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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