What We Learned From Week 17 In The N F L

What We Learned From Week 17 in the N.F.L.

What We Learned From Week 17 In The N F L

Quarterback problems doomed the Jets and Commanders, while Tampa Bay won the woeful N.F.C. South with a banner day from Mike Evans in a victory over Carolina.

With just two weeks left in the season, it’s time to put up or shut up. Some teams were ready on Sunday; others were not. The disappointing Buccaneers rose to the challenge, coming back to beat the Panthers and wrest the division title from them. The Jets and Commanders, by contrast, lost games that dashed their playoff hopes.

It’s not an N.F.L. season without one team crashing and burning over the second half of the year. Last year it was the Ravens, who started 8-3 before dropping their final six games to fall out of playoff contention. This year it’s the Jets, a team with an electric defense and skill players whose problems at quarterback eventually caught up with them.

The Jets’ year can be split at their Week 10 bye. Before the break, the Jets were 6-3. Two of their three losses came with Joe Flacco starting at quarterback while Zach Wilson recovered from a preseason knee injury, and the third was a one-score loss to Bill Belichick and the Patriots. It was clear the Jets were winning in spite of their quarterback play, but things were working, and they had put themselves in decent position in the A.F.C. playoff race. Surely they wouldn’t throw it away, right?

As we know now, they would. Wilson played the worst game of his career coming out of the bye week, in a 10-3 loss to the Patriots, and was immediately benched, due in equal parts to his poor play and his mishandling of the postgame news conference. Replacement quarterback Mike White led the Jets to a win the following week, but the team lost its next two games before White went down with cracked ribs.

White was back on Sunday, but he isn’t the answer for the Jets, and their loss to the Seahawks showed that. White wins almost exclusively as an in-structure rhythm thrower, looking at the pre-snap picture and assuming how the coverage will play out to quickly get from one read to the next. That’s great if you can be Drew Brees and adapt as a game goes on, but White is not that caliber of processor, so he eventually lands in a place where his habits and game play become predictable with enough film out there. The Seahawks took full advantage of that, driving on everything White tried to throw. White completed only half of his passes and threw two interceptions to zero touchdowns.

And that’s the difference a quarterback makes in the N.F.L. The Jets have a top-10 roster outside of quarterback, but when you include the most important position, the whole operation crumbles. Wilson wasn’t stable enough to keep the win streak going; White wasn’t explosive and daring enough to correct the skid. The Jets could never strike a balance between the two, and now they’ll be watching the postseason at home.

Mike Evans caught three touchdowns Sunday in the Buccaneers’ win over the Panthers.Kim Klement/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Wide receiver Mike Evans couldn’t have picked a better time to have a career day. With the Buccaneers backed up against the wall, in danger of losing their division, Evans rose to the occasion and embarrassed the Panthers’ secondary. He finished with 10 receptions for 207 yards and three touchdowns, burning a Carolina cornerback straight down the field on all three scores.

It wasn’t until late in the first half that the Bucs realized they could just spam the “throw to Evans” button over and over. With 2:18 left in the second quarter, the Bucs sent two receivers on go routes on the outside, with a vertical option route down the middle from the slot player. Evans, to Tom Brady’s right, torched third-year cornerback Keith Taylor and caught the ball with a good 5 yards of separation before trotting into the end zone.

Evans’s next two touchdowns looked more or less the same. The Panthers’ cornerbacks just did not have the speed to match Evans stride for stride, and Brady played with an unusually aggressive mind set after an entire season of dinking and dunking relentlessly.

Evans did more than just win the day, though. His game-breaking performance put him over 1,000 yards for the season, making him the only player in N.F.L. history to start his career with nine consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. Jerry Rice and Torry Holt were the only two players with eight 1,000-yard seasons to open their career, and now Evans has cleared that bar to sit all by himself at the top.

How many more of these games do Evans and Brady have in them this year? Evans scored as many touchdowns on Sunday as he had all season. But the potential for this kind of performance is always looming, and it will be hard to fully count the Bucs out so long as Brady has a guy like Evans at his side.

Carson Wentz couldn’t stay out of his own way on Sunday.Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Toward the end of a blowout loss to the 49ers last week, Commanders Coach Ron Rivera benched quarterback Taylor Heinicke for Carson Wentz. The change did nothing to help Washington get back into the game, but it did signal that the team was ready for another shake-up at quarterback, clearly desperate for anything that might boost its fortunes this season.

The desperation bled into Week 17, where Wentz got his first start since Week 6. But the game was about as Wentzian as possible.

Wentz’s first three drives ended in an interception, a turnover on downs (after six straight runs, to be fair), and another interception. They weren’t fluky or unusual interceptions, either. Wentz was throwing passes right to the Browns secondary. He showed the exact kinds of mistakes and ball-security issues that got him benched for a career backup in the first place.

On his second pick of the day, the Commanders had a third-and-7 with the ball on their own 12-yard line early in the second quarter. Wentz, under zero pressure, decided to throw straight into double coverage deep down the middle of the field. The decision was bizarre enough, but Wentz dramatically underthrew the ball, so much so that the intercepting defender looked more like he was fielding a punt than picking off a pass.

Wentz couldn’t get out of his own way. He has long had that problem, though. Rivera knew the risk he was taking in starting Wentz, swinging for a slightly higher ceiling in exchange for a lower floor. There is no guarantee that Heinicke would have been much better if he had played, but going back to Wentz with the season on the line, knowing full well that he’s prone to imploding, was ill-advised.

To twist the knife into the Commanders’ wounds, Rivera may not have been fully aware of what was at stake in starting Wentz. It was brought to Rivera’s attention after the game that the Commanders would be eliminated from playoff contention with a Green Bay win over Minnesota, and Rivera didn’t seem to know that was the case. Going into a do-or-die game unaware of the stakes with a quarterback known for his volatility was a fitting way for Washington’s scrappy but ultimately inadequate season to end.

Packers safety Rudy Ford snagged one of three interceptions Sunday from Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, this one intended for Adam Thielen.Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

The Green Bay Packers were 4-8 through their first 12 games but are now on the cusp of the playoffs. For most of their current four-game winning streak, the offense has been the story: The running game is one of the best in the league, and the passing game has taken off with Christian Watson’s emergence and Romeo Doubs’s return from injury. But the bigger turnaround has been on defense, and Sunday’s win over the Vikings was the pinnacle of that.

For once this season, the Packers had a sharp game plan on defense. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry has relied on simple and soft coverages without many interesting schemes up front to generate pressure. That won’t be enough come playoff time. The Packers needed to prove that they can actually play to their opponent, and they finally did that by putting the clamps on Justin Jefferson.

Jefferson was accompanied by more than one Green Bay defender for most of the game. When Jefferson was outside, the Packers had no reservations about playing Cover 2 to his side of the field. When Jefferson was bumped inside to the slot, the Packers played more bracket coverage, flanking Jefferson with a defender on both sides. Jefferson snagged only one catch for 15 yards on five targets, and the Vikings’ passing offense collapsed without its cornerstone, leading to a three-interception day out of Kirk Cousins.

Now, it’s important not to get too high on the Packers defense just yet. We know the Vikings are prone to these kinds of meltdowns, and they had already wrapped up the division. The Packers also still have to take out the Lions next week; Detroit’s offense has been more complete, especially on the ground, and more explosive than Minnesota’s. This win was a great steppingstone for the Packers, though, and a win next week would finish a long and winding journey to the playoffs that nobody, save for maybe Aaron Rodgers, saw coming six weeks ago.

Kayvon Thibodeaux has done a little bit of everything off the edge for the Giants.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

The 2022 N.F.L. draft class was loaded with pass-rushing talent off the edge. While there was no surefire star on par with Myles Garrett of the Browns, there were a handful of bona fide first-round talents with Pro Bowls in their future. Some have yet to find their stride in the league, but three of them — Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux and George Karlaftis — are hitting another gear just in time for the postseason.

Hutchinson has been the most consistent producer of the bunch. He and his Lions teammate James Houston lead all rookies in the league with 7.5 sacks each.

And Hutchinson’s play has improved in recent games. His early-season tape was filled with one bull-rush attempt after another, but since playing more of a weakside role over the back half of the year, he has shown more variety in how he takes down his opponents. Hutchinson, a pass-rusher by trade, has been unusually active in coverage for an edge defender, and notched his third interception of the year on Sunday on the last play of the first half against the Bears.

Thibodeaux’s breakout with the Giants has been much more sudden and explosive. Two weeks ago against the Commanders, Thibodeaux racked up a handful of tackles for loss as well as a strip-sack that he also recovered for a touchdown. He was effective all over this Sunday, too. On the first play against the Colts, he blew past a tight end for a tackle for loss — an area of his game that has been more apparent lately. In the second half, Thibodeaux also got in the way of a pass in the flats. He initially came free off the edge, but he read the quarterback’s intentions and widened his path to get in the way of the pass, nearly picking it off. His do-it-all presence has been a boon for a Giants defense searching desperately for star players.

Karlaftis has also erupted in the stat sheet. His snap count for Kansas City has slightly dwindled over the past month or so, but he’s been more productive anyway, perhaps as a result of being fresher more often. Including Sunday’s game against the Broncos, Karlaftis has five sacks in his past six games; he had recorded only a half-sack in the 10 total games before that. For Karlaftis, the difference has been playing faster. Early on, many of his rushes seemed to develop slowly, like he was waiting for the perfect window or to set up the right counter move. More recently, he has been willing to fly up the field and let the chips fall where they may, giving his burst and bend a chance to shine.

All three players are going to be critical for their team’s playoff runs (in the Lions’ case, if they can make it there). Thibodeaux and Karlaftis each has the help of an elite interior pass-rusher, but all three youngsters are their teams’ best options off the edge right now. The pressure is on for them to keep it up and propel their defenses through the postseason.

Giants 38, Colts 10: The Jeff Saturday-led Colts are barely a real football team at this point. That sounds mean, but the Colts were blown out by a Giants team notorious for playing close games. Daniel Jones played one of his best games of the year, leading the Giants to their first playoff berth since 2016. Jones crushed Indianapolis through the air and on the ground: He completed 19 of 24 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns and ran 11 times for 91 yards and two more touchdowns, repeatedly beating the Colts defense to the perimeter.

Kansas City 27, Broncos 24: Andy Reid almost entirely refused to run the ball, calling just 12 handoffs compared with more than 40 dropbacks for Patrick Mahomes in the passing game. Mahomes is the best player in the sport, so of course he handled the volume well and still sliced up the Broncos, but it’s frustrating to watch an offense that should be able to run the ball fail to do so.

Skylar Thompson finished the game at quarterback for the Dolphins after an injury to Teddy Bridgewater.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Patriots 23, Dolphins 21: The Dolphins just can’t finish a game this season with the quarterback who started it. Teddy Bridgewater, filling in for Tua Tagovailoa, left late in the third quarter after a failed tackle on a pick-6 he threw to Patriots safety Kyle Dugger. Skylar Thompson replaced him on the following drive. The Dolphins were leading by 4 until the pick-6, and then the first three post-Bridgewater drives ended with an interception, a punt and a turnover on downs. Everything unraveled quickly, giving the Patriots a win despite a pretty uninspiring performance from their offense.

Steelers 16, Ravens 13: Somehow, some way, Coach Mike Tomlin again has the Steelers alive with playoff hopes in the final week of the season. Tomlin may have himself a quarterback too. The rookie Kenny Pickett finished off a mostly nondescript performance with a stellar winning touchdown drive. After a smattering of throws over the middle to move the ball inside the red zone, Pickett bailed to his left on a third-and-8 to find running back Najee Harris near the front left pylon with 56 seconds left. It was a clear display of Pickett’s improvisational abilities that got him drafted in the first round. For Baltimore, the loss will make it very tough to win the A.F.C. North over the Cincinnati Bengals, but the Ravens already have a wild-card berth wrapped up.

Buccaneers 30, Panthers 24: The Panthers were the better team for three quarters and change. Sam Darnold played one of his best games of the season, finding three touchdowns with beautiful ball placement. But that wasn’t enough to win the game and take the division with Tom Brady and Mike Evans relentlessly targeting Carolina downfield.

Falcons 20, Cardinals 19: Quarterback Desmond Ridder has gotten better little by little over his three starts, and that’s really all the Falcons could have hoped for to end this season. Though explosive plays were hard to come by, Ridder got the ball out quickly and picked up efficient gains. The Falcons were lucky that the Cardinals’ offense was depleted, though. Arizona started its fourth quarterback of the season: David Blough, a career backup who struggled to get over 5 yards per attempt in Kliff Kingsbury’s high school offense.

Lions 41, Bears 10: This was a real game for one quarter. Justin Fields ran for more than 100 yards in the first 15 minutes of play, literally carrying the Bears to 10 points. That was all Fields and the Bears had in the tank, though. From that point on, the Lions’ pass rush terrorized Fields, while the their offense rained down points on Chicago’s young defense. Detroit quarterback Jared Goff spread the ball around to 11 different targets, while running backs Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift combined for over 200 yards rushing.

Saints 20, Eagles 10: The Eagles missed Jalen Hurts. Backup quarterback Gardner Minshew wasn’t terrible for most of the game — he did well to feed his two star receivers and keep the offense on track — but the explosive plays and rushing value usually provided by Hurts just weren’t there. The Eagles more or less abandoned the run, and Minshew crumbled in the fourth quarter, throwing a pick-6 to Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore as he jumped a slant pass. The Eagles will probably be fine, but they should have won this game.

Browns 24, Commanders 10: The Commanders’ dice roll at quarterback was bad. Carson Wentz threw two interceptions in the first half and did little to make up for them. For the Browns, all it took was a steady serving of Nick Chubb carries and occasionally successful shot plays in the passing game to outscore the Commanders and effectively ruin their opponents’ postseason chances.

Jaguars 31, Texans 3: Trevor Lawrence threw no touchdowns and one interception, and it didn’t matter whatsoever. Lawrence was lethally efficient outside of the interception, setting up a number of drives in which the Jaguars finished things off on the ground. Three Jacksonville backs scored, including rookie Snoop Conner earning his first touchdown as a pro.

The Raiders relied on Jarrett Stidham at quarterback on Sunday after benching Derek Carr.Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

49ers 37, Raiders 34 (OT): Just as everyone expected, Brock Purdy and Jarrett Stidham went blow for blow in a shootout. Stidham was refreshing for the Raiders, showing more aggression and carefree play than Derek Carr had as of late. That, of course, led to a couple of game-changing interceptions in the fourth-quarter and overtime, but that aggression and looseness was what had the Raiders in the game anyway, so you live with it. It’s more shocking that the 49ers would allow such a performance out of any quarterback, much less Stidham, but they seemed to sleepwalk through the first half or so before realizing they needed to put forth a little bit of effort.

Packers 41, Vikings 17: The Packers scored 41 points, but it was a win for defense and special teams. Not only did Keisean Nixon take back a 105-yard kick return touchdown, but safety Adrian Amos returned one of Kirk Cousins’s three interceptions for a pick-6. The Packers also scored with the short fields afforded by both of the other interceptions. The Packers were able to stymie Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, and neither Cousins nor the rest of the offense stepped up enough to make up for it.

Seahawks 23, Jets 6: The Seahawks jumped out to a 17-3 lead in the first quarter and never looked back. Both teams almost entirely stopped scoring from there, but for the Seahawks, that was just fine. Jets quarterback Mike White was never able to get into a groove, thanks in part to a Seahawks defense that looked more energized and ready to jump at the ball than they have all season.

Chargers 31, Rams 10: A Week 17 Battle for Los Angeles sounded much better before the season. What we got in actuality was a surging Chargers team beating up a Rams team looking longingly toward their off-season travel plans. Chargers running back Austin Ekeler stole the show, clearing 100 yards rushing for just the second time this year while also tacking on four catches for 39 yards.

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