Week 14 provided a trio of afternoon games that could be previews of contests we will see in January, and all three of the 49ers-Saints, Chiefs-Patriots, and Ravens-Bills games delivered with compelling fourth quarters. The former matchup earns the top billing as the Game of the Week, and its back-and-forth scoring and crazy fourth-quarter finish makes it the game of the year in my mind.
Game of the Week
49ers at Saints
As one would no doubt expect from a matchup between the No. 2 and No. 7 DVOA defenses, the 49ers-Saints game was an immediate shootout. The first half featured one punt from each team. One drive was truncated by the end of the second quarter. The other eight drives all ended in touchdowns, four apiece for each team, making the score 28-27 in favor of the 49ers with a failed Saints two-point conversion. That two-point try was about the only thing that didn't work for the Saints offense. Even tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill excelled with a combined four catches, 68 yards, and three touchdowns. And that was against the No. 1 DVOA defense against tight ends (subscription required) that prior to Sunday had allowed just 26 yards per game to the position.
The second half brought some balance, even if the third quarter's two turnovers were more a function of poor offense than great defense -- Jimmy Garoppolo threw a slant pass too far in front of Emmanuel Sanders, which Sanders deflected into the hands of linebacker Craig Robertson, and Alvin Kamara lost a fumble on what was more of a glancing blow to the ball from defensive tackle D.J. Jones than a true punch-out. That balance didn't diminish the excitement, which may have reached a new peak at the end of the third quarter as Taysom Hill took the snap on a fourth-and-18 fake punt and threw deep to Tre'Quan Smith down the right sideline. Special-teamer Tavarius Moore held Smith by his shoulder pads for 30 yards down the sideline and then shoved him out of bounds just as the ball arrived. The Saints home crowd, still scarred by the non-call in last year's NFC Championship Game, booed vehemently for the lack of a flag. On a typical offensive play, Moore's defense would have been a flagrant pass interference penalty. But on a fake punt, the wide gunners are allowed to defend that way, knowledge that Moore used to perfection both on the field and after the game.
After a full day's worth of excitement in the first three quarters, the 49ers owned a two-point lead at 35-33 at the start of the fourth quarter. And they nearly returned the ball to the Saints offense when Garoppolo couldn't avoid a Saints blitz and took a sack on third-and-7. Instead, the 49ers were bailed out by a defensive holding call on safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, trying to keep star tight end George Kittle in check with physical play. In a broad sense, that has been a problem for the Saints defense all season -- their 30 penalties on third downs and 18 penalties to extend their opponents' drives this season are the most in football according to the broadcast. This 5-yard penalty landed in both categories, offering the 49ers offense a new first down and pushing them into Saints territory.
There, Garoppolo overcame another tough spot of a second-and-11 with back-to-back completions, the first to Sanders on a 5-yard slant and the second to Kendrick Bourne on a 6-yard out. Three plays later, in another third-and-5, Garoppolo threw a strike that rookie Deebo Samuel secured on an intermediate cross in heavy traffic. That 16-yard play moved the 49ers into the red zone. Samuel had less success on a first-down jet sweep, and after a Garoppolo incompletion, the 49ers were in another third-and-long. Excellent coverage prevented Garoppolo from throwing downfield, and after scrambling in the backfield for a good seven seconds, he finally checked down to fullback Kyle Juszczyk well short of the markers. That would likely have ended the drive in a field goal, but Gardner-Johnson dove in for the tackle just as Juszczyk turned his head upfield. He made his initial contact to Juszczyk's helmet, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty that gave the 49ers a new first down at the Saints' 6-yard line and landed Juszczyk in concussion protocol -- which he fortunately cleared and returned to the game. Showing as many lives on the drive as a cat, the 49ers finally capitalized on a 6-yard touchdown pass to Bourne. That put the 49ers up by nine points with just under nine minutes left to play, good for just under a 90% Game-Winning Chance (GWC).
The first 51 minutes of this contest demanded a close finish, and the Saints offense cooperated on their subsequent drive. They erased a third-and-5 sack of their own with a defensive holding penalty, and then they immediately made their 49ers defense pay as Drew Brees dropped a 20-air-yard pass into star receiver Michael Thomas' hands between a pair of defenders. Thomas made the catch, turned upfield along the right sidelines, and weaved in and out to turn safety Jimmie Ward around and pick up extra yards. The eventual 49-yard reception was reminiscent of Barry Sanders' famous run against the Patriots, and that is probably the highest compliment one can pay a modern player.
Thomas didn't score on that play the way that Sanders did on his, but the football gods rewarded him for his efforts two plays later. His 21-yard touchdown reception wasn't quite as jaw-dropping, but his catch was high and over his shoulders, a difficult play for most receivers. Thomas isn't most receivers. He has caught 95.8% of his catchable targets based on SportRadar charting since he entered the league in 2016. Only Antonio Brown and slot receiver Cole Beasley have higher catch rates among the 40 wide receivers with at least 200 catchable targets in that time. Thomas also leads all players in 2019 with 121 receptions and 1,424 receiving yards. He had 11 and 134 on Sunday.
Back to just a two-point advantage, Garoppolo started his next drive with a 5-yard pass to the protocol-cleared Juszczyk. The newly promoted Raheem Mostert added 3 more yards with a carry up the middle, and then Garoppolo scrambled around the right corner, diving for a first down as both Robertson and Cameron Jordan bore down on him. Two plays later, Samuel tried his hands at another carry, and this one fared much better than his previous. Showing remarkable speed for his 5-foot-11 and 214-pound frame, Samuel sped past his blockers and exploded for 31 yards into the secondary. That advanced the 49ers into Saints territory, and then running back Matt Breida took them into the red zone with three straight carries for 15 combined yards. That third carry prompted a Saints timeout that stopped the clock at 2:38, a strategic decision that worked perfectly after safety Vonn Bell blitzed and sacked Garoppolo on the subsequent first down. Robbie Gould ended the drive with a 41-yard field goal, but a pair of Saints timeouts preserved their offense 2:19 to try to overcome their five-point deficit, a proposition that GWC estimated they had a healthy 21.8% chance to do.
Sophomore receiver Tre'Quan Smith started the Saints' two-minute drill with his first catch of the day, which he took from the line of scrimmage near the out of bounds and weaved upfield for 11 yards. Thomas followed that with his own 11-yard reception two plays later, and then Ted Ginn entered the mix with a blown-coverage reception that he took 25 yards down the right sideline before cornerback Emmanuel Moseley could reach him and shove him out of bounds. Suddenly, the Saints were on the 49ers' 29-yard line still with a minute and a half of clock, good for a 38.7% GWC. That fell to 34.1% after a short completion to Thomas and an incompletion set up another third-and-5, but that common down-and-distance ended in a common result of a defensive penalty, this one for pass interference. That advanced the Saints into the red zone with one minute left. That was plenty of time and allowed Brees to throw short to Smith over the middle, but after breaking an attempted Fred Warner tackle and then spinning past another from Ahkello Witherspoon, Smith could walk into the end zone to give his Saints the lead and cap a fourth quarter on offense with an unbelievable 153.5% DVOA.
Up just one point with less than a minute left, the Saints faced a no-brainer decision to go for two. But defensive pressure from the 49ers forced Brees to back-peddle, and he threw incomplete well wide of his covered intended target. That failed conversion gave Garoppolo and his 49ers 53 seconds to drive the field and kick a field goal to win in regulation, a near 50/50 proposition with a 46.5% chance of succeeded starting at their own 25-yard line. Those efforts started well with an 8-yard pass that Kittle corralled while surrounded by three Saints defenders. But neither Sanders nor Kittle could secure Garoppolo's off-target second- or third-down pass attempts. Facing a fourth-and-2 from their own 33-yard line with just 33 seconds left in the game, the suddenly faced a second-half nadir of 24.1% GWC. But fortunately for them, they have Kittle.
Kittle's beast-mode catch-and-run (with yardage tacked on for a facemask penalty) propelled the 49ers into the red zone, landing Gould a chip shot 30-yard field goal try to win the game a couple of plays later. Long snapper Kyle Nelson made that interesting with a high snap, but holder Mitch Wishnowsky made a great placement, and Gould kicked it through as time expired.
I don't think it's recency bias to call this the game of the year so far. The fourth-quarter GWC chart is a range of peaks and valleys, and these are clearly two teams who could meet again in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers likely needed this win a bit more after recent close losses to the Seahawks and Ravens. And after the Seahawks' Sunday night loss to the Rams, the 49ers are back to a one-game lead in the NFC West with similar 63.3% and 61.7% chances to win their division and the top seed in the NFC.
The Saints had already captured an NFC South title, but this loss drops them into a tie with the Seahawks and Packers a game behind the 49ers. And without the head-to-head 49ers tiebreaker, the Saints are down to a 14.4% chance of the No. 1 seed. Their likeliest scenario (53.6%) is a No. 2 seed and a bye, but they may have to travel to San Francisco for a rematch in the playoffs.
The Best of the Rest
Chiefs at Patriots
Despite its pair of MVP quarterbacks, the Chiefs' and Patriots' late-afternoon game delivered the defensive goods that the teams' top-six DVOA pass defenses foretold. That started early as Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson undercut Demarcus Robinson to intercept Patrick Mahomes' second pass attempt of the game and continued with a Chiefs interception of Tom Brady, a New England turnover on downs, and a blocked kick or punt by both teams. But Mahomes also snuck in an improbable 48-yard touchdown pass to rookie Mecole Hardman and another extended-drive touchdown, both in the second quarter. The Chiefs enjoyed almost all of their offensive success in that second frame, producing a 52.4% offensive DVOA compared to -21.3% over the rest of the game. Still, that was good enough to earn them a two-score lead of 23-13 entering the fourth quarter.
The Patriots started the period eager to cut into that deficit. Already in Chiefs territory, Brady advanced them forward with a lob to tight end Ben Watson for 7 yards. Two plays later on third-and-3, Brady dropped a 30-yard rainbow into the hands of rookie Jakobi Meyers. Meyers couldn't secure the catch with cornerback Kendall Fuller arriving with the ball, but Fuller was flagged for both a defensive hold and pass interference, the latter of which advanced the Patriots to the Chiefs' 15-yard line.
The Patriots should have scored on the very next play, with Brady dumping the ball off to his other rookie N'Keal Harry and Harry breaking several tackles and diving to break the pylon. The replay clearly showed that Harry stayed in bounds before he made his final dive for the pylon, but the referees crucially ruled Harry out of bounds at the 3-yard line on the field. While a touchdown ruling would have sparked an automatic review, the out-of-bounds call required that the Patriots initiate a challenge, something they couldn't do after already spending both of their challenges earlier in the game.
4th 13:22 N'Keal Harry should-have-been touchdown catch-and-run
At the moment, the bad call didn't seem critical. The Patriots were still set up at the 3-yard line with a full set of downs to punch in a touchdown. But after Frank Clark dragged James White down for a 2-yard loss in the backfield, those chances were suddenly dicey. On second down, Meyers let a would-be touchdown reception touch the ground before he secured it, and then on third down, Brady took a sack that backed the Patriots all the way to the 11-yard line. There, even GWC agreed that a field goal attempt was the right call, boosting their odds of a successful comeback from 14.2% with a long pass to 15.0%. And Nick Folk split the uprights, cutting the Patriots' deficit to a touchdown with 11:37 left in the quarter.
With both Damien Williams and Darrel Williams inactive in this game with various injuries, the Chiefs really struggled to run the ball to take advantage of the Patriots' relative defensive weakness and kill clock. LeSean McCoy, Darwin Thompson, and the recently re-signed-from-the-street Spencer Ware combined for just 57 yards on 20 carries, good for just 2.9 yards a pop. Speedy receiver Tyreek Hill tried his hands at a carry to start the team's next drive, but he couldn't quite turn the corner on a pitch from Mahomes and netted just 3 yards. Next, a questionable offensive pass interference call on Travis Kelce backed the Chiefs into a second-and-17. Mahomes regained a big chunk on a 12-yard completion to Robinson, but defensive pressure forced a third-down throwaway and a Dustin Colquitt punt.
With the ball back and more than 10 minutes to erase their now-single-score deficit, the Patriots had buoyed to a 19.5% GWC. That jumped up to 25.0% a few plays later after 13- and 17-yard completions to Julian Edelman and White. But safety Tyrann Mathieu read the ensuing first-down wide receiver screen and tackled Edelman for a 2-yard loss, and then Brady threw the ball away on second and third down because of pressure. That prompted a Patriots punt and another chance for the Chiefs to churn clock, now with just 7:22 left in the game.
Three-yard gains by Hill and McCoy in bounds helped do just that, but a critical false start penalty on Eric Fisher transformed a manageable third-and-4 into a lengthy third-and-9. Mahomes hit Hill on a shallow cross where Hill could have potentially beat his man to the sticks. But safety Devin McCourty sabotaged that effort with a closing tackle from centerfield. That forced another Chiefs punt and offered the Patriots another chance on offense, this time with a little over five minutes from their own 32.
Despite the Chiefs' No. 30-ranked DVOA run defense, the Patriots had not enjoyed much success running the ball either. But they did have success with a couple of running-back-authored trick plays. The first was a flea flicker touchdown pass to Julian Edelman in the first quarter. And they started the next drive with one that hit in a big way. White took a handoff and ran right, looking on the verge of being swallowed by Chiefs defenders. But rather than attempt a cut, White lobbed a pass over the swarm of defenders to Meyers, who had 30 yards of daylight to run before Daniel Sorensen could catch him from behind.
Vaulted into Chiefs territory, the Patriots still looked like they might fall short of their needed touchdown. Edelman dropped a short first-down pass, and then Isaiah Wynn false-started to back the Patriots into a second-and-15. That became a fourth-and-6 after a 9-yard checkdown to White and an incompletion deep left to Phillip Dorsett -- aided by an uncalled defensive pass interference on Fuller that the Patriots also couldn't challenge. But both time and an injury-decimated kicker depth chart incentivized the Patriots offense to remain on the field, increasing their GWC by 5.7% over a punt. And there, Brady delivered, although not how one would expect. The Chiefs pass rush crashed to the outside, and suddenly Brady had no one left in front of him. He took off on a scramble that ended with a slide and a 17-yard gain.
The Boston fans were losing their minds, and the Patriots had reached the red zone. But they still needed a touchdown to either tie the game (or win it with a two-point conversion). That became a daunting task after White failed to escape a pair of Chiefs defenders in the backfield, prompting a second-and-12 at the two-minute warning. Tight end Matt LaCosse got his fingertips on a tight-window pass at the back of the end zone but couldn't secure it. Edelman caught a 9-yard pass and was downed immediately in the middle of the field, setting up a final play on a fourth-and-3 from the 5-yard line. There, the Chiefs blitzed, forcing Brady to fade backward as he unloaded a pass into the end zone. The throw was on target for Edelman making his cut, but it didn't have the zip it needed. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland was able to reach over Edelman's shoulder and poke it away, forcing a turnover on downs that allowed the Chiefs to kneel to end the game.
A second-consecutive loss no doubt has the Patriots fans in another kind of frenzy, but they really needn't be. Already assured of a playoff berth, the Patriots retain a 71.2% chance of a No. 2 seed and a bye, and their odds of the No. 1 seed had already cratered with the loss to the 11-2 Ravens, who rounded out their difficult two-month stretch of schedule with a ninth straight win, this one over the Bills. With the Bengals and Dolphins in their final three, the Patriots have just the one difficult game left, at home against those Bills in Week 16. And even that game may not matter if the Bills can't knock off the surging Steelers in Pittsburgh next week.
The Chiefs are a fascinating team. Their second-half and especially fourth-quarter offensive letdown on Sunday made sense given the Patriots' excellent defense, but that has also been a problem for them all season. They follow overwhelmingly positive offensive DVOA ratings in the first three quarters with just a -0.7% DVOA in fourth quarters this year. That's a major reason they have four losses even after the massive win this weekend. But that win plus a Raiders loss clinched them the AFC West and should provide some optimism as the team moves toward the playoffs.
Ravens at Bills
The third on-paper marquee matchup of Sunday afternoon was the third that provided a compelling game and fourth quarter. That looked like it might not be the case after the Ravens started the second half with a Lamar Jackson 63-yard touchdown pass to fellow 2018 first-rounder Hayden Hurst, playing an expanded offensive role after Mark Andrews suffered a first-half knee injury. But beyond that big play, the Bills defense played well, limiting the Ravens to a -10.6% offensive DVOA through the first three quarters and keeping their own underperforming offense (-54.5% DVOA) within shouting distance at 17-9 entering the fourth quarter.
Jackson provided another rare Ravens big play with a 10-yard run early in the fourth quarter, and that advanced the team into the edge of field goal range at the Bills' 38-yard line. From there, Mark Ingram added 1 yard on a run and 7 yards on a catch, which ballooned to 22 yards because of a Trent Murphy roughing-the-passer penalty. Gus Edwards halved the Ravens' remaining yards to the end zone with a 7-yard carry on a second-and-9, and then Ingram plowed a direct snap carry through an Ed Oliver attempted tackle and a new first down. Two plays later, Jackson rolled right and bought enough time to find Willie Snead at the front of the end zone, expanding the team's lead to 24-9 and their GWC to 98.8% with less than 10 minutes for the Bills to answer.
Their odds were remote, but the two-score deficit seemed to spark some life into the Bills offense. In the fourth quarter, they produced a -6.0% offensive DVOA that was pretty strong against the No. 3 DVOA Ravens pass defense. Rookie tight end Dawson Knox provided the highlight of their ensuing drive, catching a second-and-9 lob from Josh Allen with only his right arm, his left being pinned against his body by safety Chuck Clark in coverage.
The 37-yard play advanced the Bills to Ravens territory, and then rookie running back Devin Singletary brought them to the doorstep of the end zone, gliding through a hole in the right side of the line and adding 38 more yards before Matthew Judon and Brandon Carr could chase him down from behind. Consecutive Ravens pre-snap penalties halved the Bills' distance twice and put them on the half-yard line. It still took a few plays, but Allen capitalized on the drive with a 3-yard strike for a touchdown and a two-point completion, both to Cole Beasley. That latter decision was made somewhat obvious by the Bills' deficit of nine points rather than eight, but it was still the correct decision for Sean McDermott to try for two. But even after the make, the Bills odds of a comeback were somewhat remote (5.9%). They needed another defensive stop with the Ravens regaining possession with seven minutes left in the quarter.
The Ravens completed the first two steps of a clock-killing final drive, rushing for 4 and then 3 yards with Jackson and Ingram on first down and setting up a manageable third-and-3. But rather than run again, Jackson dropped back to pass. The gambit looked like it would pay off when Jackson unloaded a short pass on target to an open Seth Roberts. But linebacker Lorenzo Alexander made a tremendous play to reach into the passing lane and deflect the ball a yard behind his body and at the edge of his reach.
That forced a fourth down and stopped the clock, prompting a Ravens punt and offering the Bills a full five and a half minutes to author a game-tying drive. They almost accomplished that eventual goal on the very first play when Allen threw deep down the right sideline. As he had for much of the afternoon, Allen put a bit too much air under the pass, but Singletary nevertheless got a hand on what would have been a 40-yard gain. The Bills were then bailed out by an unnecessary roughness penalty that moved the ball to their 43-yard line. Allen scrambled to midfield on the subsequent first down, and a play later, that became the Ravens' 38-yard line after a second unnecessary roughness penalty, this one away from the play on linebacker Jaylon Ferguson.
More questionable than the previous call, this penalty prompted an immediate intervention from the football gods. The next play, the Bills were whistled for an offensive holding penalty that erased a 13-yard Singletary screen and landed the team in a first-and-17 back near midfield. Singletary undid that damage, catching a 7-yard pass and cutting back and up for 6 more yards past his defender Carr. But as pressure collapsed the pocket in third down, Allen stepped out and right into the path of blitzing linebacker L.J. Fort. The sack cost the Bills 12 yards and backed them into no-man's land at the Ravens' 44-yard line.
But with two timeouts and the two-minute warning, few teams would leave their offense on the field to face a fourth-and-16. Sean McDermott isn't most coaches, and his decision to do just that was an excellent one, tripling the Bills' GWC from 1.5% with a punt to 4.6% with a pass. And Allen rewarded his coach with what was likely their best option, throwing a deep pass that induced Marlon Humphrey -- typically one of the best cover corners in football -- to run into Beasley and draw a defensive pass interference penalty.
That penalty gave the Bills new life, advancing them into the red zone with a new first down at the two-minute warning. But Singletary could only manage 2 yards on a well-defended first-down carry, and then Allen was forced to throw his second-down pass away as the Ravens secondary blanketed his pass-catchers. Allen made a tremendous play to just avoid a sack from an unblocked Clark up the middle on third down. But that left the Bills with an untenable fourth-and-8 from the Ravens' 16-yard line. Allen actually got that pass off cleanly, but new Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters knocked it away just shy of John Brown in the end zone. That forced a turnover on downs and allowed Jackson to kneel to end the game.
Any nine-game winning streak would be impressive, but the Ravens did theirs with style, having wins over the Steelers, Seahawks, Patriots, Texans, Rams, 49ers, and Bills, all firmly in the playoff picture and in the top half of teams in DVOA. Unsurprisingly, the Ravens are now first in both DVOA (42.5%) and weighted DVOA (44.7%). And following the Patriots loss, they have improved their odds of winning the No. 1 seed in the AFC to 95.3%.
The Bills could have pulled even with the Patriots in the AFC East with a win. The loss didn't move the needle for the playoff seeding. Their 94.0% chance of reaching the postseason is within 1% of where it was last week, and they retain a just 4.8% chance of catching the Patriots in the division. A head-to-head win in Week 16 would go a long way toward that goal, but they would likely need to sweep their final three -- including a Week 15 game in Pittsburgh -- to accomplish that feat.
Colts at Buccaneers
Any football fans who focused their attention on the games with major playoff implications missed an absolute classic of a Jameis Winston performance. He did the bulk of the work for 14 of the Colts' 27 first-half points, throwing a pair of interceptions to All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, the second of which Leonard returned 80 yards for a touchdown. But Winston also scorched the Colts for 363 yards and three passing touchdowns in the first three quarters, most of which came after No. 1 wide receiver Mike Evans left the game with a hamstring injury. That bipolar efforts precipitated a 35-28 Colts advantage at the start of the fourth quarter, but Winston was far from finished.
Limited to his second-and-worse options at the skill positions, Winston continued to move the ball. He found Justin Watson for an 8-yard completion, Watson's toes tapping down on the left sideline just shy of midfield. And then Winston threw deep to his underutilized-but-talented tight end O.J. Howard for 27 yards. But then the magic slipped away, with Winston throwing incomplete on three straight attempts -- the first too deep for Breshad Perriman on the right side of the end zone, the second into heavy traffic for Watson in the middle of the field, and the third telegraphed to Watson and nearly picked off by undercutting cornerback Pierre Desir. Matt Gay connected on the resulting 44-yard field goal attempt, cutting the Bucs' deficit to four points with exactly 13 minutes left in the game.
Jacoby Brissett seemed like he might close the door on the Bucs' attempted comeback efforts, throwing deep to Marcus Johnson on the second play of the ensuing drive and drawing a 45-yard defensive pass interference penalty when cornerback Jamel Dean literally tackled Johnson to prevent the touchdown. But on the brink of the red zone, running backs Jordan Wilkins and Marlon Mack combined to produce just 4 yards on a pair of carries, and then receiving back Nyheim Hines lost the ball as he stretched a third-down screen pass toward the line to gain. Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards was able to recover the loose ball, securing his offense another chance and boosting their GWC to 30.0%.
To the degree that momentum exists at all in football, it definitely doesn't exist for Winston. Two plays after his gift of a fumble recovery, Winston unloaded high and behind his target Perriman in the middle of the field. Perriman got a hand on the pass, but that served only to deflect it right into the hands of safety Malik Hooker. It was Winston's third interception of the game, and this was Winston's fourth game this season with three or more interceptions.
The trading of turnovers set the Colts offense back up at the Bucs' 25-yard line, well into field goal range. But that looked like all the team would likely manage after Mack went down for a 5-yard loss in the backfield on first-and-10. The Colts regained just 1 of those yards on second and third down, prompting a 47-yard attempt from new kicker Chase McLaughlin, subbing in for Adam Vinatieri, whose knee surgery landed him on injured reserve. Unfortunately for the Colts, their new kicker continued their old kicker's trend of poor results, doinking the effort off the right upright and deflecting back just short of the crossbar.
That turnover set the Bucs back up on offense, and Winston was ready to fling it. He aired out a first-down pass for 27 yards to Perriman, again in heavy traffic. That advanced the Bucs into Colts territory, where Ronald Jones added 6 yards on consecutive plays -- the first a catch, run, and leap; the second a carry and pile push up the middle. Two plays later, Winston hit Jones with a 9-yard quick strike that put the Bucs in the red zone. And two plays after that on a fourth-and-2, Winston found his receiving back Dare Ogunbowale on a 4-yard slant. The completion earned the Bucs a new first down, and Winston wasted no time in punctuating the drive, hitting Perriman with a beautiful back-shoulder throw in the left side of the end zone.
The score and extra point put the Buccaneers up 38-35 and increased their GWC to 63.2% after a fourth-quarter nadir of just 14.4%. But with 3:51 left in the game, Brissett and the Colts still had plenty of time to answer. And that looked promising after Brissett started the Colts' next drive with 8- and 9-yard completions to Mo Alie-Cox and Zach Pascal, the latter of which Pascal snatched out of the air in front of tight coverage from his defender Dean. Two plays later, Brissett checked down to Hines, who produced 8 more yards, all after the catch. But after a third-down incompletion high off the hands of his primary tight end Jack Doyle, Brissett faced a fourth-and-2. And there, he authored one of the funniest plays of the year, at least to non-fans of the Colts since it effectively ended their season. Brissett's initial pass was batted down by pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, but Brissett actually caught the ball on the deflection to keep the play alive. He attempted a lateral to Doyle as the Bucs' pass rush crashed down on him. After the play, referee Tony Corrente seemed confused by whether that lateral was a backward or an illegal forward pass, but it didn't matter either way. Doyle never got close to the necessary first-down yardage.
With two timeouts and 1:45 left on the clock, the Colts retained some small hope that their defense could make a stop and offer their offense one final chance. But Peyton Barber snuffed out that hope with an 11-yard carry for a first down, allowing Winston to end the game with a trio of kneels.
As weird as it is to say for a team that hung 35 points, the Colts owe as much blame to their offense as their defense for this defeat. Winston created a lot of those points for the team, but Brissett and the Colts offense couldn't hold on for the victory, producing a -27.7% fourth-quarter DVOA without a play over 10 yards in the final frame that wasn't generated by a penalty. The loss drops the Colts two games behind both the Texans and Titans without a game against either to help bridge the gap. All told, they have just a 2.6% chance of reaching the postseason.
The win pulled the Bucs into second place in the NFC South, but they were still mathematically eliminated from the postseason. That turns the full attention of their team to the quarterback question, and Winston provided the full experience in this game of why he's such a difficult quarterback to evaluate. On one hand, his 1,233 DYAR on non-interceptions is third-best in football, behind just Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson. But on the other hand, he has thrown 23 interceptions this season, seven more than Baker Mayfield in second place. Winston is such an electric talent that he will almost certainly find a starting job somewhere next season. But about the only thing I can guarantee of that is that Winston will be a fixture in next year's Tipping Points, providing a ton of entertainment whether his team wins or loses.
Dolphins at Jets
There were no disillusionments of playoff implications in the Dolphins-Jets matchup this week, but sometimes a game can be really entertaining in of itself. This was one of those games. For the first three quarters, the Dolphins ended five of their seven drives with either a made (four) or missed (one) field goal. The others ended after a first-play interception and a three-and-out and helped contribute to a 16-12 deficit. But the Jets started the fourth quarter with a three-and-out of their own, and new Dolphins starting running back Patrick Laird kicked off the ensuing drive with a 16-yard scamper -- the longest by a Dolphins back all season -- to advance his team to their 36-yard line.
Ryan Fitzpatrick dropped the shotgun snap on the next play, but Laird fielded it like it was a basketball dribble and plowed forward for a 4-yard gain. Fitzpatrick fared better on his next attempt, catching the snap cleanly and delivering a strike to receiver Isaiah Ford at the sticks. Ford expanded that catch to 13 yards with a cut inside and upfield, and then Laird added 14 more yards, weaving through the line and breaking a Kyron Brown attempted tackle.
Fitzpatrick did a bit of rushing himself, running for 6 yards on the subsequent first-and-10. That put the Dolphins in their common zone of field goal range, where they stuck again after an offensive holding penalty backed them from a third-and-2 to a third-and-12. The ensuing 53-yard attempt was Jason Sanders' longest of the day, but he still drilled it down the middle.
Backup running backs Bilal Powell and Ty Montgomery fared decently well with 105 yards on 23 carries in Le'Veon Bell's absence, but the undersized Montgomery couldn't advance the pile on his first- and second-down carries on the Jets' next drive. He netted just 4 yards on the plays and put the team in a difficult third-and-6. Darnold tried to convert it with a quick throw to Jamison Crowder on the outside, but Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham elevated to bat the pass down at the line. That prompted a Jets punt and set the Dolphins back up on offense on their own 35-yard line, down just one point and with a 47.0% GWC with 8:39 left in the quarter.
The Dolphins crept over a 50% GWC after a roughing-the-passer penalty and 9-yard Fitzpatrick scramble advanced them to the Jets' 29-yard line. But there, their drive again stalled and led to a Sanders field goal. For the afternoon, the Dolphins produced an excellent 37.3% offensive DVOA outside of the red zone but an abysmal -140.5% in the red zone. And that's how you end up with seven made field goals and zero touchdowns in a game.
Trailing for the first time all game now with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Sam Darnold got aggressive. Despite heavy pressure that ended with a shot to the ribs, Darnold unloaded an 18-air-yard pass that Robby Anderson hauled in over his shoulders. Anderson was the big playmaker for the Jets on the day, contributing 116 receiving yards that were 79 more than the team's silver medalist. Tight end Daniel Brown could have bridged some of that gap if Darnold's next pass had been another foot in bounds. He broke away from his coverage as Darnold rolled right from the pocket to extend the play. But Darnold still converted a new first down on a 10-yard short strike to Crowder on the next play, and then he added 19 more yards on consecutive completions to Anderson. Those catches moved the Jets into field goal range, and that's where they stalled, with Darnold underthrowing and then overthrowing deep passes to Anderson that with better throws could have been touchdowns. The Jets didn't have the same extreme splits as the Dolphins, but their offensive DVOA dropped from -21.8% to -82.3% when they entered the red zone. They ended this drive with a Sam Ficken 42-yard field goal make, his second of the day.
The Dolphins were down 19-18, but they still had 4:05 to answer. And that's when Fitzpatrick caught fire. He started the drive with consecutive completions for 16, 6, and 12 yards. And after an offensive holding penalty erased a 7-yard scramble and backed the Dolphins into a first-and-20 at midfield, Fitzpatrick completed two more throws, the first for 15 yards to Allen Hurns to enter field goal range and the second for 21 yards to Laird to enter the red zone. It felt like Fitzpatrick was on the brink of his first touchdown of the day, but Brian Flores grew conservative, handing off for a 2-yard loss and setting Fitzpatrick up for a second-and-12 sack. Laird took a give-up carry for 1 yard on third-and-15 that at least exhausted the Jets' final timeout. But Sanders' ensuing 37-yard field goal make left the Jets with 1:29 to try to erase their two-point deficit, a task GWC estimated they had a 45.3% chance of accomplishing.
Those chances skyrocketed to 73.7% after safety Walt Aikens tried and failed to jump a Vyncint Smith out route. Smith turned upfield, jumped over a diving Adrian Colbert attempted tackle, and completed a back-breaking 37-yard play.
Then the chances plummeted to 33.0% when Darnold took a sack, backing the Jets into a third-and-18 from the Dolphins' 46-yard line. Darnold threw short to Smith on third down, apparently looking to set up a long try at a field goal. Needham jumped in front of the pass and broke it up, presumably setting up a fourth-and-18 that the Jets would have to try with their offense. But a referee-initiated review prompted a flag for a defensive pass interference penalty on what was a bang-bang play.
Referee-initiated reviews for pass interference have not had as dismal of overturn rates as those resulting from coaches' challenges. But it's still pretty shocking to see this call on the field changed on a possible interference that seems well short of the standard normally required to overturn a non-call. This decision changed the likely result of the game, boosting the Jets' GWC to 69.8%. Three plays later, Ficken was lining up a 44-yard attempt that he snuck inside the right upright as time expired.
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores was about as hot as I've ever seen a coach as he rushed the field to yell at the referees about what he correctly perceived as their game-altering call. But Dolphins fans have to be secretly happy at their robbery. The loss dropped the team to a 3-10 record and boosted their chances of the top overall and a top-five pick in the NFL draft to 8.8% and 73.8%, respectively. Meanwhile, now with five wins, the Jets no longer have a chance at that coveted top pick. They'll have to settle for a short-term victory and the hopeful halo effect it will have for their young quarterback.