NFL Week 16 – The NFL gave us the gift of clarity over Christmas weekend.
The San Francisco 49ers are clearly far superior to the Washington Commanders, even with Brock Purdy at quarterback. The Kansas City Chiefs are clearly much better than the Seattle Seahawks, even when not playing at their best. The New England Patriots are clearly no match for the Cincinnati Bengals, no matter how many balls bounce their way. Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos are clearly in deep dookie.
The Minnesota Vikings are clearly better than the New York Giants, though the “two Spider-Men” meme clearly applies to these dueling impostors. And the Dallas Cowboys are clearly slightly-more-than-even with the temporarily-Gardner Minshew-led Philadelphia Eagles. It all came upon a midnight clear.
Sure, there were mild upsets: the Carolina Panthers caused a Detroit Lions blood-sugar crash, the Tennessee Titans’ freefall continued, the Tua Tagovailoa choo-choo derailed, and so forth. But even the upsets weren’t all that upsetting; it was not all that shocking to see the Green Bay Packers climb back into the playoff picture or the Miami Dolphins plummet further down the chimney toward a roaring fire.
Week 16 offered a much-needed respite for those of us who wanted to think (and write) a little less about football so we could enjoy more time with family and friends. The Super Bowl contenders remain who we think they are. Middling teams such as the Seahawks, Commanders, Lions, and Patriots kept middling. The NFL took a weekend off from being weird and unpredictable. Alleluia.
And with that, let’s dig a little deeper into all of the Week 16 action.
The Miami Dolphins Have Crashed Head-First into Tua Tagovailoa’s Ceiling
Tagovailoa played like November Tua until the 3:24 mark in the third quarter: one big play each for Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, plenty of crisp work underneath to sustain a few drives. After he attempted an ill-advised Patrick Mahomes-style off-hand forward pitch at the end of a scramble for an incomplete pass, however, Tagovailoa forgot how football worked, throwing inexcusable interceptions to end three straight drives and hand the Packers a 26-20 victory on an afternoon when the Dolphins defense and running game played well. (Their special teams stunk, but that’s another matter.)
Tagovailoa appeared destined for the Lefty Garoppolo treatment entering the season. He soon appeared to be enhancing the Tyreek Hill/Jaylen Waddle Experience with his quick release and ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes. Since DeMeco Ryans and the 49ers defense established a Tua-beating blueprint in Week 13, however, Tagovailoa has looked like a liability who is unable to adjust to press coverage on his receivers and zone defenders dropping into his throwing lanes.
Tagovailoa can still float passes to Hill and Waddle for occasional lightning-strike touchdowns, but who couldn’t? Tagovailoa may be able to overcome C-plus arm strength or occasional pressing-too-hard slumps. The combination of both, however, could jeopardize all the strides he appeared to make this year.
For now, the Dolphins can safely be declassified as a serious threat to the AFC’s Big Three, and they will need to watch themselves against the desperate Patriots and Jets over the next two weeks. Once the offseason arrives, the Dolphins will face the same “what to do with Tagovailoa?” problem they faced last year. The fact that Hill and Waddle only temporarily solved that problem should prompt the Dolphins to think twice before offering any nine-figure contracts.
Dallas Cowboys-at-Philadelphia Eagles Will Make a Great NFC Championship Game
The Cowboys proved that they can beat any team in the NFL on Saturday by climbing back from 10-0 and 27-17 deficits to beat the Eagles 37-34. The Cowboys spent Week 15 against the Jaguars and (let’s face it) Week 14 against the Texans proving that they can lose to any team in the NFL, so their Christmas Eve comeback and late-game defensive stop were an encouraging change of pace.
The Eagles, meanwhile, illustrated that they are hardly helpless without Jalen Hurts. They should be able to wrap up homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs next week against the New Orleans Saints, who gave the world a welcome gift by eliminating the Cleveland Browns in a 17-10 snoozer.
The Eagles’ biggest problems right now are sudden, newly developed habits of committing turnovers in bunches and making critical mistakes in high-leverage situations (like giving up a bomb to T.Y. Hilton on third-and-30). The Cowboys’ biggest problem right now remains that there is nothing sudden or new about those habits for them.
Beware the Purdy-Girding Men
Kyle Shanahan, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, and the San Francisco 49ers provided another clinic on how to win important games despite custodial quarterback play in their 37-20 over the Washington Commanders.
Brock Purdy started the game slowly but came around thanks to a 71-yard end around touchdown by Ray-Ray McCloud; lots of George Kittle (whom the Commanders could not cover, at all); two turnovers and two fourth-down stops from the 49ers defense; and the ability to safely settle for field goals after short drives while protecting a fourth-quarter lead. Purdy has thrown just 13 passes when trailing but 68 when leading. That’s how you keep a novice quarterback from getting exposed.
The Commanders, meanwhile, illustrated the perils of dickering around with custodial quarterbacking for most of two (or five, or 30, depending on how you define “custodial”) seasons. Carson Wentz replaced Tyler Heinicke in the fourth quarter on Saturday, which is sure to work out just fine for a totally stable organization in the process of frittering away its playoff hopes. (Dan Snyder is probably the only Wentz fan in Ashburn, Virginia, but he’s the only one who matters.)
The 49ers may well crash that Eagles-Cowboys NFC championship party, because the 2022 NFL season will run out of games before Shanahan runs out of hide-the-rookie tricks.
Even Dark Foxborough Magic Can No Longer Help the New England Patriots
The Cincinnati Bengals took a 22-0 halftime lead on Saturday against the New England Patriots that felt like a 52-0 lead: the Bengals outgained the Patriots 303-70 in the first half but hampered themselves with a missed extra point, a failed two-point conversion, and a Joe Burrow red zone interception.
The eldritch horrors who lurk beneath Gillette Stadium awoke in the third quarter to do Bill Belichick’s bidding, however. Suddenly Marcus Jones delivered a pick-six (after a Bengals third-and-1 conversion was negated by holding), chip-shot field goals began bending off course, and Mac Jones’ Little League outfielder deep throws started ricocheting off Scottie Washington to Jakobi Meyers for touchdowns.
Even the Elder Gods of Foxborough cannot help those who refuse to help themselves, however. The Patriots joined the Bengals by missing an extra point and a two-point conversion, and they answered Ja’Marr Chase’s late fourth-quarter fumble with one of their own in what ended as a 22-18 loss.
The only difference between the Patriots and the Jets right now, besides Foxborough juju, is that both the Patriots and Jets are absolutely convinced that the Patriots are better than the Jets. That difference gave the Patriots the tiebreaker which will probably keep them in the playoffs. But if the Patriots perform like they did on Saturday on the road against any of the AFC’s Big Three, there won’t be any close-call comebacks to speak of.
The Feel-Good Seattle Seahawks Story Felt Good While it Lasted
It truly did. But the Seahawks are now 1-5 over their last six games and have demonstrated their playoff unworthiness in back-to-back listless efforts against Super Bowl contenders. The Seahawks went 2-of-14 on third downs and 3-of-6 on fourth downs in their 24-10 loss to the Chiefs.
Tyler Lockett’s absence after hand surgery was obvious on Saturday; there’s a considerable drop-off from Lockett to (OMG he’s still on a roster) Laquon Treadwell. Lockett may return next week (though that sounds like Pete Caroll’s Christmas wish), but the Seahawks have now demonstrated just how narrow their margin for error is on offense. The real contenders are having little trouble generating offense with their backup quarterbacks; the Seahawks lose one wide receiver and suddenly can no longer score touchdowns until the fourth quarter.
The good news about the Seahawks’ slump is that it may have prevented a false read on Geno Smith, who now looks much more like a quality bridge starter/mentor than the undiscovered Kurt Warner he appeared to be during his early-season hot streak. Whether or not they reach the playoffs, the Seahawks have much rebuilding to do. And finding a long-term quarterback solution should be part of that rebuilding project.
The Buffalo Bills Are Slowly Learning the Virtues Of Calming the Hell Down
Dear Buffalo Bills,
You don’t need Josh Allen Dragon Ball Z tactics to beat most of your opponents.
In fact, the toss-a-meteor-into-the-galactic-core routine is often counterproductive, as inferior teams use Allen’s turnovers to stay in games.
You run the football fairly well.
Your defense is great when not defending short fields.
Just play Normal Ball.
Though maybe not against the Bengals next Monday night.
You may need the Kamehemeha then.
Wishful Thinking Is Not Enough to Make the Detroit Lions Defense Good
The Panthers rushed for 240 yards in the first half alone in their 37-23 victory over the Detroit Lions.
We have been saying politely charitable things about the Lions defense throughout their second-half surge. “The offensive line is outstanding! Their game plans are brilliant! And their defense is, um, improving?” The Lions defense did produce better-than-average DVOA results against the Packers, Giants, Jaguars, and Bills, but they’re probably best thought of as a high-volatility unit that can be slightly above average on their best days and wobbly bowling pins on their worst.
As for the Detroit offense, it ranked seventh in DVOA when “losing big” entering Saturday’s loss, but it just doesn’t look built to do more than generate backdoor covers once the Lions are forced to abandon the run.
The Lions, like the Seahawks, may benefit in the long run from an end-of-season course correction/reality check.
The Baltimore Ravens Are not Just Side Characters in Lamar Jackson Fanfic
A rumor that Lamar Jackson is unhappy and wants out of Baltimore spontaneously generated without a source late last week. It sounded like the sort of tall tale built out of talk-radio speculation and subreddit wishcasting: Lamar’s gonna force a trade to the Jets! No, he’s gonna get $300 million guaranteed now that the Ravens know how helpless they are without him! By Sunday night’s telecast, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk landed on the theory that Jackson is being extra cautious with his health because he doesn’t want to risk injury when not under contract beyond this season. That sounds like manufactured spin: extra cautious is just a loaded term for still injured.
The Ravens are refusing to play along with the fairytale: they are now 2-1 with Tyler Huntley at quarterback after Saturday’s playoff-clinching 17-9 victory over the flatlining Atlanta Falcons. Huntley managed the game well while throwing to a receiving corps culled from the bottom of the 2019 Chiefs depth chart, and the Ravens defense has allowed just 45 points in its last four games, albeit to a quartet of awful offenses.
Jackson’s return could make the Ravens playoff sleepers, though his own playoff performances of the past don’t inspire confidence that he can lead them past the Big Three. As for the contract stuff, nothing has changed since the start of the season: Jackson wants full guarantees, the Ravens won’t act against their own interests by offering them, the franchise tag gives the team all the leverage, and Jackson’s lack of a traditional agent will make it hard for him to signal his true feelings and intentions without speaking on the record himself, which could invite its own set of problems.
The Tennessee Titans Are in Deep Trouble
The Ryan Tannehill Era is over, but the Malik Willis era hardly looks ready to begin. Willis has shown troubling little other than highlight scrambles in his spot starts. Treylon Burks has battled through a star-crossed rookie year, but he hasn’t looked much like a WR1-in-the-making when healthy. Derrick Henry beat the Curse of 370, but building around a high-mileage workhorse back has its perils and limitations (for evidence, see: the 2022 Titans).
The Titans hoped to enter 2023 like the 2022 49ers: stacked all over and ready to hand the reins over to a gifted redshirt sophomore. They are now likely to enter next year looking like the 2022 Chicago Bears with Willis in the Justin Fields role and everyone else just waiting to be traded or replaced.
New York Giants Nonsense Only Makes Minnesota Vikings Nonsense Extra Nonsensical
Nothing could be more on-brand for the Minnesota Vikings than a last-second 27-24 victory on a 61-yard Greg Joseph field goal at home against an opponent with an inflated record in a close but oddly boring game. Look for the Vikings to do precisely the same thing to precisely the same opponent in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
Week 16 Awards
It’s time for Walkthrough to give the gifts which won’t be returned on December 26…
Defender of the Week
Draftniks absolutely adored Cobie Durant’s athleticism coming out of South Carolina State, but the Rams’ raw fourth-round cornerback couldn’t get on the field early in the season. Let’s have a look at that athleticism early in the 51-14 rout of the Denver Broncos…
Cobie Durant comes up with the INT 🔒
— NFL (@NFL) December 25, 2022
… and late in the same game, when there was nothing else to do except further humiliate the poor Broncos.
Decobie Durant scores his first career pick six on his second INT of the day.
Patrick, accordingly, went crazy. pic.twitter.com/PIxn5Sy1VA
— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) December 26, 2022
Patrick from SpongeBob is the Al Michaels of calling Brett Rypien pick-sixes.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Panthers offensive line has slowly been rounding into shape for weeks. On Saturday, it helped D’Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, and others rack up 320 rushing yards while holding the Lions without a sack. So let’s hear it for Ickey Ekwonu, Brady Christensen, Bradley Bozeman, Austin Corbett, and Taylor Moton!
Special Teamer of the Week
Greg Joseph, Vikings: 61-yard game winning field goal, his 174th game-winner of the year.
Honorable mention goes to Keisean Nixon, whose 93-yard kickoff return was one of the few things that went right for the Packers in the first half of their victory over the Dolphins.
Burn This Play!
Say, does this look like a possible fake punt to you? With three punt protectors all bunched together and suspiciously close to the line of scrimmage and whatnot?
— highlight heaven (@lowdarkhell) December 25, 2022
Eh, don’t worry about it. The Dolphins won’t suspect a thing when you are punting from your own 20-yard line. Wait, a fake punt from your own 20-yard line? From a wonky formation? As Aaron Rodgers might say, R-E-L-A-X, the Packers will just win on a Tua Tagovailoa turnover spree.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else’s Highlight
49ers receiver Jauan Jennings (15) clinched this week’s BSASEH easily by tossing Darrick Forrest (22) out of the club like he was kicking George Bailey out of Martini’s in the darkest-timeline sequence of It’s a Wonderful Life:
How many @gkittle46 TDs today? ✌️
— NFL (@NFL) December 24, 2022
Rando of the Week
Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey tantrum’d his way to a Walkthrough award earlier in the season:
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 25, 2022
Dorsey is back as Rando of the Week for his look of hair-pulling frustration after one of Josh Allen’s attempts to throw the ball through a defender’s abdomen on Saturday:
Ken Dorsey is a 1st ballot GIF Hall of Famer pic.twitter.com/YkZcZG9TnK
— Dan Fetes (@danfetes) December 24, 2022
Note that the Bills coaching staff also includes (background) a Sasquatch and (foreground) someone who looks like he sprinkles sativa gummies atop his Cheerios like strawberries.
Dorsey has not had a very impressive season, considering the talent he has had to work with, but he is likely to get lots of head-coaching interviews. If Dorsey gets a job before DeMeco Ryans, Walkthrough may just renounce the NFL for professional pickleball.