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]
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]
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]