No Kelce? No Problem
NFL Week 16 - The Kansas City Chiefs were supposed to be vulnerable on Sunday.
Travis Kelce was out due to COVID. Tyreek Hill was a last-minute returnee who hadn't practiced all week. Harrison Butker was also out, leaving the kicking chores in the hands of someone named Elliot Fry. And the Steelers were coming off one of their gritty we-want-it-more wins in Week 15 and had their proverbial backs to the proverbial wall.
All the Steelers had to do was double-cover Hill and Patrick Mahomes would start coughing up turnovers, right? Or play two high safeties, that magical pentagram of a defensive alignment which supposedly ensorceles great quarterbacks. Or unleash Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner T.J. Watt, cracked ribs and all. Or get another crafty/wily/gutsy performance from Old Man Roethlisberger against the Chiefs defense which isn't supposed to be all that great. After all, Steelers castoff Melvin Ingram starts for the the Chiefs, and all of Western Pennsylvania entered the game certain that Ingram has done NOTHING since his departure.
There was only one problem with those half-baked theories: after all of this season's plot twists, the Chiefs are once again the team to beat in the AFC. They proved it with a 36-10 dismantling of the Steelers that allowed the Chiefs to clinch the AFC West and mount a two-game lead in the race for the No. 1 playoff seed with two games left to play.
With Kelce unavailable and Hill drawing the defense's attention, Patrick Mahomes leaned upon Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman over the middle, with assists from backup tight ends Noah Gray and Blake Bell. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire out for much of the game, Derrick Gore stepped up with 104 scrimmage yards. With opponents playing on their heels to stop Mahomes from scorching them deep, Andy Reid downshifted weeks ago into a slightly more conservative, conventional offense. Mahomes checked down to Gore and Darrel Williams productively on Sunday, as he has done for the last two months. Without Kelce to lead their red zone improv troupe, the Chiefs ran fullback dives and I-formation iso plays at the goal line.
The Chiefs defense shredded the Steelers offensive line and made short work of a typically drippy Steelers offensive game plan. Fry pitched in with a trio of field goals. And while Ingram didn't crack the stat sheet, he once again caused the type of disruption that experienced football columnists are supposed to recognize.
The Chiefs haven't lost since Week 7. During that span, they have beaten top contenders such as the Packers (yes, without Aaron Rodgers) and Cowboys, middleweights such as the Raiders and Chargers, and whatever the heck the Steelers are supposed to be. They have outscored opponents by a combined 140-56 score since the bye. And there is no reason to expect the Chiefs to regress to the mean, because this IS the Chiefs' mean. What we saw early in the season was the aberration.
The NFL started making a little more sense in Week 16. Surprise contenders such as the Cardinals and Chargers are now tailing off a bit. So are the Patriots, to a degree. Wild-card wannabes such as the Steelers, Browns, Broncos, and Vikings are finally falling by the wayside. All of the NFC frontrunners have clinched playoff berths and the Bills are reasserting themselves. It's almost New Year's: time for the real Super Bowl teams to step up.
There's no magic formula for beating the Chiefs. They lack some fatal flaw. What happened in October might as well have happened in 2016. The Chiefs are playing well enough to blow out opponents with one Hall of Fame tight end tied behind their backs.
Imagine how good they're going to be once they get Kelce back.
Game Spotlight: Buffalo Bills 33, New England Patriots 21
What Happened: The Bills tried their best to chump away their last, best chance of reaching the Super Bowl. But Josh Allen would not let them.
The Bills outplayed the Patriots for much of the afternoon but led just 20-7 midway through the third quarter due to multiple red zone failures. They settled for a 25-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 early in the second quarter, were stopped at the 1-yard line on a series of poorly executed plays on the next series, and settled for another field goal in the third quarter after an apparent touchdown was nullified by an ineligible man downfield penalty.
The Patriots, meanwhile, got another rookie-scented performance from Mac Jones but milked every positive play they could muster from their offense, including several fourth-and-short conversions, to cut their deficit to 26-21 in the fourth quarter.
The Bills appeared to have all 10 of their digits wrapped tightly around their own necks when Allen took over on the final drive. First, he connected with Isaiah McKenzie for 17 yards on third-and-10. Then, Allen channeled Cam Newton 2015 on a fourth-and-1 bootleg. Finally, Allen shifted from Cam Mode to Favre Mode (or perhaps Ozzie Guillen Mode) for a pair of unlikely completions: an underhanded start-the-6-4-3 double play toss to Stefon Diggs to convert another third down, then a side-armed shovel pass to Dawson Knox to put the game out of reach.
What it Means: The Bills, who now control their own destiny in the AFC East, are slowly closing the book on their late-autumn swoon. They have played well in their last 10 quarters of football, making them look no different as Week 16 draws to a close than flawed contenders such as the Packers (who appeared vulnerable in several recent victories, including on Saturday night)m the Rams (a danger to themselves and others), and, yes, the Patriots.
If Allen keeps dialing up Favre plays and Sean McDermott can figure out their offensive red zone issues, the Bills could reclaim their title as the greatest threat to the Chiefs in the AFC.
The Patriots are gonna be just fine. They're just finding their level after a schedule- and weather-assisted sugar rush. Heck, even DVOA might stop sending them flowers and chocolates if this keeps up. With the Bills suddenly ahead of them again and the schedule (see below) doing them no favors, the Patriots really must do their best to avoid any playoff foes with a balanced offense and a disciplined defense. In other words, they should aim with all of their might for the Titans.
What's Next: The Patriots host the Jaguars, who somehow lost to the Jets practice squad on Sunday, before wrapping up with their traditional journey of self-doubt to Miami. The Bills host the Falcons and Jets, two teams that would not do the Patriots any favors, even if they could.
Dispatches from Week 16
Notes and observations from another strange Sunday of football.
Jake Fromm's Cargo Cult
Joe Judge exposed third-string quarterback Jake Fromm to the elements like he was a Spartan baby in the Giants' 34-10 loss to the Eagles. Judge didn't appear to bother with any specialized "here are Fromm's five favorite passing plays" game plan. The Giants handed off on third-and-4, third-and-10, and third-and-14 while the game was still close in the first half. When Fromm occasionally dropped to throw, he held the ball too long and misfired on routine passes. On one play early in the third quarter, Fromm took an under-center snap and rolled right with no blockers and no crossing receivers for a 10-yard loss; it looked like the sort of thing that happens when you're playing Madden and get distracted by a phone call.
Fromm finished 6-of-17 for 25 yards, two sacks, one interception, and one would-be interception that bounced off Darius Slay's hands. Judge finally relented and inserted Mike Glennon early in the third quarter. Glennon looked worse than Fromm, but only because he was trusted to actually throw downfield.
The only reason to start Fromm in a meaningless game for the Giants was to evaluate him. But if Judge didn't trust him to even attempt passes on third downs and was willing to yank him when the Giants trailed 13-3, why even bother trying to evaluate him? Tossing an overmatched and ill-prepared Fromm out there just to see what would happen was the sort of thing a WFAN caller might suggest, not something a professional coach should even have considered.
The Giants are expected to operate according to Judge's muddled illogic for at least another year. It's gonna be simultaneously sad and hilarious, folks.
Nick Foles is Still a Winter Warlock
Foles was one notch above terrible in the 26-25 Bears upset of the Seahawks. He fumbled just two plays before what turned out to be his game-winning touchdown pass; the Bears would have lost had German Ifedi not pounced on the loose ball. Foles also failed on a fourth-down conversion earlier in the fourth quarter and took a goal-to-go sack that forced the Bears to settle for a field goal while trailing at the start of the fourth quarter. But it's December, and it was snowing, so it was time for a little of that ol' Foles magic. On Sunday, that involved the Seahawks failing to control the late-game clock and allowing too many easy short completions while Russell Wilson took costly sacks at crucial moments. In other words: Foles caused the Seahawks to be the Seahawks. Not exactly witchcraft.
It's unlikely that Foles bought Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace anything more than two weeks of job security. If anything, Foles' performances raises even more questions about the Nagy-Pace regime. How did the Bears decide that Andy Dalton was an upgrade over Foles? Why didn't they trade Foles when teams such as the Jets were offering drat picks for broken-down Super Bowl MVPs? How did Pace spend so many resources at quarterback and get so little in return over the past two years?
Anyway, it was funnish to see Foles again, and he proved once more that he's an acceptable spot starter. Maybe he'll land with a playoff team next year. Say, the Colts will probably need a backup in 2022…
The Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders are Still Technically Football Teams
Walkthrough only got to see the highlights of the 17-13 Raiders victory over the Broncos, and we sure are glad we weren't forced to watch the lowlights. Seriously: here's a typical "highlight" from this fumble fest:
OUR BALL! 👊
📺: CBS pic.twitter.com/Hz74qlGHwg
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) December 26, 2021
Now imagine 60 minutes of large heaps of large men making human snowflakes on the ground. Perhaps you are into that sort of thing, but Walkthrough is not.
One of the refreshing things about Week 16's results is that there's now some clear separation among the AFC wild-card centipede, with the hard-to-watch hangers-on fading from the chase. The Colts and AFC East runner-up are all but assured two of the slots, and it has becoming increasingly unlikely that some team with Drew Lock, Ben Roethlisberger, or (heh) Baker Mayfield at quarterback will squeak into the third spot.
The 8-7 Raiders could still reach the playoffs, but they face the Colts and Chargers in the final two weeks, so they will be knocked out as long as Carson Wentz keeps playing well enough to not lose games and the Chargers get some better health luck when they need it. What could possibly go wrong?
Davis Mills is Weak Tea Mac Jones
Mills had one of those strong games on Sunday that bad quarterbacks sometimes have against would-be contenders suffering from a case of the late-season sloppies. Davis threw for 254 yards and two touchdowns in a shocking 41-29 Texans upset of the Chargers. He threw one or two gorgeous passes, but he also benefitted from several big plays in which his receivers made outstanding catches/adjustments for him or defenders fell down in coverage or when missing tackles. The Chargers, who were without Joey Bosa and Derwin James (among others), allowed Rex Burkhead to rush for 149 yards, which should provide a sense of their overall defensive effort.
Mills also played well in the Jaguars victory last week. A well-run organization would certainly monitor his development but also take his recent performances with a heavy grain of salt, because the Jaguars are a bad ACC team and Sunday's game was so COVID-impacted that it practically boiled down to showdown of Delta-versus-Omicron.
A poorly run organization, on the other hand, would congratulate themselves on being smart enough to find their very own Mac Jones in the third round.
Guess what the Texans are about to do!
Josh Johnson Puts the 'Place' in 'Replacement Level'
Johnson, who started in place of Lamar Jackson (ankle) and Tyler Huntley (COVID) for the Ravens in their 41-21 loss to the Bengals, has been on the rosters of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Sacramento Mountain Lions, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, 49ers again, Bengals again, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders, Washington Football Team, San Diego Fleet, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Wildcats, 49ers again, Jets again a few weeks ago, and the Ravens again.
We were going to hide the Toronto Argonauts, Montreal Expos, Birmingham Space Budgies, and Rural Massachusetts Dispensaries in that paragraph for alert readers to spot, but the list was already ridiculous enough as it was. Heck, Walkthrough barely remembers some of the leagues Johnson played in.
Johnson performed admirably on Sunday, as he often does, finding Mark Andrews eight times for 125 yards and keeping the Ravens respectable in the first half. Johnson threw three touchdowns in a November Jets loss to the Colts; most of that production came in garbage time, but he led a pair of credible first-half drives in that game as well.
The big takeaway here is that the Bengals have finally distinguished themselves as the best team in the AFC North by virtue of having a quality young quarterback (unlike the Browns), pretty good overall health (unlike the Ravens), and not being in utter franchise-wide denial (unlike the Steelers). But Johnson's continued ability to show up in the middle of the season, practice two or three times, learn a dozen plays, and outperform Jake Fromm-types serves as a reminder that keeping a third-string quarterback around because "he's good in the meeting room" is one of the dumbest things NFL coaching staffs do. Which is saying something.
Week 16 Awards
Walkthrough is handing out hardware for the holidays.
Defensive Player of the Week
Walkthrough traditionally: A) only awards DPOW to a player whose team won; and B) avoids saying anything at all nice about the Minnesota Vikings. But Anthony Barr intercepted Matthew Stafford twice inside the Rams 20-yard line in Week 16, setting up Vikings scoring drives of 7 yards (field goal) and 2 yards (touchdown). Barr almost helped the Vikings defeat a superior team to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. Which, come to think of it, was a typically Anthony Barr-like thing for him to do.
Honorable mention goes to Trevon Diggs for his 11th interception of the season, tying Everson Walls for the all-time Dallas Cowboys record. The Cowboys fan in my Greater Philly neighborhood used to pretend he was Everson Walls after intercepting passes in front of the railroad tracks when we played sandlot two-hand touch as kids, so Diggs' season has brought back some fond childhood memories here in Walkthrough HQ. Also, some not-so-fond memories, since I was the little Jaworski throwing some of those picks.
Offensive Line of the Week
If Walkthrough just listed five made-up names and claimed that they were the Texans offensive linemen who helped Rex Burkhead rush for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-29 upset of the Chargers, how many of you would be able to spot it? Don't worry, folks: Geron Christian, Jimmy Morrissey, Cole Toner, Max Scharping, and Charlie Heck are real people. We weren't just looking around our office at the printer and old emo albums and making up names.
Special Teamer of the Week
With Matthew Stafford enduring one of his distressingly common turnover sprees, the Rams needed a big special teams play to hold off the Vikings and clinch the NFC West. Brandon Powell delivered with the first Rams punt return touchdown since Tavon Austin brought one back in Week 3 of 2015.
Jeff Fisher was the Rams head coach in that 2015 game, Nick Foles their quarterback, and they beat the Seahawks. Anyone who guesses or remembers the Rams record that year gets a No Prize.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
Rams special teamers Grant Haley, Brycen Hopkins, and Michael Hoecht earn this award for the trio of blocks that made Powell's punt return touchdown possible. Hoecht is the guy pancaking some poor Vikings defender at the end of the run:
HUGE 61-yard punt return from Brandon Powell!
— x - Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 26, 2021
Honorable mention goes to Sidney Jones, Jordyn Brooks, and Ugochukwu Amadi for showing up just in time to heroically fail to stop Damiere Byrd's game-winning two-point conversion: Great effort, fellas!
Bears take the lead with the two-point conversion!
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2021
Frame This Play!
You better believe Walkthrough is eager to share Lane Johnson's Big Man touchdown with the world:
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 26, 2021
There's a lot to love about the design of this play, including the pre-snap motion away from Johnson and the well-sold play fake that makes it look like an RPO slant. But the best thing about it was the fact that it flows naturally from the Eagles' run-heavy philosophy. The Eagles entered Sunday ranked 31st in goal-to-go offense, in part because their passing concepts are designed for tiny people (DeVonta Smith) or horrendous football players (Jalen Raegor). Anything that sells run-action and gets the ball to a big target has a chance to succeed, even if that target is a right tackle.
Now if the Eagles could just stop opening games up with six straight passes on their first two possessions…
Burn This Game Plan!
Matt Rhule, who thinks like a Silver Age comic book supervillain (My headquarters getting destroyed and all of my henchman getting defeated were all part of my SECRET PLAN), decided to rotate Cam Newton and Sam Darnold this week, because Rhule hates football, fans, puppies, and joy.
Anyway, Darnold entered the game with the Panthers trailing the Buccaneers early in the second quarter and promptly uncorked this gem to Shi Smith:
Welcome back, Sam Darnold! #KeepPounding
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2021
Great stuff, Sam! Now have a seat: it's Cam time again.
Yep: Rhule inserted Darnold, got a huge chunk play, and immediately took Darnold out.
Let's give Rhule some benefit of the doubt: Darnold's pass got the Panthers down to the 10-yard line, and Newton is the better goal-line quarterback. Perhaps Rhule had some brilliant plan for Newton to use both his arm and his legs to get the ball in the end zone?
Nope. Newton rushed for 2 yards on first down, then threw a flair pass for no gain on second down. Then, Walkthrough kids you not, Darnold re-entered the game on third down and took a sack!
Rhule had this to say after the game, per Nick Carboni of WCNC in Charlotte: "I believe it's 1,000% working, I just know no one can see it and I apologize. As I tell our team all the time, it took Jay-Z seven years. He had to start his own agency to become an overnight sensation. It takes time."
A claim that he is secretly doing well in invisible ways? Check. Plea for an unrealistic amount of extra time? Check. Terrible math? Check. Embarrassing analogy? Double-check. Rhule is like Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge rolled into one. No wonder the Giants wanted to hire him so badly.
Monday Night Sportsbook: Miami Dolphins (-3) at New Orleans Saints
This spread makes zero sense.
Rookie Ian Book (think: watered-down Taysom Hill) will start for the Saints, whose COVID list at press time includes Hill, Ryan Ramczyk, Adam Trautman, Demario Davis, and lots of other rank-and-file starters who kept them quasi-competitive (when available) over the last few months. The Dolphins were relatively healthy as of Sunday. DVOA distrusts the Dolphins' winning streak due to their soft recent schedule and remembers when that the Saints started the season 5-2, but … did we mention fourth-string rookie Ian Book? The house appears to have set this spread at "Watch out! This team just shut out Tom Bradeeeeeeeee!" Don't be surprised if the Dolphins move to -4.5 or more before kickoff, when the COVID coast is clear and the sharps show up.
The Over-Under is set at 37.5, and you better believe that Walkthrough smells both a points-off-turnovers fueled Over and a chance for a same-game parlay. We took the Dolphins moneyline (we want protection from a push) and the Over at a tasty +245 without waiting for Monday's health reports.
We also grabbed the Dolphins defense as Anytime Touchdown Scorers. Sean Payton may try to keep things conservative for Book, but at +500, the juice was worth the squeeze.