PICK SIX – Week 16

Merry Christmas, everyone – we hope you had a good one. With Week 16 behind us and Week 17 looming, the NFL is coming at us thick and fast. And with the other demands of the festive season competing for our attention (you know, kids’n’that), we’ve decided to spread our Pick Six over the holiday season. So here, I’ve ‘picked three’ and my partner in crime Shaun Blundell will pick another three next week. We hope you understand. So here’s Puka, Pickens and the Detroit Lions for you.

On the third day of Pickmas…

… GM Les Snead and HC Sean McVay’s true love gave them a compensatory pick in Round 5 of the 2023 NFL Draft. And with that Day 3 selection back in April, the LA Rams chose a wide receiver from Brigham Young University, Puka Nacua. Eight months on, it seems they might have won Christmas with that pick.

Nacua is a very smiley man, has great hands and, according to his latest presser, finds everything “super fun”. Which is not surprising, given that he is fast becoming a solid bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year. With two games of the regular season remaining, Nacua has 96 receptions (third all-time among rookies), 1,327 receiving yards (fifth, but only 147 shy of the record) and five touchdown catches to his name, and now holds the rookie record for games with 150+ scrimmage yards (four), nudging ahead of Randy Moss and Ja’Marr Chase.

Last Thursday night, in the Rams’ 30-22 win over the New Orleans Saints, he may have had his best performance yet, giving all those intending to vote for a certain QB in Houston as OROTY pause for thought. Nacua hauled in nine receptions for a season-high 164 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown, recovered an onside kick and earned a first down with a 9-yard run that allowed LA to run out the clock.

Ever since Week 1, Nacua has given Matthew Stafford someone reliable to aim for while Cooper Kupp recovered from injury. While Kupp missed the first four games, Nacua had three 100-yard outings. His unexpected success has been a key reason why the Rams – tipped by many (including me) to struggle this year – have won five of the last six. That run has seen them rise from 3-6 to 8-7 and as the sixth seed in the NFC, their chances of postseason action are now up to 67%. If Nacua can help LA reach the playoffs and take the OROTY title in the process, I think that makes this season an unqualified success. [ST]

Embed from Getty Images

Slim Pickens for Cincy

After three straight losses, two of which were to 2-10 teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers were looking like an old boxer, on the ropes and out of fire power. But there’s something about playing their AFC North foes from Cincinnati that gets them fired up. On Saturday, they came out of their corner like Mike Tyson in his prime and sent the Bengals home from Acrisure Stadium with two black eyes and a bloodied nose.

The Steelers were averaging just 16 points a game this year and have scored 30 points just twice in the last two seasons: the home game against the Bengals last year and the equivalent fixture this weekend. In amassing 397 total yards and 34 points, their two stand-out players this time were third-string QB Mason Rudolph and wide receiver George Pickens, who faced criticism for his lack of effort against the Colts last week. Together, these two unlikely heroes combined for almost 69% of their team’s passing yards and if you had that on your Christmas bingo card, I’d be staggered.

After their poor run of form, Mike Tomlin gave Rudolph the nod over Mitch Trubisky and it paid dividends from the off. On their second play of the game, the 58th quarterback to start an NFL game this season found Pickens on a post route. It should’ve have been a 10-yard gain but the former Georgia Bulldog turned on the afterburners and left the Cincy secondary for dead on an 86-yard TD catch and run. But Pickens wasn’t done by any means. On a career day, he also caught a 66-yard TD pass from Rudolph, leaving CB Chidobe Awuzie in his wake, and made a spectacular 44-yard catch, somehow getting both heels in bounds as he fell backwards clutching the ball. All told, Pickens racked up 195 yards and 2 TDs on just four receptions.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s depleted D (without four safeties and three inside linebackers) only shipped 11 points, held the Bengals to 59 rushing yards and sacked Jake Browning three times. They also secured three INTs, courtesy of Eric Rowe, elevated from the practice squad, Patrick Peterson, who was playing safety to cover for injuries, and Alex Highsmith.

After three losses, the Steelers came to play this week – and play they did. The loss dumps Cincinnati out of the AFC playoff picture (10th) but the victors are also on the outside looking in, just one spot ahead. With two games left, either of these 8-7 teams could still mathematically make the postseason but it’s increasingly unlikely. But whatever transpires over the next fortnight, the Steelers have swept the Bengals and can at least claim bragging rights over their divisional rivals till next season. [ST]

Embed from Getty Images

Lions keep pedal to the metal

Head Coach Dan Campbell has done what no one else has done since 1993: win a divisional title with the Detroit Lions. And in the words of his beloved Metallica, Nothing Else Matters.

The Lions dispatched their rivals from Minnesota with a 30-24 win that gives the team their first playoff berth since 2016, and their first-ever NFC North crown. There’s been a steady improvement under Campbell, from his inaugural 3-13 campaign, through last year’s 9-8, to their current record of 11-4, which equals their most wins this century. If you include last season’s 8-2 finish, Campbell’s Lions are 19-6 over their last 25 games, making him a worthy Coach of the Year candidate.

The win against the Vikings saw Detroit’s defense come away with four interceptions and four sacks, but Nick Mullens did gash them for over 400 yards. Still, Jahmyr Gibbs and Amon-Ra St Brown did the business offensively. Gibbs ended up with 100 scrimmage yards and two rushing TDs while St Brown added 12 catches for 106 receiving yards and a touchdown, becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to have 300+ receptions in their first three seasons. After the win, Campbell got emotional as he dedicated the win to the “old guard” of players who suffered through the team’s barren years.

With this latest triumph in an impressively consistent campaign, the Lions keep themselves in the hunt for the NFC’s No.1 seed and are now assured of finishing no worse than third in the conference. This means that Ford Field will host a playoff game for the first time since it opened in 2002. The division-clinching victory also means that Campbell and his players have the opportunity to end the franchise’s 32-year wait for a postseason victory. So while it was a Merry Christmas in the Motor City, the team need to keep grinding down the stretch to make sure the fairytale doesn’t end after chapter 1. [ST]

Embed from Getty Images

Read our Latest articles

PICK SIX – Super Bowl LVIII

That’s it. The 2023 NFL season is in the vault and the big finale at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas rounded it all off in

Read >

PICK SIX – Conference Championship Games

Four teams. Two Championship deciders. One game remaining. The ever-decreasing numbers leave Sean Tyler diving deeper into the detail so this week, our scribe shines

Read >

PICK SIX – Divisional Round

With only four games over the weekend, we’ve had to dive a little deeper this time, looking at individual players and even individual plays. With

Read >