By Derrik Klassen
With just two weeks left in the season, it’s time to put up or shut up. Some teams were ready Sunday; others were not. The disappointing Tampa Bay Buccaneers rose to the challenge, coming back to beat the Carolina Panthers and wrest the division title from them. The New York Jets and Washington Commanders, by contrast, lost games that dashed their playoff chances.
The Jets complete their second-half implosion.
It’s not an NFL season without one team crashing and burning over the second half of the year. Last year, it was the Baltimore Ravens, who started 8-3 before dropping their final six games to fall out of playoff contention. This year it’s the New York Jets, a team with an electric defense and skill players whose problems at quarterback eventually caught up with them.
The Jets’ year can be split at their Week 10 bye. Before the break, the Jets were 6-3. Two of their three losses came with Joe Flacco starting at quarterback while Zach Wilson recovered from a preseason knee injury, and the third was a one-score loss to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. It was clear the Jets were winning in spite of their quarterback play, but things were working, and they had put themselves in decent position in the AFC playoff race. Surely they wouldn’t throw it away, right?
As we know now, they would. Wilson played the worst game of his career coming out of the bye week, in a 10-3 loss to the Patriots, and was immediately benched, due in equal parts to his poor play and his mishandling of the postgame news conference. Replacement quarterback Mike White led the Jets to a win the following week, but the team lost its next two games before White went down with cracked ribs.
White was back on Sunday, but he isn’t the answer for the Jets, and their loss to the Seattle Seahawks showed that. White wins almost exclusively as an in-structure rhythm thrower, looking at the presnap picture and assuming how the coverage will play out to quickly get from one read to the next. That’s great if you can be Drew Brees and adapt as a game goes on, but White is not that caliber of processor, so he eventually lands in a place where his habits and game play become predictable with enough film out there. The Seahawks took full advantage of that, driving on everything White tried to throw. White completed only half of his passes and threw two interceptions and zero touchdowns.
And that’s the difference a quarterback makes in the NFL. The Jets have a Top 10 roster outside of quarterback, but when you include the most important position, the whole operation crumbles.
Around the NFL
Giants 38, Colts 10: The Jeff Saturday-led Indianapolis Colts are barely a real football team at this point. That sounds mean, but the Colts were blown out by a New York Giants team notorious for playing close games. Daniel Jones played one of his best games of the year, leading the Giants to their first playoff berth since 2016.
Chiefs 27, Broncos 24: Andy Reid almost entirely refused to run the ball, calling just 12 handoffs compared with more than 40 dropbacks for Patrick Mahomes in the passing game. Mahomes is the best player in the sport, so, of course, he handled the volume well and still sliced up the Broncos.
Patriots 23, Dolphins 21: Miami just can’t finish a game this season with the quarterback who started it. Teddy Bridgewater, filling in for Tua Tagovailoa, left late in the third quarter after a failed tackle on a pick-6 he threw to Patriots safety Kyle Dugger. Skylar Thompson replaced him on the following drive. The Dolphins were leading by 4 until the pick-6, and then everything unraveled quickly, giving the Patriots a win despite a pretty uninspiring performance from their offense.
Steelers 16, Ravens 13: Somehow, some way, coach Mike Tomlin again has the Pittsburgh Steelers alive with playoff hopes in the final week of the season. Tomlin may have himself a quarterback too. Rookie Kenny Pickett finished off a mostly nondescript performance with a stellar winning touchdown drive.
Buccaneers 30, Panthers 24: The Panthers were the better team for three quarters and change. Sam Darnold played one of his best games of the season, finding three touchdowns with beautiful ball placement. But that wasn’t enough to win the game and take the division with Tom Brady and Mike Evans relentlessly targeting Carolina downfield.
Falcons 20, Cardinals 19: Atlanta quarterback Desmond Ridder has gotten better little by little over his three starts, and that’s really all the Falcons could have hoped for to end this season. Although explosive plays were hard to come by, Ridder got the ball out quickly and picked up efficient gains.
Lions 41, Bears 10: This was a real game for one quarter. Justin Fields ran for more than 100 yards in the first 15 minutes of play, literally carrying the Bears to 10 points. That was all Fields and the Bears had in the tank, though. From that point on, the Lions’ pass rush terrorized Fields, while their offense rained down points on Chicago’s young defense.
Saints 20, Eagles 10: Philadelphia missed Jalen Hurts. Backup quarterback Gardner Minshew wasn’t terrible for most of the game — he did well to feed his two star receivers and keep the offense on track — but the explosive plays and rushing value usually provided by Hurts just weren’t there.
Browns 24, Commanders 10: The Commanders’ dice roll at quarterback was bad. Carson Wentz threw two interceptions in the first half and did little to make up for them. For the Browns, all it took was a steady serving of Nick Chubb carries and occasionally successful shot plays in the passing game to outscore the Commanders and effectively ruin their opponents’ postseason chances.
Jaguars 31, Texans 3: Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw no touchdowns and one interception, and it didn’t matter whatsoever. Lawrence was lethally efficient outside of the interception, setting up a number of drives in which the Jaguars finished things off on the ground.
49ers 37, Raiders 34 (OT): Just as everyone expected, Brock Purdy and Jarrett Stidham went blow for blow in a shootout. Stidham was refreshing for the Las Vegas Raiders, showing more aggression and carefree play than Derek Carr had of late. That, of course, led to a couple of game-changing interceptions in the fourth-quarter and overtime, but that aggression and looseness were what had the Raiders in the game anyway, so you live with it. It’s more shocking that the San Francisco 49ers would allow such a performance out of any quarterback, much less Stidham.
Packers 41, Vikings 17: The Packers scored 41 points, but it was a win for defense and special teams. Not only did Keisean Nixon score a touchdown on a 105-yard kick return, but safety Adrian Amos returned one of Kirk Cousins’ three interceptions for a pick-6.
Chargers 31, Rams 10: A Week 17 Battle for Los Angeles sounded much better before the season. What we got in actuality was a surging Chargers team beating up a Rams team looking longingly toward their offseason travel plans.