PICK SIX – Week 12

This week’s NFL action was nicely spread out over several days, due to the holiday season in the United States. But while our American cousins gorged on turkey and pumpkin pie – and football of course – Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler set to work picking six more things to discuss from the Week 12 slate. This week, we expand on two players breaking records, the Steelers’ rejuvenated offense, our first Black Friday game, the sub-par NFC South and possibly the best game of the season so far.

DaRon sets Bland-new record

During his team’s annual Thanksgiving Day game on Thursday, Dallas Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland snared his fifth pick-six of the year, setting a new single-season record in the process. He intercepted Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell and returned it 63 yards, eluding Howell, Brian Robinson and Terry McLaurin on his way to the paint.

The ensuing celebration lasted so long that Head Coach Mike McCarthy had to call a timeout before the extra point attempt. And the timing couldn’t have been better for the Californian, whose family was in town for the holidays. “It means everything to break the record in front of them,” Bland said postgame, “and do it on Thanksgiving Day is another thing to be thankful for.”

As well as sticking a cherry on the top of a comfortable 45-10 victory, the play vaulted the second-year cornerback above Eric Allen, Jim Kearny and Ken Houston in the NFL record books for the most defensive TDs in a season. Bland also becomes the leader in career pick-sixes in Cowboys franchise history.

Even last year, as a rookie drafted from Fresno State in Round 5, the promise of what was to come was evident in the five interceptions he made while filling in for an injured Jourdan Lewis. But this season, the step up has been exponential. The 24-year-old has transformed into a premier defensive playmaker, accumulating 48 tackles, 13 passes defensed and a league-leading seven interceptions.

This year, Bland has yet to go more than two consecutive games without a touchdown. His journey into the record books began even before he was thrust into the starting lineup when Trevon Diggs tore his ACL in practice ahead of Week 3. His 22-yard pick-six in an opening-day 40-0 rout of the Giants was soon followed by scores against the Patriots (54 yards), Rams (30 yards), Panthers (30 yards) and now the Commanders. His five defensive TDs are two more than any other team has accrued this season (the Colts and the Seahawks are the closest with three) and within the Cowboys camp, he only trails Cee Dee Lamb on either side of the ball. For added context, his tally is just one shy of the New York Jets’ entire offensive output.

With six more regular season games still to go, Dallas fans will be keen to see if Bland can extend his record yet further. But for now, his exceptional instincts and ability to read the game is something every Cowboys fan should be thankful for. [ST]

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Steelers win – with offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers finally ended the longest streak in the league for most games without 400 yards on offense in Week 12. They officially surpassed the 400-yard mark, in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against their divisional foes from Cincinnati, with a 13-yard run from Najee Harris.

The last time they put up 400 yards in a single game was way back, some 1,162 days ago — in Week 2 of the 2020 season. The 424 yards was also the most gained by their offense since the 429 posted against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 of 2018. It was a welcome sight for an offense that ranked 28th in yards per game entering the pivotal AFC North matchup.

Despite only scoring 16 points in the victory over the Bengals, there’s little doubt that the Steelers offense looked as good as it has all season. The game came just five days after the firing of Matt Canada as the team’s offensive coordinator. Quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner are working in tandem as interim OCs, with Sullivan calling plays from the sideline and Faulkner handling the bulk of the other day-to-day responsibilities.

The obvious conclusion from the eye test was a more explosive attack. The opening play of the game saw a 24-yard connection to Pat Freiermuth – the first of six plays over 20 yards. The tight end went on to register over 100 yards receiving. Najee Harris also had his best game of the season as the Steelers dominated time of possession and outgained an opponent for the first time all season.

Now, the Green Bay Packers hold the longest active streak for most consecutive games without 400+ net yards, holding an 18-game streak dating back to Week 11 of the 2022 season. [SB]

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Another black day for the Jets

The NFL does like to hitch itself to traditional holidays and milk them for all they’re worth. It’s had games on Christmas Day for decades and Thanksgiving matchups since 1934, with the late night game becoming an annual thing in 2006. Now, amid the retail madness that is Black Friday, the NFL has jumped on the bandwagon again.

At 3pm ET on Friday, the New York Jets – in black uniforms, naturally – played host to the Miami Dolphins in an all-AFC East clash, mirroring the three divisional games from the previous day. The first-ever Black Friday match was aired exclusively by Amazon Prime Video for free (even for non-Prime members) and inevitably, money lies at the heart of the development. The Thanksgiving Day games have separate TV rights and after CBS, Fox and NBC took their noses out of the trough, there was none of the $1 billion pie left. Undeterred, Amazon proposed an annual game the day after, to coincide with its biggest shopping event of the year, and shelled out $100 million to the NFL for the privilege.

Through the 11-year deal, they should make a healthy return on their investment through interactive adverts and QR codes for viewers to scan before, during and after the game. The ads were even tailored to different audiences – depending on whether the viewer was already a Prime member, for example. This latest move in the battle for consumer dollars during the holiday season is designed to encourage millions of football fans to leave the malls early, head home for the game and continue shopping from the couch, smart phone in hand, via Amazon. Ker-ching!

On the field, as expected, it was a one-sided affair, with Miami sealing a 34-13 win in a fast-emptying stadium. Raheem Mostert (94 rushing yards) ran in for two scores, Jaylen Waddle led the receiving corps with 114 yards and Tyreek Hill (nine catches for 102 yards) handed the ball from his 7-yard TD reception to his new wife Keeta (Keeta and the Cheetah? Cute!). But for the Jets, things got ugly… and stayed that way. Tim Boyle’s Hail Mary attempt being returned for a 99-yard pick-six by Jevon Holland pretty much summed up their day.  

But what now for BFF (Black Friday Football)? Well, the fixture is already being talked about as an annual affair and franchises like the Cincinnati Bengals have already volunteered to be the regular host, much like the Cowboys and Lions are on Thanksgiving. Not surprisingly, the NFL politely declined Cincy’s offer and opted to go with New York, the country’s biggest retail market – at least for now. Lucrative though that may be, the league should think twice before agreeing to head back to MetLife Stadium for the next one because on the day after Thanksgiving, Americans have probably had enough turkeys. [ST]

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11k Kelce

It’s not been a bad few months for Travis Kelce. Super Bowl champion, tick. Dating pop megastar, tick. Fastest tight end to reach 11,000 career receiving yards, tick.

His latest feat was accomplished on the back of a 27-yard reception in the second quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders, which contributed towards his tally of 91 total yards on six receptions. It was a gorgeous connection and fitting that such a play would be the record breaker. Kelce bullied Divine Deablo off the line and broke towards the corner. Mahomes dropped a dime into his bucket with a safety closing in and a couple of other trailing defenders narrowing the window.

It was a much-needed contribution that helped the Chiefs rebound from an early 14-point deficit. The aforementioned 27-yard catch came on the pre-half-time drive where KC knotted up the scoreboard and they would not look back. Recent second-half struggles were nowhere to be seen as Kelce and co. moved the ball with ease, gaining 17 second-half points and a big division win just when things were starting to look a little tricky for the Chiefs.

Kelce’s new mark, reaching 11,000 yards in just 154 games, comfortably eclipses the previous record set by Tony Gonzalez (191 games). The question now becomes whether Kelce can hunt down the other record held by Gonzalez: most receiving yards in history for a tight end. That currently sits at 15,127 so there’s still some way to go. Having just turned 34, Kelce would realistically need a strong finish to this campaign and probably sustain at least three more seasons at this level. Antonio Gates is next on the list to surpass, followed by Jason Witten so they are the next two hurdles to overcome. And while he is Patrick Mahomes’ most reliable target, it would be foolish to bet against him.

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Falcons heading north in the South

On Sunday, Taylor Heinicke’s hamstring injury meant Desmond Ridder came back in from the cold after his Week 9 benching but with his proclivity for turnovers (six lost fumbles and six INTs), it won’t be QB play that takes Atlanta to the playoffs, should they get there. Indeed, it was their RBs and DBs who starred in a 25-14 win over the New Orleans Saints. Atlanta’s ground attack cranked out an impressive 228 yards, with rookie Bijan Robinson rumbling for 91 rushing yards and a score, backed by Tyler Allgeier (64), Cordarrelle Patterson (43) and Ridder himself (30). On the other side of the ball, Jessie Bates’ 92-yard pick six was the game’s highlight, while his timely punch-out to force a Taysom Hill fumble on the 9-yard line wasn’t far behind.

The win not only ends a three-game losing skid but also vaults Atlanta over their opponents and up into first place in the basket case that is the NFC South. Last year, all four teams posted losing records, with the 7-10 Saints, Panthers and Falcons all trailing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who snuck into the playoffs at 8-9. These things are often one-season anomalies but in the worst division in football (© everyone), history is repeating itself. Pre-season, this was ranked the weakest pool by every pundit who proffered an opinion. And sure enough, all the other divisional pacesetters are currently 8-3 or better but here, the Falcons head the pack at 5-6.

The Panthers, now 1-10 after Sunday’s loss to the Titans, are the worst team in football. To be fair, they’d been decimated by injuries even before this weekend, when Leviska Shenault, Vonn Bell and others joined the growing list of casualties. But even so, rookie QB Bryce Young just isn’t cutting it and after 11 games, their offense sits at or near the bottom of the pile in just about every metric. No wonder HC Franck Reich got the Order of the Boot yesterday, not even getting to one-and-done. No one here’s making the postseason via the Wild Card route but the fact that Carolina can still win this dumpster fire of a group is mindboggling.

Their next opponents are the Bucs (4-7). It seems the post-Tom Brady experiment with Baker Mayfield hasn’t worked and with the NFL’s worst rushing attack and the second-worst pass defense, they may also be in the market for a new head coach soon. After more erratic play in a 27-20 loss to the Colts this weekend, they’re stuck in third place, behind the Saints (5-6). In the Big Easy, star man Alvin Kamara isn’t exactly tearing up trees, Michael Thomas is back on IR and the red zone has become their kryptonite.

So, by default, that leaves the Falcons – a team that hasn’t bettered seven wins since 2017 – as the least-worst bet for the NFC South crown as we enter December. The Dirty Birds are 3-0 in the division and there’s no team with a winning record left on their schedule. Looking down the stretch in the NFC South, there’s only one week left without a divisional clash of some sort and the final one – the Falcons/Saints rematch – may yet decide which of these unworthy teams hosts a playoff game. I’m hardly sticking my neck out by predicting there’s more ugly football to come in the remaining weeks but however bad it is, at least it’ll be competitive! [ST]

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Game of the season… so far

What a game! Buffalo 34-37 Philadelphia. It was a game that ebbed and flowed, and ultimately came down to some more Jalen Hurts brilliance as the Eagles found a way to secure yet another win. 

It was rather baffling and stupid that the home crowd booed off the team at halftime despite their impressive record to date. Yes, the Bills had been good, dominant in fact. They left six costly points off the board with a field goal block and a field goal miss either side of the half-time whistle. Josh Allen had a great night, throwing for more than 330 yards, but he could only look on as Hurts and company took over in the second half.

The Philly QB had five total touchdowns including three through the air. They included one to DeVonta Smith, who continues to turn heads towards the business end of the campaign. AJ Brown and Olamide Zaccheaus caught the others. 

It was almost in vain, however, as the Bills edged ahead after the two-minute warning. The problem, however, was that Hurts still had time. The Eagles drove into field goal range and Jake Elliott booted a 59-yarder to force overtime. The Bills won the toss and Josh Allen got down to the Eagles’ 22 but Buffalo had to settle for another FG. That gave the Eagles yet another life. They grasped it with both hands and capped a nine-play drive with a Hurts 12-yard scramble for the win. The Eagles yet again found a way, and their quarterback proved yet again he can be the difference maker in the big moments. [SB]

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