Tipping Points: Week 15

Julio Jones
Julio Jones
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

On the precipice of the playoffs, Week 15 delivered some serious drama. Not only did the critical Texans-Titans and Bills-Steelers games come down to the end of their fourth quarters, a handful of on-paper potential blowouts ended up as close games. One even led to a massive upset and landed a spot as the Tipping Points Game of the Week.

Game of the Week

Falcons at 49ers

It made sense that the 49ers led last week's Tipping Points column in their battle for the No. 1 NFC seed with the Saints. I would not have expected the same this week with the 49ers back at home and favored to beat the NFC South basement-dwelling Falcons by more than 10 points. I guess that's why they call it a trap game. The Falcons seem only to play trap games, having beaten the potentially playoff-bound Eagles, Saints, and now 49ers to earn three of their five wins this season.

This wasn't the 49ers defense that ranks second overall and against the pass in DVOA that we've all come to know and love. They were missing six important defensive players this week because of injuries, including Dee Ford and three normal starters in the secondary. The remaining defensive backs, headlined by Emmanuel Moseley and Jimmie Ward, simply couldn't match up with star receiver Julio Jones, who torched them for 134 yards and two touchdowns on 13 catches. Jones accounted for 64% of Matt Ryan's total of 210 passing yards, and he was the biggest reason this game was close with the 49ers ahead 13-10 at the start of the fourth quarter.

With the Falcons backed into a first-and-18 from their own 40-yard line, Jones nearly converted another first down, getting his hands on a low pass in the middle of the field but failing to secure it. And as was the case for most of the afternoon, the Falcons were helpless without Jones. Devonta Freeman was stopped for no gain on second-and-18, and then Ryan threw a pass directly at linebacker Fred Warner on third-and-18. Warner simply dropped it, costing the 49ers at least 30 yards of field position.

Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense tried to make up for that non-interception, but they had their own problems. Deebo Samuel dropped what would have been a 15-plus-yard completion, and after Garoppolo converted the resulting third-and-6 with an 11-yard completion to Kendrick Bourne on the right sideline, offensive holding sabotaged a third-and-3 pass attempt that George Kittle couldn't pull down in tight coverage anyway. Fortunately for the 49ers, there is the third phase of the game: special teams. Kenjon Barner fielded a Mitch Wishnowsky punt cleanly at the 10 and dodged one attempted tackle from Tavarius Moore. He just couldn't avoid the second one, which was a Ross Dwelley shot in the back that knocked the ball free.

Do-everything fullback Kyle Juszczyk recovered the fumble and stumbled to within 2 yards of the end zone. Determined to have him score, the 49ers handed off to and then passed to Juszczyk, the latter of which worked thanks to an offensive pick at the right-front of the end zone. Perhaps karmic because of the nature of the score, Robbie Gould pulled the extra point wide to the left, but the 49ers were still suddenly up nine points with just over 10 minutes to go in the game, owning a 94.5% Game-Winning Chance (GWC).

The veteran Ryan was undeterred by those long odds and orchestrated a methodical Falcons touchdown drive. That started with a 9-yard catch-and-run by tight end Austin Hooper. Jones converted back-to-back third downs, the first with a 4-yard slant catch and reach across the line to gain and the second a shallow cross with space to run for 12 yards after the catch. That put the Falcons at midfield, and they vaulted up to within 1 yard of the end zone on a jump-ball pass to Jones in the end zone. Stuck in one-on-one coverage against the 6-foot-3 Jones, the 5-foot-11 Ward could only interfere to prevent a touchdown catch. But that only delayed the inevitable as running back Qadree Ollison powered the final yard into the end zone for a touchdown that cut the Falcons' deficit to 19-17.

Even allowing the extended drive, the 49ers remained well-positioned with a lead and 5:15 remaining. At the start of their next drive, they owned a 79.6% GWC and needed just a handful of first downs to wrap this game up even without another score. Juszczyk and running back Raheem Mostert started that effort with a combined first down, and then Samuel avenged his earlier drop by coming free on some pre-snap motion and exploding past the second level and into Falcons territory. A short Mostert run and a short Garoppolo pass to Emmanuel Sanders set up a third-and-4 on the other side of the two-minute warning. Last week's hero Kittle made the catch on a quick throw to the right sideline, but then fumbled the ball without any defensive contact. He recovered just before falling out of bounds, but the mistake left the 49ers a yard short of the line to gain. A converted fourth-and-1 would have sealed the 49ers win, but Kyle Shanahan made an uncharacteristic strategic error, opting to kick a field goal and hemorrhaging 11.2% GWC, the biggest play-calling error of the week. Gould did convert this time, but that left the Falcons needing just six points to win outright and plenty of time with 1:42 to do it.

Freeman converted one first down on a 13-yard catch-and-run that ended in bounds, and then Russell Gage nearly added another and did get out of bounds. Now with a second-and-2 at midfield, Ryan threw over the middle to Jones, who broke free of safety Marcell Harris and dragged Ward for the last 10 yards of a 25-yard catch despite being pulled by his jersey. Ryan scrambled away from edge pressure and dove forward into the red zone, using the team's last timeout to stop the clock with 34 seconds remaining. Jones caught a pass and took a shot at the 5-yard line. Ryan hurried the team to the line and snapped the ball with 13 seconds to go. Pressure nearly forced a sack, but Ryan unloaded it incomplete with eight seconds left. And that became maybe the craziest eight seconds of a game all season.

It started when Ryan threw a pass to Hooper in the end zone. His defender Harris pushed down on the ball as Hooper tried to secure it above his head, and the ball swung all the way down and scraped the turf. Because Hooper maintained a firm grip on the ball as it scraped the ground, the touchdown would likely have counted if that had been the end of things. Instead, Hooper lost the handle as he raised the ball between his legs, and that prompted the referees to correctly overturn the original call and change it to an incompletion.

That play and subsequent review felt like an eternity, but it only cost the Falcons three seconds of game clock. That provided plenty of time for them to author another play too close for the naked eye. This one was a clear completion to Jones, but Ward dove in for a tackle immediately and shoved Jones back away from the front of the end zone. With no timeouts left to stop the clock, that catch would have ended the game with its placement on the field at the 6-inch line. But upon review, it became clear that the ball just broke the front of the plane of the end zone, reversing the call to a touchdown and handing the Falcons a one-point lead.

Afraid of a long-shot return for two points, the Falcons smartly took a knee on the point-after attempt. That left San Francisco with just one last shot at redemption on the pooched kickoff. The 49ers managed three successful laterals on their kickoff return, but the fourth lateral across the field sailed over Samuels' head. Olimade Zaccheaus -- he of one career catch for 93 yards and a touchdown fame -- scooped up the ball and scored for a 29-22 finish and near-scorigami.

This game was a stunner both from the standpoint of pre-game expectations and late-period GWC swings. And it could prove absolutely devastating for the 49ers, whose win in New Orleans last week put them in the driver's seat for the No. 1 NFC seed and the bye and home-field advantage that would bring with it. Now the 49ers fall to just a 39.2% chance at the No. 1 seed and, even worse, into second place in the NFC West behind the similarly 11-3 Seahawks. The 49ers have already clinched a playoff berth, but they may now be forced to play on the road in either Dallas or Philadelphia in the wild-card round. Their potential saving grace is a Week 17 rematch against the Seahawks, but unfortunately for them, that game will be in Seattle.

The Best of the Rest

Texans at Titans

With the bulk of the playoff teams already decided, the Texans' and Titans' head-to-head games to decide the AFC South in Weeks 15 and 17 carried a lot of pressure to be exciting. Fortunately, their first matchup delivered. Deshaun Watson threw a pair of second-quarter touchdowns and the Texans blocked a Titans field goal attempt. Titans punter Brett Kern tried and failed to convert a fourth-and-10 from the Texans' 37-yard line with a deep pass, and then Ryan Tannehill did convert a fourth down, this one on the goal line after faking a handoff and walking into the left side of the end zone. And Watson -- who had thrown just one red zone interception all season -- threw two red zone picks, both in the end zone. The first went to Kenny Vaccaro, who made a sudden break and closed quickly on a throw to a seemingly-open Duke Johnson in the front-left corner of the end zone. The second was batted at the line and fell softly into a crowd of seven Titans defenders. Jayon Brown secured it and fell to the ground, advancing the Titans to their 20-yard line on a touchback. One play later, they were at the 27 at the start of the fourth quarter, down 14-7.

It didn't take long for the excitement to reach the fourth quarter. Derrick Henry's total of 21 carries suggests he wasn't too bothered by the hamstring injury that limited him in practice all week, but the Titans still opted to open the final frame with a handoff to tight end Jonnu Smith. At 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds, Smith is almost identical in size to Henry, and when he exploded through the second level, he showed similar freakish speed for a player of his size.

Safety Justin Reid was able to catch him and pull him down at the 16-yard line, but Smith still produced 57 yards on his lone carry of the day. It was a big day in every respect for Smith, who also caught five passes for 60 yards and made his own touchdown-saving tackle on a full-field sprint after Tannehill had thrown a second-quarter interception to Whitney Mercilus. On both the carry and that tackle, Smith exceeded 20 miles per hour according to Next Gen Stats. They were two of the five fastest plays for a tight end all season.

Suddenly in the red zone, Tannehill didn't take long to convert the opportunity into seven points. He completed a short pass to Kalif Raymond (which became a 9-yard play after a Texans unnecessary roughness penalty) and then, after a short Henry run, dropped back to pass. The Texans dropped eight into coverage, but Tannehill stayed calm in the backfield. And after five full seconds, he unloaded a pass that breakout rookie receiver A.J. Brown pulled in just before cornerback Bradley Roby could push him out of the front of the end zone.

The touchdown tied the game at 14-14 with 13:35 remaining. A play into the next drive, the home-team Titans boasted a 57.7% GWC. It was the highest they would reach in the final quarter. Carlos Hyde went up the middle for a first-down-producing 9-yard carry, the back half of which he produced with linebacker Rashaan Evans draped on his back. And then Watson uncorked a beautiful 35-yard pass that sailed just over the head of safety Kevin Byard and into the hands of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who shielded Byard by running toward the sideline and only cutting upfield for the catch at the last possible moment.

The ensuing first-and-10 at the Titans' 29-yard line quickly became a third-and-8 after pressure forced Watson to throw a pass into the dirt and the Titans gang-tackled Hyde for just a 2-yard carry. But Watson extended the drive, weaving his way through the pocket and past Vaccaro for a first-down scramble. And on the next play, Hyde turned the corner and just beat a swarm of Titans to the pylon at the left-front of the end zone. The touchdowns reestablished the Texans' seven-point lead, now at 21-14 with just over 10 minutes for the Titans to try to answer.

Tannehill made quick work toward that goal, throwing a quick pass that Smith turned into a 17-yard completion by running over Reid at the line of scrimmage. But Henry couldn't do the same to linebacker Zach Cunningham on the resulting first down, and then Tannehill progressed from near-sack to sack on second and third down, the latter which pushed the Titans to a fourth-and-11 from their 41-yard line and induced a punt.

The Texans started just their third drive of the second half with a little less than nine minutes left on the fourth-quarter clock. Up by a touchdown, they were looking to string together one of the extended drives their opponent just had. Hopkins made that possible by dancing around in the backfield and creating 3 yards on a reception that looked assured to lose as many. That set Hyde up for 6- and 2-yard carries up the middle to produce a new first down. And then Hopkins took over. As Watson extended a play by escaping a sack out the left side of the pocket, Hopkins cut back from a right-crossing route and broke free from cornerback LeShaun Sims. That catch produced 35 yards, and two plays later, he added 25 more, securing a full-extension catch of a throw high over Sims and stiff-arming his way into the red zone. In total, Hopkins caught four passes for 98 yards in the fourth quarter, and each of the four showed a different skill.

A touchdown at that point would have effectively sealed a Texans win, but Hyde snuck in another first down and drained all three of the Titans' timeouts before Ka'imi Fairbairn kicked a 29-yard field goal. That diminished the Titans' chances of a now-10-point comeback to just 1.6% with 3:26 remaining. But Smith clearly hadn't surrendered. He caught passes for 5, 5, and 23 yards to start the next drive, although all three receptions ended in bounds and drained the clock to just 2:38. Tajae Sharpe was also tackled in bounds after a 12-yard catch, but Corey Davis broke free of a tackle and was able to run his 19-yard catch out of bounds at the Texans' 11-yard line. That set up a Titans touchdown two plays later. Tannehill pump-faked a pass to the back of the end zone and then checked down. That left receiving back Dion Lewis with just one defender to beat, and he juked Roby with a sharp cut inside and scored.

With 2:04 left, the Titans still had the two-minute warning to stop the clock, but they were out of timeouts. An onside kick was their only choice -- the attempt boosted their GWC by 8.5% over a deep kickoff. But Reid ended the drama in short order, diving forward and laying on the ball before the Titans could advance two steps toward a possible recovery.

The Texans couldn't quite exhaust the clock, but they dropped it to 28 seconds on a trio of Hyde carries before punting the ball back to the Titans. Sims tried for an unexpected return by fielding the punt on a bounce just in front of his own end zone. But he could only manage 11 yards on the return, and Tannehill fared even worse, falling victim to a sack from Charles Omenihu. He tried to quickly set up spike the ball, but he was too late. The clock expired and sealed the Titans' fate of a critical home loss to their division rival.

The Titans played a tremendous fourth quarter, improving their offensive DVOA of -21.1% over the first three frames to an insane 122.6% in the fourth. They just ran out of time. They still have a chance to avenge this loss in two weeks, but that may be too little and too late. Already a game behind the Texans and disadvantaged by their respective division records, the Titans need to beat the Saints and have the Buccaneers beat the Texans next week to make the Week 17 rematch meaningful for the AFC South title. As it stands now, the Titans have just a 19.0% chance to win the division. Their 61.9% playoff chance is buoyed instead by a 42.8% chance at a wild card, a number the Bills improved by knocking the Steelers down to an identical 8-6 record. Meanwhile, between their strong likelihood to win the division and a decent backup plan of a wild-card berth, the Texans are up to a 98.4% postseason chance. They even have a sliver of a chance at a first-round bye but would need a pair of wins, the Bills and Dolphins to upset the Patriots, and then the Bills to lose to the Jets to make that happen.

Eagles at Redskins

The Eagles-Redskins game also featured some immediate intrigue at the start of the fourth quarter when Adrian Peterson saw a wall in front of him on the left side of his line and cut back to the right and then upfield for 10 yards and a touchdown.

It was Peterson's 110th career rushing touchdown, which ties him for fourth all-time with Walter Payton, behind only Emmitt Smith (164), LaDainian Tomlinson (145), and Marcus Allen (123). The featured Redskins back with Derrius Guice again sidelined with a knee injury, Peterson ran for 66 yards on his 16 carries on Sunday and also ended the day fifth in career rushing. But specifically for Tipping Points, this touchdown was most notable because it put the Redskins ahead by four at 21-17 and improved their GWC to 58.6% over an Eagles team that desperately needed this win to remain in the NFC East race.

The Eagles nearly lost this game on the next play when Ryan Anderson came unblocked and hit Carson Wentz just as he turned out of a play fake. Wentz may not have seen Anderson coming, but he still fought through the initial hit and cocked his arm to deliver a pass. It turns out that was a mistake because it allowed Anderson to strip the ball. Wentz was fortunate that his teammate Halapoulivaati Vaitai recovered the fumble, and then he was doubly fortunate after handing the ball off to rookie running back Miles Sanders on the subsequent third-and-10. It was a decision seemingly designed to improve field position, but the speedy Sanders avoided a pair of front-side defenders and then ripped through the secondary for 56 yards.

With Jordan Howard and Alshon Jeffery both out, Sanders was the Eagles' primary playmaker against the Redskins, producing 172 total yards and two touchdowns. He and scatback Boston Scott did most of the rest of the work on that drive as well, advancing the Eagles from the edge of the red zone to the Redskins' 5-yard line on three more runs. But Wentz punctuated it with the eventual touchdown, finding an uncovered tight end Zach Ertz on the right side of the goal line. That put the Eagles back ahead by three, now with just under 10 minutes left in the final quarter.

Dwayne Haskins got some help in his efforts to answer thanks to a 41-yard kickoff return that Steven Sims managed by splitting a pair of would-be Eagles tacklers. And then Haskins delivered a 22-yard strike to rookie Terry McLaurin in a hole in the Eagles' zone. The receiver McLaurin didn't have the same volume for the Redskins that the back Sanders did for the Eagles, but he still did outsized work for his team despite his inexperience. McLaurin broke a 75-yard touchdown catch in the first half and ended the day with 130 receiving yards, nearly three times as many as his next most productive teammate. But unlike the Eagles after the big Sanders run, the Redskins couldn't turn their big plays here into seven points. Instead, an offensive holding penalty backed them into a first-and-19, and Dustin Hopkins had to eventually convert a 53-yard field goal attempt just to tie the game. Hopkins drilled it, but the resulting 24-24 tie left the inferior-by-DVOA Redskins with just a 37.5% chance to win.

Whatever the odds may have suggested, Wentz seemed poised to let the Redskins win. Like on the previous Eagles drive, the linebacker Anderson crashed into Wentz from behind and jarred loose the ball. But unlike last time, the Redskins recovered this fumble and earned a short field at the Eagles' 34-yard line.

Wentz will likely finish this season with 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio for the third straight season, but fumbles continue to be a major problem for him. His total of 14 on the season is the second-most in football, and the five other passers with more than 10 include only inexperienced players -- Daniel Jones, Josh Allen, Kyle Allen, and Gardner Minshew -- and the often-maligned Jameis Winston.

A touchdown at that point would likely have spurred a Redskins upset, and they nearly had it on second-and-10 when Haskins threw deep just short of the end zone. Sims had a step on his defender Avonte Maddox and procured a clean shot at the catch by slowing down and then jumping forward. But the ball came down between Sims' arms before he could close them, and the Redskins unsurprisingly didn't draw a reprieve on their challenge of a non-called defensive pass interference. Sims nearly earned a new first down on the next play anyway with a pair of cuts that turned a 7-yard reception into a 9-yard gain. But the Redskins didn't take advantage by going for a fourth-and-1 on the Eagles' 25, a decision that would have improved their GWC by 0.6% compared to a field goal attempt. A make did boost them to game-high 68.0% chance to win, but a subsequent four-minute Eagles drive slowly chipped away at those odds until they were gone completely.

Sanders and Scott again provided the foundation of an extended drive, but Wentz also sprinkled in occasional deeper shots to his wide receivers and tight ends. The first of those came on a third-and-5 that Greg Ward brought down in traffic for 13 yards. The second came three plays later when Dallas Goedert -- after colliding with teammate J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and falling behind on his route -- reached out and secured with one hand for a 20-yard gain.

That catch created a new Eagles first down in Redskins territory, and Ward took the team from there. On the other side of the two-minute warning, he cut sharply upfield to turn a 5-yard catch into a 13-yard one and a new first down. Two plays later, he found space on a shallow cross and added another 10 yards and a first down. And then on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line with just 32 seconds remaining, he elevated to pull down a Wentz lob in the end zone over veteran cornerback Josh Norman.

It was an incredible sight to watch Ward overcome his emotions and celebrate the game-winning touchdown. A former college quarterback, Ward went undrafted in 2017, played briefly in the now defunct AAF, and spent the bulk of his remaining time on the Eagles practice squad, stretching back to their Super Bowl season and continuing to his promotion on November 23.

This game wasn't quite over, but it soon would be. With 18 seconds left, Haskins advanced his Redskins quickly into Eagles territory, completing 17- and 10-yard passes to Kelvin Harmon and Chris Thompson. But with just six seconds left, Haskins faced pressure up the middle. On the verge of a game-ending sack, he tried to lateral the ball to anyone in a maroon uniform. But there weren't any behind him, and Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham scooped it up and ran 47 yards for an Eagles touchdown. That made the final score 37-27, a double-digit margin that does not reflect the closeness of this game prior to that last play but no doubt thrills the Eagles backers who were giving 6.5 points on the spread.

More important for most Eagles fans, the win keeps the team even in record with the Cowboys, who would unexpectedly trounce the hot Rams later that afternoon. That throws the spotlight on their Week 16 matchup against Dallas, which will almost certainly decide the division. The Cowboys won their earlier matchup in Week 7 and so would lock up the division with a win next week. That advantage (plus a No. 8 vs. No. 13 rankings advantage in DVOA) land the Cowboys 2-to-1 odds to win the East, but Sunday's game will be in Philadelphia. I feel certain it will end up in next week's column.

Jaguars at Raiders

If you thought the Falcons' comeback against the 49ers was crazy, then you won't believe the ending of the Jaguars-Raiders game. With just a sliver of a remaining playoff chance between them at the start of the day, this game didn't have the appeal of concurrent games with playoff-hopeful teams like the Vikings, Rams, Cowboys, and 49ers. But it delivered the goods nevertheless. On the strength of an opening-drive touchdown and a pair of field goals at the end of the first half, the Raiders built a commanding 16-6 lead and 94.7% GWC by the start of the fourth quarter.

A neutral zone infraction turned an unfavorable second-and-9 at the Raiders' 41-yard line into a manageable second-and-4, which Derek Carr converted with an out completion to Zay Jones at the right sideline. But the Jaguars sniffed out a second-down checkdown to running back DeAndre Washington and dropped him for a 3-yard loss, and then they sacked Carr and backed him up to the 35-yard line. That forced a punt, and gave the ball back to Gardner Minshew and the Jaguars offense at their 21-yard line.

The Raiders defense had limited the Jaguars to a -53.3% DVOA and just 4.4 yards per play in the first three quarters, but they woke up on their first fourth-quarter drive. Minshew started that with an 11-yard play-action completion to tight end Seth DeValve. Leonard Fournette lost a yard on the subsequent first down, but a Raiders third-and-8 blitz crossed the line a bit too early, drawing a defensive offsides penalty and pushing the Jaguars to a third-and-3. Fournette came up a yard shy of a new first down there, but Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone made the right call to leave his offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 from their own 41-yard line. A decision to run there instead of punt increased the Jaguars' GWC by 3.2%, and Fournette rewarded the good decision, spinning away from an attempted Curtis Riley tackle in the backfield and reaching out across the line to gain.

On the new first down, Minshew threw deep down the right sideline, attempting to go back-shoulder to receiver Keelan Cole. Cole couldn't secure the catch, but a defensive pass interference call awarded him the 21 yards in any case. That put the Jaguars at the Raiders' 37-yard line, and they reached the red zone despite heavy pressure. Minshew dodged the first set and threw complete to DeValve in the middle of the field, and then he scrambled around the left edge and out of bounds at the 14-yard line. Minshew avoided pressure with a play-action fake and then checked down to Fournette for 8 yards, advancing the Jaguars to the 6-yard line. And on second-and-2, Minshew squeezed a pass into a slanting Chris Conley in the end zone, just before safety Erik Harris could jump it for an interception.

Still up three points at 16-13 with 5:10 left in the quarter, the Raiders needed first downs more than they needed points. Playing through a fractured shoulder, rookie running back Josh Jacobs provided a pair, taking four straight carries at the start of their next drive for a combined 26 yards and breaking several tackles in the process. But Jacobs' fifth straight carry had less success, netting just 1 yard and backing the Raiders into a passing down at second-and-9. Carr took the shotgun snap as if to pass, but after faking a handoff, he took what really was a zone-read carry and zig-zagged for a 12-yard gain toward the right sideline.

That run dropped the clock to 2:05, leaving the Jaguars with just the two-minute warning and one timeout to stop the clock after another Raiders first down and with the clock presumably running. The Raiders had practically wrapped up the game at that point, owning a seemingly insurmountable 98.6% GWC. That probably would have landed at 100% south of the two-minute warning, but even though Carr slid down clearly short of the right out-of-bounds, the referees ruled him out and stopped the clock. Carr argued the call to the point of a delay-of-game penalty, which Jon Gruden tried to challenge but couldn't because that ruling cannot be reviewed.

The Raiders fans went out in their team's final home game in Oakland as only Raiders fans could, chanting "bullsh*t" as referee Brad Rogers explained his crew's bad call. By all rights, that decision should not have mattered, but Jacobs failed to put a dent in the first-and-15, and then Carr threw a pass on third-and-11 that Tyrell Williams dropped in heavy traffic in the middle of the field, stopping the clock again when the Jaguars had no timeouts left to stop it. That decision to pass was a rare instance of the aggressive call being the wrong call, dropping the Raiders' GWC from 90.6% to 88.2%. And Gruden's subsequent 50-yard field goal try was even worse, costing the Raiders 7.8% GWC compared to a punt and 5.9% GWC compared to a pass. Those back-to-back poor strategic decisions made the football gods so angry that kicker Daniel Carlson missed not one but two straight field goal attempts, the second after a running-into-the-kicker penalty gave him a mulligan from 45 yards.

The failed kick jump-started the Jaguars' game-winning drive by starting them on their 35-yard line, and Minshew wasted no time from there. He hit C.J. Board for an 8-yard slant in the middle of the field, hurried up to the line, and then scrambled up the middle for 8 more yards. Now at midfield with one minute remaining, Minshew checked down to Fournette, who cut outside and stiff-armed his way past cornerback Trayvon Mullen and out of bounds. Already at the periphery of field goal range, Minshew wasn't satisfied. He hit a wide-open Conley on a crossing route free to the left sidelines and out of bounds at the Raiders' 17-yard line. A roughing the passer penalty cut that remaining yardage in half, and then Minshew checked down again to Fournette, who again dodged a tackle and got out of bounds. Now at the 4-yard line, Minshew threw too high for Conley but then threw a strike to Conley on the exact same slant route. That third-down pass became a touchdown that put the Jaguars ahead at 20-16 with just 31 seconds remaining.

The Raiders weren't completely finished. Carr threw deep to Darren Waller on the first play of their next drive, and that became a 33-yard defensive pass interference penalty that had shades of the one the Broncos drew a couple of weeks ago to help Drew Lock win in his NFL debut. The Raiders' problem here was that they were down four points instead of three. Even that miracle play left them 50 yards away from the end zone with just 13 seconds to get there. Carr made that a bit more manageable with a 10-yard completion to Waller, but the Jaguars batted down his two Hail Mary attempts as they fell from great heights into the right side of the end zone. With a 63.1% fourth-quarter DVOA, the Jaguars had completed their improbable comeback.

The Raiders were the one of these two teams that started the day with an unlikely postseason chance. That was extinguished by this loss, so there is not much for either the 6-8 Raiders or 5-9 Jaguars to do at this point but turn their attentions to next season. Still, the latter team's efforts may have gotten a bit easier after seeing their rookie quarterback lead an impressive comeback win. Unlike his team as a whole, Minshew has a .500 record as a starter at 5-5, and his -4.7% passing DVOA is in line with top pick Kyler Murray (4.0%) and well ahead of the other two rookies with substantial playing time, Daniel Jones (-28.2%) and Dwayne Haskins (-51.2%).

Bills at Steelers

The best DVOA rookie with at least 100 attempts, Devlin Hodges (1.5% on 118 attempts), faced a different kind of test on Sunday night against the Bills. Hodges had faced only bottom-half DVOA defenses in his previous three starts -- all wins -- against the Chargers, Browns, and Cardinals. The Bills entered the week with the No. 6 DVOA defense and No. 5 DVOA pass defense. But the Steelers had their own elite defense, No. 3 overall and No. 4 against the pass. This game seemed destined to be decided by defense, and that proved to be the case.

Hodges and Josh Allen each threw a first-half pick, the former on a deep jump ball that Tre'Davious White won over James Washington and the latter on a high-but-catchable pass that Cole Beasley deflected right into the hands of Steven Nelson. But neither turnover led to points, not even Allen's, which set the Steelers up in the red zone only for James Conner to fumble the ball back to the Bills two plays later. The second half started with more of the same, with Diontae Johnson fumbling the first play of the third quarter; luckily for him, teammate Tevin Jones recovered. Devin Singletary was not as fortunate when T.J. Watt punched loose the ball on a later 11-yard carry. But Hodges returned the favor with a telegraphed interception that White returned for 49 yards into Steelers' territory and the red zone. That's where the Bills started the fourth quarter with a third-and-2, trailing 10-7.

Allen kept a zone-read handoff and jumped over a Minkah Fitzpatrick tackle for a new first down, confirmed by a measurement. But then Frank Gore and Singletary lost yardage on three consecutive rushing attempts, forcing a 36-yard Bills field goal that at least tied the game at 10-10. The Steelers lost 7 yards of their own on a subsequent second-and-8 as Shaq Lawson and several other Bills defenders diagnosed a Conner screen. Nick Vannett added back 12 yards of field position, but the Steelers still punted back to the Bills' 30-yard line.

Desperate for a big play, the Bills got one on the first play of their next drive with Allen connecting deep with No. 1 receiver John Brown. Pressure forced a slight underthrow on Allen's 40-yard pass, but Brown adjusted back to the ball and even caught it despite some contact that drew a defensive pass interference penalty that the Bills declined. Allen followed that completion with another deep attempt, this one to Brown in the left side of the end zone. Nelson broke that one up, but Singletary followed it with a 15-yard run and a new Bills first down in the red zone. On a short field, the Steelers defense buckled down, dropping Singletary at the line of scrimmage, forcing a fumble -- which they failed to recover -- and then batting a pass. They needed one more big play on the resulting third-and-9, but Allen beat them there, scanning the field from left to right and then squeezing a pass into the seldom-used tight end Tyler Kroft in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

Hodges had plenty of time to answer, but his seven-point deficit at 17-10 felt like 17 points the way the Bills defense was playing. They forced three straight incomplete passes on the Steelers' next drive, the third of which came through pressure and Hodges did well to throw away before taking a sack. The Bills had little more luck on their subsequent possession, but Singletary and Allen at least kept the clock moving with three carries for 6 total yards. Their next punt returned the ball to the Steelers with just 5:13 remaining.

Despite the ticking clock, Hodges continued his dink-and-dunk routine, but it worked a bit better on this drive. Johnson broke a tackle on consecutive catches to gain 14 total yards, and then Vannett took an out route for another 7 yards. Jaylen Samuels went down a yard short of the line to gain on second-and-3, but rather than try to pick it up with another run, Mike Tomlin showed faith in his rookie. That trust was rewarded as Hodges dropped a 32-yard pass right into the hands of Washington down the right sideline.

That completion boosted the Steelers' odds of a comeback to 20.8%, but a delay of game penalty backed them into a first-and-15, and they never recovered. Hodges took a sack on second-and-15, and then on fourth-and-7, he underthrew Deon Cain where Jordan Poyer made an easy interception in the front of the end zone.

Already on the far side of the two-minute warning, the Steelers did at least have two timeouts left. They stopped the clock after 4- and 2-yard Gore carries, and then an offensive holding penalty stopped the clock on Gore's third carry even though the Steelers declined it. That gave Hodges a minute and a half to try his hand at another game-winning drive, starting in good position at the Steelers' 43-yard line after a pressure-induced poor Corey Bojorquez punt. But it was not to be. A facemask penalty advanced the Steelers into Bills' territory, but a few plays later, a Jordan Phillips sack backed them into a second-and-18 at the Bills' 34-yard line with just 15 seconds remaining. Hodges lofted a pass into the end zone, but Washington never had a chance at it. Cornerback Levi Wallace jumped and secured both the interception and a Bills win.

This was the Sunday night game for a reason. The Bills' win and the Steelers' loss both had massive implications for the playoff picture. The former put Buffalo into the playoffs and maintained a small chance for a division win. The Bills' problem is that even a win over the Patriots next week would not land them the AFC East crown on its own; the Patriots own that tiebreaker. That means the Bills have to win twice and the Patriots have to lose twice, with that second loss needing to come against the lowly Dolphins.

The real virtue of the Bills' win was to avoid the Steelers' fate. The latter's loss drops them to 8-6, and while they currently own the tiebreaker over the 8-6 Titans, the Steelers suffer less odds at 34.3% versus 42.9% to win that wild card. The Steelers close with consecutive road games against the Jets and the Ravens while the Titans host the Saints before a Week 17 rematch with the Texans in Houston. The Steelers' chances may hinge on whether or not the Ravens rest their starters in Week 17, something Mike Garafolo reported they plan to do if they lock up their playoff seeding.


4 comments, Last at 20 Dec 2019, 8:53am

1 I don't understand the…

I don't understand the Hooper call. It looked to me like he maintained control of the ball while it was touching the ground, and then shortly after it was off the ground his leg knocked it out of his hand, and then he regained control of it without it touching the ground again. I thought the rule only required him to maintain control of the ball while it was in contact with the ground, which would make this a bobbling catch (which was completed after he regained control and was lying on his side).

Maybe there was some ambiguity about whether the leg knocked the ball out of his hand or whether the ground had already started to jar it loose? But in that case you'd stick with the original call (whichever way it went) rather than overturning it to an incompletion.

Or does bobbling it before completing the catch, in combination with having the ball touch the ground before completing the catch, make it incomplete even if it only touches the ground during the times when it is secure in his hand? But I don't see that anywhere in the rules: https://operations.nfl.com/the-rules/nfl-video-rulebook/completing-a-catch/

2 My understanding of the rule is....

If it touches the ground, then comes loose before the "catch is completed" then it is the same as if it touches the ground before possession, and therefore, incomplete.  So even though it didn't move while touching the ground, it came loose before it would have been deemed a catch AND had already touched the ground.

3 Location confusion

From the WAS-PHI writeup:

"That throws the spotlight on their Week 16 matchup in Dallas, which will almost certainly decide the division. The Cowboys won their earlier matchup in Week 7 and so would lock up the division with a win next week. That advantage (plus a No. 8 vs. No. 13 rankings advantage in DVOA) land the Cowboys 2-to-1 odds to win the East, but Sunday's game will be in Philadelphia."

So is the Week 16 game in Dallas or Philadelphia? (It's in Philadelphia)

4 Re: Location

Thanks for the catch.  That "in Dallas" should have been "against Dallas".  I made the fix.