Merry Christmas, Raiders fans. Because you’ve been so good throughout the past decade and a half of JaMarcus Russell–filled, nausea-inducing, borderline unwatchable football, your gift this year is the utter heartbreak of rooting for a contender only to have your season snatched away.
Week 16 brought more than its fair share of brutal injuries, but none compared with the devastation of Derek Carr, hunched over and shoulders sunken, being carted from the Oakland sideline during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 33–25 win over the Colts.
Carr knew from the moment his right foot got twisted in the dirt that the outlook was bleak, and for both him and the Raiders’ championship hopes, it is. His broken fibula means that Oakland — which already has a playoff spot secured and is one win away from clinching a first-round bye — has gone from full-fledged Super Bowl threat to a team quarterbacked by Matt McGloin.
The Raiders’ transformation from promising upstart to potential powerhouse this fall happened in large part because Carr himself underwent that very evolution. Among AFC quarterbacks, only Tom Brady has enjoyed a more impressive season. Oakland’s 12–3 record is the product of an offense that ranks third in the league in points scored (410) and fourth in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA, and no player has been more responsible for that output than the franchise’s third-year quarterback. While areas of his game could use some work (for a player with his talent, he has a tendency to be oddly conservative), he’s merged his eye-popping arm strength with total control of coordinator Bill Musgrave’s well-designed scheme.
Carr may still be a half-step away from joining the league’s top tier of passers, but his season to this point (3,933 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, six interceptions) has solidified his status as the best young quarterback in football. Outside of Dallas, no team in 2016 has inspired more fascination than the Raiders. Some of that has to do with a once-proud franchise pulling itself from the depths of despair, but with Carr under center, the Oakland offense had also become appointment television.
The question now is whether the complementary parts of that unit can provide the necessary firepower to make this team a tough out in the playoffs. McGloin threw only two passes Saturday, yet that was enough for wide receiver Amari Cooper to show what kind of damage he can do, no matter who’s playing quarterback. His 19-yard, third-down catch just before the two-minute warning was the type of “this is mine” play that he and Michael Crabtree will have to regularly make with Carr on the sideline.
It’s the Raiders running game, though, that could give them the best chance to put up points moving forward. A major difference between this year’s group and the 2015 version is the statistics that Oakland has tallied on the ground. After finishing 24th in rushing DVOA last season, it was firmly planted in the top 10 during the first half of this fall. That effectiveness has fallen off in recent weeks, and some of the drop-off was a byproduct of Carr’s pinky finger injury — suffered during a 35–32 win over the Panthers in Week 12 — preventing the quarterback from playing under center.
A full complement of running plays should be available with McGloin, and based on the team’s distribution of carries against Indianapolis, the Raiders will do all that they can to maximize them. Rookie running back DeAndre Washington got a season-high 12 carries en route to 99 yards Saturday, and given the spark that he, fellow rookie Jalen Richard, and starter Latavius Murray have provided at times, it’d make sense to see more of them now that a cold rain has doused the Oakland passing game.
Beyond the backs’ production, any other optimism about Oakland’s playoff hopes has to come from all of the other teams scrambling for answers at quarterback. Marcus Mariota fracturing his fibula in Tennessee’s loss to the Jaguars (more on that in a bit) means that, should the Raiders fall to the Broncos in Week 17 and finish behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, Tom Savage and the Texans will await them in the wild-card round. Cooper, Crabtree, a punishing offensive line, and a pass rush powered by an actual superhero in Khalil Mack could be enough to win ugly against the dregs of AFC South. The divisional round, though, would be a different beast.
If the Raiders manage to win in Denver in Week 17 and secure the no. 2 seed, they would probably have to deal with the high-octane Steelers in the second round. If they drop to the no. 5 seed, they could have to take a trip to New England in three weeks. Kansas City is the most obvious benefactor of Carr’s misfortune, but the biggest break may belong to the Patriots. A potent passing game that could trade punches with Brady represented the most dangerous threat to the Pats’ AFC supremacy; now, New England has one less thing to worry about. Other than the Steelers — who’ve shown only flashes of their offensive potential since Ben Roethlisberger’s Week 6 knee injury — the conference lacks any team that can match the Patriots’ wattage.
Any matchup problems will be dealt with when they come. For now, the Raiders and their fans deserve at least a couple of days to mourn. If the spoiling of Oakland’s first playoff trip in 14 years wasn’t enough, context serves to only further twist the knife: Carr had been the least-pressured quarterback in the league all season; the sack by Trent Cole that sunk the Raiders’ season was the Colts’ only QB hit of the game. The exacerbation on left tackle Donald Penn’s face after the game was easy to understand. Oakland’s line has been too good for the Raiders to go down like this.
This team is well positioned to contend beyond 2016; its entire offense (save for Murray) remains under contract next season, and it’ll be another two years before Mack and his planet-destroying powers will command the small fortune he’s due with his second contract. There isn’t much solace in that now, though. All season, the dialogue across the NFL has concerned its epidemic of mediocre and unbalanced teams. As mainstays like Seattle and Denver fell from their perches (in the Broncos’ case, out of the playoffs entirely), the postseason field seemed as open as it’s been in recent memory. The Raiders had as good a chance as anyone to steal a Super Bowl. Without Carr, that chance seems all but gone. Brighter days are ahead, but for a franchise that’s been shrouded in darkness for the better part of 15 years, 2016 ultimately just brought a new type of heartbreak.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Bucs and Titans fulfilled their destinies as the teams with tempting upside that ultimately fell short of the playoffs. Mariota’s injury is a crushing blow for a Tennessee franchise that could have used a feel-good division title and trip to the postseason, but it’s important to note that the Titans already trailed Jacksonville 25–10 when their quarterback went down late in the third quarter. For most of this fall, Tennessee looked like the only exciting factor in AFC South; after its loss and the Texans’ 12–10 win over the Bengals, it’ll watch the playoffs from home.
Tampa Bay held a similar role in the NFC wild-card race. By knocking off teams like the Chiefs and Seahawks and playing contenders like the Raiders and Cowboys to virtual standstills, the Bucs could’ve emerged as an X factor had they snuck into the playoffs as the no. 6 seed. Following two brutal Jameis Winston interceptions in a 31–24 loss to the Saints, though, Tampa Bay has been eliminated. It would have been a promising sign if the top two picks from the 2015 draft had pulled their teams to the postseason, but both of these rosters are probably a few pieces shy of playoff-caliber.
2. Ravens-Steelers was everything we could have wanted from the de facto AFC North title game. It also reinforced that we should throw out anything we think we know before these two teams play. Baltimore’s offense has been better of late, but the Ravens have struggled to move the ball with any semblance of consistency this season. On Sunday, they traded haymakers with the Steelers all the way down the stretch.
The final 10 minutes of Pittsburgh’s 31–27 win included three touchdown drives of at least 75 yards and brilliant plays from likely (Antonio Brown) and unlikely (Kyle Juszczyk and Eli Rogers) sources. It was Brown’s heads-up reach across the goal line with nine seconds remaining that eventually won the game, the division, and the no. 3 seed for the Steelers. As far as the AFC playoff picture is concerned, they may have the best chance to unseat the Patriots.
A Baltimore win would have meant a collection of AFC playoff quarterbacks that included Matt Moore, Tom Savage, Matt McGloin, Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, and Tom Brady. Look at this list again. The Steelers have never fully hit their stride as an offense this year, but there were moments during that fourth quarter — when Brown and Le’Veon Bell were marching down the field — that served as a reminder of how much pure talent Pittsburgh has.
3. The Falcons were the big winners of Week 16. Atlanta’s 33–16 win over Carolina secured the NFC South title and a playoff spot, but the team’s good fortune didn’t end there. Seattle’s 34–31 loss to the Cardinals means that the Falcons would earn a first-round bye with a victory over the Saints next Sunday. Atlanta is built to thrive behind its high-flying offense, and the fear with a roster constructed that way is that a trip to an unfriendly climate like Seattle could make the Falcons less imposing come January. If Matt Ryan and friends can defeat New Orleans, though, their potential path to a championship would include a home game in Atlanta, a likely road date with Dallas, and then a trip to Houston for the Super Bowl. That’s an ideal set of locales for a dome team averaging 33.5 points per game.
4. It was another excellent sports weekend for Cleveland. Kyrie Irving’s game winner to lead the Cavaliers past the Warriors on Christmas Day was beautiful, and it was just part of a two-day stretch that served as a perfect cap to a terrific sports year in Ohio. Not only did the Browns knock off the Chargers 20–17 in Week 16, but the 49ers’ 22–21 victory over the Rams means that Cleveland still owns the no. 1 pick in next spring’s draft. As far as tanking seasons go, it doesn’t get more ideal. Head coach Hue Jackson may have known what he was getting into with this roster, but going 0–16 was a black mark that he didn’t deserve. Both he and the Browns avoided that piece of history while keeping their top overall selection. This weekend couldn’t have worked out better.
5. Kirk Cousins’s wife packed him a gloriously terrible Christmas suit, and I have some thoughts. Cousins showed up to his postgame press conference following a 41–21 dismantling of the Bears in a festive, green offering that looked like it came with extra D batteries. “The story is that my wife always packs my suit, and I just grab the bag when I come home and don’t even look at it,” Cousins told reporters.
First of all, Washington fans, just know that the 28-year-old man to whom your franchise is set to give a long-term deal worth more than $20 million annually cannot pick out his own clothes. Chew on that for a bit. Second, this seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Cousins’s wife knowing that her husband has to go on television wearing a suit he never looked at has the makings of an all-time great prank, and I’m not sure a few candy canes and gingerbread men were enough here.
6. The Dolphins may not be able to win a playoff game without Ryan Tannehill, but their 34–31 win over the Bills displayed just how much ridiculous skill-position talent Miami has assembled. Three of the team’s four touchdowns came on fantastic individual efforts, including runs by both Kenyan Drake and Jay Ajayi that appeared to be stuffed in the backfield before each player broke loose and got to the end zone. Drake went 45 yards for a score down the right sideline, only to be outdone by DeVante Parker, who took a short Matt Moore throw about 4 yards downfield and broke down the left side for a 56-yard touchdown.
Moore finished 16-of-30 for 233 yards and has looked underwhelming aside from a late-game explosion in a rout of the Jets in Week 15. The Dolphins are set to play Pittsburgh in the wild-card round and face an uphill battle, but regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, the 2016 season has been encouraging for this team. It opened 1–4 and returns all of head coach Adam Gase’s offensive weapons entering 2017.
7. Travis Kelce has developed into an absolute beast. Kelce’s career day in the Chiefs’ 33–10 beatdown of the Broncos — 11 catches for 160 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown — was just his latest in a string of secondary-annihilating performances. Over his past six games, Kelce is averaging seven catches and 108.5 yards, and 11.4 yards per target. For some context, that would be the third-best mark in the NFL over this entire season. (By the way, Rob Gronkowski, who is still absurd, finished the year at 14.2.)
If Kelce’s pass-catching dominance wasn’t enough, he threw a collection of devastating blocks on Kansas City’s first two touchdowns; I rewound and replayed his manhandling of Broncos safety Darian Stewart more times than I’m willing to admit. Kelce is a tight end who’s turned into one of the most entertaining players in football. Even in the Age of Gronk, that’s rare.
8. Khalil Mack is the Defensive Player of the Year. His performance in the Raiders win was more proof that he’s been the NFL’s most impactful defender, despite having only 11 sacks this season. Mack finished Saturday with one quarterback hit and no sacks, but he lived in the Colts’ backfield. If you haven’t read Kevin Clark’s excellent story on what’s made Mack the force he is, I encourage you to do so. He’s more than deserving of some hardware, and I have a feeling this won’t be the last time that’s true.
9. Jadeveon Clowney may not be the DPOY, but he has arrived. Breathe easy, Texans fans. Even as Mack lays waste to offensive lines across the league, Clowney is making the decision to take him no. 1 overall in the 2014 draft more palatable by the day. The 23-year-old has enjoyed his best season as a pro by far in 2016, and the two-play stretch that he had in the second quarter of Houston’s win over the Bengals offered a glimpse into what type of player he can be moving forward.
After stonewalling Cincinnati left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and dropping Rex Burkhead for a 1-yard loss on second-and-2, Clowney roasted Ogbuehi again on third down and crushed Andy Dalton for a drive-ending sack. On the sideline, J.J. Watt was shown jumping around with glee, which was funny — because it’s the exact same reaction I had at home while thinking about this version of Clowney and Watt playing together next season.
10. The most impressive throw of Week 16 resulted in an incomplete pass. For Aaron Rodgers, this type of bullet isn’t out of the ordinary, but we can’t just let throws like this go by without mention. The physics of what’s happening here simply should not be possible. Rodgers is on the run, throwing across his body, and the ball actually explodes off his hand. Seriously, watch closely enough, and you can see the spark.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: David Johnson is widely known as a “running back,” but he’s actually one of those aliens from Arrival who’s been sent here to bring us to a higher form of consciousness. Here he is lining up at wide receiver, tracking an underthrown ball, and pulling it down to help set up the Cardinals’ game-winning field goal against the Seahawks.