PICK SIX – Week 18

Well, there you have it. Another regular NFL season, all 18 weeks of it, is behind us. For 14 teams, there’s more to come as the playoffs begin while the rest slink off home to lick their wounds, revise their strategies, assess their on- and off-field personnel and, in a couple of cases, have a good old cry. Probably. In the meantime, Sean Tyler and Shaun Blundell dissect six more exciting, entertaining and intriguing things from the first week of 2024 action.

Ten-win Texans back in the big time

Back in September, the Houston Texans had a rookie quarterback, their fourth Head Coach in as many years and just 11 victories to show for the previous three campaigns. Come Saturday night, they had 10 wins, a bona fide franchise QB, an impressive HC in DeMeco Ryans, a Wild Card place in their back pocket and a shot at the division title. Yes, after three seasons of double-digit defeats, the 10-6 Texans returned to the postseason with a bang, winning the late Saturday night game against their divisional rivals, the Indianapolis Colts. The 23-19 victory in the win-or-go-home contest took them to the top of the AFC South, a position they retained when the Jaguars lost the following day.

Indy’s postseason hopes ended with just 1:06 remaining when, down by six, they turned the ball over on downs on a 4th-and-1 at Houston’s 15-yard line. Inexplicably, after Jonathan Taylor had run 30 times for 188 yards, the Colts’ star running back was kept on the sideline for the crucial play. Gardner Minshew underthrew a quick pass, Tyler Goodson couldn’t reel in and that was that. An odd decision that I bet HC Shane Steichen would like to take back.

While the Texans’ D sealed the deal, it was their impressive attack that stole the show. On their very first offensive snap, CJ Stroud – playing in his first primetime game – threw a bomb half the length of the field, with Nico Collins taking it in stride for a 75-yard TD catch-and-run. And with Tank Dell, Robert Woods and Noah Brown all out injured, the Stroud-Collins connection went on to dominate the game script. The young QB finished with 20 of 26 for 264 yards with two touchdowns and became only the fifth rookie ever to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Meanwhile, Collins caught all nine of his targets for 195 yards and that early score, taking him over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his three-year career.

These teams had a combined seven wins between them last season so battling it out for a playoff berth this time around suggests that both rebuilds are well ahead of schedule. Reaching Week 18 with a shot at the division title is clearly a tick in the box for Steichen, and his team could push on next year with a few shrewd additions. Meanwhile, back in training camp, Stroud declared that the Texans would “shock the world” this season… and so it’s proved. He remains the favourite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year while Ryans has a solid claim to be NFL Coach of the Year in his debut campaign. That said, I suspect both would sacrifice individual honours in favour of a deep playoff run. Given their explosive offense and the league’s third-best run defense, Houston’s next opponents –Cleveland – won’t be taking anything for granted in the Wild Card round. [ST]

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From Jordan with love

While CJ Stroud has taken plenty of headlines as the dazzling rookie QB of 2023, maybe more attention should be going the way of a quarterback who only became a full-time starter this year: Jordan Love. Unlike his much-talked-about predecessors in Green Bay, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, Love can claim the distinction that he is a playoff quarterback in his first season as a full-time starting QB, doing so with the league’s youngest roster to boot.

The upwards trajectory has been gradual. Over the final eight games, Love completed over 70% of his passes and tossed 18 touchdowns against just one interception. For the entire campaign, Love finished second in the NFL with 32 touchdown passes, a 64.2% completion rate and 4,159 yards. All but one of those touchdowns were to either first- or second-year players, highlighting the bright future ahead for this organisation.

With a playoff berth on the line once again, Love had a day to remember and led the Packers to a 17-9 win over visitors Chicago. Love was brilliant, completing 27 of 32 passes (84.4%) for 316 yards. He threw two touchdowns, no interceptions and had a passer rating of 128.6. The man himself was in a reflective mood post-game. “You want to play in big-time games and, when the pressure’s on, just to be able to go showcase what you’re made of,” Love said. “Definitely being on the bench for those three years, and being behind Aaron and wanting to be out there so bad, now that I’ve got my opportunity, just making the most of it, taking it and running with it.”

Love has certainly accomplished that, which is why the Packers finally shone in a huge game – something that, despite his individual brilliance, had been the knock on Aaron Rodgers in recent times. The Packers threw away the playoffs in Week 18 last year but were not to be denied with their new quarterback in situ this time around. 

Next up, the playoffs: a place few believed possible when they sat at 2-5 a few short months ago. With the win, the Packers improved to 9-8, earned the No.7 seed in the NFC and will head to Dallas for a Wild Card game. If Love can continue to show his second half of the season form, it will be a tricky proposition for the Cowboys. [SB]

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Hit-and-miss Bills take AFC East title

At Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the 11-6 Buffalo Bills won their fifth straight game, clinched their fourth consecutive AFC East title and locked up the No.2 seed in the conference. Yet six weeks ago, few pundits even had them making the playoffs after a mid-season slump threatened to derail their year. November losses to the Bengals, Broncos and Eagles left the Bills at 6-6 but they’ve bounced back, seeing off the Chiefs, Cowboys and Dolphins in recent weeks. They’re now the only team since playoff seedings began in 1975 to earn a top 2 seed after being .500 or below with five games left.

Buffalo rallied from 14-7 down at the start of the final quarter against Miami to beat their divisional rivals 21-14, and the late turnaround mirrored their entire season to perfection. There were mistakes and missed chances, injuries to the defense and turnovers by the offense. But when it mattered most, they found a way and came up smelling of roses. Fans were treated to the full spectrum of what Josh Allen offers. Bad Josh started the game with three turnovers – two end-zone picks (taking him to a career-high 18 INTs for the season) and a fumble just outside the red zone – but Good Josh prevailed, playing lights out in the fourth quarter (going 7 of 7 for 83 yards). Overall, he threw for 359 yards and two TDs, and led the team with 67 rushing yards, including a signature 15-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-13.

Several of Buffalo’s unsung heroes shared the limelight with their quarterback. WR Trent Sherfield had just 11 catches before Sunday but it was his toe-drag grab at the back of the end zone that gave Buffalo their first TD, albeit from a throw that ricocheted off a Miami helmet. Deonte Harty found a seam and posted an electric 96-yard punt return TD to tie the game at 14-14. And tight end Dawson Knox got the go-ahead score with 7:16 on the clock before Taylor Rapp’s first INT for Buffalo put a full stop on the contest.

The Dolphins, held to just 57 yards of total offense after the break, have now gone 15 straight seasons without a division title and they’ve dropped three of their last five games. But all is not lost; postseason football awaits and everyone has a clean slate. As the No.6 seed, their path to a potential Super Bowl starts in Kansas City on Saturday night, with Tyreek Hill returning to Arrowhead for the first time since his trade. But unless some of their injured stars – Jaylen Waddle, Raheem Mostert, Bradley Chubb, Jaelan Phillips and Xavien Howard – return, it could be a tall order.

As for Buffalo, they host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Orchard Park, where they are 7-1 this season. They’re the AFC’s in-form team but Allen’s hot-and-cold play could define how this one goes. Bad Josh might make their Wild Card matchup more competitive than it should be. Conversely, Good Josh, the league leader in passing touchdowns (44), might just blow them away. Will the real Josh Allen please stand up and make himself known? [ST]

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Fitting end for a legend

Sorry Bill Belichick, this isn’t your section. No, this title is for Titans running back Derrick Henry. He gave Tennessee fans some great memories over his eight seasons with the team and it’s only fitting that he should end his tenure (likely) with a final stat line of 153 yards rushing and a touchdown against old divisional foe Jacksonville. It ended a miserable finish to the campaign for the Jags who somehow managed to throw away a playoff berth after leading the division for three months. 

This piece, though, is about Henry. The man simply known as “King” took a microphone post-game and addressed the crowd at Nissan Stadium. “Titans fans, I just want to say thank you for the greatest eight years of my life,” he said. “The ups and the downs, y’all been there for everything — through the adversity, watching me grow as a person and a player, always supporting me. I love y’all. … Hopefully I was an inspiration to all the young kids and everybody in the community.”

Henry’s contract technically goes for two more years, but is out of guaranteed money. With a looming Head Coaching change now also confirmed, it’s very likely his tenure is over. He could find a role on a team somewhere as a short-yardage back but as a running back now in his 30s, his prime is likely behind him.

He became Tennessee’s featured running back in 2019, leading the league in rushing yards and rushing attempts that season – as well as in 2020 – helping the Titans lead the playoffs both times, while earning Pro Bowl honours personally. The next year, Henry became the first NFL player since Adrian Peterson in 2012 to surpass 2,000 rushing yards in a single season. He reached the Pro Bowl two more times, in 2022 and 2023, after injuries limited him in 2021. In total, Henry rushed for 9,349 yards and accounted for 98 total touchdowns during his time in Nashville. 

It is a badge that is given out far too often these days but, Derrick Henry, you sir, are a legend. [SB]

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Jalen hurts finger as Philly falter (again)

At this time of the year, it’s inevitable that some teams find themselves on a bit of a losing streak but they usually have to pack up for the offseason as a result. The woeful Panthers have lost 15 times this season and failed to score a point in their last two games, while the 4-13 Commanders have lost eight on the bounce. The Jaguars lost five of their last six, the Chargers have lost five straight and the Vikings four. None are playing again till September. But the Philadelphia Eagles have lost four of their last five too. Yep, the “11-6, runners-up in the NFC East, 5th seed in the conference” Eagles.

Philly started the 2023 campaign on fire, racing out to 5-0. By early December, their record stood at 10-1 and we all thought emulating last year’s run to the Super Bowl was the minimum they should expect. Then the wheels fell off. In the last six weeks, the Eagles have suffered losses to the Niners, Cowboys, Seahawks, Cardinals – and now a 27-10 defeat to the New York Giants. They look a totally different team now and not in a good way. Their consistency has deserted them and the flair and fun seem to have gone with it.

With three first-half turnovers and some pretty abject defense against a Tyrod Taylor-led Giants team, Philly soon found themselves 24-0 down at MetLife. With defeat all but assured before half time, Nick Sirianni began pulling his starters but even so, it wasn’t soon enough. Jalen Hurts went 7 of 16 for 55 yards before his finger “popped out”, Marcus Mariota joining the fray in his stead, while AJ Brown made one catch for 9 yards before getting his knee banged up. Should the likes of Hurts and Brown have even been on the field? Most would argue “not on your Nelly”, even without the benefit of hindsight. Time will tell if these injuries impact them this weekend or beyond.

In their favour, their Wild Card opponents are the 9-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the NFC South despite managing just three field goals in a 9-0 win over the Panthers. They don’t look like a playoff team and are probably the weakest of the bunch on the NFC side of things. But maybe they think the same about the dysfunctional Eagles? Philly have been well below par for weeks and Sunday’s performance didn’t suggest that things are going to change anytime soon. With their season on the line, they have less than a week to rediscover their mojo. [ST]

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Rolex sales spike

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones backed himself in the offseason to secure his own reworked contract. That included a tidy $1.25 million bonus for accumulating 10 sacks. Thanks to his performance against the Los Angeles Chargers this weekend, Jones was laughing all the way to the bank.

The sack occurred in the third quarter when the Chargers were in the red zone looking to score a touchdown and take the lead. After sacking Easton Stick, Jones ran towards the sideline to celebrate with his teammates, including Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. If you like a big man dancing then, I highly recommend you search out the amusing clip on social media.

Having already secured a place in the playoffs before the game at SoFi Stadium, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid bucked a bit of a Week 18 trend and decided to keep Jones on the field for most of the contest. With the second half underway and time winding down, Reid had initially planned to take his stud defensive tackle out of the game to protect him from injury. Jones, however, managed to persuade Reid to let him stay on the field long enough to secure the sack he needed for his bonus.

It was a nice culmination to the story that took up a lot of column inches in the Chiefs preseason. It was excellent coaching and leadership on the part of Reid to not hold any grudges and allow Jones the opportunity to cash in on the incentive agreed upon the restructure. Above all else, it was also fitting for Jones to make his splash play on his final snap, particularly as he has hinted this may be his final season at Arrowhead.

Jones will not be seeing too much of the bounty, however, as he revealed after the game that the entire defensive line group, including the coaches and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, would all be treated to a new Rolex. Jones recognises that football is the ultimate team sport and without the help of those around him, he wouldn’t be the star he backed himself to be ahead of the season. [SB]

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