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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