compiled by Andrew Potter
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around emails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to tune into (if they can).
On Monday, we compile a digest of those emails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.
While these e-mails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games each week. That means we aren't going to cover every game, or every important play. We watch the games that we, as fans, are interested in watching, so your favorite team's game might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a Steelers or Patriots fan, you are probably in luck; if you are a Bills fan, not so much.) We have no intention of adding new authors solely to cover every game on a given Sunday, nor will we watch a different game from the ones that we're personally interested in watching just to ensure that Audibles covers every game.
Cleveland Browns 24 at Pittsburgh Steelers (AAA) 28
Bryan Knowles: Week 17 did not break very well for the NFL -- the playoff races that still do matter are so intertwined that there's no Sunday night game, and they couldn't even evenly distribute the two wild-card races throughout the day because they (rightly) didn't want to make Seattle-Arizona a 10 a.m. local time game with a playoff spot on the line. That's unfortunate.
It also means this might be the least meaningful early Week 17 window in modern NFL history. Exactly one thing can be clinched this morning: home-field advantage in the AFC. If the Jets can upset the Patriots and the Steelers knock off the Browns, Pittsburgh would leapfrog New England and have the chance to host the AFC title game at their place.
To show you how important that really is, look at Pittsburgh's inactive list. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Antonio Brown, Cameron Heyward and Coty Sensabaugh. That's a pretty good list of talent who won't even have jerseys on today! And how annoyed will they be if the Jets DO manage to give the Patriots a game -- remember, the Pats lost to Miami and the Jets knocked off Jacksonville, so it's not as crazy as it sounds -- but they end up losing to the Browns because all their stars are sitting on the bench? A weird white flag from Pittsburgh; is the need for two weeks' rest more important than potentially avoiding the Patriots in New England (not to mention getting Kansas City or Baltimore in the divisional round rather than Jacksonville)?
Dave Bernreuther: I'm sure pundits everywhere have already covered this, but I just don't understand why the Steelers couldn't have at least dressed those players and sent them out to start the game with their eye on the scoreboards, ready to pull them whenever a) New England had the game in hand and/or b) they had the game in hand. I mean, it's the Browns. Two or three good drives on offense ought to be enough to put them away and pull your starters.
Honestly, I'm sort of rooting for the doomsday scenario to happen to them now so that they're punished for it. And if they come out flat in the first half in two weeks, well, it won't be the first time we've seen that happen in the playoffs. They were sort of the beneficiaries of it 12 years ago, as I recall.
At least this gives Browns fans something to root for.
Bryan Knowles: The Rams sitting their starters makes a lot more sense -- the difference between No. 3 and No. 4 is much less important than 1 vs. 2, they could still get the No. 3 seed even if they lost if the NFC South breaks right, and a week of rest (and lack of injuries) is probably more significant than the difference between Saints or Panthers and Seahawks or Falcons.
But good lord, it's not like the Steelers have historic problems with the Patriots or a very solid home-field advantage on special teams or anything, right? Mmm. Mmm mmm mmm.
Carl Yedor: There is one other thing that can be clinched in the early slate: Minnesota hasn't officially clinched the 2 seed in the NFC, though it would take a very unlikely series of events for them to not get that first-round bye. If Carolina wins and Minnesota, New Orleans, and the Rams all lose, the Panthers would jump all the way to the 2 seed because of their head-to-head win against the Vikings a few weeks ago.
But yes, that's so unlikely that it might as well already be wrapped up.
Bryan Knowles: Even that, the Vikings can't actually lose in the early games; the NFL didn't feel it important enough to shift Minnesota's start time to match those other three and crowd the late schedule even more. If the NFL doesn't think it's important, I'll agree!
Scott Kacsmar: Well, I guess the Steelers have already thrown away the No. 1 seed once this year. I think what the Steelers are doing today is absolutely ridiculous. If the roles were reversed with New England, there's no way in hell Bill Belichick would blow off this game when there was still slim hope for the No. 1 seed. Start your studs for a half, get a lead, and then you can rest them. Oh yeah, they can also rest when you have a bye week already locked up. Do you really want to be like the 2005 Colts and 2011 Packers and come out rusty (as offensive-driven teams too) because you gave your studs an extra week off? Not to mention that first matchup could be with Jacksonville's defense. The Steelers have never lost a game in team history at home with a 14-point lead. That should be easily attainable in a half of work against this Cleveland team with your normal roster in there.
I also think dropping your rival to 0-16 is a nice goal to complete. I feared last year that Cleveland might avoid 0-16 by beating the Steelers' backups in Week 17, but the Browns added to Chargers' BINGO the week before, then blew an overtime lead in Pittsburgh anyway. But it was 14-0 early and Landry Jones could hand a team a game. What happens if Jones gets hurt and you have to put Josh Dobbs in the game today since Ben Roethlisberger is inactive? What if the Jets are actually keeping it interesting in New England too? It's just a wimpy move today. The No. 1 seed carries more importance than playing in fear of injury.
Bryan Knowles: One of the few players Pittsburgh IS playing today is Darrius Heyward-Bey, who takes an end-around and romps 29 yards for a score, placing Pittsburgh in the top seed slot for … about 3 minutes before the Patriots respond with a Dion Lewis touchdown. With all the talk about starters sitting and backups starting, it is, perhaps, good to remember that the Cleveland Browns are still the Cleveland Browns. There's a reason they're 0-15!
Dave Bernreuther: Just like we all predicted half an hour ago, the Landry Jones-led Steelers have taken care of business, jumping out ahead of the Browns... (eye roll emoji).
Landry Jones didn't have much to do except hand it off on the trickery that sprung Heyward-Bey for the 7-0 start, and DeShone Kizer is still DeShone Kizer, and he went straight backwards on his first drive, giving the Steelers the ball back at midfield. Jones returned the favor with a pick, but if you blinked you missed the next Browns drive. it gets even better, though. A JuJu Smith-Schuster catch short of the sticks at the 7 leads to an overly conservative field goal call ... at which point the Browns jumped offsides. This is why you're 0-15, guys. Four rushes fail to score, though, so amazingly, the offsides saved the Browns three points. Can someone check in on Scott and make sure he's safe? Because this game is already driving me nuts and I don't actually care.
Vince Verhei: So, some Cleveland notes in the first quarter:
- They ran eight plays in the first quarter. Four of those plays lost yardage.
- They took a delay of game on their first punt. Because they haven't had enough practice on getting the punt team on the field this year.
- DeShone Kizer called timeout with two seconds left in the quarter. So there would not have been a delay of game penalty anyway. But even if there had been, the Browns were at their own 1. Put it all together and Kizer called timeout to avoid a non-existent half-yard penalty.
- The defense had a neutral zone infraction penalty that turned a Pittsburgh field goal attempt into a Pittsburgh first down.
That last one actually worked out in the Browns' favor, because it led to a goal-line stuff on fourth down. But the fact remains that Cleveland's starters are getting walloped by Pittsburgh's backups. Landry Jones just hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 20-yard touchdown to put the Steelers up 14-0 early in the second quarter.
Signs of life from Cleveland's passing game in the second quarter. First, Josh Gordon runs a post-corner for a 54-yard gain inside the 5 to set up a Duke Johnson touchdown run. Then, Rashard Higgins runs a skinny post out of the slot, breaks a tackle, and splits the safeties playing Cover-2 for what's officially a 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown, with most of those yards coming after the catch. Kizer's halftime statline is funny -- He's averaging 26 yards per completion and 10 yards per throw, but he has only completed 5-of-12 passes and has also taken four sacks. He's also the team's leading rusher with 18 yards on two carries. The Browns have 110 yards on those two big catches and 27 yards on their other 23 plays. It's very obvious that Kizer should have stayed in school and had no business playing in the NFL this year, but I still see more potential here than in the Paxton Lynches or Blaine Gabberts or Matt Cassels who have also played this year.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are averaging almost 9 yards per pass play and more than 6 yards per run and still lead 21-14 at half.
Touchdown Browns! Cleveland looks like an honest-to-god pro football team on their first drive of the second half, going 68 yards in seven plays and only once getting to third down. Biggest play was David Njoku catching a short curl, breaking a tackle, and running into the red zone for 34 yards. Kizer then hit Higgins on an out route for a 5-yard touchdown, and we're tied at 21. There's a win to be had here, fellas!
Bryan Knowles: And that Browns tie game lasts about 10 seconds, as JuJu Smith-Schuster breaks five tackles on his way to a kick return touchdown. Oh, Browns.
Vince Verhei: You can't stop DeShone Kizer, you can only hope to contain him. He runs for a first down on third-and-15, then converts a third-and-17 with a dig route to Corey Coleman. The drive stalls there, but Zane Gonzalez hits a 51-yarder (in Pittsburgh!) to make it 28-24. This is just the third time all year the Browns have scored 24 points; their season high was 28 at Indianapolis in Week 3.
Wait. I was wrong. You CAN stop DeShone Kizer. He had gotten away with at least two dropped interceptions earlier in the game, but the Steelers made him pay on their third chance. Sean Davis cuts in front of Njoku for a diving grab to give Pittsburgh a first down in Cleveland territory. Their offense has been shut out this half, but a touchdown here ends the game.
Cleveland's year started with a close loss to Pittsburgh that was decided in part by a Steelers touchdown on special teams, and it's looking like it could end the same way.
Bryan Knowles: OOOOH, Browns. fourth-and-2, 0-for-season on the line, Kizer makes a great play in a collapsing pocket to find space, finds Corey Coleman wide open for the first down and more ... and the ball flies right through his hands. Oh, Browns. Oh, oh Browns.
Two timeouts left, but...
Vince Verhei: And the Browns go to 0-16 in the most Cleveland way possible. They have a fourth-and-2 in Pittsburgh territory. Kizer drops back, steps up, but hesitates, and the rush gets to him. But somehow he slips out and finds Coleman for what should have been a first down in the red zone ... but Coleman drops the pass. No excuse on that one, that came in right in his face and he still took his eye off it. Unreal.
Just putting the Browns season to bed: yes, they went 0-16, but Sashi Brown leaves them in better shape than when he took over. That's a very good defensive front, and they have 12 picks in seven rounds in next year's draft -- including, officially, the first and fourth overall selections. Jimmy Haslam has repeated that Hue Jackson won't be fired, which I don't get, but they at least have a foundation to build around for the first time in maybe forever.
Andrew Potter: "There'll be actual real live players / It'll be totally strange / But wow! Am I so ready for this change ... Don't know if I'm elated or gassy / But I'm somewhere in that zone!"
Rivers McCown: Owner Jimmy Haslam said he retained Hue Jackson because he thinks he "hasn't lost his magic." Uh, sure. Preparing to use Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins extensively is a form of Vancian Magic, I suppose.
Chicago Bears 10 at Minnesota Vikings 23
Bryan Knowles: With so little going on in the early games, the Vikings-Bears game might be the closest we have to a marquee matchup. That makes me sad, but hey, at least I get a full dose of Mitchell Trubisky before forgetting he exists for six months. I remember back when Dalvin Cook went down, we all went "oh no, here comes the bad luck for the Vikings yet again," but Latavius Murray's had a fairly solid season in reserve -- better than Jerick McKinnon, at any rate. You might guess that Ezekiel Elliott and LeGarrette Blount have the most rushing touchdowns since 2016; Murray being in third place, with 19 thanks to his early touchdown today, is somewhat more surprising.
Yeah, don't stay up too late worrying about the Vikings' bye week chances. They're up 14-0 after Murray's second touchdown of the day. The Bears have zero rushing yards and just one first down in the first quarter. Trubisky's 5-for-6 … for 38 yards. Zzzzzz. To RedZone it is; there's just nothing going on in this terrible window…
… except for some trickeration! Vikings are forced to punt deep in their own territory, and the Bears do one of my favorite special teams plays. Everyone on their punt return unit starts fading to the left sideline, as if the punt is spiraling away in that direction. Minnesota follows, of course -- but the ball has actually been going to the other side of the field, where Bryce Callahan fields it and has a wide open lane to the end zone. That might have been the most clever play of the entire Bears season, which is saying something in and of itself.
You know, when the Bears hired John Fox before the 2015 season, it felt like a really, really solid move. He was bringing with him Vic Fangio and Adam Gase, top coordinators and potential head coach candidates at the time. Yeah, Fox wasn't particularly good at getting his teams over the top in the playoffs, but he helped turn both the Panthers and Broncos into playoff contenders. I really thought that would happen again in Chicago -- that we'd see a return to respectability, at least. Instead, well ... they had a -13.8% DVOA the year before Fox was hired, and they're sitting at -15.3% coming into today. Fans here in Chicago were so excited -- and it just ended up being bupkis. Now, they're stuck looking for an offensive-minded coach who feels like he can develop Trubisky, possibly to the point where he can throw to both sides of the field. Plus, they'd love to get someone who Fangio is fine working with, which makes the search that much more difficult. Been a long four years in the wilderness for the Bears.
Aaron Schatz: Wow. Vikings essentially with THREE goal-line stands today in the fourth quarter.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Bears made it down to first-and-goal at the 6. Four straight incomplete passes.
Then with four minutes left, the Bears got to the 12. They made it to third-and-2 from the 4, incomplete pass to Dontrelle Inman. So the Vikings need to stop them on fourth down for the goal-line stand. Instead, Danielle Hunter gets himself a neutral zone infraction. That gives the Bears four more shots from the 2, which is why it's "essentially" and not "definitely" three goal-line stands.
So from the 2, we go:
- Jordan Howard, run for no gain.
- Pass to fullback Michael Burton, no gain.
- Incomplete slant to Tarik Cohen, lined up at slot receiver.
- Pass to Cohen coming out of the backfield, tackled at the 1.
New York Jets 6 at New England Patriots 26
Aaron Schatz: On the first play that they used James Harrison, the Patriots dropped him into coverage. The Jets then had big gains on three straight plays, but all to the other side of the field, away from Harrison, so not his fault. Then the Jets offense remembered they were in fact the Jets, went backwards on two plays, and Bryce Petty couldn't connect on a swing pass on third-and-19. How do you not throw that pass accurately? Field goal, now 7-3 Patriots, end first quarter.
The Patriots offense has completely slowed to a crawl after the initial easy touchdown drive. Now on their fourth drive since, they just got a first down from defensive holding and I think that's just the second first down on these four drives. Brady's just missed guys deep a couple of times; other times, he's gone down quickly with a strong pass rush from the Jets. The Jets look like they are playing a lot of man coverage with a double bracketing Gronk, and that's led to zero targets for Gronk in the first 25 minutes of the game.
And since I typed that, the Patriots have a couple more first downs, including a long one just now with DPI by rookie safety Marcus Maye on Brandin Cooks. Pats will be in the red zone again with a 7-3 lead.
Addendum: Pats make it a 14-3 lead on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Cooks when two Jets defenders run into each other leaving him wide open.
Dave Bernreuther: Not only did they leave Cooks wide open, they left Danny Amendola open as well. Brady could easily have gone to him as well.
One drive and a Petty sack later and we can consider Tomlin off the hook. The Patriots aren't blowing an 11-point lead at home to Bryce Petty.
Aaron Schatz: Pats now up to a 21-3 lead after a little swing pass touchdown to Dion Lewis. Earlier in the drive, the Patriots ran a reverse with Brady flipping it to Philip Dorsett, who flipped it to Cooks going the other way. How many times does an announcer call an end-around a reverse by mistake? This time, Jim Nantz actually had a chance to call a revers e... and he called it an end-around! You missed your chance, buddy!
If the Pats blow a 21-3 lead at home to Bryce Petty with home-field advantage on the line, that might pass the Bills' 2004 loss to the Pittsburgh backups as the worst regular-season loss in FO history. So I'm feeling pretty good about my decision to stay home from Gillette in order to pay maximum attention to the 4:30 games.
Vince Verhei: Imagine how bad Christian Hackenberg must be if the Jets won't even put him in the game today.
Houston Texans 13 at Indianapolis Colts 22
Rivers McCown: All the hangover of New Year's Day without the waiting for 24 hours. Alfred Blue! A dead Colts team that will fire its coach! Some other guys! It's 10-7 Texans in the second.
Tom Gower: 13-7 at the half. Week 17 Colts is Week 17 Colts defense (Corey Grant of the Jaguars had 100 yards rushing against them last year). T.J. Yates looks vaguely NFL quarterback-ish, even with DeAndre Hopkins inactive and Will Fuller declared out early with a knee injury so serious it doesn't prevent him from standing on the sidelines. My favorite part of the first half was when I flipped over to Eagles-Cowboys briefly and saw Nate Sudfeld trip over his own feet trying to scramble. I should try harder to find a different game to watch. The chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018 about these teams will almost certainly end up a lot on the quarterbacks not playing today.
Dave Bernreuther: Tom, that's Week 1-16 Colts defense too, though.
I really thought they'd bring a better effort as a sendoff for Chuck. For all his failings in recent years, he's a good dude and the players love him. But at least they're doing the 2018 Colts a favor and not screwing up the draft order. With the Giants playing well right now, things could be shaping up well for them.
At the time of the touchdown to Jack Doyle, Jacoby Brissett was somehow 8-of-9 with only one sack. He's back to himself now. And they have a total of 56 passing yards and 73 total after a half, which is no way to get out to a blow-able halftime lead.
People have loved to talk about the Colts defense as the reason for all the blown halftime leads, but I'll actually take the contrarian approach of blaming the offense. With the exception of the 49ers game, the reason the Colts blow leads is because by halftime, the other team has figured out Brissett and what they're doing, and the Colts offense is dead in the water. Nobody likes Chudzinski, but he's at least doing pretty well in the start of games to craft a game plan that lets Brissett do pretty well. He's just not that good yet, though, so it can only last so long.
I never say anything nice about these Colts, so let me just take a second to praise Frank Gore, who is running hard and still looks young. He's, what, fifth all-time in rushing? He's NEVER hurt. And he's at the point where he can go year to year on contracts ... is there any reason not to re-sign him next year, even if his role diminishes?
Also, kudos to Chuck for the surprise onside kick that the 2-14 2011 Colts were mysteriously too afraid to try last time the team sucked and was playing out the string. They didn't recover, but I liked the message. (Or I would, anyway, were I not hoping they'd lose the game and have the leverage of the No. 2 pick.)
I jinxed Frank Gore AND the Colts' chances to lose. Brilliant. And Chuck Pagano gets to go out with a win after all. Good for him.
Rivers McCown: Rick Smith stepped down after the game to spend time with his wife, who has breast cancer. Smith has fairly taken a lot of criticism over the years -- the bottoms of his rosters were horrific and he avoided responsibility for it for many years -- but he's also the guy who found DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson after the first 10 picks. I think it's probably best for both sides if he moves on.
Dallas Cowboys 6 at Philadelphia Eagles 0
Rivers McCown: That NFC fourth seed looks a little more tempting for the Rams every time Nick Foles drops back.
Bryan Knowles: This game is scoreless at halftime. That hasn't happened since 2011, when the stoppable force of the Tim Tebow Broncos met the movable object of the Caleb Hanie Bears. My kingdom for some points! The highlight of this game is the Eagles' punter forgetting to take his sweatpants off before stepping onto the field.
We're still scoreless after three quarters. Last time that happened was 2007, with the Matt Moore Carolina Panthers taking on the ... Matt Hasselbeck Seahawks. OK, good teams sometimes have off days, too.
Just saying -- the most common tie score in NFL history is 0-0, though it hasn't happened since 1943. After the Browns fighting for 1-15, that might be the most interesting thing to watch for the rest of these early games.
Carolina Panthers 10 at Atlanta Falcons 22
Derrik Klassen: Steve Sarkisian threw to his backs a lot on Atlanta's first drive of the game, ultimately resulting in Devonta Freeman taking a quick dump-off pass to the house. Aside from Julio Jones, the two running backs are Atlanta's best weapons. Hopefully Sark sticks to it and continues to feed his playmakers.
Aaron Schatz: I don't know where else to mention it so let me just say that I watched ESPN Countdown for the first time all year today and Charles Woodson could not stop referring to the Atlanta running back as "Tevin Campbell."
Panthers are 12th in DVOA against running backs as receivers, and held Atlanta's backs to just 37 receiving yards in first meeting. Falcons don't care, getting big chunks with passes to Freeman and Coleman today.
Bryan Knowles: Carolina's really struggling getting anything going to the wideouts. Cam Newton's 0-for-5 to start the game; Atlanta's all over them at every turn. Pressure's helping, especially pressure that doesn't let Newton gallop through miles of open space. Really impressed with Atlanta's defensive performance so far.
Vince Verhei: Cam Newton is 0-for-his-first-9 passes. Awesome. Swell.
Aaron Schatz: With 7:04 left in the second quarter, Newton finally completed his first pass for positive yardage. The Falcons defense has been ferocious today, with defensive linemen winning at the line of scrimmage and defensive backs jumping routes. It looks like they spent a LOT of time watching film this week.
Scott Kacsmar: This is Devonta Freeman's 64th game (including playoffs). He has seven catches in the first half. He's had six games in his career with at least seven catches coming into today. The 64 receiving yards are already his fifth-most in a game. I saw some checkdowns, but maybe Atlanta saw something it likes. Been a lot of talk about the lack of receiving from the backs this year compared to last year under Kyle Shanahan.
Bryan Knowles: Carolina needed a big play, and they finally got one. After his first 10 pass attempts got -3 yards, Newton complete four passes of 10 yards or longer, including a huge conversion on third-and-23 after Super Bowl Grady Jarrett had an 11-yard sack on the previous play. It leads to a fairly easy touchdown to Devin Funchess on a slant, and we have a ball game here. Finally. Someone tell Seattle!
Some time management issues at the half here. Atlanta hit a long pass with time running out to put them into field goal range, but couldn't get up to spike the ball in time, says the refs. I actually think they beat the clock, but you can't review that with less than two seconds, apparently, so we have a 7-7 half. We'll see if that missed field goal opportunity factors in, though with the Seahawks floundering, the Falcons seem alright either way.
The Panthers are putting Matt Ryan under plenty of duress -- five hits and quite a few hurries -- but he's performing well under pressure. That's key, because the Falcons are getting zip in the running game; nine carries for 26 yards isn't exactly a key part of your offense. Julio Jones has just two catches, as the Falcons focus on feeding the ball to Freeman through the air over and over again. Hey, whatever works, I suppose.
Bryan Knowles: Terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE interception for the Panthers. I don't even think it was fully on Cam Newton; I think Devin Funchess broke off his route. At least, that's the only explanation that makes any sense, because otherwise, Newton just threw the ball right to Ricardo Allen.
Aaron Schatz: Christian McCaffrey has four carries for 13 yards. On the season he has 115 carries for 434 yards, and is barely over replacement level in the FO stats. I know he has been a valuable receiver, but the Panthers seem to have no ability to scheme runs that fit his talents, so it's like they barely even try. Even with Jonathan Stewart out in this game, Cameron Artis-Payne has more carries so far.
Bryan Knowles: Carolina punting down two scores with six minutes left is a pretty big white flag. Seahawks fans have every right to be annoyed with that, but hey, the Panthers don't need to go all out, I suppose. They're only down two scores because Atlanta gambled and attempted a 56- yard field goal -- had they missed, Carolina would have been in great field position and down just a score. That long field goal was probably the nail in Seattle's coffin.
Aaron Schatz: Cam Newton just sailed the ball to Greg Olsen, high and behind Olsen, and Olsen leapt up and it went off his fingers and into the hands of Keanu Neal on the tip drill. Newton has been sailing passes all day, especially when targeting Olsen. That might be ballgame with four minutes left and only one timeout for the Panthers.
Arizona Cardinals 26 at Seattle Seahawks 24
Vince Verhei: Watching the Seahawks and Panthers games side-by-side, needing both teams to win for Seattle to get into the playoffs. So of course Atlanta and Arizona both get opening-drive touchdowns just a few seconds apart. Arizona's came on a bevy of good runs and short completions, then was finished when Drew Stanton was able to outrun Michael Bennett in the backfield, and Jaron Brown had an eternity to run from one sideline to the other in the end zone for the 25-yard score.
Tyler Lockett then returns the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown to tie things up at 7-all.
Carl Yedor: About as good/bad of a start for Atlanta/Seattle as you can think of, with Atlanta and Arizona both scoring on their opening drives of the game.
But then before I can finish typing, Tyler Lockett returns the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown in Seattle. Tie ballgame there, still 7-0 in Carolina.
Andrew Potter: We're roughly ten minutes in, and the NFC playoff race has already crushed the entire early window for entertainment. Saints down 7-0 after the opening drive, return the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Seahawks down 7-0 after the opening drive, return the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Panthers down 7-0 after the opening drive ... go three-and-out. Ah well.
Vince Verhei: Cardinals lead 10-7 at the end of the first quarter, but they've got the ball in Seattle's red zone. Neither offense has done much since Arizona's opening drive, but the Cardinals have gotten good field position twice after the Lockett touchdown, once on a long kick return of their own, once on a terrible Jon Ryan punt that went out of bounds at the Seattle 40. That's a lot of peaks and valleys for Seattle special teams in 15 minutes.
Seahawks have only run six plays so far, on two three-and-outs. That includes a stuff for no gain on third-and-1 and a sack on third-and-long. They had one other running play, a 5-yard loss. Seattle's offensive line rearing its ugly head again.
Elijhaa Penny scores from 9 yards out to put Arizona up 17-7. They have already run 13 times for 68 yards. Coming into today they were 30th with 59 rushing first downs, 3.9 per game. They already have six first downs on the ground today, and the game isn't even 20 minutes old yet. Their offensive line is just crushing Seattle's front seven today, and that doesn't make sense.
Cardinals lead 20-7 at halftime. Credit to Twitter user Aaron England (@aengland51) for the best description of the Seattle offense I've ever heard: It's like playing Tecmo Bowl, but the defense guesses the right play every single time. Their running backs have five carries for 2 yards in the half; their one successful carry was a 5-yard gain on first-and-10. Wilson has been oddly hesitant to run today, turning down open running lanes to throw to covered receivers or drop backwards into sacks instead. The most irritating of those was on a third-and-2 when Seattle ran five curls. Arizona rushed three and Wilson had lots of time to make a decision. Again, they only needed 2 yards. Instead of taking off, he hesitated before running, and the defense closed in for a 1-yard gain and a punt. Seattle's offensive production in the half: 18 plays, 24 yards, one first down.
But Seattle's offense has been miserable all year. It's far, far more disappointing for the defense to be losing the matchup against Drew Stanton, Kerwynn Williams and company. To be fair, Stanton has made several good plays under pressure. But the game plan is clear: force short passes to Larry Fitzgerald. Twelve targets and eight receptions in the first half, but for only 55 yards. A monster PPR day, I guess.
When the second half started, Fox put up a total yardage graphic that read "SEA - 24." Chris Myers read that as "minus-24." He was wrong, but nobody really blinked an eye, because it felt believable.
Seahawks get a touchdown on their opening drive of the second half. Doug Baldwin beating Budda Baker on a corner route for the 18-yard touchdown. Biggest play was a fourth-and-6 where Seattle turned down a 52-yard field goal try, and Wilson found Jimmy Graham all alone in the middle for a 20-yard gain. Now a 20-14 lead for Arizona.
Another short Ryan punt lets Arizona pick up one first down and get a 53-yard field goal from Phil Dawson. That's five scoring drives for Arizona today, three of them starting at their own 46 or better. Cardinals lead 23-14.
Carl Yedor: Seattle is currently 0-of-8 on third down today, which is a big reason why they have only scored seven offensive points. Wilson has been sacked three times, but it feels like that number should be higher (as usual). Seattle forces a three-and-out after a promising drive stalled out in Cardinals territory. We'll see if Wilson can turn it on for the fourth quarter, though it may not end up mattering with Atlanta up 16-7 at the moment.
Vince Verhei: Seattle gets their first third-down conversion on the first play of the fourth quarter ... when Wilson's pass is tipped at the line, but J.D. McKissic (with Tyrann Mathieu in coverage) tracks the ball down for the reception.
That leads to a third-and-1 where the Cardinals lose Luke Willson, who is on his knees and in position to catch the ball inside the 10 ... but he tries to get up before securing the catch, and he drops it to the turf. Blair Walsh then comes in to try a 49-yard field goal on fourth-and-1, and I am SCREAMING for Seattle to go for it. At least he hit the kick. I have no idea why you kick on fourth-and-1 when you went for it on fourth-and-6 earlier. Regardless, 23-17 lead now.
Two-play scoring drive for Seattle. Wilson keeps the ball on an option and runs for 31 yards, and then Doug Baldwin beats Patrick Peterson deep for a 29-yard touchdown. That puts Wilson ahead of Tom Brady for most passing touchdowns this season, and that's not counting his three rushing touchdowns. Seattle goes up 24-23, though things are looking bleak down south -- the Panthers just punted down two scores with less than six minutes to go.
Carl Yedor: Seahawks get to the Arizona 30-yard line and then squat on the football, setting up Blair Walsh for a 48-yard field goal. He misses, which is unsurprising, and Arizona wins 26-24. Seahawks finish 9-7 and will be watching the playoffs from home for the first time since 2011.
Vince Verhei: Seahawks lose when, appropriately, Blair Walsh misses a 48-yarder. I'm pretty sure they knew they were eliminated by that point -- why else would they run on third-and-9? So much for a magical home-field advantage -- four losses at home for Seattle this year, including the loss to Atlanta on Monday Night Football that really cost them a playoff berth. Will be the first time since drafting Wilson the Seahawks have failed to win a playoff game.
Going to be a big offseason for the Seahawks. They don't have to just pass the Rams in the division next year, they have to hold off the 49ers, and obviously Arizona's in shouting distance of being a playoff team too. Everyone knows about the tough decisions they'll have to make on defense, but the offense is also completely broken. It's the worst offensive line in the league and the worst group of running backs, and the receivers all tended to vanish once in a while too. And frankly, while Wilson was the engine that made everything go, I thought he wasn't at his best this year either. May have gotten jumpy from years of pressure, but he seemed to miss more deep balls and had more trouble finding guys this year than usual.
Regardless, the Seahawks are at the point in their roster where New England was in about 2005 or 2006. You can't have a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career and try to win as a defense-first team. You just can't get and maintain that much defensive talent year after year. The next Seattle playoff team will likely be very different than those of years past.
San Francisco 49ers 34 at Los Angeles Rams (AAA) 13
Bryan Knowles: San Francisco continues to struggle in the red zone. They're going to need to find someone who can separate in a relatively short space or have the size advantage to outjump people to take another step forward. That being said, the team with the longest winning streak in the NFL marches right down the field, thanks to a George Kittle 44-yard grab, and kicks a field goal. That, temporarily, knocks the Rams down to the fourth seed in the NFC (with the Saints passing them); the Rams have essentially decided to cede the third seed by resting nearly every important player on the roster.
Buffalo Bills 22 at Miami Dolphins 16
Bryan Knowles: The Bills need a small series of miracles to slip into the playoffs, but that all starts by beating the Dolphins. This will help if the Dolphins continue to opt not to cover Nick O'Leary, who had a good 5 yards of wide open space in the end zone for a touchdown. That, at least for the moment, moves them into the five seed. Remember, they have professional sports' longest active playoff drought; they'd be in much, much better position if it hadn't been for the Peterman Incident.
Wouldn't that just figure. The Bills, hanging on to playoff position at the moment, just watched their one true offensive star go down. LeSean McCoy was carted off the field with what has been described as an ankle injury of some sort. It would just be Buffalo's luck to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, only to have their star miss the game.
It would also be unfortunate for all of us having to watch that game, but that's neither here nor there.
Dave Bernreuther: Kyle Williams on a fullback dive gives the Bills a commanding lead. Darqueze Dennard brings a Joe Flacco pass back to the house. Everything is coming up Buffalo! Well, except the fact that their best player got carted off the field...
I have never seen so many defensive and special teams touchdowns in such a small window of time. They're everywhere this afternoon, with a few near-misses as well. The prettiest, and one of the better shows of awareness I've seen, happened in Miami. While rumbling down the sideline, Preston Brown came to a full stop, waiting for his blockers to catch up and do their jobs, before continuing on his way to the end zone.
Coaches seem to be doing a better job convincing players to actually block downfield on plays like that these days.
And then, upon review of the fumble, Jeff Triplette announced that Brown was out of bounds when he recovered it, so it all comes back, and Brown ... did a stupid little dance and celebration on the sideline. AFTER it was announced that Miami was keeping the ball!
So I will take back what I just said about Brown's awareness, I guess. He kind of canceled that one out.
Vince Verhei: So Buffalo's in the playoffs. Does that change things for the Bills and their fans? Are they still going to go out of their way to sabotage and get rid of Tyrod Taylor for 2018?
New Orleans Saints 24 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31
Bryan Knowles: Saints are still fighting for the divisional title, and things did not go well on the opening drive; the Buccaneers marched right down the field and scored a touchdown. Ensuing kickoff, however, sees Alvin Kamara race back 106 yards, meaning they slipped out of the three seed for about six seconds of game time.
Wild, quick starts to all these important games. I've got eight screens going on a TV, two desktop computers and a laptop, and I'm having trouble keeping up with it all. Somebody, blow someone else out, please!
Saints special teams collapsing. They force a Buccaneers punt, but Tommylee Lewis fumbles on the 7-yard line, which is scooped up and returned in for a touchdown by Isaiah Johnson. That puts the NFC South back into play, and (at least for the moment) slides the Rams back into the three seed. Very interesting...
New Orleans bounces back from the punt return kerfluffle with a methodical 13-play drive. Zach Line catches a short out for the go-ahead touchdown, putting the Saints back in the No. 3 seed at the moment. It also gives them a cushion over the Panthers, who just kicked a field goal to make THAT a one-score game. Oh, and Seattle is coming back, with a field goal of their own making THAT a one-score game.
So, yeah. Just a wee bit of drama entering the fourth quarter, even with the Chargers and Bills with fairly unassailable leads, and the Rams packing it in before the game even started.
All-Rookie Team honorable mention Chris Godwin scores a touchdown at the last second, upsetting New Orleans. The Saints still win the NFC South, thanks to the Panthers' loss, but that means they fall to the No. 4 seed rather than the No. 3. NFC wild-card games are Falcons at Rams and Panthers at Saints.
Jacksonville Jaguars 10 at Tennessee Titans 15
Bryan Knowles: Jacksonville is starting everyone today, so a scoreless first quarter isn't a surprise. One way to attack Jacksonville's aggressive pass rush is with screens and the like -- and that's exactly what the Titans do, hitting Derrick Henry on a pass behind the line of scrimmage which turns into a 66-yard touchdown. That, at the moment, would put the Titans in as the No. 5 seed, bumping the Bills to the No. 6 seed and knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs entirely.
Rivers McCown: Derrick Henry was held up as the back that just needed a full-time chance by the fantasy football community. So far: nine carries, 11 yards. He did take a screen to the house, but still. When the Titans can't run, they don't have a good offense with this version of Mariota.
Tom Gower: Titans lead 12-3 at the half. Derrick Henry, who started the game miserable, had a long catch-and-run, 66 yards on a screen pass. The Titans also scored twice after the two-minute warning, three-and-kick drives after starting in Jaguars territory. The first came after a muffed punt, the second after a forced fumble on a short pass (good play by rookie corner Adoree Jackson). The Jaguars have the only drive-like substance in the game, when they got their field goal. Blake Bortles has been his usual 2017 mix of sometimes effective (he has converted a few third downs through the air, something he struggled to do in the first matchup until the randomly super-awesome-when-it-didn't-matter-at-all fourth quarter) and sometimes pretty bad (a handful of passes thrown behind receivers to prevent completions). Like most Titans-Jaguars games, I can't tell if the teams are 4-11 and 3-12 or 10-5 and 8-7. We'll see if the Jaguars quit after halftime, like they should. Thirty minutes to the first Tennessee postseason trip since 2008 if the score holds!
Oh, the first half of this game featured not one, not two, but three wacky challenges! Doug Marrone challenged the second Titans play of the game. It was whether a 5-yard pass completion on second-and-12 was caught. He did not win it. Mike Mularkey's first challenge was kind of marginal -- a very Bert Emanuel Rule play of a 15-yard pass on first-and-10. Ruled a catch on the field, there was not sufficient evidence to overturn the close call in replay. Mularkey then decided to use his second and final challenge of the game with 3:38 to go in the second quarter when the Jaguars had too many men on a punt on fourth-and-4 from midfield. No, it wasn't a Tennessee punt, such that too many men would continue the drive. Rather, the Jaguars were able to down the punt at the 5, and Mularkey thought he would probably end up with better field position after a sure winning challenge. The challenge was a fairly clear winner, at least, and the subsequent punt did go into the end zone, so at least he had that going for him. Hopefully there's nothing in the final 28 minutes of challengeable time that he wants to get New York to take a look at. (Or hopefully there is, so Amy Adams Strunk fires him as Ian Rapaport indicated could happen; this is such a weird rooting experience. It's almost like a good outcome for me is guaranteed, but at the same time I as a fan want both things to happen.)
Rivers McCown: The Titans should vote Jaydon Mickens a playoff share.
Tom Gower: Mickens had a punt muff after he signaled for a fair catch that gave Tennessee the ball at the 11, resulting in a field goal that made it 9-3. He muffed another punt early in the third quarter that had the Jaguars backed up to their own 5 after he did get it back at the 2.
Bryan Knowles: With a playoff spot on the line, the Titans just can't put the Jaguars away. A collision between Mariota and Henry puts the ball on the ground, and Yannick Ngakoue scoops it up and brings it back to the house. 15-10 Tennessee, and don't count this one done quite yet...
Marcus Mariota scrambles the Titans into the playoffs, despite ... well, despite everything Tennessee has done this year. It has been a rough year for him, but his first career playoff berth eases the sting somewhat.
Tom Gower: The Jaguars played starters throughout the game. I thought for sure we would and should see Chad Henne, at the latest after they didn't score to start the second half. But Bortles the whole way it was, and offense was hard to come by throughout the game. After the early field goal drive, they made it inside the Titans 45 just once. Dede Westbrook dropped a touchdown pass (bad game for him), and the drive ended up with a punt from the 46 after a third-down sack and a couple penalties.
Tennessee's offense was mostly awful. Their second-half score, like their two first-half field goals, came on a drive that started in Jacksonville territory. Overall, they started in plus territory four times (not counting the kneeldown at the end of the game) and ended up net +2 points, as their fourth possession in plus territory featured Derrick Henry running into Marcus Mariota in the backfield and the ball popping out to Yannick Ngakoue for the Jaguars' lone touchdown of the game.
Titans receivers combined for four catches for 25 yards on 10 targets, thanks in part to a couple bad drops by Eric Decker who at 3-18 led the group. Derrick Henry was 15-34 in the second half to finish 28-51. But Marcus Mariota, who ran more on designed runs than he probably has this year, had a couple key runs, including a third-and-5 conversion that put Jacksonville under extreme time pressure for a potential winning drive. Buffalo's later success rightly overshadows it, but one of the longest playoff droughts in the NFL is over. On to Kansas City.
Oakland Raiders 10 at Los Angeles Chargers 30
Aaron Schatz: Right before halftime, and Philip Rivers hits Keenan Allen in the back right corner of the end zone with an absolutely insane lob pass. Like, so insane that Rich Gannon literally said on the broadcast, "Rivers just throws this away." And the ball just fell right into Allen's hands one step away from being out of bounds. So much touch on that pass.
But of course, because they are the Chargers, the extra point was blocked. 20-10 Chargers.
Andrew Potter: I have this morbid urge to witness a soccer-style field goal penalty shootout between the Chargers and Buccaneers.
Cincinnati Bengals 31 at Baltimore Ravens 27
Charles McDonald: Ravens just had a huge kickoff return by Chris Moore to set them up inside the 10 with 8 seconds left in the second quarter. They rewarded him by throwing him a slant for a touchdown to cut Cincinnati's lead to 17-10 going into the half. The Bengals absolutely dominated the first half, but with the late score by Chris Moore (I love it when I accidentally rhyme), the Ravens are right back in it.
Bryan Knowles: I went into today thinking the Seahawks, Ravens, and Chargers would grab the three playoff spots up for grabs. As of halftime, that's a big 0-for-3. Oops.
Bryan Knowles: For the first time all day, the Ravens take the lead! Mike Wallace puts the ball into the end zone with about 8:30 left in the game, and that will, for now, bump the Bills out of the playoffs. Ravens to No. 5, Titans sliding to No. 6. Still not over!
Aaron Schatz: Holy mackerel. Andy Dalton. Just connected with Tyler Boyd in the seam on fourth-and-12, and Boyd didn't just get into field-goal range, he rumbled into the end zone to give the Bengals a 31-27 lead with less than a minute left. Credit to Dan Fouts, who completely called it ahead of time, saying to watch Boyd in the slot. He was wide open in a zone. And Andy Dalton will now drink for free in Buffalo for the rest of his life, if he ever feels like going to Buffalo for some reason other than a road game against the Bills.
Dave Bernreuther: Just when I was making the joke about Marvin Lewis being content to play for a long-and-nowhere-near-certain tying field goal, followed by the joke about having to rely on Andy Dalton of all people to mount a comeback against the Ravens' D ... just after he throws 2 yards to a covered guy on third-and-15 ... Andy Dalton turns into Peyton Manning. And throws a DART for a go-ahead touchdown.
I grew up near Buffalo. Wasn't a Bills fan, because even 8-year-old me was a contrarian jerk. But boy am I happy for those people right now.
Bryan Knowles: How, how HOW do you throw SHORT of the sticks on fourth-and-season?! How do you do that? How is that even allowed?
Vince Verhei: Hooray! I don't have to watch Joe Flacco in the playoffs! Best news of the day.
Aaron Schatz: So the Cleveland Browns are now on the clock with the longest playoff drought in the NFL (2002) and the Seattle Mariners, I think, get the title of longest playoff drought in the big four American pro sports (2001).