In Orchard Park, N.Y., the Bills put the rest of the AFC on notice. Writing them off midseason was a mistake.
So was assuming the AFC East race was over.
In Jacksonville, the Jaguars’ losing streak reached three games, allowing the Colts and Texans to join them in a tie atop the AFC South. And with another convincing win, the Ravens inched a little closer to the AFC’s top seed.
In New Orleans, the Tommy DeVito story cooled — for one week, at least — and with it, so did the Giants’ three-game win streak.
In Cleveland, Bears receiver Darnell Mooney had a Hail Mary fall into his lap — a 50-yard heave from Justin Fields, which was batted down to Mooney, sprawled out in the end zone, hands out — but, somehow, he couldn’t hold on. What would’ve been a stunning finish, and a third straight win for Chicago, instead ended as Joe Flacco’s second straight victory as the Browns’ starter, nudging Cleveland a little closer to a playoff spot.
In Miami, the Jets couldn’t even get Zach Wilson’s injury right. No matter. Their 30-0 loss to the Dolphins cemented the franchise’s 13th straight season without a playoff berth, the longest in football, and should effectively squash any notion of an improbable Aaron Rodgers’ return this season.
“Yeah,” coach Robert Saleh admitted after the game, asked if what he’d just witnessed was embarrassing.
Rinse and repeat for the Jets the last several years.
In Arizona, the 49ers clinched their second consecutive NFC West title and became the NFC’s first 11-win team — the Eagles can join them Monday night — with another convincing victory, this one 45-29 over the Cardinals. With both Dallas and Philadelphia looking beatable of late, San Francisco has separated itself as the class of the NFC. The 49ers have been untouchable since that three-game skid midseason, ripping off six wins in a row, each by double digits. They’ve also routed both the Cowboys and Eagles.
Here’s all that stood out from Week 15, and an updated look at the playoff picture in the AFC and NFC:
Ravens stay in front in AFC
Somehow, it seems, the Ravens have flown under the radar this season, overshadowed in their own conference by Miami’s splashy offense, the Chiefs’ pedigree (and wide receiver issues) and the Bills’ turbulence.
But Baltimore has, rather quietly, raced to a sterling 11-3 record and remains in the pole position for the conference’s top seed with three games to play. The Ravens’ defense — one of the most underappreciated groups in the league — held Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars to just one touchdown in Sunday night’s 23-7 win in Jacksonville. Lamar Jackson pulled off one of the most impressive plays of the season late in the third quarter, and after the Ravens added a touchdown and forced a Lawrence fumble midway through the fourth, this one was effectively over.
Lamar avoids the sack and then Isaiah Likely makes the catch over two guys 😮
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2023
The New Year’s Eve game between the Ravens (11-3) and Dolphins (10-4) in Baltimore may very well end up deciding the conference’s top seed and coveted first-round bye. But first, for the Ravens, another stiff test: they’re at San Francisco next week.
With Jacksonville’s loss, there’s now a three-team tie atop the AFC South: the Jaguars, Colts and Texans are all 8-6. The Jaguars currently own tiebreakers over both — they swept the Colts this season and, after splitting their head-to-head meetings with the Texans, edge them out with a better conference record. But with three weeks left, the division title is up for grabs, and the Jaguars are struggling.
Jacksonville, once 8-3, will close with the Bucs, Panthers and Titans.
The Colts finish with the Falcons, Raiders and Texans.
The Texans finish with the Browns, Titans and Colts.
Don’t count out the Bills in the AFC East
All but left for dead after a disastrous home loss to the Broncos on Nov. 13, coach Sean McDermott fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey a day later with the criticism amplified after to a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty cost the Bills a one-point win.
The uproar was swift. Buffalo’s problems ran deep.
But four weeks later, McDermott’s gamble is paying off, and the Bills suddenly are a scary AFC playoff contender.
Buffalo is 3-1 since Dorsey’s firing, its only loss coming in overtime to the Eagles. Over that span, new offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s unit has put up games of 32, 34, 20 and 31 points — two of which were wins over the Chiefs and Cowboys.
Sunday’s 31-10 beatdown over Dallas spoke to a revived team getting hot at the right time. This is what the Bills were supposed to be all season, and certainly showed flashes of amid a 3-1 start that included a 48-20 rout of the Dolphins in Week 4. Then came some befuddling losses, inconsistencies from Allen, a defense decimated by injuries and four losses in a six-game stretch, including one to the lowly Patriots.
The Cowboys entered as one of the hottest teams in football, fresh off a convincing win over the Eagles, with Dak Prescott playing better than he ever has. It wasn’t simply that Buffalo embarrassed the Cowboys, but how they did it, racing to a 31-3 lead by the end of the third quarter with Josh Allen completing just seven passes. James Cook hadn’t rushed for over 100 yards all season; on Sunday he finished with 179 and a touchdown. Make no mistake, the Bills won this with their physicality. They dominated Dallas up front.
All of which sets up an intriguing race for the AFC East title. The Dolphins (10-4) are up two games on the Bills (8-6) but face a much stiffer schedule the rest of the way. Miami will face the Cowboys and Ravens the next two weeks; Buffalo will see the Chargers and Patriots.
Then Buffalo visits Miami in Week 18 for a game that could decide the division title and determine who gets a home playoff game. Buffalo entered this season having won three straight AFC East crowns.
Steelers, Broncos fall behind in AFC wild-card race
With three weeks to go, the bottom half of the AFC playoff picture remains as jumbled as ever, with seven teams effectively fighting for three spots. Among those who helped themselves over the weekend, start with the Browns, who moved to 9-5 after climbing back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, then survived the aforementioned Hail Mary scare from the Bears to win 20-17. That’s six wins for Cleveland this season by four points or fewer.
“We’ve been through four quarterbacks,” Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said after the win. “Being down 10 is not going to shake us because we’ve literally been through it all with injuries and everything else. So this is just another step in our journey, another opportunity for us to write a very peculiar but great legacy.”
Joe Flacco has now led two straight victories, and despite being on their fourth starting quarterback of the year, the Browns looked primed for their first playoff bid since the 2020 season.
Kevin Stefanski, who should probably be leading the Coach of the Year conversation, has done an incredible job.
Just behind the Browns in the standings, the Bengals, Colts, Texans and Bills all won to move to 8-6. The Steelers’ and Broncos’ chances took a considerable hit with losses — both are now 7-7. And for Pittsburgh, following a disappointing 30-13 loss in Indianapolis on Saturday, which led coach Mike Tomlin to label his team “a fundamentally poor football group right now,” it feels like the season could be slipping away.
“I don’t necessarily have the answers as we sit here today,” Tomlin said after the game, asked about all that went wrong. “If I had the answers, we would’ve played differently today.”
That’s not something you want to hear from the head coach 15 weeks into the season, especially as experienced as Tomlin is. And it’s never good when you race to a 13-0 lead then give up 30 unanswered.
Same as Stefanski, both the Colts’ Shane Steichen and the Texans’ DeMeco Ryans deserve to be in the Coach of the Year conversation. Indy won four games last season and dropped 10 of its final 11. Steichen has guided a revamped team led by a backup quarterback in Gardner Minshew and without its top offensive weapon (Jonathan Taylor) for half the season. Somehow, the Colts control their own destiny in their pursuit of their first playoff berth since 2020.
In Houston, Ryans has remade the Texans in just one season, and he proved Sunday their success is more than the rookie quarterback. With no C.J. Stroud — and no Tank Dell or Nico Collins, for that matter — the Texans gutted out a 19-16 overtime victory over the Titans.
The Bucs are surging, the Packers are fading
Things have changed quickly in the NFL’s worst division. The Falcons — NFC front-runners just two weeks ago, seemingly in command of the division — suffered a backbreaking defeat Sunday in Charlotte, losing to the woeful Panthers 9-7. Atlanta’s second straight division loss sends them to third in the NFC South. And it was Carolina’s first win since October.
Meanwhile, Todd Bowles’ Bucs are surging. A convincing 34-20 win over the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday was their third in a row, moving them to 7-7 and in a tie atop the division with the Saints, also 7-7 following their 24-6 win over the Giants. The Bucs own the tiebreaker thanks to a Week 4 win over the Saints, but the two teams will meet again in Week 17.
A big reason for Tampa Bay’s late-season run has been Baker Mayfield, who threw for 381 yards, four touchdowns and just six incompletions in Sunday’s win.
As for the NFC wild-card race, the Packers might’ve played their way out of the playoffs the last two weeks. After upsetting the Chiefs on the first Sunday in December to climb into the No. 7 seed in the NFC, Green Bay has lost consecutive games to the Giants and Bucs.
Outside of the eventual NFC South winner, six teams are scraping for the final two wild-card spots. The Vikings and Rams own the final two spots as of now.
An early look at the head-coaching jobs opening up
A third head-coaching job opened Friday when the Chargers fired Brandon Staley almost three years into his tenure.
Staley joins Frank Reich (Carolina) and Josh McDaniels (Las Vegas) as head coaches let go before the 2023 regular season has come to an end. The Athletic’s Diana Russini reported this week that it’s all but been decided in Washington that Ron Rivera will meet the same fate; “some other front office members” could join him, she added. “It’s not really a secret anymore.”
Sunday’s dismal 28-20 loss to the Rams won’t help any slim chance Rivera might’ve been holding onto to keep his job. Under the new ownership group led by Josh Harris, it makes sense for the Commanders to want to start new. Rivera is 26-37-1 in four seasons in Washington. This season, with a new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, started off promising, with two wins to open the year. But Washington has regressed noticeably, and shipped off multiple prominent players before the trade deadline, essentially a waving of the white flag. The Commanders have dropped 10 of 12 since that 2-0 start and have been outscored 118-45 in their last three losses.
Meanwhile, rampant speculation trails Bill Belichick as he wraps up his 24th season in New England, with The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reporting that “signs have pointed toward this being the final four games of Belichick’s unprecedented tenure with the Patriots.”
The team fell to the Chiefs 27-17 Sunday to drop to 3-11 on the season and is headed for its first top-five draft pick since 1994.
So, if the Commanders’ and Patriots’ jobs do indeed open up, that makes five vacancies: the Panthers, Raiders, Chargers, Commanders and Patriots. Most would assume the Chargers is the most appealing because of Justin Herbert; while that may be true, it’s an overrated roster front-loaded with pricey veterans.
Additionally, two general managers have been fired midseason, the Raiders’ Dave Ziegler and the Chargers’ Tom Telesco, adding another layer to the hiring cycle.
(Top photo: David Rosenblum / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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