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Lions, Colts Sow Chaos Among Top Seeds

NFL Week 15 – Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around emails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to tune into (if they can).

On Monday, we compile a digest of those emails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.

While these emails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games each week. That means we aren’t going to cover every game, or every important play. We watch the games that we, as fans, are interested in watching, so your favorite team’s game might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a Seahawks or Patriots fan, you are probably in luck; if you are a Lions fan, not so much.) We have no intention of adding new authors solely to cover every game on a given Sunday, nor will we watch a different game from the ones that we’re personally interested in watching just to ensure that Audibles covers every game.

New England Patriots 17 at Indianapolis Colts 27
(Saturday, December 18)

Bryan Knowles: The playoff scenarios for this week are so, so strange. If the Colts win tonight, it’s guaranteed that no AFC team will clinch a playoff berth this week, with three weeks left to go. That never happened in the 12-team era, and I don’t believe it had ever happened since the league expanded to more than two playoff teams per conference. And it should be easier to clinch now, because of that extra seventh seed!

So, of course I’m pulling for the Colts and maximum chaos.

Aaron Schatz: Great, powerful blocking by the Colts offensive line on Indy’s second drive. Really pushing the Pats around. But also Jonathan Taylor is really good at pushing the pile for extra yardage. And the tight ends had excellent blocking on a jet sweep that started the whole thing. Eight straight runs, 78 yards, touchdown.

Bryan Knowles: In Scramble, Andrew and I picked Ashton Dulin as our AFC special teams, er, specialist. That’s because he leads the league in special teams stops, but it doesn’t hurt that he’s beginning to produce on offense somewhat. For the second time in three weeks, Dulin has a big play—this time, a 37-yard rush to start Indy’s second drive, before Jonathan Taylor just pushed piles into oblivion.

Bryan Knowles: A dropped-third down pass and some heavy pressure force a New England punt at the end of the first quarter. Indy crashes the line and blocks it, and E.J. Speed recovers it for a score. That’s his second blocked punt return touchdown of the season; the NFL record for blocked punt return touchdowns in a career is just three. Weird, random events are simultaneously weird and random. 14-0 Indy.

Scott Spratt: My first instinct after the Colts blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown was to look up where the Patriots ranked in special teams DVOA this year. They’re fourth. So the big play likely won’t end Bill Belichick’s streak of 20-whatever years of an upper-half special teams DVOA. But it certainly improves the Colts odds of winning this one! It’s 14-0 late in the first quarter.

Dave Bernreuther: I thought that the Patriots would still find some success in the run game just based on their coaching and angles (great article that Doug Farrar linked on USA Today), but man these Colts defenders are fast and all over the place. This is a Tony Dungy-speed defense, except they’re still stout up front around DeForest Buckner. The whole “make Mac Jones beat us” plan they advertised seems to be in play, and to his credit, Jones has looked fine, and had a deep-ball dime to the sideline dropped, and then was let down by his special teams on the punt that really changed the game.

This game has big 2005 Monday-night-in-Foxboro energy from the Colts’ end. So far, they’re up to the task.

Mac Jones seems to be too, however. He just hit Hunter Henry for a nice gain over the middle—not quite Tom Brady-perfect, which would have put the ball on Henry’s left shoulder, but still pretty good in decent coverage—and the Patriots are in business at the two-minute warning.

Aaron Schatz: Halftime. I have said for a couple weeks that this was the Patriots game that worried me the most. But after the way the Patriots mauled other teams all year, I did not expect the Colts to maul them up front on both sides of the ball. Not to mention the speed the Colts have shown flying to the ball on defense. And Mac Jones threw a terrible red zone interception when he didn’t see Darius Leonard drop into a zone. 17-0 and a comeback seems really unlikely.

Scott Spratt: The Colts just got their second Mac Jones interception of the day and had the ball in the red zone up 17-0 in the third quarter. So what does Carson Wentz do? Sidearm a 15-yard pass to Michael Pittman with J.C. Jackson on his hip.

This game would seem over to me too, Aaron, if Wentz weren’t on the other team. The Colts are lucky to escape with a field goal and are up 20-0.

Aaron Schatz: I don’t understand why the colts would even let Wentz throw another pass the way their offensive line is pushing the Pats around on run plays.

Dave Bernreuther: I understand that I’m a spoiled brat here, but the sequence near the end zone on the first Colts drive of the second half is a great example of the difference between even this new-and-improved Wentz and the top-tier quarterbacks of the league. Despite what Greg Olsen was saying about getting greedy and throwing to Pittman near the end zone, the receiver was open. Wentz was just plain inaccurate. He threw it sidearm when he didn’t have to (yes, he was on the move, but he had time and space to set his feet) and a good throw might have led Pittman into the end zone. On the next play, Wentz took one of those sacks that left plenty of time to throw the ball away if he had been inclined to, and only a penalty on the missed kick kept it from being a -7-point sequence.

Yes, I’m nitpicking. But if, as I suspect, we’re about to start hearing “Colts are a Super Bowl contender” narratives after this week, it’s important to note that the most vulnerable area of their roster remains the most important one.

Scott Spratt: In an empty backfield (??), Wentz just threw a pass in Patriots territory that three different Patriots could have intercepted. The pass just missed Christian Barmore’s extended left hand, Jamie Collins touched and maybe should have picked it, and then Kyle Dugger was breaking on Nyheim Hines behind him.

Aaron Schatz: Patriots finally get a scoring drive at the end of the third/start of the fourth, mostly thanks to Hunter Henry. Colts still swarming to the ball but the Pats got a couple of passes through tight coverage. Drive featured a false start by left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who is really having a terrible game.

Aaron Schatz: Didn’t I say something about “I don’t know why the Colts would let Wentz throw another pass?”

Aaron Schatz: Patriots make it down to the 2, get knocked back 5 yards by a false start, and … kick a field goal? Seriously? To turn 20-7 into 20-10? It’s still a two-score game!

Scott Spratt: I think Belichick is playing for a Wentz pick-six, Aaron.

Scott Spratt: And then on a third-and-1, the Colts ran from shotgun. I feel like they’re trying to lose.

Dave Bernreuther: Wentz has been a better sneaker than passer. Three first downs now via QB sneak, which I believe is more than he has had via the pass (let’s not pretend that the first touchdown was actually a pass).

Even with the undeserved credit for that one as a pass, Wentz is at less than 5 yards per attempt with a bad sack and a pick. And somehow it doesn’t even matter at all.

(Losing Pittman—which I thought was undeserved—surely isn’t helping, of course.)

Bryan Knowles: Mac Jones was damn sharp on that last Patriots drive—a big shot to Kendrick Bourne, a deep bomb to N’Keal Harry, Henry for the touchdown, etc. The Patriots have stormed back to 20-17, and now they have a tough decision to make. There’s still 2:21 left, but they only have one timeout. They probably can afford to kick deep, but that may be a first down away from ending things.

Dave Bernreuther: Boy, I really like how Mac Jones moves in the pocket. No more than necessary, almost never out of fear, always with the eyes up. He still misses some throws here and there, but even on failed plays his process and mechanics definitely don’t feel like a rookie.

Rivers McCown: Who needs to throw? Not Indy.

I gotta give the Colts credit: They have been teeing off on guys from their zone spots. They walloped Nelson Agholor, and as much as it doesn’t matter for narrative purposes, they have really been the more physical team today. Even on the Pats drive to cut it to a field goal, the N’Keal Harry deep catch was well contested, and Hunter Henry’s second touchdown catch had to be in the absolute perfect spot. Neither offense has actually been good and they deserve a lot of credit for hanging on to the punt block touchdown lead.

It looks fun to be a Patriots fan again, and that’s miserable. Can these guys take Nick Caserio and Jack Easterby back? Thanks.

Aaron Schatz: We never finished up this game, so … hey, how about Jonathan Taylor? Great 67-yard run ends the game. Taylor made it through the initial blocks and faked out Dont’a Hightower, and there was nobody behind Hightower to stop him. Taylor is having the best running back season in a couple of decades, and we have a 27-17 final after the Patriots made a valiant comeback.

Did the Patriots play well in this game? Considering the first three quarters, no. But I think that this result is going to be really overstated by a lot of people, because the most recent game is always overstated. Losses happen. Tampa Bay lost to Washington. Buffalo lost to Jacksonville. Good teams do lose games, and Indianapolis is a better team to lose to than those others. I don’t know what DVOA will say after I run it Sunday night, since it seems to have a crazy love for the Patriots’ performance this season. Do I personally think that Kansas City is better than New England at this point? Sure, I think everyone agrees on that. But I think any suggestion that this game proves the Patriots are “frauds” is a bit silly. And while Mac Jones is the team’s biggest weakness—those interceptions were pretty bad—who was the better quarterback on Saturday night? I think it was pretty clearly Jones over Carson Wentz. So if the Colts are dangerous despite Wentz’s shortcomings, because of their running and defense—and they are—then I think the same is still true of the Patriots as well.

J.P. Acosta: Geoff Schwartz broke it down on Twitter but Eric Fischer had a huge block on that touchdown by Taylor, creating that cutback lane for Taylor to get to.

Honestly, that’s why that entire game felt like: the Colts won up front on both sides of the ball.

Dallas Cowboys 21 at New York Giants 6

Derrik Klassen: Lorenzo Carter was all over the field on that first drive. Started off with a tackle for loss early on an outside run, then a pass defensed as the flat defender on a rollout (similar to the interception Prescott threw vs. Washington last week), and finished it off with a pressure on third-and-12 to send the Cowboys off the field. New York is going to need players such as Carter to make those kinds of plays for the rest of the game if they want to keep this close.

J.P. Acosta: Stop me if you have heard this before: pressure on the Giants quarterback leads to a turnover. Mike Glennon was hit by Demarcus Lawrence as he threw and promptly threw an interception.

Bryan Knowles: The Giants are still without Daniel Jones, as his minor injury continues to grow three sizes every time we stop looking—and Mike Glennon, it turns out, is not good, getting pressured and throwing a quick pick just outside the red zone. It’s one Zeke Elliott carry from the end zone from there, and the Cowboys are out to an early, er, 6-0 lead, as Greg Zuerlein misses the extra point.

Derrik Klassen: Saquon Barkley may have just made the best catch on a screen pass … ever? The ball was low and behind him, but Barkley just plucked the ball right out of the air and kept moving. Palmed the tip of the ball like it was nothing. Incredible effort to convert for a new set of downs.

Carl Yedor: At this point, we’re just watching a clear mismatch between these two teams. When Dallas hasn’t put points on the board, it has largely been due to their own mistakes. They have been moving the ball at will but have bogged down in scoring territory or just outside of it a couple times. The Giants look like they’re starting a backup quarterback (which they are) against a superior team. Barkley’s catch on the screen pass was fantastic, but New York hasn’t had many highlights otherwise. They did have a well-timed blitz to force a field goal attempt from the Cowboys just inside the two-minute warning, which Dallas converted for a 12-3 lead.

I will say that having Mark Schlereth broadcasting a game where there is a lot of running the ball is an excellent assignment decision from FOX. He’s thoroughly enjoying some of the pile-pushing we have been seeing from the Cowboys.

Bryan Knowles: This annoys me—RedZone just shared a graphic that says Dallas clinches a playoff berth with a win and a Washington loss. No! That would only hold true if the Cowboys clinched the strength of victory over Philadelphia, which they can no longer do this week after the Patriots lost last night. They need a WAS-PHI tie to win the division this week, can clinch a playoff berth with a win and SF or NO losses, or can back in if they win a different strength of victory scenario. Know yer own dang tiebreakers, guys!

Bryan Knowles: The Giants line up to go for it on fourth-and-inches, while the announcers make jokes about how analytics have never thrown a block. They do note that Glennon is 6-foot-7, which should help on a sneak, though I’m fairly sure 3 feet of that is neck. And indeed, Glennon is stopped, Dak Prescott hits CeeDee Lamb into the red zone, Ezekiel Elliott punches it in, Zeurlein misses another extra point, and it’s 21-6. That should probably be enough for the Cowboys, but that is an odd way to get to 21.

J.P. Acosta: Mike Glennon just threw the worst interception of the week, I believe:

Carolina Panthers 14 at Buffalo Bills 31

Scott Spratt: Panthers kicker Zane Gonzalez injured his quad in pregame warmups. That came after the team’s active/inactive decisions and well after they could have gotten a different kicker to their active roster. So we will have to see how the team will handle kickoffs, field goals, and extra points.

So far, it has been a non-issue. The Panthers received the opening kickoff and gained just 2 yards before they punted. This has the look of one of those early-season 40-0 sort of Bills wins.

Bryan Knowles: And now, enjoy the Panthers running emergency tryouts to find a backup kicker.

Scott Spratt: Cam Newton has taken designed runs on two of the Panthers’ first three plays on their second drive. So maybe the Panthers are hoping Newton can do what Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson did to the Bills in Week 13? Newton carries would probably be the team’s best bet to get points after touchdowns, assuming they even score a touchdown today.

Scott Spratt: The Bills started slow offensively, as well, but they came alive at the turn from the first to the second quarter. Josh Allen overthrew Gabriel Davis by a yard on what would have been a 49-yard touchdown. But that didn’t sabotage what became a six-play touchdown drive where four of the five other plays went for at least 7 yards.

The Bills are showing more versatility than they had in recent weeks. The Panthers have sacked Allen on two of his seven dropbacks, but Devin Singletary has three carries for 25 yards and capped that drive with a touchdown that put the Bills up 7-0.

Scott Spratt: The FOX broadcast just showed that Dawson Knox does the same tennis ball catching drill that Diontae Johnson does. Clearly that is the cure for drops. Knox and Johnson have improved from 13.8% and 12.7% drop rates per catchable target in 2020 to 9.1% and 3.6% rates this year. Someone alert Ja’Marr Chase!

Scott Spratt: I checked out of this a bit with the Panthers down 14-0 and the Bills driving again. But Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn just made an acrobatic interception.

Can he play receiver? His offense could use the help!

Bryan Knowles: I’m fairly sure “Robby Anderson, leading rusher” was not one of the scenarios we considered when doing our preseason predictions. But after the Chinn interception, Anderson rushed twice, bringing the ball inside the 5, and Cam Newton can take it from there.

And as the kicker is hurt, the Panthers do in fact go for two, with Newton hitting DJ Moore for the score. 14-8, Bills

Scott Spratt: I’m not surprised that the Panthers went for two after they scored the Jeremy Chinn-assisted touchdown. But I’m stunned that Cam Newton threw a touch pass to the back of the end zone rather than running the ball.

That’s … really good ball placement!

P.S.: Wide receiver Brandon Zylstra did the kickoff.

Scott Spratt: The Panthers just turned the ball over on downs for the third time today, and there’s still almost the entire fourth quarter to play. It’s 24-8 Bills, and if you’re wondering why the lead isn’t bigger, blame rookie Bills tackle Spencer Brown. He has committed five penalties—one of which was declined—and finally was benched for Tommy Doyle.

The Bills entered this game ranked fourth with a 4.9% adjusted sack rate on offense. But they are tied with the Jaguars for the seventh-most total penalties.

Scott Spratt: I think I can one-up your Mike Glennon interception, J.P.

That will mercifully seal a 31-14 Bills win.

J.P. Acosta: My goodness. You win.

Houston Texans 30 at Jacksonville Jaguars 16

J.P. Acosta: I’m probably the only sicko watching this game, but Houston took the opening drive and scored a touchdown. The Jaguars had a three-and-out defensively, but a dumb penalty by Adam Gotsis on fourth down kept the drive alive. Brandin Cooks continues to actually be kinda good for Houston, as he scores on a touchdown pass from Davis Mills

J.P. Acosta: The Jaguars drive down the field fairly easily on their opening drive, helped by a long pass from Trevor Lawrence to James O’Shaughnessy, but stall out in the red zone. I thought it was interesting that Darrell Bevell called a run on third-and-10 in the red zone and left the offense on the field to go for it, but he chose to kick instead. 7-3 Houston.

J.P. Acosta: Houston just got their first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2009. Tremon Smith broke through what seemed to be 11,000 Jaguars and I thought he was gonna be called down, but he kept driving and broke into the open field and scored. 14-3 Texans.

Bryan Knowles: I’m sure the fact that the Texans and Jaguars look like effective NFL teams has nothing to do with the level of competition.

After the Texans scored two first-quarter touchdowns for the first time since, uh, the last time they played the Jaguars, Jacksonville marches back with plenty of James Robinson—he’s up to 42 yards and a touchdown after 18 minutes, as it turns out handing the ball to your best offensive player can, in fact, be an effective offensive strategy. It’s 14-10 Texans early in the second. No defense can get a stop, fans are running onto the field, it’s anarchy.

J.P. Acosta: The post-Urban glow-up is real. The Jaguars using a lot more play-action, receivers are running open. But also it’s the Texans so you never know!

Bryan Knowles: I also wonder how that Jaguars touchdown was allowed to even happen. There was a Jags fan running around the end zone as the ball was snapped. Little slow on the whistle there, refs.

J.P. Acosta: Well you know what they say about Cover-2, someone’s always open. Even a fan.

J.P. Acosta: It’s halftime, and the Texans are up 20-10 on the Jaguars after what might have been the worst two-minute drill I have ever seen by Jacksonville. So many inside runs, a third-and-2 draw to a backup running back, and a failed QB sneak dunk the Jaguars two-minute drill and gave Houston enough time in good field position to put points on the board.

J.P. Acosta: This sums up the Jaguars day so far: Jaydon Mickens fields a punt at the 1, and somehow runs it 50 yards into Texans territory. However, the play gets called back because of … sideline interference! Jaguars defensive end Dawuane Smoot ran into the ref celebrating the punt return.

J.P. Acosta: Brandin Cooks takes a screen pass 43 yards to the end zone, and the Texans are beating Jacksonville 30-16. If the Lions-Cardinals score holds up, Jacksonville will once again hold the No. 1 pick.

Rivers McCown: Want to read about what it’s like trying to differentiate two of the worst four teams in the NFL? No? OK. Well, I’ll leave the link anyway because I spent some time on it.

New York Jets 24 at Miami Dolphins 31

Scott Spratt: I was a bit surprised earlier to see the Jets leaving both Ty Johnson and La’Mical Perine inactive. I just assumed they were going to lean on Tevin Coleman and especially rookie back Michael Carter, the latter in his return from injured reserve. But no! Instead, they just gave the not-speedy slot receiver Braxton Berrios a pitch in the red zone, and he found the end zone to put the Jets up 7-0.

J.P. Acosta: Tua Tagovailoa, seemingly trying to throw an interception again, throws a pass behind DeVante Parker and it’s almost intercepted twice. Miami needs to get rolling on offense.

J.P. Acosta: Zach Wilson just had the most “No, No, NO, YES!” play I have seen this week. The Jets ran a trick play and Wilson got the ball back to pass but was immediately surrounded by three Dolphins defenders. Spins out of it and throws back across the field to a wide-open receiver.

Dave Bernreuther: Elijah Riley of the Jets is being carted off with a head injury so bad that CBS elected to refuse to re-air it. I’m not sure I have ever seen a producer make that decision before. We have had plenty of gruesome injuries rammed down our throats for dozens of replays. Now I’m really curious about why this one is different.

Scott Spratt: Big-man touchdown! Tua Tagovailoa just hit normal defensive tackle Christian Wilkins!

Wilkins definitely fell on that family in the stands right at the end of the clip.

Bryan Knowles: This game was shockingly close in the first half, but the Jets used up all their trickery and fun in the first 30 minutes—in the second half, they have a total of 7 yards on their two drives, while the Dolphins have marched down the field twice for touchdowns. This last one was death by a million papercuts—12 plays, 58 yards, with one (1) play over 10 to speak of. It also featured both Tua Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett rushing for first downs in an odd bit of strategy, but hey, don’t knock it if it works. The touchdown, however, is worth noting—it went to defensive end Christian Wilkins, who celebrated by doing the worm and leaping into the stands. Dude’s 310 pounds!

Dolphins have taken a 24-17 lead.

Dave Bernreuther: My old man objections to touchdown celebration fixation are suspended in the event of Fat Guy Touchdowns. And Christian Wilkins’ leap plus work celebration is worthy of attention.

So of course CBS cut away…

Bryan Knowles: Some moves on the big man.

Bryan Knowles: If the Jets offense can’t function (they’re up to 31 yards on four drives now in the second half), turn to the defense! Brandon Echols was sitting all over a little out route from Tagovailoa, jumped it, and took it back to the house. We’re tied at 24 midway through the fourth quarter—the Lions may be getting all the hype, but this would be a pretty huge upset, too, if the Jets can pull this off.

Dave Bernreuther: The decision to punt with barely over two minutes to go and only two timeouts indicates that maybe the Jets aren’t all that interested in pulling this one off. But then again, with the offense playing as it has this half, maybe hoping for a miracle from the defense is the way to go.

Heck of a punt, but if not for a shoestring tackle, the hang time on that boomer plus the return might have taken the clock all the way to the two-minute warning.

Tennessee Titans 13 at Pittsburgh Steelers 19

Aaron Schatz: Titans’ first score is set up by a 55-yard punt return from Chester Rogers that had a weird penalty attached to the end of it: illegal block in the back against the *kicking* team. One of the gunners hit one of the blockers in the back as they were running downfield. Ryan Tannehill almost threw a pick but Devin Bush couldn’t hold on, then an 11-yard gain on a dumpoff to Jeremy McNichols on third-and-8 and a QB sneak for the touchdown by Tannehill, 7-0 Titans.

Aaron Schatz: Steelers go three-and-out on their next drive and Pressley Harvin shanks it for 32 yards on the punt. He has punts of 27 and 32 yards. His only good punt is the one Rogers returned for 55 yards.

Aaron Schatz: Titans put on a 10-minute drive that was the death of a thousand cuts. Steelers playing a lot of zone coverage but they’re not getting to the receivers very fast, or tackling very well. Titans with so many underneath throws, especially dumpoffs to the backs. The three backs have combined to go 7-of-9, 65 yards. The Titans have had a couple of guys open deep but they’re not going deep much … Tannehill missed seeing wide-open Julio Jones early on because of pressure, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine had a bad drop on a deep throw that should have been a big play. We’re also seeing the difference between these offensive lines, especially on running plays—despite Rodger Saffold being out for the Titans and his backup Aaron Brewer having trouble on pass blocks. Steelers finally got to Tannehill on third-and-goal because nobody was open, forcing a field goal, so it’s 13-3 Titans right before halftime.

Aaron Schatz: Also, terrible time management by the Steelers, who basically sat around with three timeouts and let the Titans take all the time off the clock before halftime, calling just one timeout with 21 seconds left before the Titans field goal. Pretty bad.

Aaron Schatz: Time management bites the Steelers when they get it to the Titans 38 with one second left, not quite field goal range, and Chris Boswell is short from 56.

Carl Yedor: Confusing clock management from the Steelers in this one. Tennessee had second-and-goal from the 9 with about 75 seconds to go and completed a pass in the middle of the field to move the ball to about the 5. Pittsburgh then chose not to call timeout for some reason and let the Titans burn the full play clock before third down, effectively preventing them from having time to mount a real drive to end the half. They then called timeout after a third-down sack with about 20 seconds left and that amount of time left allowed Pittsburgh to reach the Tennessee 38, where they missed a 56-yard field goal. Sure would have been nice to have an extra 20 or 30 seconds there.

Aaron Schatz: Steelers score a touchdown, helped along by their first third-down conversion of the game. Pass to Pat Freiermuth on third-and-1, and the rookie somehow held onto it despite a loud head-to-head hit from Kristian Fulton (which drew a 15-yard flag). Fulton later got a DPI covering Chase Claypool which put the Steelers on the 1, and they got in on the third try (a Najee Harris handoff and two Roethlisberger sneaks). 13-10 Titans.

Aaron Schatz: Titans defensive coverage has disintegrated in the second half, making it easier for the Steelers to move down the field. They got the ball back after a fumble by Tennessee’s Riley McMath, then got lucky when their own James Washington fumbled away a reception—but it was nullified by a roughing the passer call. Steelers did finally fail to connect on third down so field goal attempt, and it is now tied 13-13.

Scott Spratt: T.J. Watt got his 17th sack of the season today. That gives him the Steelers franchise record in just 12 games played. That’s nuts. This is a franchise that had James Harrison, Kevin Greene, and LaMarr Woodley, among many other great defensive players.

Aaron Schatz: Steelers follow up the FOURTH Tennessee turnover with a field goal, and then the Titans have their shot to march downfield and win it with a touchdown. They make most of that drive up with rushing yardage; the Steelers run defense has been bad this season and was really bad this game. But at the end, they got a sack on Ryan Tannehill and another strip—this time recovered by Tennessee, but they lost 8 yards. Third-and-15, the Titans tried to get that yardage with two throws. But on fourth down, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was tackled by Joe Haden a half-yard short of the line to gain. That’s ballgame. The Titans gained more yards per play and were much better on third downs, but they just got killed by turnovers. You don’t win a lot of games when you go -4 in the turnover margin. The Steelers … are not very good. But they were good enough to win this game when Tennessee kept handing them the ball.

Tom Gower: The Titans came into this season with an offensive “skill” position depth chart of Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, and a bunch of Houston Texans near-replacement-level veterans and young players. Henry and Brown are both on injured reserve, and while Jones played today, he was targeted only once (it was incomplete) and suffered a hamstring injury that caused him to miss approximately the entire second half. This left Tannehill and that motley crew (itself lacking in speed; as our offseason work showed, the Titans largely prioritized bigger, thicker players at those positions) trying to manufacture offense.

As I wrote after such games as the Week 4 loss to the Jets and the Week 11 loss to the Texans, this results in fun things such as the Tennessee offense struggling to manufacture explosive plays (longest plays today: 13, 15, 18, and 20 yards, with 2020 UDFA Nick Westbrook-Ikhine dropping what would have been their biggest gain on a rare deep shot) and having to depend on repeated execution (which is hard for almost all teams) to score points. Like with the Jets game, this often ends up with an after-the-fact highlighting of red zone execution and settling for field goals, but those issues are often an instantiation of a problem throughout the offense that those rare scoring drives had actually mostly avoided. Even when the defense played well, like it did today with the Steelers spending much of the game in one of their funks where they can hardly move the ball at all, it doesn’t take too much to lose games when you struggle that much on offense. Crucial mistakes, like the fumbles today, are enough to swing the outcome.

Had the Titans played a cleaner game, the story of this game may be more about Chester Rogers’ big punt return setting up the lone Tennessee touchdown. Instead, we’re talking about the fumbles, and I’m thinking about how the fourth-down pass short of the sticks to Westbrook-Ikhine was maybe the sixth or eighth time that game they had thrown the ball short of the sticks on a third or fourth down play. A couple of times that worked out—to Jeremy McNichols before the touchdown and to Chester Rogers to convert a third-and-11. But most of the time it hadn’t, and a great individual effort by Joe Haden ended the Titans’ comeback hopes.

It’s an awful loss by Tennessee considering the stakes, and how close they were to remaining in pole position for the No. 1 seed notwithstanding all those offensive issues. But much to the consternation of Mike Munchak, who lamented his 6-6 record in close games in his final season as head coach, when you don’t make enough good plays to win games by larger margins, sometimes you end up on the wrong side of a thin margin. The magic number to win the AFC South remains a combination of two Titans wins and Colts losses, and as I wrote after the loss to the Patriots, that remains a very gettable condition, and then it’s about the playoffs and good health and good fortune then.

Arizona Cardinals 12 at Detroit Lions 30

Bryan Knowles: In the first quarter, the Detroit Lions ran 21 plays, and the Arizona Cardinals ran 3, a quick three-and-out for a net zero yards. The defense can’t get Jared Goff and company off the field—they held to a field goal on the first drive after Dan Campbell passed up a fourth-and-3. I was upset with that; you’re the Lions; how many times are you going to get into scoring range? Well, say it’s two out of two, because Goff just found Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 40-yard score to take a 10-0 lead to start the second quarter, in the most surprising early score.

Bryan Knowles: It’s now 17-0 Lions in the waning seconds of the first half. Arizona did move the ball into the red zone, but their fourth-down attempt fell short. Detroit then quickly moved the ball with their secret weapon: letting Jared Goff get the crud kicked out of him. A pair of roughing the passer penalties got them into Arizona territory, Amon-Ra St. Brown converts a fourth down, and then Goff hits Josh Reynolds for another touchdown. Arizona! Wake up!

Cale Clinton: Don’t look now, but the Lions are up 17-0 on the Cardinals just before halftime. This latest touchdown drive started at their own 3 after Arizona missed a fourth-and-goal red zone attempt. Detroit got helped by two separate roughing the passer penalties on the drive, but Jared Goff capped it off with a great ball to Josh Reynolds for the 22-yard touchdown.

Lot of football left to play, but Aqib Talib pointed out just how dicey this could get for Arizona if they drop this one. Arizona would clinch the NFC West with a win. If they drop this, though, they have Indianapolis back home, at Dallas, then back home against Seattle to cap things off. Hopefully we get a more inspired effort in the second half.

Bryan Knowles: Kliff Kingsbury opts to kick a field goal on fourth-and-3 from the Detroit 11-yard line while losing 17-0 to the Detroit Lions. Ye gods.

Bryan Knowles: Arizona does force a fumble on the ensuing Detroit drive, so maybe they can start to get some “momentum” going after that early field goal … but no, Kyler Murray is picked off by Amani Oruwariye two plays later. And A.J. Green just kind of walks off, letting Oruwariye stand back up, untouched, and race 50 yards into the red zone. Goff hits Jason Cabinda for the score on the very next play, it’s 24-3 Detroit and Arizona’s in crisis mode now.

Cale Clinton: This has undoubtedly been Jared Goff’s best game in a Lions uniform. So far, he’s 17-of-21 with 194 yards and three touchdowns. He’s currently got his highest completion percentage and highest yards per attempt of his season. Ben Baldwin’s RBSDM box scores also note Goff currently has a 0.68 EPA/play. That would also stand as his highest total as a member of the Detroit Lions. Especially surprising to see without T.J. Hockenson in the fold. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Josh Reynolds have really stepped up in this one.

Green Bay Packers 31 at Baltimore Ravens 30

Scott Spratt: I have always liked how the Ravens rostered dual-threat backup quarterbacks, previously with Robert Griffin III and now with Tyler Huntley. The Ravens just went 14 plays and 70 yards on an opening drive. And while Huntley ran just twice, he took snaps from the pistol and moved around in the pocket just like Lamar Jackson does. I feel like it really helps since the Ravens have built their skill talent around Jackson’s skill set. And tight end Mark Andrews was the hero on the drive, breaking a pair of tackles on what became a 43-yard catch-and-run.

The Ravens also made their typical choice of going for a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line. But Huntley couldn’t avoid the heavy Packers pressure scrambling right and fell out of bounds before he got a pass off. It’s a disappointing ending, but it seems to bode well for the Ravens keeping in this game against a much healthier Packers team.

Scott Spratt: The hidden upside of going for a fourth-and-goal (not near a half-end) is that even in failure it backs up the other team’s offense. The Packers went three-and-out when Aaron Rodgers overthrew a deep shot to Davante Adams on third down. And then their poor special teams struck again when Isaac Yiadom inexplicably ran over an attempted fair catch. That fair catch interference will push the Ravens into Packers territory for the start of their second drive.

Aaron Schatz: Green Bay was 23rd in DVOA covering tight ends coming into this game and they look worse than that so far. Can’t cover Mark Andrews; he’s now 4-of-5 for 77 yards and he just leapt and caught the go-ahead touchdown to make the game 7-0 Ravens.

Bryan Knowles: And, indeed, the Ravens turn that field position into points, with Mark Andrews catching a couple of passes, including the touchdown—he’s got four receptions for 77 yards already, as the Packers have few answers for him. 7-0 Ravens, late in the first.

Scott Spratt: There aren’t many tight ends that can do that.

Scott Spratt: Following that Andrews touchdown, the Packers erased a 35-yard Amari Rodgers return with a holding penalty. They’ll start their second drive on the 16-yard line, and the 32nd-ranked special teams by DVOA is matching its season standard early.

Scott Spratt: Do any FO staffers want to brave an effort to name any of the Ravens starters in the secondary today? I have only ever even heard of two of them, and I project NFL player stats for a living.

J.P. Acosta: I’m pretty sure Chuck Clark is playing, right?

Scott Spratt: Chuck Clark was a great guess! But alas, no, he didn’t clear the COVID list in time for the game.

I believe the starters are:

  • CB Anthony Averett
  • S Brandon Stephens
  • S Geno Stone
  • CB Kevon Seymour

In related news, Aaron Rodgers just went 84 yards in eight plays, and AJ Dillon plunged into the end zone to tie this game 7-7.

Bryan Knowles: I’m going to say … Jim … Blackbirdson. Strong safety.

Whoever is in the secondary, they seem not particularly invested in covering Allen Lazard. Or Marquez Valdes-Scantling. To be fair, with Davante Adams out there, I wouldn’t be that concerned either, but I assume someone is responsible for covering those guys.

Bryan Knowles: Mark Andrews, have yourself a day. Darnell Savage is beaten again, and Andrews is up to 6-95-1. Who had a Lamar Jackson-less Ravens up 14-7 over Green Bay midway through the second quarter? Tyler Huntley is looking like an NFL starting quarterback. A low-tier starting quarterback, mind you, one you’d want to replace if he was your main guy, but someone who could conceivably eat up starts.

Bryan Knowles: Oh, and now things are getting worse for the Ravens secondary as Robert Jackson is forced to check into the game. His first assignment? Guard Davante Adams on the goal line. Three guesses how that went.

14-14, Packers.

Aaron Schatz: The Ravens had Tavon Young go to the medical tent when he got hurt making a tackle. In came Robert Jackson, just off the practice squad. And somehow the Ravens ended up with him singled up on Davante Adams at the goal line. Touchdown. 14-14.

Scott Spratt: More from the Packers special teams: Ravens returner Devin Duvernay just went 34 yards on a kickoff return. Justin Tucker may only need another 15 yards to get in his field goal range.

Scott Spratt: I’m super impressed the Ravens tied the first half at 14-14 without Lamar Jackson and without their first- and second-string secondaries (tertiaries?). Aaron Rodgers has predictably averaged about 10 yards per pass attempt, but he only managed 15 attempts since the Ravens controlled time of possession 17:11 to 12:49. Tyler Huntley has played great, but Mark Andrews has been the team’s clear MVP so far. But that makes me think the Packers can figure out an adjustment to make at halftime.

Bryan Knowles: Is this pass interference? You be the judge.

Aaron Schatz: Allen Lazard of the Packers just got bailed out by a very iffy DPI call against the Ravens on third-and-10. He dropped a beautiful Rodgers pass but they got Kevon Seymour for … I guess tugging lightly at his jersey before the pass was even thrown? I’m not sure from the replay if he even tugged. Packers get a reprieve and follow it up immediately with a pass to a wide-open Aaron Jones in the end zone. 21-14 Packers.

Aaron Schatz: Packers score another touchdown, now up 28-17. Wink Martindale is rushing three instead of blitzing like usual to try to have guys in coverage and their defensive back roster is so barren at this point it just doesn’t matter at all. Tyler Huntley has been surprisingly good, poised and fairly accurate and not making dumb decisions for the most part except for taking a sack on an early fourth down, but it doesn’t matter because the Ravens defensive roster is so destroyed right now.

Bryan Knowles: It’s probably too little, too late, but after turning the ball over on downs on their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Ravens held the Packers to a field goal and then pieced together a touchdown drive of their own. It’s 31-24 Green Bay with 4:47 left, and while I don’t trust the Raven’s depleted defense to get a stop, it is, at least, conceivable…

Aaron Schatz: Ravens make it downfield with a slow, methodical drive. Huntley looks very good. Had to go for it on fourth-and-6 and he found Mark Andrews in the middle of the field for 11 yards. Then scrambled into the end zone to score the touchdown. Very surprised that John Harbaugh kicked an extra point and did not go for two down eight. So it’s now 31-24 Packers.

Bryan Knowles: And, apparently, the Packers had 10 men on the field for the Huntley touchdown. That will help!

Scott Spratt: Even more from the Packers special teams: they just took a delay of game to back up their punt into the back of the end zone and then failed to punt it into Ravens territory. The Ravens are in business down 31-24 with two and a half minutes left.

Aaron Schatz: The Baltimore defense held! Run for no yards, then they had good coverage which forced Rodgers to scramble, and then a four-man pass rush got to him on third down before he could get the ball out. Then a terrible punt gives the ball to Baltimore in Packers territory. The Ravens have life, they’ll get the ball back with 2:24 left and all three timeouts.

Bryan Knowles: Question: When was the last time the Packers defense could handle a mobile quarterback? Was it the 1990s against Steve Young? I think it might have been. Because Huntley is now up to 73 yards and two scores on the ground, as the Ravens score with 42 seconds left!

And now they go for two and the win…

Bryan Knowles: … and it’s broken up, so we’re going to have an onside kick attempt.

Aaron Schatz: The Ravens don’t get the two-point conversion! They finally got Mark Andrews covered with Eric Stokes, but safety Darnell Savage got a hand on it to tip the pass just a little bit.

I actually think going for two may have been a mistake. Even if they get it, they have left Aaron Rodgers with 42 seconds to get into field goal range for the win. Better to take the extra point, hope the Packers play conservative in the final 42 seconds, and go to overtime.

Bryan Knowles: That means the Packers win the NFC North, and are officially the first team in the playoffs.

If the Buccaneers win tonight, they’ll bring themselves and the Cowboys along for the ride.

Aaron Schatz: Let me just finish the Green Bay-Baltimore discussion with this: a lot of people on Twitter are blaming this Ravens loss on analytics, but I don’t think John Harbaugh made an analytics decision at the end. The analytics decision would have been to go for two when down eight. The models, including the EdjSports model, suggest that the right call at the end was to kick the extra point, not go for two to win the game. I think Harbaugh went with his gut. This wasn’t an analytics decision, it was a “my defense is shredded and I don’t think I could stop Aaron Rodgers in overtime” decision. Similar to the decision that Harbaugh made against the Steelers two weeks ago.

Tom Gower: Going back to this game, I want to talk some more about how impressed I was with Tyler Huntley. I thought his initial success might have been Green Bay playing a bit conservatively against a backup quarterback, trying to avoid giving up the cheap score, plus some game script. We have seen that with inexperienced backups before. And when it went from 14-7 Ravens to 31-17 Packers, I thought my initial reaction might be on target. But then he led the two scoring drives, both under conditions where he couldn’t not score a touchdown. Sure, there were fourth downs in there, and it didn’t look the same as it might have with Aaron Rodgers as the quarterback instead. But it all worked, and I didn’t expect that it would. Kudos to him for that.

Cincinnati Bengals 15 at Denver Broncos 10

Cale Clinton: This one’s unfortunately coming off the board because of a holding call, but man what a play by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. Burrow was nearly swallowed up by two Broncos but manages to escape and step into a big downfield strike. The throw was a little high, but Chase made an acrobatic leap to get up for it and managed to come down with it. Would have been a 34-yard completion we’re it not for the penalty. I know we have all talked about it at one point or another, but it can’t be understated: the Burrow-to-Chase connection has been everything that was promised and then some.

The penalties have killed Cincinnati’s offensive drives early in this one. Their opening drive ended with a three-and-out after Samaje Perine’s first-down pickup was wiped off the board from OPI. The holding penalty on the Chase catch brought up second-and-15, where Burrow missed a short pass to C.J. Uzomah. Backed up on their own 5, Cincinnati basically waved the white flag on third down by calling a draw on third-and-15. Their one clean drive resulted in the only points of the afternoon so far, a 53-yard field goal from Evan McPherson.

Cale Clinton: Not much out of this one in terms of game coverage outside of three total field goals.

Teddy Bridgewater was just carted off the field on a back board and is being taken to the hospital with a head injury. Got hit from behind after going airborne, got hit pretty hard. Scary sight. Whole Broncos team and a few Bengals went to check in on him. “Teddy” chants broke out in the stadium as he was getting taken off. Hope he’s alright.

Bryan Knowles: Teddy Bridgewater just laid out to try to gain some extra yards on a scramble and took a massive shot. The cart is coming out for him.

Cale Clinton: … and Drew Lock doesn’t miss a beat. Took Denver from their own 36 to the end zone in just seven plays. Tim Patrick caps the drive off with a 25-yard catch, snatching the ball out of the air for a touchdown.

Denver’s 10-9 lead doesn’t last long. Cincinnati answers on the second play of their offensive drive. Joe Burrow finds Tyler Boyd free, and all he needed to do was juke out the Broncos safety. Bengals answer, missing the two-point conversion but regaining the lead, 15-10.

Vince Verhei: I have been on the road all day. Got home just in time to see this double-fumble play that pretty much sums up the entire AFC wild-card race:

Aaron Schatz: Buddy, try holding the ball with both hands.

Bryan Knowles: And now, after a re-review, the double fumble has been overturned into just a single fumble, which is boring. Boo!

Cale Clinton: Crazy sequence. Second-and-goal from the 9, Drew Lock gets the ball plucked from his hands by Khalil Kareem. He returns the ball 30-something yards, then HE gets stripped, which Denver recovers. Kareem ended up being ruled down by contact at the 15-yard line, so Cincinnati gets bailed out. He also left the game with a pretty bad injury.

Vince Verhei: So following the double-fumble that turned out to be a single fumble, the Bengals punted the ball to the Broncos, who soon punted the ball right back. Tyler Boyd converted a third-and-10 for Cincinnati, setting up a third-and-8 at their own 39. With a 15-10 lead and Denver out of timeouts, a first down wins the game. But they get conservative, even with Joe Mixon on the sideline, and hand off to Samaje Perine for a 3-yard gain, then punt. This gives Drew Lock one more chance to win the game.

And then Cincinnati’s pass rush comes through. A holding penalty and a sack soon bring up third-and-24. Drew Lock’s deep ball on that play is nearly intercepted, as he’s hit while throwing into double coverage. And then his fourth-and-a-mile pass lands way out of bounds. Big win for the Bengals in the muddled AFC wild-card race.

Atlanta Falcons 13 at San Francisco 49ers 31

Bryan Knowles: The first quarter of this one was … sloppy? Let’s go with sloppy. The 49ers fumbled the opening kickoff, but the Falcons couldn’t score on four shots from the 1-yard line. The 49ers then had a bad three-and-out, but held Atlanta to a field goal. Since then, the 49ers have had drives of 79 and 77 yards, with a field goal and a touchdown, and the Falcons have been going backwards from penalties and sacks, so things are beginning to be like you’d predict this game to go, per DVOA, but we’ll just all agree to burn that first quarter, I think.

The 49ers attempted a trick play with Deebo Samuel throwing to Brandon Aiyuk; Samuel’s pass hits A.J. Terrell in the back. Suffice it to say, Samuel is a wide receiver—slash—running back, but he is not, in fact, Kordell Stewart.

Bryan Knowles: Atlanta gets bailed out by a bodyweight flag—Arden Key sacked Matt Ryan, but was flagged for roughing—and they respond by finding Russell Gage matched up with Ambry Thomas, who is rapidly becoming the worst starting cornerback in the league. That’ll tie the game back at 10 with four minutes left in the second quarter.

Scott Spratt: Ambry Thomas entered the week allowing 11.2 yards per target, albeit on a very small sample of 13 targets. No corner with more than 40 targets has allowed worse than 10.2 yards per target.

Scott Spratt: Deebo Samuel is doing Deebo Samuel things.

That’s another rushing touchdown from 10 or more yards away from the end zone. Petition to label Samuel a running back, Aaron. I’m guessing his current 67.5% rushing DVOA rate would be a running back record. No one at the position with as many carries has better than a 31.1% rushing DVOA this season.

Bryan Knowles: Kyle Shanahan’s goal after that touchdown was to drain the remaining four minutes and score. Call it one and a half successes, as Deebo Samuel rushes in with 33 seconds left in the half to give the 49ers a 17-10 lead. Samuel actually had a 30-yard reception on the drive, too—it would be nice to see him catching a few passes again on a regular basis, but the 49ers running back situation has kind of forced him to get more carries as they just need more warm bodies back there; Elijah Mitchell is still out.

Aaron Schatz: If Deebo Samuel was a running back his runs would be compared to a different baseline, so his DVOA would be different.

Bryan Knowles: Nick Bosa is having himself a hell of a season coming back from injury—he’s 3.5 sacks short of the 49ers franchise record with three and a half games left. He and Armstead just destroyed the Atlanta line, getting a sack-fumble on Atlanta’s first drive of the second half. Samuel as a wide receiver got 21 yards on a slant, and the 49ers punch it in a play later for a 24-10 lead; not over, but you can see over from here.

George Kittle had another big catch, too; he’s up to 78 yards. I doubt he’ll get to 150 for the third straight game, but Atlanta’s struggling to contain him.

Bryan Knowles: The Falcons got some big plays over Ambry Thomas (and Josh Norman, to be fair; the entire secondary is an issue), and drive down inside the 5-yard line … to kick a 22-yard field goal? Ye gods, man; I know you were stuffed from the 1 in the first quarter, but you have to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 4 when you’re down big. And, indeed, the following drive is just the 49ers rushing forward at will before Jimmy Garoppolo hits Jauan Jennings for the score to make things 31-13, and this one is over.

New Orleans Saints 9 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0

Scott Spratt: My theory that the Bucs have a dramatically better run defense than their 17th-place DVOA ranking would suggest has taken a hit early tonight. That’s because the Saints have seven carries against nine pass attempts so far while the Bucs have 10 passes against zero runs facing the actual best run defense by DVOA, the Saints. Or is that just the Saints offense with Taysom Hill? I don’t know, my head is swimming a bit.

Aaron Schatz: I don’t understand how the Saints seem to play the Buccaneers so well, or why the only game where they didn’t play the Buccaneers well happened to be in the playoffs last year. But they have everyone covered well and Cameron Jordan is getting a ton of pressure. The Bucs didn’t even try to run on their first couple drives since they know the Saints’ run defense is so good, although they have now handed the ball to Leonard Fournette a couple of times.

Aaron Schatz: Well, we know why the Saints defense may shut the Bucs down going forward. Both Chris Godwin and Mike Evans suffered injuries and may be out of this game. Evans is doubtful, and Godwin is questionable.

J.P. Acosta: I have a guess: the Saints give the Bucs problems because they’re the only team that can physically get after the Bucs offensive line. Last year they gave up three sacks in each game against New Orleans and had poor showing running the ball on New Orleans as well. Even this year they gave up three sacks. That’s my theory.

Aaron Schatz: And the Saints just got their third sack tonight, before halftime.

Carl Yedor: Today seems likely to be a continuation of that trend given that Mike Evans is now doubtful to return with a hamstring injury and Chris Godwin seeming iffy to return to the game as well. With Antonio Brown also out, it’s Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, and a bunch of backup receivers for the Tampa Bay offense.

Vince Verhei: Well, we talked about how Tampa Bay was not likely to be as healthy this year as they were last year, and that has certainly come true now.

I’m not sure what more there is to say about a game where both offenses look so hopelessly overmatched. The difference in the game is that the Saints got a 40-yard play on a horribly underthrown ball where their receiver reacted better than the Saints secondary, and the Saints have hit both of their field goal attempts where Tampa Bay missed theirs.

Scott Spratt: With Godwin and Evans out, Leonard Fournette is the only Bucs player with more than one catch a few minutes into the third quarter. And he has seven. I just can’t get over Fournette’s transformation from a 16.3% drop rate per catchable target last regular season and playoffs, second-most of running backs with 30 or more targets. This year, he has dropped just 8.6%, and he was leading the position with 62 receptions even before his outburst tonight.

It makes me wonder whether Fournette trains by catching tennis balls.

Dave Bernreuther: I have said this before, but it bears repeating: I do not enjoy watching Taysom Hill attempt to play quarterback.

If your defense is keeping the Buccaneers offense off the scoreboard, you should really be ahead by more than one score. We’re very much in danger of seeing the Bucs put together one decent drive on offense and it still being enough to escape with a win because Hill is throwing passes that look like he’s aiming for his receivers’ feet.

Vince Verhei: Oh Christ, now Fournette is out.

I looked it up, and as far as I can tell, the last time Tom Brady was shut out was this 21-0 loss to the Dolphins in 2006. Nick Saban was Miami’s coach. Joey Harrington was their quarterback. Taysom Hill was in high school.


Scott Spratt: The fourth quarter is just starting. Since the start of the second quarter, the only Saints plays that have gained more than 4 yards are three Taysom Hill runs and one Mark Ingram run.

Dave Bernreuther: After Tom Brady fumbled, CJ Gardner-Johnson got RIGHT up in his face, folded his arms, and stared him down in a way I might find funny if not for how obvious it is now that Brady is going to find a way to pick on him later.

Also, I have seen an awful lot less than that get flagged for taunting this season.

Ronald Jones looked well rested and motivated on that drive. He was running hard.

Not running hard (or well)? Taysom Hill. Watching this offense is painful. Such a waste of an impressive defensive performance.

Aaron Schatz: This game is not fun to watch.

Vince Verhei: Following up on Scott’s post: since their last field goal, the Saints have five three-and-outs, a five-play drive that ended in a punt, and a two-play drive at the end of the first half.

But hey, there’s a first down on a bootleg pass to Marquez Callaway!

Dave Bernreuther: Our complaints may have reverse-jinxed the Saints a bit, as they finally pick up some first downs with smart play calls and a pretty good read-option keeper by Hill. They need to be careful with the throws downfield though … Hill got VERY lucky to avoid a pick when looking for Ty Montgomery down the seam.

On many of the designed quarterback runs, the athletic and speedy Hill looks almost overly patient (and/or indecisive), which is a large part of why I always hated that they’d take Drew Brees off the field for those calls. On his third-down scramble before the field goal, though, Hill was very decisive, and it was his sudden burst of speed that picked up some very helpful yards to make the field goal easier. At 9-0 now, the fear of a wasted defensive effort isn’t quite as great. But 7:30 is still plenty of time to score twice, especially against an offense that had gained 14 yards on 12 plays prior to that field goal drive.

Scott Spratt: After a Tom Brady interception and an automatic Saints first down when the Bucs ran into their punter, the Saints are sitting pretty with 3:17 left, up 9-0, and with the ball. Taysom Hill would go to 5-2 as a starter if they held on. Maybe I’m a sick person, but I love the Taysom experience.

Aaron Schatz: Yes you are a sick person.

Tom Gower: The New Orleans Saints had the ball 13 times tonight. On precisely one of those possessions did they gain as many as three first downs, and that drive had precisely three. Two other possessions saw two first downs. On the other 10 drives, they gained zero or one first downs. But each possession with multiple first downs was a scoring drive covering at least 40 yards, the two with two first downs because Taysom did manage to complete two deep pass plays for explosive gains. Whatever else he did, however much I may have been completely unimpressed with some of his other throws, he did manage that. And thanks to Marshon Lattimore, Demario Davis, Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (great baiting interception), and company, that was enough. Great game by Dennis Allen and his unit.

Vince Verhei: The MVPs of this game were the Saints defensive line, which pressured Brady all not long without much blitzing.

The second-most VPs were the secondary. Not just in coverage, but tremendous in tackling the whole game, especially late when the Bucs were frantically trying to get out of bounds and the Saints put them down in the field of play.

Dave Bernreuther: I saw a lot of uncalled holding as the night went on too; that Saints defensive line was just dominant. Cam Jordan we know about, but David Onyemata stood out to me several times. And this is a Bucs offensive line that has managed to give Brady all day to throw for much of the season, not just a bunch of scrubs.

As someone in the “Aaron Rodgers would be the clear MVP favorite if he hadn’t pissed off half the press/country” camp, I do find it interesting that he too was made to look pretty awful by this same squad earlier this year in similar fashion. (This one was a shutout, but there were missed kicks, so let’s avoid holding the zero against Brady). The Eagles game aside, the Saints have one heck of a defense. Drew Brees has to be wondering where this was for the last decade…

Dave Bernreuther: And I’ll echo Vince’s praise of the tackling by the “little” guys. It was phenomenal on that final drive, and another one that stands out was the third-down down handoff to Ke’Shawn Vaughn where Jalyn Holmes (not a defensive back, of course) just absolutely stuck him at the line and didn’t allow for any momentum whatsoever.

At 7-7, the Saints have temporarily leapfrogged the Football Team for the seventh playoff seed. Their final three games are Dolphins-Panthers-Falcons. Could we be looking at a 10-7 Taysom Hill playoff experience? Might it give us another year with a Bucs-Saints Part III in the playoffs? (Who’s excited for that?)

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