 22.01 mph from Week 5 and ran faster than anyone since Raheem Mostert clocked 23.09 mph in Week 2, 2020. For added context, Usain Bolt’s 100m world record (9.58 seconds) works out at an average of 23.4 mph, although that does include getting up to speed from a stationary start. Afterwards, Metcalf said he had flashbacks to another game against Dallas in 2020, when he got run down by a determined Trevon Diggs for a turnover. “I just saw the ball in the air and nobody was in front of me. Last time I was in the open field, there was a defender behind me and he knocked it out of my hand. I was trying not to relive that moment.”

Having given the Seahawks a 7-3 lead – the first time the Cowboys have trailed at home this season – Metcalf went on to score a 1-yarder just before halftime and his third TD of the night, doubling his season’s tally, nudged Seattle 35-27 ahead at the start of the fourth. But for all his efforts, two late field goals and a Jake Ferguson touchdown closed the game out for the 9-3 Cowboys. In contrast, the Seahawks, now 6-6, stuttered to the finish with three straight turnover on downs, denting an otherwise an impressive offensive performance.

After his record-breaking run, the 25-year-old Metcalf gave the audience yet more to talk about: his American Sign Language (ASL) skills. Metcalf has been fined almost $100,000 for excessive celebrations and unsportsmanlike conduct so learning ASL to avoid further fines for taunting is a smart move. But on Thursday, Metcalf didn’t use it to trash talk; rather, he signed “standing on business” (or “taking care of your responsibilities”) in the end zone. And he certainly took care of business. It was just a shame that three touchdowns and almost breaking the sound barrier weren’t enough to earn the victory. [ST]

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Revenge… for now

We never got to see the best version of San Francisco vs Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game last year with Brock Purdy suffering an unfortunate injury early in that game. The rematch was therefore hotly anticipated, with the league-best Eagles (10-1) hosting the rejuvenated Niners coming in on the back of three successive wins. In the end, it was another one-sided affair but not because of injuries; it was simply that San Francisco just dominated.

Things had started off well enough for the Eagles. They put together two lengthy drives before stalling in the red zone and settling for Jake Elliott field goals. The lead stayed at 6-0 as the defense restricted the Niners to a pair of three-and-outs to start the game. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they were the last stops they made all game as the 49ers scored touchdowns on each of their next six possessions.

The day really belonged to Deebo Samuel. He had talked a fair bit of trash in the run-up to the game but backed up his words with a career day. He found pay dirt three separate times in the same afternoon for the first time ever, taking a pair in through the air alongside a 12-yard rushing score. It doesn’t really do him justice to say he had a pair of touchdowns through the air. Technically, yes he did, but on both occasions, it was all about yards after the catch.

As per Next Gen Stats, “Deebo Samuel gained a career-high plus-88 yards after catch over expected, the fifth-most YACOE in a game by any player since 2018.” When you consider that he finished the day with four grabs for 116 yards total, it’s incredible to think that he was only expected to gain a measly 18 yards and ended up with the stat line that he did.

The Eagles have been doing just enough in recent weeks but they came up against a superior foe on this particular occasion. The rushing defense has been a problem since the bye week and they need to get into much better shape in that regard before these two teams almost inevitably meet again at the back end of January. [SB]

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High on a Hill

The league MVP is essentially a quarterback accolade. QBs have won it 47 times, way more than running backs (16 times) and defensive players (twice). Even a kicker took the honours in the strike-affected 1982 season. But wide receivers? Never. However, in a down year for QB play, Tyreek Hill’s case is increasingly hard to ignore.

At a rain-soaked FedEx Field on Sunday, Hill scorched the Washington Commanders in a 45-15 win, with five catches for 157 receiving yards and two TDs. For his first (in the third play of the game), Hill flew past Quan Martin, waited for Tua Tagovailoa’s underthrown ball to catch up and still motored home untouched for a 78-yarder. In the second quarter, he did it again, this time burning up CB Kendall Fuller on a 60-yard TD. By halftime, Miami were 31-7 ahead and pretty much home and hosed, leaving half an hour of garbage time.

Hill’s record for the season now reads 93 catches for 1,481 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. The latter two metrics lead the NFL, as does his 123.4 receiving yards per game. That puts him on pace to have the NFL’s first 2,000-yard season, breaking his own single-season record (1,964 yards) in the process. Such an historic achievement will surely make the Cheetah the Offensive Player of the Year but is he a bona fide MVP candidate? There’s a bias towards QBs and if a wide receiver has a historically great season, the chances are his quarterback did too. In 2021, Cooper Kupp had 1,947 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns but received just one MVP vote, while Aaron Rodgers received 39. Tagovailoa currently has the fourth-shortest MVP odds, but 42% of his passes and half his 24 touchdown throws have gone to Hill, outlining the importance of the star wideout to his success. The WR himself is sixth in the MVP betting so rule him out at your peril.

On the defensive side, things are looking a bit dicey health-wise for Miami, with linebacker Jaelan Phillips lost for the season last week and three more starters – Jerome Baker, Terron Armstead and Rob Hunt – leaving the field on Sunday. Luckily, this Dolphins side have the league’s most explosive offense to balance things out. Sure, they’ve trounced the minnows – none of the teams they’ve beaten has a winning record – but they haven’t troubled the elite teams yet. Miami may have reached 9-3 for the first time since 2001 to lead their division by three games and head the entire AFC but their losses came against the Bills, Eagles and Chiefs – exactly the calibre of team they’ll meet in January.

On current form, Miami should see off the Titans and Jets but might struggle in their final three games (Cowboys, Ravens and Bills). An 11-6 record will be more than enough to make the postseason but whether it’s enough to retain the conference’s top seed remains to be seen. As with Tyreek’s individual hunt for records and honours, everything is ahead of them, it’s just a matter of keeping it going. [ST]

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Add Trevor and Kenny to the list

Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson, Anthony Richardson, Daniel Jones, Kirk Cousins: all starting quarterbacks who are done for the season (keep dreaming, Aaron). Add to that list Derek Carr, Justin Fields, Matthew Stafford, Kyler Murray and Ryan Tannehill, who were all pegged as starters in preseason (Murray was on IR) and have all missed significant time. This brutal season shows no signs of slowing down as we can now add Kenny Pickett and Trevor Lawrence to that list.

Pickett suffered an ankle sprain in the Steelers’ surprise loss to the Cardinals. A week after the offense had shown some signs of life, it had been a pedestrian first-half display before Pickett was injured on a 2-yard scramble. Compounding matters, it set up 4th-and-1 at the goal line, which the Steelers failed to convert. Pickett did not return and Mitchell Trubisky could not generate much in his time on the field, as Pittsburgh dropped what could be a crucial game. Pickett is not being placed on IR so the hope is he may be back for the playoffs, should the Steelers get there, but he will likely miss at least a few weeks.

The Jacksonville Jaguars rounded off the week with a Monday Night Football encounter with the Bengals. With the game tied at 28-28, Lawrence was leading the Jags up the field, just outside of the red zone. The play that silenced the stadium was a Cincinnati sack. With pressure being applied by Trey Hendrickson, it was left tackle Walker Little that inadvertently stood on the ankle of Lawrence when dropping back in pass protection. Lawrence dropped to the ground in obvious pain and took a long time to be helped off the field. 

At time of writing, we do not have an update on the severity of the ankle sprain but you have to imagine that Lawrence will miss some time at least, with CJ Beathard acting as his understudy for now. Insult was added to injury as the Jags went on to lose the contest in overtime, keeping the Bengals’ slim playoff hopes alive and pulling the Jags back within striking distance of Indianapolis in the AFC South. Jacksonville fans will be keeping fingers crossed and eyes glued to the internet for updates on their signal caller. What a brutal season to play quarterback! [SB]

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Love changes everything

As anyone who’s read Shakespeare or the Romantic Poets will know, love can blossom in the unlikeliest of places… even Green Bay, Wisconsin. Yes, we’re talking Packers QB Jordan Love here. The guy is suddenly the guy, with 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and three wins in his last three outings.

Two seasons ago, Love made his first career start against the Chiefs, stepping in at the last minute for the COVID-striken Aaron Rodgers. Alas, the young QB got blitzed to smithereens and lost his debut 13-7. But this Sunday night, he turned the tables on the reigning Super Bowl champions, posting 267 yards and three touchdowns while orchestrating a 27-19 win.

Love got hot at the start of each half. In the first, two 75-yard drives left the young QB with figures of 10 of 11 for 109 yards and two touchdowns – one each to Ben Sims and Christian Watson. Kansas City inevitably fought back to 14-12 in the third quarter but Love kept his team ahead with a 33-yard rainbow to Romeo Doubs on a 4th down before making a 12-yard connection to Watson, who ‘climbed the ladder’ to beat his man and snag his second TD of the night. It marked Love’s fourth game with 3+ passing TDs and no INTs this season, equalling Brock Purdy for the most this season.

After falling to 2-5, their worst start to a campaign since 2005, the Packers have steadily recovered under Love’s leadership. And since their bye in Week 7, Love has nailed 14 TD throws, more than anyone not named Dak Prescott. He is happier standing in the pocket now and has eight TD passes and zero INTs against the blitz, according to ESPN; only Tua (10:1) has been better. And he’s clearly confident enough to air it out now, connecting on some of those go routes that used to fall shy of their intended target. In short, he’s becoming everything the Green Bay front office told us he would be but no one believed.

On a run of four wins in five that includes the scalps of Detroit and Kansas City, Matt LeFleur’s team find themselves at 6-6 and occupying the final Wild Card spot in the NFC. Given their current form and remaining schedule (no opponents currently above .500 lie in wait), the unthinkable is starting to look more than likely: the Packers will be playing meaningful football in the New Year.

Notably, Sunday’s defeat, which knocks the Chiefs off the top of the AFC perch, was also the first loss that Taylor Swift has seen in person since she started dating Travis Kelce. She’s been to five games now and was, until this week, KC’s lucky charm. So which is the greatest Love story now, eh? [ST]

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PICK SIX – Week 11

Returning to pick six more talking points from the latest week of NFL action, Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler discuss the Jaguars and Bills rebounding nicely, a banged-up Geno Smith, the faltering Chargers and the charging Lions, plus an intriguing Monday Night matchup between the top seeds in each conference.

Welcome back Trevor

The Jacksonville Jaguars will have been thrilled to deliver an offensive breakout when putting divisional rivals Tennessee to the sword. Despite their positive record, the Jags have stumbled on the offensive side of the ball for weeks now and were smarting from the beating they took at the hands of the 49ers last weekend. That can now be relegated to being “old news” after this week’s 34-14 win.

Trevor Lawrence looked composed and eliminated the mistakes that had been so costly last week. He didn’t turn the ball over and completed 75% of his passes for 262 yards and a couple of touchdowns. It was a particularly nice day for Calvin Ridley who was the recipient of both touchdown tosses. His 103 yards marks the third time he has reached three figures during the campaign but was the first time since early October.

The first Ridley touchdown was a beauty. He faded to the back corner of the end zone and Lawrence put the ball right on him. The sideline, however, was not Ridley’s friend and he had to show great footwork to get both feet down just inside the playing surface. The second was a similar concept via play action from the signal caller.

Lawrence also found success in the rushing game, again finding a pair of scores. He scrambled in from 9 yards to cap the opening drive of the third quarter and scored from 5 yards out in the fourth. The rest of the ground game saw a committee approach, with 30 totes of the rock divided between the three running backs. It complemented an all-round display that the Jags have been craving for weeks.

The defense continues to play at a decent level. They limited the Titans to just two of seven on third down plays and shut down Derrick Henry and the running game. We said last week that the Jaguars will need to raise their game to be considered a real threat come January. The Titans certainly aren’t the level of competition they will be expecting to come up against but as a tune-up game, this ticked the boxes nicely. [SB]

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Chargers gonna charger

LA Chargers fans start each season with optimism and belief. “This will be our year”, they say, every single time, but it never is. Their team either underwhelms or the wheels fall off completely. This year is no exception. As ever, they have the personnel on offense (Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler) plus an expensive defense containing Derwin James Jr., Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, yet 2023 is turning into another wobbly wheel kind of season.

Los Angeles now sit at 4-6, 13th in the AFC, and their chances of making the playoffs in a hyper-competitive conference are fading fast. The Brandon Staley era has reached a critical point and one suspects the next seven games (if not the next couple) might determine if his seat becomes too hot to return to next year. He was hired for his defensive knowledge yet his team consistently ranks among the worst in the league in points allowed (29th, 21st and 24th since 2020). In Sunday’s 23-20 loss to a poor Packers team, the unit continued to be the Achilles heel. Jordan Love was gifted the first 300-yard passing day of his career and until then, Green Bay had the second-longest active streak (27 games) without reaching that benchmark. 

Inevitably, there were mistakes, like a huge pass interference call against Asante Samuel Jr. that handed the Packers a first down in their game-winning drive. And there were injuries: a tearful DE Joey Bosa left the field on a cart in the first quarter with an ankle injury. It wasn’t all plain sailing on offense either. The usually reliable Keenan Allen dropped two potential TD passes while Austin Ekeler fumbled inside the 5. The Chargers came into this game with the second-best red-zone efficiency in the league but went 1-for-4 where it mattered most.

Of course, there were a few bright spots too. Tight end Stone Smartt rumbled in from 51 yards for his first career TD while Khalil Mack secured two sacks (11 for the season). Yet the Chargers still squandered opportunities and lost another one-score game. Five of their six losses have now been by three points or fewer and they’ve yet to beat a team over .500.

Having failed to win a division title since 2009, we’ve been here many times before, only this time, ownership might have seen enough. The franchise has only fired one coach during a season but Staley is doing his best to be the second. With a league-worst pass defense, it’s only fair that reporters question his play-calling in post-game pressers but he still defends himself to the hilt, albeit in an increasingly irritated way. Well, the Baltimore Ravens, the league’s second-highest scoring offense, come to SoFi Stadium this Sunday so let’s see what he has to say after that – if he’s still here, that is. [ST]

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Seahawks out on a limb

Geno Smith had an up-and-down day as the Seahawks let a lead slip against the LA Rams in what could be a costly 17-16 defeat. As seems to be the recent pattern, the Seattle offense started hot with Geno orchestrating an 88-yard touchdown drive. It culminated in an 8-yard toss to DK Metcalf on a simple slant route down low. The offense continued to move the ball, posting field goals on its next two drives. Those three possessions accumulated 193 yards of total offense; the next seven yielded just 38 more.

To be fair to Geno, though, he was absent for a couple of those drives. A big hit from Aaron Donald put him on the sidelines, forcing Drew Lock into action. It was a complete and utter disaster. His final stat line was a measly two completions for 3 yards from his six passing attempts, along with an interception. The play, an underthrown deep shot for Tyler Lockett, breathed further life into the Rams’ comeback. When Geno exited the game, the scoreboard read 16-7 in favour of Seattle. He returned after that interception with the Seahawks down by a point and just 1:31 on the clock.

He had “convinced” Pete Carroll that he was able to go back in the game and immediately showed he had enough arm strength. He connected with his favourite duo, hitting Tyler Lockett for 13 yards and then DK Metcalf for 21 yards, moving the Seahawks into field goal range. A helmet malfunction then led to a poor play call as, rather than throwing again to make the field goal attempt more manageable, Seattle elected for a run that only gained 2 yards. A spike later and it was all there for last week’s hero Jason Myers to take the glory again. Alas, he pushed the FG attempt wide to the right from 55 yards away.

The Seahawks have a rough schedule ahead – two games with the 49ers along with contests against the Cowboys and Eagles – so this loss could be a big one. They need to find consistency as these patchy performances are becoming all too common. What is abundantly clear is that Geno’s arm better be OK because if it isn’t, it’s Drew Lock season and you may as well stick a fork in them now. [SB]

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Lions taking pride in success

Only four teams – the Browns, Texans, Jaguars and Lions – have never reached the Super Bowl but if the season ended today, all four would qualify for the postseason. Among them, Detroit have never won the NFC North nor hosted a playoff game at Ford Field so the fact that they are 8-2 for the first time since 1962 is mightily impressive.

You’ve got a heart of stone if you’re not enjoying what’s going on in the Motor City, where Dan Campbell is among the front-runners for Coach of the Year and his team have become one of this season’s feel-good stories. On Sunday, stunned by four turnovers (including three INTs by Jared Goff), they looked out of sync and trailed the Chicago Bears by 12 points with four minutes left. For context, teams down by at least 10 points with four minutes remaining were 0-83 before Sunday.

The Lions defense allowed their opponents 334 yards and 25 first downs but tightened up just in time to let their offensive colleagues stage an improbable comeback. Goff suddenly rallied, leading his team to 17 points in the final quarter to salvage a 31-26 win, with David Montgomery nudging Detroit in front with a 1-yard TD run with just 29 seconds remaining. A walk-off strip-sack safety by Aidan Hutchinson sealed the deal, spoiling Justin Fields’ return from injury.

Detroit join the Eagles and Ravens as the only teams with at least eight wins on the board and they still have four winnable division games to come, plus the Saints, Broncos and Cowboys. They have long been known for having a soft underbelly but this was exactly the type of come-from-behind, never-say-die victory that will see the new-look, knee-biting Lions progress well into the postseason. And you certainly can’t begrudge their long-suffering fans the chance to experience that for a change. [ST]

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Chiefs stutter while Eagles soar

A Super Bowl rematch months in the making played out on Monday Night Football, but the result this time was different. The Eagles improve to an NFL-best 9-1 record while the Chiefs join a cluster of AFC teams with three defeats, throwing the conference race up in the air.

It was an all-too-familiar tale for Kansas City as their once-potent offense failed to ignite once more. A comfortable 10-point lead at the half was not enough as their six second-half possessions resulted in four punts and two turnovers (one on downs). The receiving core is a real concern as we head towards the postseason.

Marques Valdes-Scantling will be the name getting most criticism after a key drop on what would have been a potentially game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. A dime was tossed by Patrick Mahomes as MVS flew passed Bradley Roby from the slot but he couldn’t reel the pass in. It completed a miserable night for the group as Justin Watson finished as KC’s leading receiver with just 53 yards.

The Chiefs defense once again held up its end of the bargain, limiting Jalen Hurts to just 150 yards through the air. It wasn’t enough though. The Eagles have become masters of winning games despite not playing particularly well and this was no different. Two Hurts rushing touchdowns, including the now seemingly obligatory 1-yarder, helped the Eagles complete the comeback and take the spoils 21-17.

The Eagles appear to be a class above in the NFC. You could make a case for the Lions or 49ers but week in and week out, it feels as though Philly will find a way (how on earth did they lose to Zach Wilson though?). The Chiefs, on the other hand, are heading for uncharted waters where the AFC may not run through Arrowhead for a change. One thing is for certain: they need to get this offense firing if they are going to be a serious threat to the Eagles should there be another rematch in a couple of months’ time. [SB]

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Brady’s bunch back on track

Last week, Buffalo’s offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey was fired and quarterback Josh Allen admitted “our backs are against the wall, the clock’s ticking.” Well, just a few days into Joe Brady’s spell as interim OC, the Bills saw off the Jets 32-6 to post their first win in three weeks. Those 32 points were the most allowed by the Jets since 2021.

After an understandably slow start, with three field goals and a punt in their first four possessions, the offense came alive. Allen (275 yards, 3 TDs) hit five straight completions for 145 yards and two TDs, including an 81-yard bomb to Khalil Shakir. The win came despite more Bills’ defenders landing on the treatment table. With three starters already on IR, corners Dane Jackson and Taron Johnson both left the game with head injuries, and safety Taylor Rapp sustained a worrying neck injury. At least trade-deadline pick-up Rasul Douglas, who had two sacks and a fumble recovery, is still healthy.

When all is said and done, all victories are equal: they are each worth one W. But what does beating this abject Jets team really mean? On a day when Gang Green went 0-for-11 on third downs, allowed six sacks and managed only 155 total yards, Zach Wilson was benched late in the third quarter in favour of QB3 Tim Boyle. Wilson (7-of-15, 81 yards) was awful; he didn’t even complete a pass to a wide receiver. (Heck, even punter Thomas Morstead completed an 18-yard pass for a first down on a fake punt, kickstarting their first successful touchdown drive in a staggering 41 attempts!) Post-game, Robert Saleh wouldn’t commit to naming his starter for the Black Friday game against the AFC East-leading Dolphins but by Monday night, Wilson had been demoted beneath both Tim Boyle and Trevor Siemian. Ouch.

As for the Bills, much stiffer tests lie in wait, with trips to Philadelphia and Kansas City coming up either side of a bye week. If they’re going to make the playoffs, Brady’s offense will need to repeat this level of performance against teams of a higher calibre than the New York Jesters. [ST]

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