The Week 17 Sunday slate got off to a slow start but finished with a bang, setting the stage for what should be a fun NFL postseason. The playoff-bound Rams, Chiefs, Chargers, Cowboys, Texans, Seahawks, Bears, and Patriots all notched momentum-building wins as we head into January, while the Ravens narrowly edged out the Browns in a thriller to seal their playoff berth. The Eagles’ shutout win over the Redskins, combined with the Vikings’ loss, gave Philly an improbable playoff berth, the sixth and final spot on the NFC postseason picture, while the Colts’ win over the Titans on Sunday Night Football punched Indy’s playoff ticket. Elsewhere, the Steelers beat the Bengals, the Lions shut out the Packers, the Panthers blew out the Saints, the Bills dominated the Dolphins, and the Falcons came out on top against the Buccaneers.
Sunday delivered plenty of excitement, 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 implications for the postseason picture.
Deshaun Watson’s Option-Keeper TD
With the score knotted at 3-3 early in the second quarter of the Texans-Jaguars tilt, Houston dug into its bag of QB-run tricks on a second-and-goal from the Jacksonville 5-yard line. Head coach and play-caller Bill O’Brien threw caution to the wind, dialing up a triple-option run for his oft-hit quarterback—right into the teeth of the defense. Watson sprinted to his right, faked the pitch to the outside option, and kept the ball for himself, knifing past a defender to break a tackle and punch the ball into the end zone.
Watson TD on the keeper and the Texans are using him as a staple of the running game today. For the first time in weeks, it feels like HOU has an actual running game. pic.twitter.com/qrzxcIO1a1— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 30, 2018
That score gave the Texans an early-game win probability of 77 percent, per numberFire—a seven-point margin that felt like a commanding lead against Jacksonville’s sputtering offense. Houston would coast from there, eventually winning 20-3 to lock up the AFC South title and the no. 3 seed in the conference.
Watson finished the game 25-of-35 passing for 234 yards, but he really made his mark on the ground, adding 13 rushes for 66 yards and a score. His performance was just another example of the do-whatever-it-takes identity Watson’s imparted on the Texans offense all year: Despite being sacked six times—pushing his season total 62, most for a playoff team in NFL history—Watson just kept coming, shrugging off brutal hits to find ways to move the chains and will the ball into the end zone. Watson got some help, as usual, from DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 12 passes for 147 yards, and the defense more than carried its weight, holding the Jags to just three points while limiting the Blake Bortles–led unit to 119 total yards (2.5 yards per play).
It was a big win for the Texans after their heartbreaking loss to the Eagles last week, the perfect representation for a Texans season that’s been defined by the comeback. Watson, one of the favorites for the Comeback Player of the Year award, squashed fears that last year’s ACL tear would limit his play, becoming the first quarterback in league history to pass for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns while adding 500 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in a single season. Meanwhile, fellow Comeback Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt added another 1.5 sacks to cap what might have been the quietest 16-sack season in history. As a team, Houston finished its worst-to-first rebound, shaking off an 0-3 start to win 11 of its final 13 games and clinch the division.
The Texans would obviously rather be sitting at home as the AFC’s no. 2 seed next week—an opportunity they blew with a loss last Sunday—but the turnaround we’ve seen from Watson, Watt, and this team, overcoming its flaws to transform from a four-win cellar-dweller to a legit Super Bowl contender, has been nothing short of incredible.
Kirk Cousins Misses Adam Thielen on Third Down
In what could’ve been a statement game for Cousins, the perfect opportunity to chip away at his reputation for shrinking under pressure in big games, the Vikings’ $84 million man fell flat. Cousins threw for 132 yards and a touchdown on 33 attempts—a dismal 4.0 yards per attempt—stumbling early against the Bears’ hounding first-team defense (Minnesota went three-and-out on its first four drives) and again down the stretch against a gaggle of Chicago backups (who came into the game late after it became clear the Rams would hold on to the 2-seed with a blowout win over the 49ers). In the end, Minnesota squandered its win-and-you’re-in scenario, falling 24-10 to seal a spot as a playoff observer.
And, fair or not, the lasting image of the Vikings’ supremely disappointing season will likely end up being the heated exchange between Cousins and receiver Adam Thielen, who argued on the sideline after Cousins sailed an off-target pass to his receiver on a third-and-6 with 1:03 to go in the first half. That play, and the animated conversation that followed, was later downplayed by both players, but it looked pretty clear that weeks of frustration over the team’s offensive struggles bubbled to the top in that crucial moment.
That moment, and really the entire game, was representative of a failed plan by the Vikings brass this year. Adding Cousins was supposed to be the big move that would put Minnesota over the top after its heartbreaking loss to the Eagles in last year’s NFC championship game. Instead, the offense took a huge step back: The team’s offensive line struggled all year, the run game never found its footing, and the passing attack under Cousins crumbled. Head coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo after the team’s 21-7 loss to the Seahawks, citing a lack of commitment to the run game, but that last-ditch Band-Aid ultimately couldn’t stop the bleeding. The Vikings offensive line remained a huge liability, the run game faded late after briefly showing signs of life, and Cousins fell back on bad habits.
It all came to a head in a disastrous performance against the Bears on Sunday. As CBS’s Will Brinson put it:
Vikings drive chart in a do or die game to make the playoffs, at home, with their $84 million, free agent quarterback:— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 31, 2018
The game is sure to spark a litany of offseason arguments over whether Cousins’s megadeal—a three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed contract the cap-strapped team’s stuck with—is already shaping up to be the type of albatross from which it can’t recover.
Lamar Jackson’s 25-Yard TD Run
The Browns-Ravens grudge match sure didn’t lack drama, and rookie signal-callers Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson dueled back and forth in a roller-coaster ride of a game that ended in a playoff-sealing Baltimore win. The Ravens’ midseason transformation to a run-heavy offense was a major factor in their win once again, with Baltimore racking up a season-high 296 rushing yards on 47 totes, including Jackson’s first-quarter dash to the end zone.
That play, along with this 8-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter …
… offered a great illustration of why Jackson completely changes the dynamic of the Ravens run scheme. Plenty of teams employ read-option-style plays, where athletic running quarterbacks can change the math for how to defend the rush. But Jackson is extraordinary as a runner, bringing what might be the quickest first two steps in NFL quarterback history. Jackson’s ability to explode out of the backfield, seemingly hitting his top speed before opposing defenders even see who has the ball, is an X factor that no other teams possess right now. Those two plays—the first a power-read keeper and the second a keeper on a quarterback counter read—showed how Jackson can not just shred defenses with outside runs in more traditional option plays, but get downhill in a hurry to put incredible stress on back-seven defenders and hit the proverbial home run.
Of course, the Ravens needed more than just a dominant run game to win this contest and punch their playoff ticket. When Baltimore’s offense faltered late trying to protect the team’s slim 26-24 lead, going three-and-out after getting the ball back with 3:24 remaining, the defense stepped up. That group, which looked lost at times trying to stop Mayfield’s magic, sealed the deal on an intense four-play sequence: Mayfield and Co. faced a first-and-10 from the Baltimore 39-yard line with 1:18 to go, but the Ravens brought pressure and forced three straight incompletions before picking Mayfield off on fourth down with the help of a well-timed blitz. The marriage between Baltimore’s clock-eating run game and its dominant, turnover-creating defense was put on display in this one, and could be the partnership that makes this team a dangerous contender in the upcoming playoff run.
Looking further down the road, as Mayfield said, this game was just our first glimpse of what is sure to be a fun-as-hell rivalry.
Tom Brady Finds Phillip Dorsett for Six
The Jets’ depleted secondary—missing starters Marcus Maye and Morris Claiborne, both on injured reserve, and Trumaine Johnson, who was inactive after showing up late to practice this week—didn’t exactly offer up playoff-caliber resistance in this one, but the downtrodden Patriots passing offense got the bounce-back it badly needed this week nonetheless. After back-to-back performances from Tom Brady rating somewhere between disconcerting and panic-worthy, the future Hall of Famer looked sharp on Sunday, picking apart the New York defense to the tune of 250 yards, four touchdowns, and a 133.8 passer rating in the 38-3 blowout.
The 41-year-old signal-caller essentially put the game away with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter—making up for missing a wide-open Chris Hogan for a would-be touchdown a few plays earlier by eluding pressure, strafing to his right, and hitting Dorsett in the back of the end zone in vintage Brady fashion.
From that point on, the Patriots didn’t hold back. In what I’d interpret as an implicit acknowledgement that the offense needed to, well, get its groove back, head coach Bill Belichick had his team keep the pedal to the metal for basically the rest of the game. Brady didn’t come out until the Patriots’ final series, using almost all of the blowout win as an opportunity to get some quality reps and work out some of the kinks we’d seen over the past couple of games.
After struggling against the Steelers in Week 15 and posting just 126 yards passing against the Bills last week, the Patriots head into the postseason looking to build on a strong showing from the passing attack. More important than that, the win secured New England the no. 2 seed and a first-round bye. The Patriots finished 8-0 at home this year—the only team to do so—and will look to stay perfect there when they host a divisional-round game in two weeks.
Josh Allen Weaves Through Traffic for a TD
The Bills were eliminated from the playoffs in early December, so their divisional matchup with the Dolphins on Sunday was largely meaningless. It sure didn’t feel that way for Buffalo. The Josh Allen–led Bills played with the intensity of a playoff team from start to finish, rallying around their rookie quarterback in a blowout win over the Dolphins that should build some positive vibes about the team’s direction in 2019.
Allen was far from perfect in this game, tossing an ugly pick-six just before the half and missing a handful of open receivers, but he showed off some of the dynamic athleticism that convinced Buffalo to trade up to take him with the seventh overall pick in last year’s draft, tossing three touchdowns through the air while adding 95 yards and two scores on the ground. This run, which pushed the Bills’ win probability to 99 percent and buried any hope Miami had for a comeback, was the icing on the cake:
Allen finished the year with a less-than-ideal passing line, completing 52.8 percent of his passes for 2,074 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions for a 67.9 passer rating in 12 games. But he also flashed at times, like on Sunday, when he showed off the upside of his potential as a playmaker with a cannon for an arm and the Cam Newton–esque speed and power to make defenses pay with his legs. In fact, as ESPN’s Matthew Berry pointed out:
More Josh Allen ... in just over 3 months, he has 5 games with at least 9 carries AND a rush TD. Since 2001, here is the list of QBs that have done that in a season: Cam Newton (2012).... and Allen. Cam has done it once. Vick 0 times. I mean...— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) December 30, 2018
Allen finished with 89 rushes for 631 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, becoming the first player in the Super Bowl era to rush for seven touchdowns while averaging at least 7.0 yards per carry (7.1).
Of course, Buffalo must take the good with the bad with Allen, who still has some serious, potentially fatal flaws, both in his decision-making and when it comes to his accuracy. But as Allen put together his best game as a pro on Sunday (becoming just one of 14 players in the Super Bowl era to throw three touchdowns and rush for two more) the Bills sure didn’t look like a team that was wrapping up a six-win season. On the contrary, when Allen was picking the Dolphins apart, when the defense was flying around and creating turnovers, or getting longtime (and soon-to-retire) defensive tackle Kyle Williams a catch on offense, Buffalo played with plenty of swagger and was actually, surprisingly—perhaps shockingly—fun to watch.
Allen’s rookie year was about what could have been expected, punctuated by extreme highs and radical lows. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Allen helmed an offense mostly devoid of talent at the receiver position and lacking a functional run game to support him. Like with Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen, who both had up-and-down rookie performances, it’s far too early to judge what Allen’s future holds. It’s up to the Bills’ brass now to surround their young quarterback with starter-caliber talent at the skill positions so they can start to discover what they really have in the big-armed, athletic signal-caller.