Just when it seemed like the injury gods had stolen all the star players they possibly could from this NFL season, they went and claimed yet another on Sunday. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz tore the ACL in his left knee during the team’s 43-35 win over the Rams and will miss the remainder of the year. Wentz was one of the stories of 2017 and threw four touchdown passes in Los Angeles to up his total to a league-leading 33 before he went down. Now, his injury has massive implications for Philadelphia, the NFC playoff picture, and the MVP discussion.
Wentz was excellent on Sunday, completing 23 of 41 passes for 291 yards while keeping plenty of plays alive with his legs. Although the Rams’ pass rush spent a huge chunk of the afternoon in the backfield, Wentz withstood the deluge of pressure and pieced together a huge outing. His performance in the Coliseum was a reminder of all that he brings to this offense in any given week. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski injured his ankle in the first half, prompting the Eagles to use two backups on the left side of their line; Wentz shrugged off defensive ends and extended plays both inside and outside the pocket, making those injuries easy to overlook. With the statuesque Nick Foles replacing him at quarterback, though, those downgrades will likely be on full display moving forward.
There is plenty of talent besides Wentz on Philly’s offense: The run game is one of the league’s best and has been elevated by the midseason acquisition of Jay Ajayi. The Eagles have a deep stable of pass catchers, and it will only get deeper when tight end Zach Ertz returns from a concussion. And there are worse backup quarterback options than a former Pro Bowler who once averaged 9.1 yards per attempt over an entire season, though 2013 feels like a long time ago, and head coach Doug Pederson’s system is very different than the Chip Kelly scheme in which Foles thrived. Still, Philly’s offensive ceiling was directly tied to Wentz’s ability to conjure improbable highlights and first downs like a combination of Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. Mobility is a pillar of who Wentz is. The step down to Foles completely changes the dynamic of the Eagles’ offense.
Since there has been preliminary speculation online, it’s important to point out that there are a number of reasons the case with Wentz’s ACL injury in 2017 differs from that of Philip Rivers entering the AFC championship game after the 2007 season. Biggest of all: Wentz scurries around the pocket more on a given play than Rivers has in his entire career. Wentz is 24 years old and is the future of this organization. His long-term outlook is paramount, though in the short term his absence transforms the NFC playoffs into a pit of chaos.
With Wentz out of the mix, the Rams, Saints, Vikings, and even Panthers can all stake claims as the NFC’s best team. Potential wild-card entrants like the Seahawks, Falcons, and Packers suddenly seem like more viable Super Bowl threats. While a Philadelphia squad powered by a devastating ground game and a defense that came into Week 14 ranked third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA—in the top four against both the run and pass—should still be a postseason factor, much of the magic that’s fueled this Eagles run is gone. The NFC East champions’ roster had fewer holes than any other roster in the NFL; now, it has one at the most important position in sports.
The impact of Wentz’s injury on the MVP conversation is unmistakable, as well. He and Tom Brady had been locked in a neck-and-neck race to win the award for months. With Wentz sidelined for the rest of the year, Brady becomes an almost insurmountable favorite, especially considering the brutal outings turned in by the league’s slate of dark-horse candidates this week. Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw three interceptions in a 30-24 loss to Jacksonville; Minnesota’s Case Keenum had a pair of picks in a 31-24 defeat to Carolina; and New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara left Thursday’s 20-17 loss to Atlanta with a concussion suffered on the first series. Brady has thrown for 3,632 yards, boasts an NFL-best average of 8.3 yards per passing attempt, and has a 26-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Plus, he hasn’t played in Week 14 yet, as the Patriots take on the Dolphins on Monday night.
In many ways, the Eagles and their second-year quarterback have defined this season. Sunday’s injury casts everything about the 2017 NFL into doubt, from its individual award winners to its realistic title contenders. The loss of Wentz represents another cruel twist in an NFL season full of them, and this time it upsets the balance of the entire league.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Panthers’ win over the Vikings showcased why they’re a legitimate NFC threat. Carolina showed all the elements that make it dangerous on Sunday, starting with the defensive line. It tormented Case Keenum, hitting him seven times and collecting six sacks, and those totals could have been higher had a few unblocked blitzers not gone sailing past the Minnesota quarterback in the backfield. Mario Addison, Julius Peppers, and Kawann Short took full advantage of an offensive line that was missing three starters at one point. When the Panthers’ front four plays like this, the other holes in their defense are barely visible.
Carolina’s defense isn’t the unit that’s held this team back, though. That would be the offense, which has struggled to be consistent in the passing game. While Cam Newton was far from flawless in Week 14—he went just 13-of-25 through the air, and his fourth-quarter pick allowed the Vikings to tie the game late—he made several impressive throws, including a perfect back-shoulder fade to Devin Funchess to set up the Panthers’ second touchdown. Newton’s work with his legs later sealed the win, as he took a read-option keeper 62 yards to set up a Jonathan Stewart plunge.
With a passing game that can produce big plays, a running game that’s recently showed increased pop, and a pass rush that can be dominant, this roster has the pieces to make some postseason noise. By ending the Vikings’ eight-game winning streak, Carolina proved it’s time to take it seriously.
2. By narrowly edging the Browns, the Packers kept hope alive for a possible—if unlikely—Aaron Rodgers–led playoff push. For most of Sunday’s game, it appeared as if Green Bay’s postseason dreams would be spoiled by a team that hadn’t won all fall. Fear not, though. The Browns went Full Browns, coughing up a 21-7 lead over the final 18 minutes and falling 27-21 thanks to a brutal DeShone Kizer interception in overtime. How Cleveland managed to blow this game is hard to figure out nearly 24 hours later. The Browns silenced Green Bay’s rushing attack for most of the afternoon, and wideout Josh Gordon seemed ready to shred the Packers’ secondary. He tallied 56 yards receiving on Cleveland’s first seven plays; he then got just two targets in the entire second half. It’s unclear whether Gordon’s lack of involvement was a product of Kizer’s decision-making or head coach Hue Jackson’s play selection. Either way, someone needs a long timeout to sit and think about what he’s done.
The Packers now sit at 7-6 with Rodgers eligible to return for next Sunday’s visit to Carolina. Green Bay had hoped that matchup would bring a chance to leapfrog the Panthers in the wild-card standings, but Carolina’s upset of the Vikings throws a wrench into those plans. The past two weeks have featured a few bad breaks for the Packers in that regard. Seattle’s win over Philly last Sunday brought the Seahawks to eight wins, and Atlanta’s victory over New Orleans on Thursday night did the same for the Falcons. At this point, the number of teams that Green Bay can hope to pass in the NFC has dwindled.
The team’s clearest path to a postseason berth is to run the table, have Seattle lose one of its next three games (the Packers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of beating the Seahawks in Week 1), and have Atlanta drop two of its final three (the Falcons hold the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of beating Green Bay in Week 2).
3. The problems with the NFL’s concussion protocol were laid bare again when Tom Savage was allowed back into Sunday’s game after taking a scary hit. The Texans quarterback took a huge blow from San Francisco’s Elvis Dumervil that resulted in his head slamming against the turf in the end zone. The aftermath was horrifying. With his hands raised up near his face, Savage appeared to shake briefly before rolling over. Two plays later, he was back on the field.
Savage eventually went to the locker room, but not before playing three more snaps in the second quarter. It’s awful enough that the Texans let him back into the game; it’s made worse by the fact it was later reported that he suffered a concussion. This entire sequence represented a breakdown of the league’s new rules that are supposed to prevent things like this. Savage should have been ruled out from the moment that hit took place. That he wasn’t is further proof of the gaps that still exist in how the NFL treats head injuries.
4. The ugly scene at the end of the Jags’ win over Seattle may have started with the Seahawks crossing the line, but that’s no excuse for how the fans reacted. By teeing off on Jacksonville’s line as the team took a knee at the end of Sunday’s game, a few Seattle defenders undoubtedly broke one of football’s unwritten rules. That in no way justifies Jags fans throwing not one, but two different objects at Seahawks defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson as he walked off the field. Jefferson responded first by confronting the fan who threw a drink at him and next by trying to make his way into the stands, a development that would have compounded the poor decision-making and made a bad situation unfathomably worse. How fans can ever think it’s OK to hurl something at an athlete—in any case, for any reason—I will never understand. It shouldn’t be hard to decipher on video where the throws came from, and both fans who threw the objects should be barred from ever attending another NFL game. Honestly, I’m not sure that goes far enough.
5. The Jaguars’ cornerbacks, not the Seahawks’, were the real birds of prey in Week 14. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye combined for three interceptions on the day, and none of them came cheap. Ramsey ran step for step with Doug Baldwin before snatching away a deep shot in the end zone. Bouye secured two picks, the first on a play in which he reeled in a well-placed Russell Wilson heave that was intended for Jimmy Graham. This secondary—and its Pro Bowl–caliber duo of Ramsey and Bouye—is kryptonite for the big plays on which many offenses rely. These guys cover more ground than any other defensive backfield in football and could cause nightmares for even the best passing teams in the playoffs.
6. Let’s all take a moment to marvel at the greatness of Adam Vinatieri. The Colts and Bills played a game on Hoth on Sunday, and the blustery conditions made it nearly impossible for the legendary kicker to attempt a game-tying extra point in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. The Colts initially elected to go for two after Jack Doyle scored a touchdown to bring the score to 7-6, but an offensive pass interference penalty on wide receiver Kamar Aiken pushed the ball back to the 25-yard line and forced Indianapolis to trot out its field goal unit. Somehow, Vinatieri managed to bend the kick through the uprights, perfectly using the wind to push the ball just inside the goal post.
The Colts went on to lose 13-7 in overtime, in part because in the snow LeSean McCoy is apparently the best player in NFL history. That doesn’t take away from Vinatieri’s magic. The guy is almost 45 years old and still going strong. He’s a wizard.
7. The Steelers defense missed Ryan Shazier in a big way during a 39-38 win against the Ravens. Shazier’s long-term health is the no. 1 priority in Pittsburgh right now as he recovers from spinal surgery. That was evident throughout Sunday night, with James Harrison emulating Shazier’s pregame ritual, multiple players wearing “Shalieve” cleats, and Roosevelt Nix pulling up his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with Shazier’s no. 50 on it after making the game’s first tackle.
Shazier’s absence was clear from a football standpoint, too. The fourth-year linebacker was having a career season before he got hurt last Monday, and the change from Shazier—who ran a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash at his pro day and who might be the fastest linebacker in football—to players like Arthur Moats and Sean Spence in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense was colossal. Baltimore running back Alex Collins finished with 120 yards on just 18 carries and routinely tore off gains of 7, 8, and 9 yards. He also sprinkled in a few monster runs.
The Steelers pulled out the victory behind huge statistical showings from Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell. This team isn’t the same without Shazier, though, and he will continue to be missed when Pittsburgh tries to cover New England’s running backs in Week 15.
8. It’s time for Bears fans to start looking for silver linings, and the performance of the team’s 2017 rookie class in Sunday’s win over the Bengals is a good place to start. 2017 has brought another nightmare season in Chicago, with the franchise sitting at 4-9 and in last place in the NFC North. Yet Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, and the rest of the Bears’ first-year players brought some cause for optimism in a 33-7 rout of Cincinnati. Cohen looked as electric as he’s been all year, racking up 80 yards on 12 carries while also having a pair of touchdowns called back. Wideout Adam Shaheen hauled in four catches, including a touchdown in the back corner of the end zone, another sign that he and Trubisky are forming a solid rapport. And fourth-round pick Eddie Jackson pried the ball away from A.J. Green just before the receiver stepped out of bounds in the fourth quarter, short-circuiting a Bengals drive in Chicago territory.
All of those displays are secondary to the outing that Trubisky had, though. The second overall pick finished 25-of-32 passing for 271 yards in what was easily the best game of his young career. Trubisky looked comfortable and accurate in the pocket and also used his legs to negate pressure from Cincinnati’s front four. Games like this one point to what Chicago’s offense can be moving forward. With Cohen and Jordan Howard (23 carries for 147 yards with two touchdowns) powering the ground game, this offense has the potential to succeed by using play-action throws that take advantage of Trubisky’s knack for delivering well-placed balls on the move.
9. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Calais Campbell’s tricky inside move helps put the game away for Jacksonville.
The Jags have a league-leading 47 sacks for a reason. Their nickel pass-rush package is downright terrifying, and being able to line Campbell up inside is a big reason. The 300-pound defensive end represents a mismatch for opposing guards, and the move he threw on Seattle left guard Luke Joeckel on a key fourth down reinforced that. Campbell’s burst allows him to beat Joeckel off the snap, and he finishes the play with a quick arm-over move that allows him to shoot into the backfield. That combination of quickness and length is too much for most interior offensive linemen, and this time it ends with Campbell crunching Russell Wilson and forcing an incompletion.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Rams have an endless array of play-action wrinkles, and each one has a distinct purpose. Check out this design from the third quarter of L.A.’s loss to the Eagles. On a first-and-10 from Philly’s 29-yard line, the Rams line up with three receivers (including tight end Tyler Higbee) bunched to the right side and Cooper Kupp isolated to the left. At the snap, Jared Goff fakes a handoff to running back Malcolm Brown while both Higbee and wideout Pharoh Cooper stay in to block on the right side. Cooper is an unlikely blocker in this scenario, but the goal of this play is to give Goff as much protection on the right side as possible so the Rams can alter the launch point of his throw. The protection also allows Kupp’s slow-developing iso route on the back side to develop.
In this case, it works to perfection. Kupp works open down the field, and Goff drops in a throw that accounts for 23 of Kupp’s 118 receiving yards on the afternoon. Subtle tweaks like this show up all the time in head coach Sean McVay’s offense, and each one makes things easier on his players.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
Chiefs receiver Albert Wilson defies physics down the sideline.