What we learned from Week 15 in the NFL
By Derrik Klassen
The final games of the regular season are meant to solidify playoff seeding, but in Week 15, precious few postseason berths were clinched over a chaotic slate that featured three overtime games. When the dust — and snow — cleared, the Dallas Cowboys fell to the resurgent Jacksonville Jaguars, the Las Vegas Raiders picked a win over the New England Patriots out of thin air, and the AFC wild-card spots were just as up for grabs as they had been before the weekend’s games kicked off.
The AFC playoff picture is in shambles.
It is easy for a team’s season to fade quickly in the NFL. A few unlucky losses, a bad string of injuries, a couple of poor coaching decisions — any of these could be the margin between a successful season and a wasted year.
On Sunday, the AFC’s wild-card race turned into slapstick with the Raiders’ inconceivable 30-24 win over the Patriots, which was decided on the game’s final play. With the New York Jets having already lost, New England had a chance to leapfrog ahead in the AFC East and looked to be cruising to overtime against Las Vegas.
Tied at 24-24, the Patriots had the ball on their own 45-yard line with 3 seconds left. They were too far for a field goal and out of Hail Mary range. New England opted to hand the ball off to running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who lateraled the ball to receiver Jakobi Meyers. Meyers described what happened next as him “trying to do too much and trying to be a hero,” knowing that he should have let time expire by giving himself up or going out of bounds.
But Meyers tried to throw the ball back to Mac Jones near the line of scrimmage without noticing that 6-foot-5 Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones stood between them. Chandler Jones picked the pass and stiff-armed Mac Jones on his way to the end zone, giving the Raiders a win in improbable fashion.
That play encapsulated the chaotic AFC wild-card picture. By some miracle, the Raiders, who at one time were just 2-7, still have a 6% chance to get in the postseason, according to The Upshot’s playoff simulator. And with the Los Angeles Chargers’ win over the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots and the Jets were both out of the playoffs as of Sunday.
The Miami Dolphins are currently the No. 7 seed, but their loss to the Buffalo Bills on Saturday added some complications. The Jaguars then beat the Cowboys in overtime on Sunday, putting themselves just one game back of Tennessee in the AFC South.
It doesn’t feel like there is any use trying to sort out the AFC playoff picture from where it stands now.
Around the NFL
Giants 20, Commanders 12: Giants rookie defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux picked the perfect time to have a breakout game. Thibodeaux finished with a team-high 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a strip sack he recovered himself for a touchdown. Most of that production came in the first half, but it was good enough to put the Commanders behind the eight ball. Washington tried to rally in the second half, largely off the back of two contested catches from rookie receiver Jahan Dotson, but two consecutive drives that stalled inside the Giants’ 10-yard line sealed their fate. With the Giants’ win, division-rival Cowboys clinched a playoff spot despite losing earlier in the day.
Bengals 34, Buccaneers 23: Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ offense had little in the first half, falling behind 17-3. Cincinnati’s fate shifted in the second half when the defense gifted the team a number of short fields. Tom Brady had four turnovers, and Burrow found four different receivers for touchdowns.
Chargers 17, Titans 14: In typical Chargers fashion, this game was harder than it needed to be. With the Titans’ secondary ravaged by injuries, Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi puzzlingly opted not to test Tennessee down the field. Justin Herbert bailed Los Angeles out anyway. He found Mike Williams on a 35-yard pass with roughly 30 seconds left to set up Cameron Dicker’s 43-yard game-winning field goal, pushing the Chargers into wild-card positioning.
Broncos 24, Cardinals 15: Three backup quarterbacks played in this game and it felt that way. Both teams entered the game with backups as starters; Colt McCoy for the Cardinals and Brett Rypien for the Broncos. Neither played very well, and McCoy eventually left the game with a concussion, giving way to Trace McSorley getting real snaps. Rypien, by contrast, was sacked seven times, although he did manage to lead the Broncos to their second-highest point total of the season. Both teams are mercifully eliminated from postseason contention.
Jaguars 40, Cowboys 34 (OT): After Jacksonville fell behind by 21-7 in the first half, Trevor Lawrence and the team’s offense exploded for 27 points in the second half, thanks to a number of daring throws, many of which found Zay Jones (six catches for 109 yards and three touchdowns). Lawrence finished with 27 of 42 passing for 318 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. The effort was enough to push the game to overtime, where a Dak Prescott pass bounced off Cowboys receiver Noah Brown’s forearm and into Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins’ arms. Jenkins returned the pick, his second of the game, for the winning score.
Eagles 25, Bears 20: Justin Fields was sacked six times for 61 yards, but he rushed 15 times for 95 yards, nearly half of which came on one heroic 39-yard scramble that set the Bears up for their first score. Fields has exactly 1,000 yards rushing for the season. On the other end, Jalen Hurts threw two interceptions and was dogged by a chippy game from the Bears’ secondary, but he ran in three scores himself.
Chiefs 30, Texans 24 (OT): Patrick Mahomes diced up the Texans’ secondary all day, but fumbles by Isiah Pacheco and JuJu Smith-Schuster resulted in Texans scores. Houston quarterback Davis Mills was strip-sacked in overtime and Jerick McKinnon ran in a 26-yard score to end the game.
Saints 21, Falcons 18: The NFL debut for Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder (97 yards passing) didn’t look a whole lot different from any game with Marcus Mariota. Ridder completed just half his 26 passes and ate four sacks, often looking like the game was just a beat too fast for him. New Orleans Saints quarterback Andy Dalton, however, was much more efficient in his limited chances to throw the ball. Most importantly, Dalton executed in and near the red zone, finding Juwan Johnson for 19- and 22-yard touchdowns.
Lions 20, Jets 17: The Lions’ passing offense was held mostly to dinking and dunking, partly a result of Jared Goff’s typical struggles in unsavory weather and the Jets’ lights-out secondary. Zach Wilson’s return as starter yielded a handful of surprising deep throws (317 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, four sacks), but the handful of explosive plays couldn’t bury Detroit, which went ahead on a 51-yard Goff touchdown throw to Brock Wright with less than 2 minutes remaining.
Steelers 24, Panthers 16: Ball control put the Pittsburgh Steelers over the finish line. With quarterback Mitchell Trubisky starting in place of an injured Kenny Pickett, the Steelers went into throwback mode with the run game. The Steelers finished with 45 carries for 156 yards (led by Najee Harris’ 86 yards) and converted on 12 of 16 third downs, an exhausting display that kept the Pittsburgh offense on the field.