The pared-down Week 15 Sunday slate wasn’t short on excitement. The Bears clinched the NFC North with a win over the Packers. The Steelers held off the Patriots to throw the AFC playoff picture into disarray. The Ravens and Vikings got key wins—both holding serve in the race for their respective conference’s 6-seeds—while the Colts and Titans pitched shutouts to keep pace in the postseason hunt. The Josh Johnson–led Redskins kept their playoff hopes alive with a slim victory over the Jaguars, while the Eagles knocked off the suddenly slumping Rams on Sunday Night Football. Elsewhere, the 49ers beat the Seahawks, the Falcons dominated the Cardinals, the Bills edged the Lions, and the Bengals dispatched the Raiders.
Sunday’s action delivered plenty of thrills, but a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.
Khalil Mack’s Half-Sack With His Back
With the Packers facing a third-and-10 from the Chicago 39-yard line early in the second quarter, Mack exploded off the edge, put tackle Jason Spriggs on skates with a strong right-arm punch, and then spun backward toward the quarterback—sort of like he was trying to box Aaron Rodgers out instead of sack him. In the end, it didn’t matter which part of his body made contact, because along with defensive tackle Bilal Nichols, Mack sandwiched the Green Bay QB for a loss of 8 yards, pushing the Packers well out of field goal range and forcing a punt.
Khalil Mack is getting sacks with his back now— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 16, 2018
(via @thecheckdown) pic.twitter.com/6XmFKaWoBM
Mack’s half-sack didn’t exactly have textbook technique, but it got the job done—and while it wasn’t the most important play of the game, it was representative of yet another gutsy performance by the Bears defense. Chicago wasn’t perfect, surrendering a handful of big plays to receiver Davante Adams and nearly giving up a Hail Mary to end the first half. In the end, though, the Bears did what they needed to do to hold off their division rivals and secure their first NFC North title since 2010. Mack finished with 2.5 sacks (pushing his total this year to 12.5, the most for a Chicago defender since 1993), three quarterback hits, and a pair of tackles for a loss. He was bolstered by Leonard Floyd, who added two sacks and three QB hits, and safety Eddie Jackson, who delivered the knockout punch by picking Rodgers off in the end zone with 3:14 to go (just Rodgers’s second interception all season, and his first in 402 passes).
Mack has proved to be the ultimate force multiplier for Chicago: Dropping the former Raider onto what was already a talented defense has transformed the Bears into the most dominant unit in the NFL. His ability to collapse the pocket and affect the quarterback pays dividends on every level of the scheme and boosts the effectiveness of everyone around him. With Mack acting as the catalyst, the Bears have found the formula to combat the explosive offenses they’re likely to face in the postseason. Chicago has created a league-high 35 takeaways this year—including 26 interceptions (first) and 17 forced fumbles (fourth)—while ranking first in passes defensed (108) and fourth in sacks (45.0). This team’s offense is still a mixed bag, but its opportunistic defense gives the Bears a shot at a long playoff run.
Tom Brady’s Backbreaking Fourth-Quarter Pick
With the Patriots facing first-and-goal from the Steelers’ 5-yard line with 8:54 to go, the stage was set for yet another Brady-led fourth-quarter comeback. New England trailed Pittsburgh 14-10, but it felt inevitable that the Patriots would punch the ball in and create a domino effect that’d give them their first lead of the game, propel them to a win, clinch them the AFC East title, set them on the path to another first-round bye, another Super Bowl berth, yadda, yadda, yadda. That’s how it all went down in my head, anyway. The Patriots’ aura of indestructibility is a hard thing to shake.
Instead, chaos. A holding penalty pushed the Patriots back to the 15, then James White lost a yard on the subsequent play, setting up a second-and-goal from the 16 with 7:51 on the clock. Brady took the snap, looked left, and, with pressure in his face, turned to his right to throw the ball away. Only, he didn’t put quite enough mustard on it to get it out of bounds, and Steelers cornerback Joe Haden jumped up and picked it off.
Great play by Joe Haden— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) December 16, 2018
Terrrrrible throw by Tom Brady
That play—Brady’s first interception inside the 20-yard line in two seasons and the culmination of an uncharacteristically sloppy red zone possession for New England—created a 20.4 percent win probability swing that pushed the Steelers’ odds of victory to 77.2 percent. And it may have changed the complexion of the AFC playoffs.
With the help of another late-game red zone stand, Pittsburgh held on to win 17-10, dropping New England to 9-5 on the year. Paired with Houston’s win over the Jets on Saturday, the Patriots have lost their grip on the no. 2 seed in the conference and now face the prospect of not only playing on wild-card weekend for the first time since the 2009 season, but also having to win a couple of games on the road to get back to the big game. There are still two games left, and with a little help from the Texans, the Patriots could take back that no. 2 seed and a first-round bye. But New England’s path to the Super Bowl got a whole lot tougher on Sunday. At the very least, it no longer feels inevitable that the Pats will get there.
Jared Goff Throws It Away on Third Down
Should we start worrying about the Rams offense?
For the second straight week, Goff struggled to deal with pressure, again derailing what had been a seemingly unstoppable passing game for most of the year. The Eagles took a page out of the Bears’ playbook, sending rushers from all angles to force Goff into off-target throws and discombobulate the Rams’ typically disciplined pass-protection unit. This third-down throwaway early in the third quarter wasn’t necessarily the pivotal play of the game, but it was representative of the team’s overall inability to adjust to what defenses have thrown at them the past two weeks. The Eagles sent six on a blitz and linebacker Nigel Bradham came through virtually untouched.
That play looked like a missed blitz pickup by running back John Kelly, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. The offensive line’s inability to protect Goff over the past month is turning into a big problem. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Rams were already trending in the wrong direction:
The Rams offensive line has played a big part in the offense's recent struggles:— Zoltán Buday (@PFF_Zoltan) December 10, 2018
First 10 weeks:
78 pressures allowed (6th fewest)
Pass blocking efficiency: 83.7 (t-4th best)
Last 4 weeks (just 3 games):
51 pressures allowed (4th most)
Pass blocking efficiency: 71.4 (3rd worst)
In the three-game stretch from weeks 11 to 14, Goff’s passer rating under pressure was a dismal 14.3, per Pro Football Focus—27th out of 27 qualifying passers—with zero touchdowns and three interceptions. His 25.0 percent accuracy rate also ranked dead last. That’s rookie-year-level Goff … or worse. And Sunday night’s performance didn’t alleviate any of those concerns: Under siege for much of the game, Goff threw another two picks to push his two-game line to zero touchdowns and six interceptions.
Look, it’s easy to say that the “blueprint” for stopping the Rams is to pressure the hell out of Goff; that’s probably the blueprint for beating everyone. And not every team is blessed with the depth and talent that the Eagles and Bears have up front. Still, there’s cause for concern for Goff’s far-below average performance under pressure. The NFC playoff field is stacked with quality pass-rushing teams: The Saints boast the league’s hottest pass-rushing defensive line right now, while the Vikings (should they hold on to the sixth seed) have an incredible array of talent up front. In any case, the Rams have two games left to right the ship, and it starts with figuring out how to give Goff cleaner pockets and more time to throw. If they can’t, it’s not going to matter what they did early in the season.
Darius Leonard Recovers a Blocked Field Goal
Leonard didn’t waste any time Sunday in showing why he’s one of the favorites to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, along with the Chargers’ Derwin James, the Broncos’ Bradley Chubb, and the Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch. On the Colts’ first defensive series, the rookie playmaker made four tackles, and when the Cowboys’ drive stalled, he recovered the ball after Denico Autry blocked the Dallas field goal attempt (though his touchdown return was ultimately reversed).
“dArIuS LeONarD iSnT RooKiE oF tHe YeaR” pic.twitter.com/h4axvgAQ1b— Andrew Luck (@FauxAndyLuck) December 16, 2018
That play kept the Cowboys off the board and set the Colts offense up in Dallas territory. Indy scored the go-ahead touchdown on that drive, then never looked back: Led by Leonard, who racked up a team-high 11 tackles and made two big pass deflections, the Colts held the streaking Cowboys offense scoreless while limiting it to just 4.6 yards per play and to a 4-of-12 conversion clip on third downs.
Leonard outplayed Vander Esch and set a new Colts rookie record for tackles (146). He leads the NFL in that category—he’s a ridiculous 24 tackles ahead of the next closest competitor, by the way—but the impact he has on the Indy defense goes well beyond that stat. He also leads all off-ball linebackers with 7.0 sacks—just one one of three players since 2000 with at least 130-plus tackles and seven-plus sacks in a season, joining perennial All-Pro Lavonte David and former Cardinal Daryl Washington—and has chipped in four forced fumbles and an interception. Short term, he gives the Colts a chance to make some noise in the AFC playoffs. Long term, he looks like a future superstar.
Stefon Diggs’s Opening-Drive TD
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo after the team’s Week 14 loss to the Seahawks because of Zimmer’s explicit desire to rediscover balance on offense. That change left interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski with a tall order: fix what looked to be a broken offense. Getting marginally more efficient production out of Kirk Cousins certainly looked doable, but how the hell did Zimmer expect his longtime assistant to manufacture a run game behind what had been one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in football?
Well, one week in, Stefanski kind of, uh, looks like a miracle worker. On Minnesota’s six-play, 76-yard opening drive against the Dolphins on Sunday, the newly christened play-caller orchestrated what might’ve been the cleanest, crispest possession the Vikings have had all year. Stefanski utilized two–tight end personnel groups and had Cousins line up primarily under center, deftly marrying the run game with the pass: Minnesota gained 41 yards on four rushes (three from Dalvin Cook, one from Latavius Murray) and another 56 yards on three passes. The cherry on top was this play-action bootleg pass to Diggs that gave the Vikings the early lead.
Kirk Cousins finds Stefon Diggs WIDE-OPEN for the 8-yard TOUCHDOWN! #SKOL pic.twitter.com/Z0qHq4IpJ5— mnsportnews (@mnspnews) December 16, 2018
Minnesota scored touchdowns on its next two drives to build a 21-0 first-quarter lead—in the process becoming the first team with 200-plus yards of offense in the opening frame this season. Despite a few hiccups, including a pick-six by Cousins, the Vikings mostly coasted from there, racking up a season-high 220 yards rushing on 40 totes.
It certainly helped that Stefanski’s first game was against a Dolphins defense that came into the week giving up an average of 138.9 yards rushing per game (29th), but it’s hard to deny that he breathed life back into a stagnant Vikings offense and jump-started the team’s play-action passing game. Stefanski must prove that what we saw on Sunday is repeatable, but if the Vikings offense really has turned the corner, that makes Minnesota an intriguing dark horse in the NFC playoff field.