• The San Juan Daily Star

What we learned from Week 16 in the NFL

The Bills could have intercepted Patriots quarterback Mac Jones’s Hail Mary pass twice.

By Emmanuel Morgan

The Buffalo Bills (9-6) and the New England Patriots (9-6) play in outdoor, uncovered venues — a far cry from the sparkling stadiums constructed across the NFL in recent years. The harsh weather elements affected the teams’ meeting in Orchard Park, New York, three weeks ago. A nicer day helped produce a different outcome in Week 16.

The Bills won 33-21 in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and now control the AFC East. But while the milder conditions were certainly a factor, efficient play and an aggressive strategy by Buffalo allowed it to win and reminded the league that it was still a potent championship threat.

The Bills’ offense propelled its defense.

Earlier this month, when the Bills allowed the Patriots to win while attempting only three passes, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer angrily left a postgame news conference after a reporter asked if they were embarrassed. The defense conceded 222 rushing yards, yet surrendered only 14 points. But that still was not enough as the Bills scored only 10.

Three weeks later, without serious wind speeds and whipping snow flurries, Mac Jones threw more passes, and it allowed the Bills’ defense to play to its strength. At the end of the game, Jones threw a last-ditch heave to the end zone that Hyde caught for his second interception. As he fell to the ground, he and Poyer both smiled because either of them could have grabbed it.

The team was in that position because the offense picked up the burden. The Bills amassed 428 total yards, nearly 200 more than in the first meeting, and scored 23 more points. They did so aggressively. Buffalo converted three of its four fourth-down attempts and one of them resulted in a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, with the score 26-21, Josh Allen ran a bootleg on fourth down for 8 yards to extend a drive, and he threw his third touchdown pass five plays later.

The defense, which has been one of the best units against the pass all season, intercepted Jones twice (though one bounced off a receiver’s hands) and held him to 14 of 32 passing for 145 yards and no touchdowns. That’s one of his worst games in an otherwise strong rookie year, and it shows that the Bills, when they play together, are one of the better teams in the league.

Injuries and 2-point conversions cause ‘what-if’ questions for Ravens’ season.

Is it possible for John Harbaugh, despite Baltimore’s lack of wins, to receive votes for the Coach of the Year Award? He should, considering that despite being the most injured team in the league, the Ravens (8-7) are still in the playoff hunt. The Bengals (9-6) ultimately dispatched them, 41-21, behind four touchdowns and a career-high 525 passing yards by Joe Burrow. But a corps of reserve players kept the margin relatively close in the first half before the score got ugly. Just before halftime, with Cincinnati leading 24-14, the Ravens intercepted a pass near the goal line, but a penalty negated the play. They forced an incompletion on the next play, but that too was nullified. The Bengals scored on the next play.

Burrow exploited a young secondary without its top two cornerbacks, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, who had suffered injuries earlier in the season. To make matters worse for the Ravens, they lost Anthony Averett in the first quarter in Cincinnati to an injury. Quarterback Lamar Jackson missed the game because of an ankle injury and his backup, Tyler Huntley, was placed on the COVID-19 list earlier this week, forcing journeyman Josh Johnson to start.

But because the Los Angeles Chargers lost, the Ravens can still vie for a playoff spot. The conversation would be different, though, if the Ravens were successful on two pivotal 2-point conversions in the final seconds against the Steelers and the Packers. In its current situation, however, Baltimore does not have time to waste emotional energy by pondering hypotheticals.

Around the NFL

Buccaneers 32, Panthers 6: When Sam Darnold entered the game, fans in Charlotte, North Carolina, booed him. He completed a 63-yard pass on the next play, and then was soon replaced by Cam Newton for a red-zone package. That perfectly sums up the conundrum for the Panthers — an organization with no certainty at its most important position. That murkiness has haunted them all season and was evident when Darnold and Newton both completed less than 60% of their passes. By handing the Panthers their fifth consecutive loss, the Buccaneers clinched the NFC South for the first time since 2007.

Falcons 20, Lions 16: The Lions, as they’ve done all year, played competitively for much of the game, but committed a costly mistake. Near Atlanta’s goal line with a chance to score a game-winning touchdown, Tim Boyle, who started at quarterback because Jared Goff was on the COVID-19 list, instead threw an interception to seal it for the Falcons. In a mostly meaningless game for both teams, the Falcons can take the bragging rights.

Jets 26, Jaguars 21: The Jaguars botched a potential game-winning drive against the Jets because of miscommunication at the line of scrimmage and rushing a disorganized play in the red zone. In the matchup of the top two picks from the 2021 draft, both Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson showed promise. But it was an impressive performance for the Jets, who were without coach Robert Saleh and about 20 players because of the coronavirus.

Eagles 34, Giants 10: The Eagles recovered from an underwhelming first half to dominate the Giants. Their offense remains balanced and Jalen Hurts played a responsible game without any turnovers and threw two touchdown passes. One of the scores was a 4-yard strike to rookie receiver DeVonta Smith, who completed a challenging toe-tapping catch near the pylon.

Rams 30, Vikings 23: A 61-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Rams in the third quarter was essentially the difference in a competitive afternoon. Los Angeles struggled early to separate itself from the Vikings, who were without star running back Dalvin Cook because of the coronavirus. The Rams clinched a playoff berth with the win, but if Matthew Stafford throws three interceptions like he did Sunday, the team’s postseason journey will be short. For Minnesota, the next two games are must-wins, and it will need help from others to earn a wild-card spot.

Texans 41, Chargers 29: An upset victory by the Texans complicated the playoff equation for the Chargers, who were without Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams, two of their best offensive players, because of the coronavirus. Los Angeles’ defense, which all season has been one of the worst units against the run, allowed Rex Burkhead to rush for 149 yards and two touchdowns. The Chargers are now in a race for the AFC’s final wild-card spot, and will be forced to monitor Ravens scores for the remainder of the season.

Kansas City 36, Steelers 10: Kansas City effortlessly clinched the AFC West by drubbing the Steelers and did so without Travis Kelce, who was on the COVID-19 list. Its early season struggles seem like a distant memory, as Kansas City has not lost a game since October and has a legitimate shot to win the conference title for a third consecutive season. For Pittsburgh, with the postseason largely out of reach, it may now be time to give the other quarterbacks on the roster more playing time to get a head start on a succession plan for the era after Ben Roethlisberger.

Raiders 17, Broncos 13: The Raiders kept their playoff hopes alive in a sloppy win against the Broncos. The Raiders’ win would set up an important game with the Chargers in the regular-season finale if Las Vegas can beat the Colts in Week 17. For Denver, its unbearably average season is nearing its end.

Bears 25, Seahawks 24: A late 2-point conversion lifted the Bears, who started third-string quarterback Nick Foles, over the Seahawks in snowy conditions. It was a meaningless game, as both teams are already eliminated from playoff contention, but it may give Russell Wilson more ammunition to force his way out of Seattle this offseason.

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