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 emails 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.
Carolina Panthers 33 at New Orleans Saints 14
Vince Verhei: Your starting quarterbacks today are Kyle Allen and Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater, I assume you're familiar with. Allen had an intriguing collegiate career. He was teammates with Kyler Murray at Texas A&M in 2015, but both ended up transferring. Things worked out better for Murray at Oklahoma (until yesterday, anyway) than they did for Allen at Houston -- he was benched after four games in 2017, then made the bizarre decision to declare for the draft. Shockingly, the guy who failed at two schools went undrafted, and he spent most of his rookie year on Carolina's practice squad before throwing four passes last week in relief of Taylor Heinicke.
There's a book waiting to be written about obscure Week 17 NFL starters. Allen would likely get his own chapter.
Aaron Schatz: The Saints have given up 20 points to Kyle Allen and the Panthers through the first half. I'm not watching this game but I'll note that it looks like the Saints are playing mostly starters on defense. The top tacklers today are all starters: Marcus Williams, A.J. Klein, Demario Davis. I'm told on Twitter that Cameron Jordan isn't playing much. But still, I know this is a meaningless game but it has to be a bit worrying for the Saints to have Kyle Allen throwing the ball all over the field on them after their defense gave up 28 to the Steelers last week.
Vince Verhei: Panthers kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal on the last play of the half to go up 23-0. If anything it's worse than it sounds -- the Panthers have three touchdowns and a field goal on four drives, and those drives have covered 75, 89, 90, and 66 yards. They've converted five-of-seven third downs, and they're also one-for-one on fourth downs. Allen is 13-of-21 for 173 yards with one touchdown passing and another rushing. He has thrown no interceptions and taken no sacks, and the Saints have only broken up one pass. The closest the Saints have come to stopping him was what appeared to be a sack-fumble and recovery, but it was reversed to an incompletion on instant replay.
Now, none of this is good news for the Saints, but I'm taking it with an entire shaker of salt myself -- the Saints have nothing to gain today, while many of the Panthers (most notably Allen) are playing for jobs in 2019.
Bridgewater has been quiet -- 7-of-10 for 56 yards with a pair of sacks. He has also run for a pair of first downs, which is good news for the state of his leg. But on New Orleans' best scoring chance, his fourth-and-goal pass to Tre'Quan Smith in the corner of the end zone was underthrown and tipped away.
Curtis Samuel gets a step behind double-coverage, and Allen throws an absolute dime for what is ruled a 50-plus-yard touchdown. They're reviewing the play and Samuel may have been down at the 1, but either way, there was nothing wrong with New Orleans' defense on that play -- that was just a studly throw.
Call stands. Touchdown Carolina and a 30-0 lead.
Teddy Bridgewater throws his first touchdown pass since 2015, a 9-yarder to Smith. That's just the 29th career touchdown pass for Bridgewater -- I know he has hardly played in the past three years, but that's still way fewer than I would have guessed.
So we have already seen Kyle Allen, Teddy Bridgewater, and Taysom Hill, and now we have the backup grand slam as Garrett Gilbert has taken over for Carolina. They're checking Allen's arm or shoulder on the sideline.
Miami Dolphins 17 at Buffalo Bills 42
Bryan Knowles: This game is technically not meaningless; the Texans could end up in a tie with the Chiefs for seeding for the bye (or, theoretically, the No. 3 seed), and it would go down to strength of victory. The Texans beat the Bills back in October, so Josh Allen's rushing touchdown (yet another one -- guy should consider moving to running back) actually helps Houston, theoretically.
… hey, with seven early games and only two of them involving teams trying to finalize playoff position, we've got to come up with SOME reason to look at these other match-ups. Bills-Dolphins and Giants-Cowboys are technically, mildly relevant, as the NFL has taken most of the actual meaningful games and sent them into the late slot.
Ryan Tannehill now has two interceptions in the first quarter, as the Bills threaten to take a three-score lead in the first quarter. There is some talk that this could be Tannehill's last game in a Dolphins uniform; he'll cost $26.6 million against the cap next season and just hasn't played like the top-six quarterback that salary would imply. The way his contract is structured, however, a straight cut would probably not be the wisest choice of action; they'd free up about $13 million in cap space, but get an equal amount of dead money. A post-June 1 designation probably makes more sense for the Dolphins, even if it means Tannehill's fate will hang in the air for a few more months, at least.
I suspect that Tannehill has not thrown his last interception in a Dolphins uniform. After all, there are still three quarters left.
Scott Kacsmar: Stephen Hauschka came up short on a 42-yard field goal. Didn't think that was possible, and it didn't look like a partial block or anything like that. It reminded me of Ben Wallace air-balling a free throw short of the rim.
Vince Verhei: Josh Allen is up to 97 rushing yards midway through the fourth quarter. Barring kneeldowns, it's going to be his fourth 90-plus-yard rushing game in his last six starts.
Michael Vick never had four 90-yard rushing games in a single season.
New York Giants 35 at Dallas Cowboys 36
Vince Verhei: In what might be his last game with the Giants, Eli Manning has a pair of turnovers -- a bad interception (caught by Chidobe Awuzie) thrown into double coverage in the red zone, and another interception when Demarcus Lawrence hit him mid-pass and Antwaun Woods reeled it in. That second play will probably be changed to a sack-fumble, but that's just semantics -- the ball never hit the ground, so call it whatever you want.
Meanwhile, Brett Maher missed a 34-yard field goal for Dallas, and we're still scoreless.
Red zone struggles have been a big part of Dallas' season, but they may have found a scoring weapon: Blake Jarwin had no touchdowns coming into the day, but he has two today on gains of 13 and 19 yards. But that may say more about the Giants defense -- on both plays, they dropped two safeties deep, and Jarwin just split the difference. Neither catch was especially difficult.
Right before halftime, Manning redeemed himself with a beautiful rainbow of a touchdown pass, dropping it into the bucket for Cody Latimer down the left sideline. One of those plays where he still looks like he can be a winning quarterback in the NFL, but those are the exception these days, not the norm.
— New York Giants (@Giants) December 30, 2018
Note that Byron Jones has great coverage for Dallas, but Manning's throw is perfect, and Latimer finishes with a fine one-handed catch.
Bryan Knowles: Can anyone come up with a rational reason why Dak Prescott is still in this football game? I can understand (though not agree with) the starters playing for a quarter or a half, to keep them in a regular rhythm and avoid the chance of rust entering their game next week. But the Cowboys are the No. 4 seed. They'll be the No. 4 seed no matter what. Why on earth would you expose your quarterback in a meaningless game? We've already seen starters get hurt today (Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, three different starters in New Orleans, though I think they were all minor); why is Prescott out there taking sacks in the third quarter?
Vince Verhei: Xavier Su'a-Filo has left the game with injury, so they've got Prescott out there throwing fourth-down passes behind several backup linemen (Tyron Smith is also out today).
But then he hits Jarwin for a third-down conversion, and the Giants' entire secondary makes a series of business decisions, and Jarwin takes it all the way for a 39-yard score.
I'm not even going to bother to learn his name because after that, he's going to be unemployed tomorrow. Wow.
Bryan Knowles: That would be 16-game starter Curtis Riley on the el matador play there, Dave. He's one of the best options the Giants have at safety, which kind of sums it all up, doesn't it?
Vince Verhei: And suddenly we have a shootout. Saquon Barkley breaks free for a 68-yard run on second-and-20, which sets up Manning's second touchdown of the day, this one to Evan Engram. They go for two, and after a penalty on Awuzie, Manning hits Engram for the conversion. Dallas still leads 21-18.
It occurs to me that if Manning wins today, he'll hurt New York's draft position, making it more difficult for them to draft his replacement and possibly saving his job for one more season.
We've been wondering why Dak Prescott was in the game, and Dallas' last drive ended when he was sacked. Now on New York's next drive, Leighton Vander Esch is down and they're checking his leg. He leaves under his own power, but there's no reason for the stars to be out there.
Jeff Heath does not count as one of those stars -- he got stiff-armed on the long Barkley run, and now he misses a tackle on Engram, who gets free for a 51-yard gain, as the tight ends are running wild today. Wayne Gallman finishes with a goal-line touchdown run, and the Giants take a 25-21 lead.
And yes, Prescott is still at quarterback for Dallas on the ensuing drive. This is lunacy.
Scott Kacsmar: If Dallas has gone with starters this long, they might as well finish the game off. It makes less sense to me why Tom Brady is still out there throwing with a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter. He took a sack too. He did get to 6,000 completions, but I can't imagine getting that today was on anyone's mind.
Bryan Knowles: At least the Patriots had things to play for. I agree that Brady probably should be out by this point, but their game actually mattered; the Cowboys could have started the people in this group chat and had no effect on their situation.
My oh my, what a catch. Facing fourth-and-15, down seven, Dak Prescott hits a diving Cole Beasley in the back of the end zone. It's called incomplete on the field, but his knee JUST scrapes the end zone. An exceptional touchdown -- and now they're going for two and the win rather than risking overtime.
Vince Verhei: A pair of incredible touchdowns in the fourth quarter. First, Saquon Barkley scores on a 2-yard run, which doesn't sound like much -- but he actually left his feet at the 3-yard line and was still flying high when the ball crossed the plane. It got knocked out of his hands a few inches later, and Dallas picked it up and might have scored, but the whistles blew the play dead, and replays confirm it was a touchdown anyway.
Then down by two minutes inside the two-minute warning, the Cowboys have a fourth-and-15 at the 32, down seven. Prescott scrambles and finds Cole Beasley in the back of the end zone for the score, but Beasley was out of bounds. OR WAS HE? Replay shows he got a knee down in the end zone and completed the catch, and they correctly rule it a touchdown. Overtime is the absolute worst result for Dallas, so they go for two and get it on a completion to Michael Gallup. Giants will have a little more than a minute and two timeouts to get a winning field goal.
Manning ends the game -- and maybe his Giants tenure -- with four straight incompletions.
We didn't mention this yet: Barkley finishes with four catches today and 91 on the season, breaking Reggie Bush's record for rookie running backs.
Bryan Knowles: A taunting penalty on the Cowboys means the Giants get the ball with great field position, out at midfield ... and can't do a dang thing with it. Cowboys end up winning a meaningless game...
... for them. A meaningless game for them. It's huge for the No. 1 draft pick, because it clinches the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker for the 49ers. So, the no. 1 overall pick will go to:
- The Cardinals, if the Cardinals lose.
- The 49ers, if the Cardinals win and the 49ers lose.
- The Jets, if both the Cardinals and 49ers win.
Detroit Lions 31 at Green Bay Packers 0
Bryan Knowles: The bad part about Week 17 is all the meaningless games. The good part about Week 17 is the teams deciding "screw it" and opening up the backs of their playbooks. The Lions just ran a fake field goal, with Matt Prater throwing a touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo, and then adding his own extra point. Give me more wacky plays, meaningless football game!
Scott Kacsmar: I have no idea how Pat McAfee has been calling this game, but he lost his mind calling the fake field goal touchdown. It was like listening to Jesse Ventura calling a 1980s WWF match, and that's not a bad thing. I'd like to hear McAfee call a meaningful game next season if he can deliver some excitement throughout the broadcast. Going to need to manufacture some enthusiasm in this matchup today. The Packers don't look like they care.
This is greatest play-by-play I've ever heard. pic.twitter.com/Wbas3Bww3v
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 30, 2018
Bryan Knowles: The other bad part about Week 17 is all the meaningful injuries in meaningless games. Aaron Rodgers has gone to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion. Why, oh, why, was Rodgers playing in this one? He's been banged up enough this year...
Vince Verhei: Now that he's free of Hue Jackson, maybe we'll get to see what DeShone Kizer can really do.
(Kizer floats in the pocket, bounces into pressure, throws an awkward pass off his back foot that should have been intercepted.)
I guess that's what Kizer can really do.
DeShone Kizer should have stayed in school in 2017, and he really should still be in school in 2018. He's getting dragged down by one defender with two more closing in, and he decides to throw the ball straight up to a receiver. It's an easy interception for the Lions. It's a 31-0 game, so who cares, but he's finishing his second pro season and still doesn't look ready for the NFL.
New York Jets 3 at New England Patriots 38
Aaron Schatz: After a Jets fumble, the Patriots got the ball at the Jets 8. They lose 10 yards on a holding call, and you think Brady's throwing the ball away on third-and-goal from the 18, but the Patriots get new life after Henry Anderson pushes Brady down with a late hit -- pretty minor, but anything late like that is always going to get roughing the passer. Brady airmailed a sure touchdown to a wide open Chris Hogan before the roughing call extended the drive, then airmailed another sure touchdown to a slightly-more-covered Hogan after the roughing call, but gets away with the bad throws when he finds Philip Dorsett for a 9-yard touchdown on (the second) third-and-goal.
Brady is throwing the ball downfield much better than last week. Last week he only attempted two passes over 10 air yards and missed both of them. This week he's already got two deep completions (each of 18 air yards). But those airmailed throws to Hogan are still a bit worrying.
Otherwise, the big story is probably that the Patriots run defense has been stalwart (six carries for 14 yards by Elijah McGuire, plus that fumble). The Jets run defense has been surprisingly strong also except for one huge 21-yard carry by James White.
Bryan Knowles: Every (relevant) game is at the half, and there's just not much drama so far -- by design, sure, but still. A bit of a snoozefest. Sitting on a 21-3 halftime lead, I think we can be fairly certain that the Patriots will earn that first-round bye and keep the faint hopes alive for yet another home-field advantage -- I've seen nothing that would indicate that the Jets could score 21 points all day, much less 21 points while blanking the Pats in the second half. With the Texans also sitting on a comfortable (albeit smaller) lead at the moment, any real drama possibilities we had in this early window are pretty much shot. Ah well.
Vince Verhei: Six of the seven early games today saw at least one team score seven points or less in the first half. The Packers and Saints were both shut out. So yeah, not a ton going on.
Bryan Knowles: The most significant thing in this early window? The Jets are stepping closer to a top-two draft pick. To beat out the 49ers (assuming the Rams handle San Francisco later today), the Jets need to lose (check!) and then get three wins by the Giants, Buccaneers, Ravens, and Chargers. The Bucs are up 10 at the moment, the Giants are in one of the two competitive games, and the Ravens and Chargers are favored later today.
T-A-N-K TANK TANK TANK.
Aaron Schatz: Sam Darnold has thrown a couple of sideline passes this week that were absolute dimes, the kind of throws they talk about when they say a quarterback "can make all the throws." But the Jets have to work on this weird thing in their offense where they keep having passes where a receiver in front leaps up for a ball that was actually intended for a receiver right behind him.
Jacksonville Jaguars 3 at Houston Texans 20
Tom Gower: Blake Bortles is bad. The Texans, needing a win to clinch the division and avoid potentially falling to the No. 6 seed, are trying. One Texans punt muff, when the punt returner was contacted by a Jaguars player ruled to have been blocked into him, let the Jaguars start in goal-to-go. That's why they have three points to Houston's 17 through 30 minutes despite gaining a net 26 yards in six non-kneeldown possessions.
Houston and Jacksonville played 30 more minutes of football after that, which was notable for Bill O'Brien emptying out his playbook to get as many different looks as possible in film for playoff opponents to think about, many of them featuring Deshaun Watson's mobility as a threat or integral part of the play. There's no reason to care about any of the rest of it.
Atlanta Falcons 34 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 32
Of course, all these trick plays are just whetting our appetites for the Michael Dickson drop-kick field goal attempt in the Seahawks game ... right? Right? Please, Pete...
Arizona Cardinals 24 at Seattle Seahawks 27
Vince Verhei: Some pre-game notes. Here's what's at stake today:
- A Seattle win clinches the fifth seed for them, and the top draft pick for the Cardinals.
- A bad game for Josh Rosen puts him underneath the -1,000-DYAR threshold.
- If Rashaad Penny gets 19 carries today, Seattle will have one running back with 200 carries and two others with 100. They'd be the first team to do that since the Ravens in 2008 (Joe Flacco's rookie year). Before that, you'd have to go back to Joe Gibbs' Washington team in 1989.
- We're all hoping Michael Dickson will get to drop-kick for points, the first time anyone has done that since Doug Flutie in 2005, and only the second time since World War II.
Germain Ifedi, who started at right tackle for the first 14 weeks before missing the Kansas City game, returns to the starting lineup, but at right guard, ahead of D.J. Fluker, who is active today but coming off the bench. George Fant, who was a sixth lineman/giant tight end for most of the season, starts at right tackle for the second straight week.
Seahawks force a three-and-out, and their first drive crosses midfield. But on third down, they run the Super Bowl goal-line play, with the slot receiver intended to clear space for the outside man. And it has similar results -- space is not cleared, and David Amerson outmuscles David Moore for the interception. He returns it deep into Seattle territory. The Cardinals can't do much from there, and Zane Gonzalez hits a 36-yarder to put Arizona up 3-0.
Everyone's going for it on fourth-and-1 today! The Cardinals try it near midfield, but instead of handing off to David Johnson, a good player, they count on Rosen, a bad player. He's under pressure right away, and though he escapes, his pass to Larry Fitzgerald is way off target. Cardinals want a flag on Seattle, but they're not going to bail out an offense on fourth down on a terrible throw like that (except in the Steelers-Saints game last week). Seahawks take over on Arizona's side of the 50.
Carl Yedor: Seahawks go three-and-out on the ensuing drive. Not an ideal offensive start for them, but they've already converted more third downs than they did in their first game against Arizona, when they went 0-for-10. Despite that, they managed to win that one 20-17. However, winning against Arizona hasn't been Seattle's problem in years past. The only year they managed to beat Bruce Arians at home was in 2014, when Arizona was down a quarterback. Arizona was responsible for Russell Wilson's first career home loss, and they won close games at CenturyLink Field in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017.
We'll see if that streak continues, but today seems like a great case of competing incentives. For the future of the franchise, Arizona should want to lose this game to wrap up the No. 1 overall pick. However, Steve Wilks may need a win today to keep his job longer than just one season. Arizona's struggles this season have largely been due to the offense being abysmal, and it would be tough for any NFL team to survive losing its entire projected offensive line. But they've been historically bad thus far.
Bryan Knowles: Suggestion to the Cardinals defense: have someone, literally anyone cover Tyler Lockett. Confusion in the secondary means the Cardinals let two receivers get past the defense, and it's an easy pitch and catch for a Seattle touchdown. Cardinals back into the No. 1 draft slot for the moment.
Vince Verhei: Seattle's first four passes go to Moore, Jaron Brown, and Nick Vannett, and I'm wondering where Tyler Lockett is. Apparently the Cardinals can't find him either, because he's behind all of them, with no defenders in sight, for an easy touchdown and a 7-3 Seattle lead.
I forgot to mention this before the game: Lockett needs a good game to set the single-season record for wide receiver DVOA. So far, so good!
I also forgot to mention this before the game, but Seattle had a chance to tie the record for fewest turnovers in a season. It's irrelevant now after Wilson's first-quarter interception. But they can force turnovers too -- Jacob Martin beats ... whoever Arizona's backup left tackle is today for the sack-fumble, and Frank Clark recovers. A holding call puts Seattle in first-and-20, but then they reel off a 10-yard Chris Carson run, 10-yard Doug Baldwin catch, 17-yard Baldwin catch, and finally a 7-yard Carson touchdown for a 14-3 lead.
On third-and-long, Arizona sends a pair of defensive backs on a blitz. Mike Davis seems confused as to his assignment, and ends up blocking Antoine Bethea into Wilson for the sack. The Cardinals then partially block Michael Dickson's punt and take over at about the Seattle 30. I'm thinking it would have been better for Seattle if the punt had just been blocked out of the end zone for a safety, and it turns out that way. Rosen executes a gorgeous play-fake that completely fools journeyman corner Akeem King, in for a banged-up Shaquill Griffin. King has been in the NFL since 2015 -- he should know by now that his job is to cover Larry Fitzgerald, not bite on play-fakes. Regardless, Fitzgerald is free in the end zone. Rosen still almost overthrows him, but Fitzgerald stretches out and grabs it for the score. Seahawks now lead 14-10.
Seattle goes three-and-out on another third-down sack. Dickson's punt is almost blocked again, but no matter -- Pharoh Cooper returns the punt 45 yards to the Seattle 21. Special teams are murdering Seattle today.
Cards go three-and-out, but Gonzalez hits from 50, and the lead is cut to 14-13. Another big special teams play for the Cardinals.
For the third straight drive, Wilson is sacked on third down. At least the punt works out decently this time, but the Cardinals still drive into field goal range. But with a third-and-5 at the 30 and no timeouts left, Rosen holds the ball and takes a sack, and the half ends.
So it's 14-13, and the numbers are that close up and down the box score. Seattle leads 7-6 in first downs and 108-105 in total yards. Cardinals have the edge in special teams, but Seattle is making up for that with good defense in (and just outside of) the red zone.
Seattle beat the best team in the league last week, but they may well lose to the worst team in the league today -- and still win the fifth seed and a trip to Dallas next week.
Carl Yedor: The longest scoring drive for either team is 47 yards, and there have been five of them in total. Arizona has two field goals on drives of 11 and -11 yards. Ugly offense today. Seattle is starting some backups on the offensive line, and Arizona (as mentioned earlier) has been starting backups all year. A long punt return, a partially blocked punt, and an interception in plus territory set up Arizona's scores. A sack-fumble and a failed fourth down at midfield set up Seattle's. Not great.
Vince Verhei: Doug Baldwin can't come down with back-to-back catchable balls, and then Wilson is sacked on third down. Do a shot!
Hell of a turn of events here. Another big Arizona special teams play sees a punt downed inside the 5. On third down, Wilson is sacked and fumbles, and Arizona recovers the ball and returns it for a go-ahead touchdown -- but the play is wiped out by a defensive holding penalty. Next play, Carson breaks free for a 61-yard run to the right side. Two snaps later, the same side of Arizona's defense caves in again, and Davis is untouched on a 17-yard touchdown run for a 21-13 lead. That's a five-play, 98-yard drive with one completion for 11 yards.
I am not making this up: the Cardinals just blocked Dickson's punt AGAIN. And this one was recovered for a touchdown. Cards go for two, and Johnson runs it in. We're tied at 21 with a whole quarter to go.
Rosen suffers his fifth sack and second fumble, this time by Frank Clark. Seahawks recover.
Seattle gets one first down, but on the next third down, Wilson suffers his sixth sack, this one split by Zach Moore and Corey Peters. Sebastian Janikowski's field goal snakes through for a 24-21 lead. One of the rare times a kick has gone Seattle's way today.
Third-and-12, Rosen makes his best throw of the day, a strike to Trent Sherfield that should have been a first-and-goal -- but Sherfield drops the ball. With 12 yards to go, the Cards have to try the field goal -- and Gonzalez hits from 55 to tie the game at 24. Seahawks have 1:54 and two timeouts left, so plenty of time to get the winning field goal, but there's no guarantee they've got what it takes to get there today.
Tyler Lockett has been invisible since his touchdown, but like Brigadoon he finally reappears, getting clear for a 37-yard catch to the Arizona 25. His two targets today resulted in two catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, so I'd imagine the DVOA record is his.
From there, Carson muscled his way to a first down at the 12. Wilson took one knee to center the ball, and Janikowski hit the 33-yard field goal for the 27-24 win.
What an ugly, uncomfortable, discouraging, and ultimately pointless victory.
Carl Yedor: Wilson responds with a drive to get them in field goal range, and Janikowski hits the game winner. Ended up not meaning anything due to the combination of results from the Vikings and Eagles, but it does guarantee Arizona the No. 1 pick.
Cleveland Browns 24 at Baltimore Ravens 26
Vince Verhei: Ravens have a fourth-and-1 near midfield on their opening drive in a must-win game. The best short-yardage weapon in football is a mobile quarterback, and Lamar Jackson keeps it around right end for the conversion. It leads to a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Aaron Schatz: The Browns are stuffing as many defenders into the box as they can. They know how important the run is to the Baltimore offense and they are determined not to let Gus Edwards just go up the middle on them over and over. They're covering any receivers one-on-one without safety help so they can do everything to stop the run, daring Jackson to throw to beat them.
Bryan Knowles: Baker Mayfield taketh away, and Baker Mayfield giveth. He has thrown four passes so far, including an interception, an incomplete pass, a 66-yard bomb and a 28-yard touchdown pass. It's certainly not boring, at the very least!
The Browns take a 7-3 lead, sliding Pittsburgh back into the No. 4 seed at the moment as they stay in a scoreless game against Cincinnati.
I am kind of all-in on Lamar Jackson-Baker Mayfield battles for the foreseeable future in the AFC North. That has the potential to be a lot of fun. Jackson already has 51 yards -- that is, 51 yards passing and 51 yards rushing. That answers Mayfield's bombs, and the Ravens retake the lead in both the game and the division. Back-and-forth we go.
Aaron Schatz: The Browns went away from playing bear front, everyone-in-the-box defense, and the Ravens just gashed them on their last drive. Kenneth Dixon, 15 yards. Gus Edwards, 24 yards. Dixon, 20 yards. Lamar Jackson 8-yard touchdown on a read option. Now it's 17-7 Ravens, one play into the second quarter.
Dave Bernreuther: Well this is interesting. Like me, the refs thought Lamar Jackson easily got over the plane before pulling the ball back, at which point he fumbled, but we figured it didn't matter. The ruling on the field was touchdown, so the Browns cavalry, which had an easy fumble-six, stopped running.
Except Jackson pulled it back early. And the fumble did matter. And while there was a clear recovery, there should also have been a clear touchdown the other way. And there isn't.
Somehow this Miami bar that is usually a Patriots bar is packed full of Steelers fans, and I am afraid for my life just for being here. Gulp.
Aaron Schatz: Browns just got HOSED out of a 99-yard fumble return touchdown. Ravens with third-and-goal on the 1, Lamar Jackson reaches the ball toward the goal line, then has it slapped out of his hands. Jabril Peppers recovers the fumble and is on his way to a touchdown, but the officials blow the play dead and say that Jackson got the ball over the line for a Ravens touchdown.
On review, he clearly did not. So they overturn the call, but the Browns get the ball on their own 7 because of the whistle.
To add insult to insult, Baker Mayfield then hits Jarvis Landry almost perfectly, wide open, what should have been a 93-yard receiving touchdown, but it was about 6 inches too short and bounced off Jarvis Landry's helmet instead of getting him in the hands.
Bryan Knowles: Oh, the Browns nearly had a great series to end the half. Baker Mayfield did an amazing job of extending a play and dodging pressure -- it looked like he wanted to throw the ball seven or eight times before finally finding Higgins 40 yards downfield on the edge of field goal range. I think he survived in the pocket for 10 seconds or so, though that might be a slight exaggeration. Of course, Joseph missed the ensuing 46-yard field goal, so it's a 20-7 Ravens lead at the half.
Had Lamar Jackson's plunge been good, I think the AFC North would be locked up for the Ravens right now -- it's still probably Baltimore's, what with a 13-point lead and the Steelers losing into Cincinnati, but at least it's theoretically in play. It's a rung behind the two NFC wild-card slots and the No. 1 draft pick as the interesting things to watch here in the second halves of the late games; the bye weeks are all more or less locked up barring something absolutely astonishing.
Tom Gower: The Browns are 21st in run defense DVOA coming into today and have had a ton of trouble matching up to what the Ravens are doing on offense. I don't know what they're missing, exactly, but they've gotten just gashed on some plays. Baker Mayfield, well, you've seen a lot with him. The big plays in both directions. The big missed call, which at the time from the TV broadcast angle I thought was a good touchdown, too, but obviously on replay was not. Entertaining first 30 minutes, and competitive even with the Browns missing the field goal at the end.
Vince Verhei: This is awesome -- Cleveland faked a SHOVeLL for a touchdown.
Freddie Kitchens' play fake. Led to a wide open WR for a TD. pic.twitter.com/v6puCUpxDQ
— Cian (@Cianaf) December 30, 2018
Dave Bernreuther: We're going to need a gif on that "holding" call that cost Lamar Jackson his third touchdown run. Good lord.
Rob Weintraub: Jabrill Peppers goes for the kill shot on Lamar and winds up knocking out his own guy, Larry Ogunjobi. All the talk is of how running quarterbacks get hurt but they also cause stress on defenses in myriad ways, including friendly-fire injuries like this one.
Obvious bad spot gifts the Ravens a key first down, and Gregg "I got a dozen head coaching offers" Williams fails to challenge. Baltimore driving to punch in a touchdown as a result.
Aaron Schatz: Ravens' passing game is very tight end-centric now. The top two receivers for the day so far are the two rookie tight ends, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst. Browns were No. 7 in DVOA against tight ends coming into today but faced a lot of targets to tight ends -- 9.3 per game, most in the league.
Browns trying to come back from a 23-14 deficit, Baker Mayfield hits David Njoku in the end zone and he pins the ball to his hip. Refs call it incomplete, but it looks like it may be a catch. Should Gregg Williams challenge and risk losing a timeout he might need later? Strangely, he chooses to straight out take a timeout and not challenge the play. If you're going to lose the timeout, you might as well challenge. It proves to be somewhat moot the next play, as Mayfield hits Antonio Callaway on a slant for the touchdown, making it 23-21 and giving Mayfield the all-time rookie record with 27 passing touchdowns, passing Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson's rookie years.
Rob Weintraub: Third down and the Ravens go with an option pitch that gets fumbled, recovered by Baltimore, but they are about to punt. In other words, it's happening all over again for the Ravens...
Yep, Cincy just lost, so there you are.
Of course we are now on the second review of a spectacular Browns catch, just to torture the Ravens fans a little more.
Of course one of those spectacular grabs was made by Breshad Perriman, who busted out in Baltimore.
Vince Verhei: The Steelers fans in this bar are going nuts and chanting Baker Mayfield's name right now.
Rob Weintraub: Fourth-and-long, playoffs on the line for the Ravens defense again! Just like we had it in the Almanac!
And C.J. Mosley intercepts! Ravens in, Steelers out, redemption!
To clarify, here was the last line of the Ravens essay in FOA 2018
Deep in his or her heart, any Ravens fan would probably sign up right now for the following: final game of the season, playoff spot on the line, at home, defense on the field, fourth-and-long for the opponent. Surely they can't give it up twice in a row, right?
That's some next-level prognostication right there!
Aaron Schatz: Bad news for all those Steelers fans. The Ravens won't be kicked out of the playoffs with a Week 17 loss again. They stop the Browns at the Baltimore 39 on four straight pass plays. Cleveland decides to go for fourth-and-10 rather than trying a game-winning field goal from 57 yards, and Mayfield throws an interception under heavy pressure. Ravens-Chargers II next week.
If the officials had not blown that fumble return dead, the Browns probably win and the Steelers are in the playoffs. Brutal.
San Francisco 49ers 32 at Los Angeles Rams 48
Bryan Knowles: The 49ers are playing like they are aware that they are in a fight for the top draft pick. Their first two drives -- heck, their first seven plays -- saw two turnovers: a Kyle Juszcyzk fumble and a really bad Nick Mullens interception. The Rams scored on the first, and are about to score on the second. Combined with the Cardinals' field goal, the 49ers slide into the No. 1 draft slot for now...
Nick Mullens just threw a touchdown pass! Unfortunately for him, it was to Cory Littleton rather than, you know, one of his receivers. It's a 21-3 lead for the 49ers, and the Bay Area teams have conspired to make sure that there was nothing interesting going on in the race for bye weeks this week.
Rob Weintraub: Massive injury hit if it's serious: Andrew Whitworth limped to the locker room with an apparent knee injury. Big trouble for the Rams if....
Cincinnati Bengals 13 at Pittsburgh Steelers 16
Scott Kacsmar: So while the Ravens went for a fourth-and-1 at their own 48, the Steelers played around on a fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 45 before taking a delay of game penalty and punting. It didn't even look like Ben Roethlisberger tried to do much with the hard count. It was more about moving players around and hoping the Bengals would do something stupid, but instead they just watched Pittsburgh act the fool.
I've seen the Steelers half-ass games before, but this is pretty bad when they were a 14-point favorite and the Bengals are down so many guys. At least they got on the board before halftime, which helped the Bengals set a record by allowing more points (203) in one quarter (second) than any team in any quarter in NFL history (credit CBS for that graphic). No Antonio Brown is an issue, but they just look unmotivated on offense so far. A big penalty after the whistle blew up the last drive, bringing up third-and-25. At least the new kicker came through to make it 10-3.
Rob Weintraub: No team plays better in meaningless Week 17 games through the years than the Bengals. It's a maddening characteristic, especially with Marvin Lewis' long overdue firing on the line.
Steelers now lead by 13-10; a field goal just scrapes through. If you don't think this is all set up for Pittsburgh to sneak into the postseason despite everything, I don't know what to tell you. Not only that, they will no doubt go on a big run once they scrape in.
Bryan Knowles: I'm rooting for the "Baltimore win, Pittsburgh win, Indianapolis-Tennessee tie" scenario which would see the Steelers make it in as the sixth seed. Tomlin saving his job thanks to Blaine Gabbert would be something, for sure.
Rob Weintraub: I mean I'm not supposed to get furious when Cincy has it third-and-short at about the 10-yard line, and instead of giving it to Joe Mixon, who is already over 100 yards in the day, they have Jeff Driskel throw it behind a beat-up line to third-string wideouts, right? Right????
Sack, of course, which means Cincy kicks a chip-shot field goal to tie it at 13. It's very odd because intellectually I want Cincy to lose, but it's impossible when I see them line up against the Black and Gold. And I definitely don't want the Steelers to sneak into the playoffs. Hence I'm nervy and angry with nothing on the line for my club.
This has been the Weintraub Agonistes.
Touchdown Browns, two-point game.
Steelers about to kick the go-ahead field goal at the two-minute warning.
Get ready for the playoffs, Pittsburgh...
Oakland Raiders 3 at Kansas City Chiefs 35
Bryan Knowles: We have leaders in the clubhouse for both "worst throw by a quarterback" and "worst effort by a receiver." Just LOOK at this.
Like, come on. Hilarious. pic.twitter.com/775JrNoHdN
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 30, 2018
Rob Weintraub: Perfectly representative 50th touchdown pass for Mahomes, a long bomb on the money while scrambling up in the pocket to create space for the throw. Beautiful.
Philadelphia Eagles 24 at Washington Redskins 0
Bryan Knowles: The Saga of Josh Johnson has come thudding back to earth. He's 1-for-6 today for 7 yards and an interception. Washington has 3 total net yards on their first three drives, which seems somewhat less than ideal.
Philadelphia has had two long(ish) drives, but only have one field goal to speak of. Still, with the Bears jumping out to a lead over Minnesota, the Eagles are now in playoff position...
Rob Weintraub: Nelson Agholor catches a short flip, takes three backwards steps, and extends the ball across the goal line, and then it pops loose as he hits the ground. Called incomplete. Essentially the same play that was called a touchdown with Zach Ertz in the Super Bowl. Ridiculous.
Wait! Sanity prevails! Reversed on replay and called a touchdown. Eagles up 17-0, and playoff-bound if the Bears handle their end.
Rob Weintraub: Reports are that Foles went to the locker room with an unknown injury, meaning Nate Sudfeld is coming in. Would make for an ugly playoff game if that's anything serious.
What if Pederson told Foles to fake an injury to ensure the Bears keep playing to win?!
Meanwhile Sudfeld tosses a touchdown pass as soon as he comes in. Trade Foles!
Chicago Bears 24 at Minnesota Vikings 10
Vince Verhei: Your wacky fourth-and-1 attempt (or something) of the day: Bears line up to punt, but then all 11 men sprint to the sideline, and 11 offensive players sprint on to the field. OK, but, by rule the defense gets a chance to substitute if they want to, so the ref stands over the ball, which gives the Vikings a chance to collect themselves. They don't make any switches, they don't jump offsides, and the Bears take the delay of game and punt. I don't get how that was supposed to work. The ref standing over the ball killed any chance of them getting caught off guard.
Ross Tucker raises a good point on Twitter: with the Rams blowing out San Francisco, the Bears are a lock to be the third seed, meaning they will host Minnesota or Philadelphia next week. Who would you rather play? If I'm the Bears, I'd rather play Minnesota -- which means they need to LOSE to Minnesota today to make sure the Vikings get into the playoffs and the Eagles stay home.
Scott Kacsmar: It's an interesting dilemma for the Bears. I do think the Vikings are an easier matchup for them because of how they can dominate that offense. But you can't just tank so obviously to lose this 13-point lead. The Vikings have to actually earn it. Giving them a couple cheap scores should really eat at Minnesota's pride, so it has to look like a natural loss. But yeah, no way I'd want to let the defending champs back in this thing next week. Plus that's a whole new opponent to prepare for.
Vince Verhei: In case you were wondering, things in Minnesota are going fine.
— Yahoo Sports NFL (@YahooSportsNFL) December 30, 2018
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 30, 2018
During his interview with Erin Andrews before the start of the second half, Mike Zimmer said the Vikings need to run the ball more.
— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingStrib) December 30, 2018
The Vikings ran the ball 8 times for 18 yards in the first half. Yes, running more is exactly what they need to do.
Bryan Knowles: The Vikings get the ball back down 11 points with 7:46 left in the game ... and immediately turn it over on downs without gaining a first down. The Bears are draining clock, and I don't think it's realistic for the Vikings to score twice in less than five minutes, considering they can't move the ball at all today. The Eagles are looking like the No. 6 seed.
Los Angeles Chargers 23 at Denver Broncos 9
Rob Weintraub: Pick-two alert! Casey Hayward intercepts and takes it back to the house. Meaningless game but who doesn't love a pick-two?
Vince Verhei: The pick-two in the Chargers game is a very fun, completely meaningless play.
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) December 30, 2018
Indianapolis Colts 33 at Tennessee Titans 17
Andrew Potter: Man, I hope this opening sequence is a sign of things to come. End-around to Dane Cruikshank gets the Titans a big return. Then the first scrimmage play is from midfield ... and it's a Wildcat-styled play, meaning Derrick Henry is technically Tennessee's starting quarterback tonight.
... sigh. Then after all that, the Titans call a fraidy-cat punt on fourth-and-5 in plus territory. It was nice while it lasted.
Dave Bernreuther: I loved that opening kick return. That's the first time I've seen any such creativity on an opening kick, and as soon as the flip happened, I thought "why on earth haven't we seen that more?"
This Titans team is still mostly a boring question mark, but I do love that their coach is willing to try to find any edge. (Which should not be remarkable, but somehow still is.)
Aaron Schatz: Well, that was nice of Andrew Luck to just gift-wrap a pick-six under pressure and put the Titans back in the game, 14-7 with 6:35 left in the second quarter. Actually, on replay, it wasn't even that much pressure. Kamalei Correa was sort of in his face, but wasn't about to sack him. Luck just sort of tried to make an impossible throw and underthrew the receiver and it was easily picked off by the zone coverage.
Bryan Knowles: This game is drunk. After the Colts let the Titans back into the game, the Titans try to gift the Colts free points on a muffed punt. The Colts decline as Marlon Mack fumbles the ball right back.
Carl Yedor: Indianapolis refuses to let me turn this game off. Keeps giving Tennessee chances. Part of me is expecting Gabbert to just give the ball right back to the Colts here.
Aaron Schatz: Still 24-10 with about three minutes left in the third quarter. The Titans just haven't given the Colts any reason to be afraid of Gabbert passing the ball -- he has only 73 yards -- so the Colts can totally stuff the box against the run. And their run defense was already better than their pass defense.
And of course, the minute I write this, the Titans finally get a great drive, scoring a touchdown on just two plays, a 33-yard run by Henry when the Titans offensive line finally made a big hole and then a 22-yard play-action pass to Luke Stocker built off run-action that looked exactly like the previous Henry run. So now it's 24-17 Colts.
Tom Gower: That handoff thing is something that has been around for a while. Antonio Brown's first career touch was actually on one, against the Titans in the season opener back in 2009, I believe. I want to say the Titans have run it before, even, a few years ago, maybe with Darius Reynaud as one of the return men. After that and opening in the Derrick Henry direct snap, I expected a lot of trickery from Tennessee tonight as they tried to compensate for Blaine Gabbert and what would surely be an overwhelming defensive focus against Henry, who'd been the one thing on offense they thought they could maybe count on, but no such luck. And thus it has been a lot of minimally productive, at best, drives. Until what just happened, 55 yards on one Derrick Henry carry and one Gabbert-to-Luke Stocker pass that was actually on target after Gabbert had been misfiring often.
Aaron Schatz: The Titans look like they're ending this game in an orgy of penalties, which is a little strange since the Titans were last in the league in penalties coming into this game. They've been flagged on five of the last seven plays: offensive holding twice, then illegal formation, illegal block above the waist, and finally unnecessary roughness for Ben Jones kind of losing his mind and shoving a Colts defender.
(Actually, NBC replay shows the Colts defender showing Jones first, but the officials missed it. You've still got to hold back and not respond to stuff like that, though.)
Dave Bernreuther: With their season on the line, the Titans -- who we should note are the least penalized team in football and had only been flagged three times all night -- start inside their own 20 and then proceed to be flagged five times in a single series. Fourth-and-a-mile for the season is not a place you want to put Blaine Gabbert.
Aaron Schatz: With the Colts win, we end up with FO correctly picking eight playoff teams instead of nine. Still, this was one of our best projection years. We correctly predicted eight playoff teams (NE, HOU, LAC, BAL; NO, LAR, DAL, PHI). Three of our misses were the last three teams out of the playoffs (MIN, TEN, PIT). Our other miss was GB. Plus, we had SEA as NFC team 7 and we had IND/KC as AFC teams 7 and 8. The one team the projection system didn't see coming -- although subjectively, everyone knew it was a distinct possibility -- was Chicago. And obviously Kansas City was projected way too low, even if we did have them technically in the top half of the AFC.
Tom Gower: The Titans needed a lot to pull off the win tonight, and didn't get it. C'est la vie.
Dave Bernreuther: So the Colts -- a team of many flaws that we could argue hasn't actually beaten anyone good all year -- are playoff-bound, having won nine of 10 to close out after a 1-5 start.
That 1-5 start, it's worth noting, included four losses to the Jets, Bengals, Texans, and Eagles that were well within reach, as was the 6-0 abomination in Jacksonville. The Patriots loss was the only game all year that they weren't in realistic position to possibly win in the fourth quarter. That's pretty astounding.
I don't know how to feel about this. They're a few coin flips from a bye in a weak AFC, they're on a 9-1 roll, and they have a very winnable game -- hell, they might even be a pick'em -- next week in Houston, but they're still several steps away from being a serious title contender. So I'm not convinced that winning this game was even in their best interest. Hopefully this time around they won't get overly ambitious and start trading first-round picks for that one final rolling ball of knives that'll help them overcome their New England hump and put them over the top...
Pessimism aside, this iteration of the Colts is so much better positioned to make a run in future years than the last surprise playoff team of 2012. Not only because the conference is weakening, but because they really do seem to have a great core in place, with plenty of cap space and front-office discipline to spare for later. That's exciting. And even if they're not your team, we're all better off for having a healthy Andrew Luck in our lives.
And now we get them for another week. Maybe more. Not a bad turnaround at all, and nothing about it feels like a fluke either. Cheers to Chris Ballard, Frank Reich, and perhaps most of all, Matt Eberflus.