The final bye week of the 2019 season took away four of the NFL’s most exciting offenses, but that was not enough to rob Sunday of overall excitement. It wasn’t all the marquee teams, especially with the 49ers’ drubbing of the Packers on Sunday night. But five games in particular provided dramatic fourth quarters, and three of them carried massive playoff implications.
Game of the Week
Panthers at Saints
In losing three of four games coming out of their Week 7 bye, the Panthers had fallen to a -14.2% DVOA for the season that ranked 27th in football, much worse than their 5-5 record would suggest on its own. Playing their No. 6-ranked division rival Saints in New Orleans, the Panthers needed their best effort. After allowing touchdowns on a 75-yard opening drive and a shorter possession following a muffed punt, the Panthers were poised for a 49ers- and Falcons-level blowout. To their credit, they rallied courtesy of a pair of 50-yard Kyle Allen completions to D.J. Moore and a pair of Christian McCaffrey touchdowns, the second of which came on a 4-yard run with 1:28 left in the third quarter. Kicker Joey Slye missed the extra point — his second such miss of the afternoon — but the Panthers had still pulled back within a touchdown and earned a prayer of a 5.3% Game-Winning Chance (GWC) to start the final period.
Apart from a cold second quarter in which they lost 4 yards on two possessions, the Saints had little trouble moving the ball on offense against a No. 20 DVOA Panthers defense that has regressed sharply from its peak at No. 3 through seven weeks. They averaged an astonishing 7.1 yards per play for the game and would have increased that dramatically had Ted Ginn secured the catch on a likely 54-yard touchdown on the second play of the fourth quarter. Drew Brees delivered a perfect deep ball that hit Ginn in the hands. Cornerback Donte Jackson had tight coverage and may have disrupted the catch with an uncalled defensive pass interference, but Ginn still should have made the play. The former No. 9 overall draft pick has clawed back from an initial label as a draft bust to produce an excellent to-date 13-year career as a deep threat, playing three of those years for each of the two teams in this game. But inconsistent hands disrupted his path to stardom. Ginn is one of just 16 receivers with 10 or more catchable targets thrown 40-plus yards in the air since 2013, and he is the only one who dropped four — and now five — of them.
The failed catch was a reprieve for the Panthers, but they couldn’t take advantage on their next drive. McCaffrey couldn’t turn the corner on his first-and-10 carry, and then pressure forced Allen out of the pocket on consecutive plays. On second down, he simply threw the ball away. But on third down, he made a nice throw to Moore back across his body. It was an accurate pass that Moore could have caught for a first down, but likely in anticipation of being sandwiched between closing defenders Demario Davis and P.J. Williams, Moore dropped the ball prior to any contact.
A Panthers punt put the Saints in decent field position at their 34-yard line with 13:28 left in the quarter. Brees underthrew another deep shot to Ginn on second-and-10, and then after a false start penalty, he was stuck in a third-and-long. He stepped up in the pocket away from pressure and delivered a strike to Tre’Quan Smith at midfield, but safety Tre Boston anticipated the throw, closed the distance, and out-leaped the receiver Smith to make the interception.
It was the only turnover the Panthers forced on the day, and it seemed to give them new life, even if the resulting 11.9% GWC didn’t yet reflect it. From midfield, McCaffrey ran up the middle for a quick 7 yards, and then receiver Curtis Samuel went around the left end for 13 yards and a new first down. At the 30, Allen faked another handoff to McCaffrey but instead threw deep. The pass was well-placed for a Samuel catch in the back of the end zone, but safety Marcus Williams crashed into him before the ball arrived. Vonn Bell made an amazing concentration catch off the resulting deflection, securing the would-be interception and keeping both feet in bounds. But the defensive pass interference penalty nullified that turnover and set the Panthers up on the 1-yard line.
The Saints are seldom credited for their defense, but with a No. 5 ranking, it is their best DVOA unit this year. And it came up big in the red zone in the fourth quarter. After forcing an Allen throwaway on first down, the Saints tackled fullback Alex Armah and then McCaffrey for losses on second and third down. That backed the Panthers into a precarious fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. But Ron Rivera for once lived up to his Riverboat nickname, improving the Panthers GWC from 10.8% with an attempted kick to 15.8% with a pass. The Saints defense forced Allen to move in the pocket and throw on the run, but he was able to elevate a pass that Moore caught behind and over his defender Williams. It was his second touchdown catch on the day.
Slye’s extra point tied the game, and the Saints took over on offense with 9:23 left in the quarter. Brees earned a quick new first down with a 7-yard strike that Michael Thomas stretched to 11 yards through an attempted Jackson tackle. But offensive holding and false start penalties erased that progress and set the Saints up with a difficult first-and-25. Brees nearly converted that as well, finding tight end Jared Cook for 21 yards in the middle of the field, but then linebacker Shaq Thompson tackled Cook just short of the line to gain on second-and-4 and Bruce Irvin caught Taysom Hill’s foot to trip him down just shy of the markers on third-and-1. Sean Payton — perhaps the true champion of the Riverboat nickname — went for the fourth-and-1 on his own side of the field. That’s something you rarely see in the NFL, but it was undoubtedly the right call here, improving the Saints GWC by 9.6% compared to a punt. Eric Reid just made a tremendous play, crashing into the backfield and wrapping around Alvin Kamara’s leg. Kamara couldn’t escape the tackle, and so the Saints lost 2 yards and turned the ball over on downs. The stop nearly doubled the Panthers’ GWC from 26.9% to 49.8%.
The Panthers went over a 50% GWC for the first time of the day two plays later, when Allen connected with tight end Greg Olsen for a 15-yard catch-and-run. The Panthers nerd in me had to highlight this play because it featured an Olsen broken tackle, his first of the season and first since 2016 according to Sports Info Solutions charting (subscription required).
That play advanced the Panthers to the Saints’ 23-yard line, and they reached the red zone on a 7-yard McCaffrey carry on which he wove and jumped through the middle of the line. McCaffrey was stopped in the backfield on second down, but Allen connected with Olsen on a third-and-3 and led him so he could stretch the ball for a new first down. McCaffrey took two more carries for 4 and 3 yards to the Saints’ 5-yard line, where Allen threw incomplete in front of receiver Jarius Wright. That figured to set up a fourth-and-3 to test Rivera’s Riverboat nature, but the Panthers coach opted to challenge the non-call of defensive pass interference on the third down.
The timing of the effort made sense with 2:21 left in the quarter. The Panthers were unlikely to need all three of their remaining timeouts since the Saints would likely have the last offensive possession, and the imminent two-minute warning would take the sting out of a failed challenge. And surely the challenge would fail. Non-called pass interference challenges nearly always fail. Between Week 4 and Week 11, just 4.9% were overturned. But somehow, this non-call was reversed.
Tony Romo summed up the predicament perfectly with his wry comment that “he does literally pass interfere him.” Because while the referees may have correctly enforced the rule with the overturned non-call, the NFL’s standard on these replays made that decision a complete departure from its established standard. Saints fans were justifiably apoplectic, somehow becoming the lone victim of a pass interference replay after instigating the rule change to allow such replays when a non-called interference cost them a trip to last year’s Super Bowl.
The referees would have needed to sneak out of the Superdome if the Saints went on to lose, but New Orleans’ red zone defense made that unnecessary. Despite a gift of a first-and-goal on the 3-yard line, the Panthers again lost a yard on a McCaffrey carry. Allen then threw the ball away on second down and took a sack on third down, choosing not to throw to McCaffrey in the flat with just one defender between him and the goal line.
Backed up to the 10-yard line, Rivera didn’t have much choice other than attempt a field goal. Either a pass or run from that point would cut their now 59.2% GWC by at least 11.4%. But Slye — already with a pair of similar misses on extra-point attempts — pushed the 28-yard attempt wide to the right. Perhaps the Saints retained some karma from last year’s playoffs, after all.
Starting the ensuing two-minute drill from his own 20-yard line needing just a field goal to win, Brees felt automatic. GWC mostly agreed, suggesting the Saints had a 68.0% chance of victory. Rookie pass-rusher Brian Burns made that harder with a first-play sack around the left edge, but Brees undid that damage with a 14-yard strike to Thomas in the middle of the field. Kamara converted the third-and-2 with an excellent catch on a low throw and then added 8 more yards with a catch on a slant route. Cornerback Javien Elliott tackled Kamara for a loss on second-and-2, but on third-and-6, Brees unloaded a perfect back-shoulder toss to Thomas, who spun and secured away from James Bradberry before going out of bounds at the Panthers’ 40-yard line.
That catch advanced the Saints into Wil Lutz’s lengthy field goal range and improved their GWC to 81.5%. They tacked on 25 more yards and 15.7% more GWC with a Kamara catch and a Kamara carry. That set up a 33-yard field goal attempt to win. It was 5 yards longer than the one Slye missed, but Lutz’s effort was true. The Saints came through with a 34-31 victory.
Following their recent poor play and the Seahawks and Vikings distancing themselves in the NFC wild-card race, the Panthers’ slim playoff chances were mostly predicated on their ability to sweep the Saints and catch them in the South. This loss all but erases those chances and drops the Panthers to just a 0.7% chance of making the playoffs. A handful of heartbreaking close losses may have made the difference for a team that enjoyed some surprising success after losing quarterback Cam Newton for the season. But that likely won’t be enough for Rivera or general manager Marty Hurney to keep their jobs. New team owner David Tepper seems eager to make his mark on his team.
Meanwhile, the Saints have recovered from their shocking home loss to the Falcons in Week 10 with a pair of divisional wins over the Bucs and Panthers. They’ll have a chance to avenge the Falcons loss directly with a matchup against them on Thanksgiving night. A win there will wrap up the division championship in November. They have their sights set on a bye, which the Packers loss on Sunday night has made more likely (67.6% chance).
The Best of the Rest
Cowboys at Patriots
The Cowboys-Patriots late-afternoon affair could not have been more different than the Panthers-Saints game that came before it. This matchup of the No. 1 DVOA offense Cowboys and No. 1 DVOA defense Patriots could conceivably have trended toward either offense or defense, but cold temperatures and hard rain made it difficult for both teams to throw the ball. The major difference of the Patriots’ 10-6 advantage entering the fourth quarter was a Matthew Slater blocked punt that set the Pats offense up for a two-play, 12-yard touchdown drive. But now, one play into a new drive, the Patriots offense was finally starting to find a rhythm.
On second-and-5 from the Patriots’ 43-yard line, defensive tackle Antwaun Woods timed the snap and bull-rushed his way into the backfield, but Sony Michel was able to cut right to dodge a big loss and find a hole for a 15-yard gain. That advanced the Patriots into Cowboys territory. There, Tom Brady had a pass tipped and fall incomplete, but then he found rookie Jakobi Meyers — playing 77% of the team’s offensive snaps with both Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett out injured — for a 10-yard catch-and-run and new first down. A false start backed the Patriots into a first-and-15, but Brady regained half of that on a screen pass that Rex Burkhead cut inside and upfield. Brady threw behind Ben Watson on a tight-window throw just short of the goal line, but was able to hit Meyers just past the first-down markers and with cornerback Chidobe Awuzie glued to his hip.
That catch moved the Pats to the edge of the red zone, and they jumped to the Cowboys’ 14-yard line after a second-down defensive pass interference penalty on an obstructed Julian Edelman shallow cross. But Demarcus Lawrence crashed into the backfield on the ensuing first down, tackling Sony Michel for a 4-yard loss and forcing the Patriots into a pair of obvious passing downs. Brady threw a jump ball to his other starting rookie receiver, N’Keal Harry, but Harry couldn’t secure it leaping over a well-positioned Byron Jones. And then Brady hit James White on a screen that former Patriots pass-rusher Michael Bennett diagnosed perfectly and tackled for another loss. This one cost the offense 6 yards and backed Nick Folk up to a 42-yard attempt, likely at the edge of his range in these conditions. But Folk did his clutch predecessors proud, knuckling the kick through as it cut right just inside of the upright. That put the Patriots up seven points with just under 10 minutes remaining, good for an 87.8% GWC.
The Cowboys hadn’t yet scored a touchdown, the value of their new deficit, but they were far from done. After a 5-yard Ezekiel Elliott carry, Dak Prescott play-faked and dropped a 20-air-yard strike to Randall Cobb in a 4-yard window between defenders J.C. Jackson and Devin McCourty. Jackson took a bad angle on his attempted tackle, and suddenly Cobb was streaking down the left sideline. The veteran slot receiver does not have the same speed of either outside receiver Amari Cooper or Michael Gallup, and so he was chased down from behind and nearly gave up a back-breaking fumble on a McCourty punch-out. But Cobb fortuitously secured his own fumble on the fly and ended the play with a 47-yard catch-and-run, nearly the combined yardage of Cooper (0 yards) and Gallup (55 yards) for the afternoon.
Perhaps antsy by being limited to just field goals in Patriots territory, the Cowboys started their next set of downs with a jet sweep and fake reverse. The Cowboys may have had better success if running back Tony Pollard had made that second pitch, at least if Prescott could maintain his block on linebacker Dont’a Hightower on the weak side. Instead, Pollard crashed into a sea of Patriots defenders and lost a yard on the play.
For a Cobb-catch-aside inefficient passing offense on a day with difficult conditions, that second-and-long seemed insurmountable. But Elliott was able to weave a screen away from a couple of potential backfield tackles and run for 12 yards, enough to move the sticks and put the Cowboys at the Patriots’ 14-yard line. Elliott added 3 more yards on a well-handled late pitch from Prescott down the left side. But then Prescott threw incomplete on both second and third downs. The first attempt went to Jason Witten in the right corner of the end zone. Witten was well-defended on the play by safety Patrick Chung, but cornerback Stephon Gilmore nearly made the Patriots’ defensive play of the day, dropping back off of his assigned receiver Cooper, diving, and getting a piece of a near-interception in the end zone. Even though Gilmore couldn’t come down with that pick, he made another and was still clearly the Patriots’ MVP of the afternoon. He held Cooper catchless in shadow coverage and will improve his already absurd 57% coverage success rate and 5.6 yards allowed per target this season (subscription required).
After a Blake Jarwin out-of-bounds catch on third down, the Cowboys were faced with a fourth-and-7. It would have been long odds for a conversion, but down seven points, Jason Garrett would likely have still benefited by the aggressive choice — GWC gives a pass attempt a 0.1% edge over the decision to kick in that situation. Instead, Garrett trotted out Brett Maher, who put the 29-yard attempt down the middle no matter the difficult conditions. (Our numbers actually say the decision to kick wasn’t as bad as it seemed in the analytics Twitter-verse.) But now down four points, the Cowboys still needed a touchdown, and Brady and his Patriots had the ball back with just six minutes of clock left to kill.
Edelman caught and hung onto Brady’s short first-down throw despite a hard hit from linebacker Sean Lee, and then Burkhead beat Lee on an out cut, earning a new Patriots first down a 6-yard reception. Lee stayed stride-for-stride for Burkhead on an ensuing first-down wheel route, forcing an incompletion, but then Edelman converted a 23-yard strike with a sharp outside cut to beat nickel corner Jourdan Lewis. That put the Pats into Cowboys territory with 4:09 remaining and bumped their GWC to 88.4%. There, they went back to Michel, who gained and then promptly lost 4 yards on consecutive carries. On third-and-10, Brady threw a quick slant to Burkhead. But even if Burkhead had squeezed the pass, safety Jeff Heath was all over him and would have brought him down well shy of a new first down. Instead, the drop set up a fourth-and-10 at the Cowboys’ 41-yard line. Maybe with a healthy Stephen Gostkowski in better weather conditions, they could have tried the long field goal. But with Folk and in these conditions, it was an obvious punt. And Jake Bailey booted a beauty that bounced straight up in the air at the 8-yard line, making for an easy Slater down to back the Cowboys up near their own goal line.
With 2:38 and all three of their timeouts remaining, the Cowboys had plenty of time to orchestrate a game-winning touchdown drive. And they started it nicely with Prescott connecting with Cobb up the middle for 18 yards and despite a direct shot from an unblocked Danny Shelton on the throw. That catch moved the Cowboys to a more normal starting drive position at the 26-yard line. Witten couldn’t secure an intermediate pass high off his wet hands on first down, but Prescott found Gallup a yard shy of a new first down. Jackson wrapped Gallup up right at the moment of the catch to prevent an advancement. But even in bounds, the clock stopped with the two-minute warning.
With a third-and-1 and still with plenty of time, the world expected an Elliott run. But playcaller Kellen Moore zagged with a traditional dropback. It nearly worked as Prescott found Elliott on a shallow cross that easily converted a new first down, but the referees nullified the catch and dropped the Cowboys into a third-and-11 thanks to a questionable offensive tripping penalty. Former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman may not be a totally impartial observer, but it’s difficult to argue his point on the replay that the call was unwarranted.
From a 27.1% GWC that was poised to increase after the temporary Elliott third-and-1 conversion, the penalty dropped the Cowboys to just an 18.3% GWC. That fell further to 12.9% after an incompletion on third down, but Prescott still nearly pulled his team out of the hole. On fourth-and-11, he threw a strike to Cooper in the middle of the field. Cooper dove to make a first-down-producing grab, seemingly his first of any kind on the day. But replay showed what was unclear in real time, which was that Cooper failed to get a hand under the ball before it touched the ground. A replay reversed the catch and forced a Cowboys turnover on downs. And Cooper finished the day with a shutout.
The Cowboys did still have their three timeouts, so they had a chance to regain possession with 1:44 remaining. But Michel ran for a first down on second-and-5 while simultaneously exhausting the Cowboys’ second timeout. A run and two kneels dropped the clock to five seconds on fourth down. Brady tried to throw a pop fly out of bounds to end the game, but a long final second offered the Cowboys one last offensive play to try to create the same miracle the Dolphins had in this spot in about this time of the year in 2018. But Jackson and Jamie Collins wrapped Gallup up immediately after an intermediate catch, and he never had a chance to make the first lateral. And once again led by an excellent defensive performance, the Patriots held on for a 13-9 victory.
Pending the Ravens’ Monday Night Football result, the Patriots will have either a one- or two-game lead in the AFC’s race for a No. 1 seed. With a 98.5% chance of happening, a minimum of a bye is already a forgone conclusion. They’ve already locked up a postseason berth and their 17th straight 10-win season dating back to 2002.
With a strong fourth-quarter push that saw their offensive DVOA jump from -9.1% in the first three quarters to 63.9%, the Cowboys nearly pulled out a critical win that would have extended their NFC East lead to two games. The Eagles had already lost to the Seahawks in the early window. But the Cowboys draw another AFC East team in the Bills on Thanksgiving day, and a win there would go a long way to taking the excitement out of a Cowboys-Eagles rematch in Week 16.
Seahawks at Eagles
Speaking of those Eagles, they hosted a Seahawks team that, despite a three-win advantage in results this season, was just 3.9% and two spots better by DVOA entering the week. This likely would have been the game of the week if the Eagles weren’t completely decimated by injuries. But receivers DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor all missed this game, leaving an underwhelming quartet of Jordan Matthews, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Greg Ward, and Mack Hollins at the position. Unsurprisingly, Carson Wentz struggled to move the ball through the air, throwing for just 100 yards through the first three quarters.
Still, the Seahawks had just a seven-point lead to start the fourth thanks to an uncharacteristic bad day for Russell Wilson and the team’s offense. Wilson overthrew a wide-open Jacob Hollister in the end zone in the second quarter, turning a bunny touchdown into a field goal. And then two drives later, DK Metcalf dropped a 38-yard would-be touchdown with a couple of yards of cushion in front of his defender Ronald Darby.
The Seahawks’ rushing attack enjoyed much better success on the day, running 26 times for 6.7 yards per pop. That’s how they started the fourth quarter, with Chris Carson converting a third-and-1 with a 6-yard pitch around the left side. Backup Rashaad Penny followed that with 3 yards up the middle. A defensive holding penalty erased a Wilson sack on second down and offered the Seahawks a new set of downs at their own 26 with 13:05 left in the quarter. And then Penny rattled off a pair of long runs for 21 and 58 yards before and after an offensive hold. The latter run was particularly impressive for the 220-pound second-year player. Despite his bulk, he burst through a hole in the middle of the line and outraced the entirety of the Eagles secondary minus Darby, whom he neatly deposited on the turf with a stiff arm at the 10-yard line without losing stride on the way to his touchdown.
Penny was about as far into Pete Carroll’s doghouse as a player could get after a Week 10 fumble before the team’s bye. This run plus an excellent overall day of 14 carries and 129 yards have likely undone that damage. Penny is now up to a 25.2% rushing DVOA this season. He may see more time over the team’s final five weeks, especially after the way Carson’s day ended.
Now trailing 17-3, the Eagles needed something to happen on offense. That desperation seemed to spark a brief outburst, with Wentz starting his next drive with 8- and 12-yard completions to Matthews and Zach Ertz, followed by an 8-yard Miles Sanders carry. A short play-action pass to Dallas Goedert would have advanced the Eagles into Seahawks territory, but fighting for extra yardage, Goedert allowed himself to be stripped by defensive backs Shaquill Griffin and Quandre Diggs. That fumble gave the ball back to the Seahawks offense. Up two touchdowns with 10:28 remaining, they increased their GWC to 98.0%.
At this point, you may be wondering what Carson could possibly have done to sabotage an almost-assured Seahawks victory. His position-leading six fumbles entering this week turned out to be a not-so-subtle hint. Needing only to maintain possession and kill clock, Carson put the first-down carry on the ground. He was able to recover his own fumble there, but then on second down, he promptly dropped a simple handoff, and this time the Eagles recovered it. That one goes in the books as a Wilson turnover, but there is little doubt which player will feel Carroll’s wrath at making a game of what should have been an easy Seahawks victory.
The Eagles’ good fortune couldn’t play receiver for the team, and so Wentz was forced to make plays on his own. He scrambled for 6 and then 3 yards, the latter carry which earned him a choke slam and put the Eagles in a third-and-1. There, the Seahawks defense met at Sanders in the backfield, dropping him for a 1-yard loss and setting up a fourth-and-2. The aggressive Doug Pederson did not hesitate to go for that with his offense, improving his team’s GWC by 2.7% over an attempted field goal. But Wentz was slightly off-target, allowing Griffin to dislodge the short pass to Arcega-Whiteside. And the Seahawks had it back on offense, now with 7:49 remaining.
Carson wasn’t totally banished for his earlier misdeeds. In fact, he took a second-and-10 pass from Wilson for 8 yards to set up a manageable third-and-2. But rather than stay conservative, Wilson lobbed the ball downfield to his top playmaker Tyler Lockett. Lockett fended off cornerback Jalen Mills to make a 38-yard catch. Pederson challenged that play for a non-called defensive pass interference, but unlike Rivera in the Panthers game, Pederson got the normal result. And that upheld call erased one of the three timeouts that the Eagles would likely need to make a comeback.
The good news for Pederson is that his Eagles defense stepped up. They tackled Penny for a 4-yard loss on the ensuing first down and then sacked Wilson on third-and-14. Their second timeout stopped the clock at 5:14, offering them sufficient time to score a pair of touchdowns after the Seahawks punted. They just needed to make something happen on offense. Wentz moved his offense away from their own goal line with consecutive 12-yard strikes to Ertz, the latter of which Ertz snatched with one hand just shy of the left sidelines. Wentz went back to Ertz for two more catches, these for 9 yards apiece. And perhaps he should have kept that train rolling. Because as soon as Wentz threw to another receiver, Tre Flowers undercut the pass for an interception that effectively sealed the game.
The Seahawks didn’t gain a first down on their next possession, but they used up the Eagles final timeout and brought the clock down to 2:23. Wentz strung together six straight intermediate gains to advance his team to the Seahawks’ 32-yard line. There, he aired one out to Arcega-Whiteside, who tapped both feet in bounds just before safety Brad McDougald uprooted him. Wentz finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown toss to Ertz, capping an excellent fantasy day for the big tight end but falling well short of making a difference in the game result. The Seahawks’ Hollister recovered the onside kick attempt with 20 seconds remaining, and Wilson could then take a knee to run the clock out on a 17-9 Seahawks victory.
The Seahawks’ ninth victory makes it that much harder for the Eagles or any other second-tier NFC team to earn a wild-card berth. If the 5-6 Eagles are going to reach the postseason, it will almost certainly come through divisional rival Dallas, whose own Sunday loss maintained their one-game difference in the East. And while the Eagles couldn’t pull out a win against either the Patriots or Seahawks the last two weeks, their schedule turns much easier with matchups against the Dolphins, Redskins, and Giants twice to close the season in addition to their final head-to-head meeting with the Cowboys. That schedule advantage offers the Eagles a still-decent 24.4% chance to win the division.
It’s difficult to believe with their record, but the Seahawks don’t have much better of a chance to win their own division, the NFC West (37.0%). The 10-1 49ers dismantled their latest challenger in the eight-win Packers on Sunday night. If the Seahawks want a divisional title, they may have to earn it entirely on their own, defeating the 49ers for the second time in Week 17. Of course, they’ll likely have to keep winning to make that a possibility. That could be tough with the Vikings and Rams next up on their calendar.
Lions at Redskins
The Lions-Redskins matchup didn’t pack the sizzle of the first three Tipping Points selections, but alternating highs and lows for both teams made it an exciting contest. Rookie Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins set the tone for that by fumbling on the third play of the game, which set the Lions up with a short field … which they promptly squandered with a Matt Prater missed 39-yard field goal. The Lions’ Jeff Driskel threw an interception, Bo Scarbrough lost a fumble, and Redskins returner Steven Sims somehow muffed a kickoff and then ran for a 91-yard touchdown on the same play. That back-and-forth craziness led to a 13-13 tie entering the fourth quarter, with the Lions driving into Redskins’ territory.
A second-and-5 offensive holding penalty seemed likely to sabotage that scoring effort, but Driskel hit Kenny Golladay and Logan Thomas for 9- and 12-yard completions to move the chains inside of the Redskins’ 10-yard line. Driskel somehow remained standing for 10 seconds before throwing the ball away on first down. And after Scarbrough powered his way to the 3-yard line on second down, Driskel overthrew Marvin Jones in the back-right corner of the end zone. It would have been nice to see Matt Patricia opt for a pass in that situation in improve his GWC by 4.8% over a field goal try. But Prater did at least drill the 21-yard attempt, giving the Lions their first lead of the afternoon.
The Redskins regained possession with just over 12 minutes to try to answer. Haskins made quick work to that effect with a 26-yard bullet to rookie receiver Kelvin Harmon. That advanced the Redskins to midfield. But on a subsequent third-and-6, Haskins made an ill-advised throw from the right hash to Harmon toward the left sideline. That extra field length gave cornerback Amani Oruwariye plenty of time to undercut the route and secure his first career interception.
That pick increased the Lions’ GWC to 81.3%. An extended drive here with 10:15 remaining would all but ice the game. But they quickly sabotaged those efforts with a first-play offensive holding penalty that created a first-and-20. The Lions gained just 3 yards from there before punting back to the Redskins with just under nine minutes remaining. Of course, the Redskins mirrored the Lions’ highs and lows all day, so they started their next drive with an offensive holding penalty of their own. And they also managed just 3 yards before punting back to the Lions, now with 7:30 left on the clock.
Relative to the previous two possessions, the Lions did well to enter a third-and-5 thanks to a pair of Scarbrough power runs. But Driskel barely had a chance to scan the field before an unblocked Montez Sweat smashed into his back, sending the ball flying. Detroit lineman Graham Glasgow recovered the fumble to avoid a turnover, the Lions were still forced to punt on a fourth-and-7.
Making an unusual contribution as a receiver, Adrian Peterson started the Redskins’ next drive off on the right foot, catching a checkdown pass and running for a 22-yard gain. Haskins hit fellow rookie Terry McLaurin for a 15-yard completion to move into Lions’ territory, and then Peterson added 6 more yards with a carry off right tackle. A play later, Peterson extended the drive with a second effort on an almost-stopped third-and-1. But Haskins couldn’t complete a subsequent third-and-4, overthrowing an open McLaurin streaking down the right sideline and into the end zone. The Redskins settled for a 42-yard field goal, tying the game at 16-16 with 1:49 remaining.
The Lions had not enjoyed a lot of success late in close games this season. Just last week, Driskel completed a 50-yard play to Golladay with three minutes to go but then lost 15 yards, punting the ball back to the Cowboys and never seeing it on offense again. This week, with just under two minutes remaining, they never made it into opposing territory. Driskel converted one first down on an 11-yard throw to Danny Amendola on the run. But then after a 1-yard checkdown to Jones and an incompletion, Driskel committed the cardinal quarterback sin, underthrowing an attempted throwaway to the right sideline that linebacker Quinton Dunbar had time to track and secure before it landed out of bounds.
That abhorrent pick capped off a Lions’ offensive DVOA freefall from 4.4% in the first three quarters to -184.5% in the final period. It didn’t’ leave the Redskins a ton of time, but needing just a field goal and already near Lions territory, they had enough. Haskins avoided a sack and scrambled for 11 yards to the Lions’ 43-yard line. A few plays later, Haskins found McLaurin, who made a tremendous reaching catch near the left sidelines before falling to the ground. Now on the Lions’ 21-yard line and with 20 seconds remaining, the Redskins wasted no time. They attempted a first-down field goal, which Dustin Hopkins buried for his fourth make in four tries on the day.
The Redskins’ quick attempt did offer the Lions a remote chance to answer with 16 seconds remaining. But Driskel took that opportunity to throw another interception, this one to Fabian Moreau before the Lions could try a hook-and-ladder to make it the remaining 76 yards down the field. Case Keenum made the final kneeldown while Haskins celebrated his first career victory taking selfies with fans on the sideline.
I may be growing soft, but I enjoyed Haskins’ enthusiasm for the win, even if it’s just the team’s second in 11 tries this season. The Redskins’ No. 1 hope has to be that Haskins emerges from his rookie season unscathed by coaching turnover and organizational dysfunction. And Haskins won this game relying almost entirely on young skill talent in Derrius Guice, McLaurin, and Harmon that could provide a foundation for the team in future seasons.
Possibly in search of a future franchise quarterback following Stafford’s back injury, the Lions’ loss may help the team’s long-term prospects. Still with just three wins this season, they increased their chances of a top-five pick to 15.7%, eighth-best in football. Of course, this result offered the winless Bengals a two-game cushion in their quest for the top overall draft pick. We’ll just have to see if they end up blowing it, especially given their decision to go back to the veteran Andy Dalton at quarterback.
Steelers at Bengals
The Bengals almost lost their winless record in a nail-biting defeat to the Steelers on Sunday. Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph was dreadful, throwing for 85 yards and an interception on 16 attempts, good for a Week 12-low -123.6% DVOA. Head coach Mike Tomlin pulled him in the third quarter. That decision paid immediate dividends as backup Devlin Hodges threw a 79-yard touchdown on his first series to James Washington, who embarrassed cornerback B.W. Webb with a stiff-arm that sent him into a delayed fall. That gave the Steelers their only touchdown of the first three quarters and set up a tie score of 10-10 with the Steelers gaining possession with 14:20 on the clock in the fourth quarter.
Not quite with the same offensive injuries as their Pennsylvania brethren, the Eagles, the Steelers were nevertheless absent normal skill-position starters James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster. That left Washington as the team’s No. 1 offensive option, and he continued to excel in that role, drawing a third-and-8 defensive pass interference penalty for a new Steelers first down. Webb didn’t deserve that flag based on my watch of the replay, but he likely did deserve the 26-yard penalty he drew on Deon Cain on the very next play. Those penalties advanced the team to the Bengals’ 35-yard line. They gained just 6 yards from there, but that was enough for kicker Chris Boswell to attempt a 47-yard field goal, which he made center-cut to give the Steelers a three-point lead.
The Bengals had almost 12 full minutes to answer, but they had fought their own offensive struggles for most of the afternoon, understandable for a rookie quarterback against the Steelers’ No. 3 DVOA defense. Ryan Finley nearly threw an interception to Mike Hilton on second-and-10, but on third-and-10, he found a wide-open Alex Erickson on the left sideline. The slow-moving pass seemed to allow plenty of time for Hilton to at least close and make a tackle, but he failed to do so, allowing Erickson to stretch the completion to a 30-yard gain.
The Bengals false started on their subsequent first down, but Joe Mixon erased that loss with consecutive carries of 11 and 9 yards, the second after avoiding a dead-to-rights T.J. Watt tackle in the backfield. Finley lobbed a 22-yard completion over linebacker Devin Bush to receiver Tyler Boyd that should have set the Bengals up for a short set of downs and a potential touchdown. But instead, Bush forced a fumble with a ball chop, securing a turnover that flipped the Steelers’ GWC from 61.4% to 83.6%.
The Steelers couldn’t do much with their next possession, giving back Benny Snell’s 11 yards on two carries with a first-and-10 Hodges sack. But a 13-yard Washington screen and a 37-yard Jordan Berry punt flipped the field position, pinning the Bengals back to their 7-yard line. There, Finley threw incomplete on three consecutive plays — two of which could have been intercepted — forcing a Bengals punt from their own end zone that set the Steelers offense up in Bengals territory.
Now with less than five minutes remaining, the Steelers’ primary mission was to kill clock. Snell did that job very well, taking five straight carries for 35 yards, and a first down, exhausting all three of the Bengals’ timeouts. Hodges threw a third-and-5 pass away through the back of the end zone, but that still left the Steelers with a simple 26-yard field goal attempt. It was a suboptimal play compared to a pass — costing the team 3.9% GWC — but Boswell’s make still forced a Bengals touchdown in the last 3:10 and increased the Steelers’ odds of a victory to 87.4%.
Finley started that final Bengals drive with a nice checkdown over some pressure that receiving back Giovani Bernard took for 8 yards. But on second-and-2, Finley held the ball in the pocket. He never saw pass-rusher Bud Dupree, who worked himself deep and around left tackle Cordy Glenn to make the strip sack. Dupree recovered the fumble himself, effectively ending the game with 2:47 remaining.
The Bengals could have regained possession with a defensive stop, but Snell needed just two carries to produce 17 yards and a new first down that allowed Hodges to kneel to run out the clock.
That sack may prove to be Finley’s last attempt this season with the team reverting back to veteran starter Andy Dalton. Finley’s fourth-round draft selection suggested he was unlikely to be a long-term solution, and his -63.8% passing DVOA over three starts likely confirmed it. The Bengals are an 80.5% favorite to land the top draft pick, and they need it to take a new franchise quarterback.
I doubt this Steelers’ offensive performance helped out a unit that was already 28th in DVOA, but the win did improve their record to 6-5, helping them leapfrog the Raiders following their disappointing loss to the Jets on Sunday. One of the Steelers, Raiders, Colts, Titans, or Browns is likely to come away with the second AFC wild-card berth. A Week 13 win over the Browns would help the Steelers immensely in that quest. It will be fascinating to see which quarterback they decide to start for a most important game of their season.