NFL Winners and Losers: Steelers are riding Le'Veon Bell, but will they pay him?

Shutdown Corner

In the history of the NFL, very few players have had a day better than Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell had dancing through the snow on Sunday.

According to pro-football-reference.com only five players in NFL history have had at least 298 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in a game: Adrian Peterson, Priest Holmes, Jerry Rice, Jerome Harrison and Bell on Sunday (Billy Cannon did in the AFL). Bell had 236 yards rushing and 62 yards receiving in a 27-20 win over the Bills. Nobody in Steelers history has ever had more rushing yards in a game. In other words, if you had Bell in your fantasy lineup this week, congratulations on advancing in your playoffs.

The past few weeks, the Steelers have shifted their offense to make Bell the centerpiece. Bell averaged 16.7 carries his first six games this season and 29.5 in the four games since. He hasn’t had fewer than 23 carries in a game over the Steelers’ past four games, has added 22 catches and had a whopping 38 carries Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger averaged 39.6 pass attempts until four games ago; he hasn’t thrown for more than 36 in a game since. Antonio Brown hasn’t had a 100-yard game in the Steelers’ past four contests.

Make no mistake, over the past month the Steelers have decided their best shot to win the AFC North isn’t with Roethlisberger throwing it to Brown or anyone else, it’s to ride Bell as hard as they can. They’ve won four in a row, so it’s hard to argue with the results.

This all will make next offseason very interesting. Bell can become an unrestricted free agent.

The history of big-money contracts for running backs lets us know it would be crazy for the Steelers to sign Bell to the type of deal he presumably wants. Yet when you see Bell’s amazing talent, and understand how the Steelers have decided midway through this season to build their offense around him, it would be crazy for the Steelers to not pay him.

Bell’s free agency has the potential to be one of the more complicated cases over the past few years. We all know by now that running backs’ careers don’t last long (and the Steelers might be shortening Bell’s with this recent workload). Teams don’t value running backs like they used to. They rarely use high picks on backs and they don’t command enormous contracts anymore either. When Bell has missed games with suspension or injury the past two years, DeAngelo Williams has been very productive in his place. So the Steelers could feel like they could find a competent back at a fraction of the price.

And the injury/suspension part of Bell’s free agency is important. Bell had a 2015 suspension for a DUI and marijuana possession reduced from three games to two. This year he had a four-game suspension for a missed drug test reduced to three this season. Before paying Bell like a superstar, teams will have to at least consider his history first.

Bell also has an injury history. He missed the first three games of his rookie season with a foot injury. He has missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons due to knee injuries.

Bell’s talent and production will draw a huge contract from someone – or the franchise tag from the Steelers – no matter the risk. He’s perhaps the most talented running back in the NFL, a true every-down back who is fantastic as a receiver, can run tough in between the tackles with great vision and patience, and has the speed to make game-changing big plays. He did all of that while making Buffalo’s defense look inept on Sunday.

For now, the Steelers aren’t worried about where Bell will play next season. They’re 8-5 and for the moment have a half-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens, who play the New England Patriots on Monday night, in the AFC North. They will be everyone’s hot pick in the AFC playoffs, if they qualify, because of their big names on offense.

Right now there’s no bigger name on the Steelers’ offense than Bell. They seem set to ride him for as long as they can this season. And when that run is done, the Steelers can figure out what happens next with their star running back.

Le’Veon Bell had a huge game in a win over the Bills. (AP)
Le’Veon Bell had a huge game in a win over the Bills. (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 14 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Matt Moore: Moore, the Miami Dolphins’ backup quarterback, didn’t want to see Ryan Tannehill go down with a reported season-ending ACL injury.

“My heart breaks, man,” Moore said, according to the Miami Herald. “That guys puts his heart and soul in this.”

But it had to feel pretty nice to help lead the Dolphins to a huge win in Tannehill’s place on Sunday.

Moore had 30 passes since the start of the 2012 season, and just 11 over the past four seasons before Sunday. He hadn’t thrown a pass this season. Moore once looked like an intriguing quarterback for the Dolphins, with 2,497 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2011 (12 starts), but settled into life as a longtime backup.

After Tannehill went out with a knee injury, Moore played the fourth quarter. He made two huge plays after the Arizona Cardinals tied the game 23-23, hitting Kenny Stills for 12 yards and then lofting one up for Stills to gain 29 yards and set up a game-winning field goal as time expired.

It has been a long time since Moore was relevant. Now he’s leading an 8-5 Dolphins team that still has wild-card hopes.

Tennessee Titans: Some team from the AFC South will be hosting a playoff game on that Saturday afternoon of wild-card weekend, so we might as well pay attention to the race that’s developing.

On Sunday the Titans took a big step, not only in the division race but for their rebuilding franchise.

The Titans had to hang on for dear life to beat the Denver Broncos 13-10, but who is complaining about any win over the defending champions? The Titans looked good early and made one big play late, when they stripped Broncos tight end A.J. Derby and recovered the fumble to end the game. That’s the kind of win that could have a big impact for a young team gaining confidence.

The Texans won Sunday, too, so the Titans are tied with the Texans atop the division at 7-6. The Texans play at the Titans on Jan. 1, the last day of the regular season. If the Titans keep winning, that game could be for the division title.

Jadeveon Clowney: Clowney has had some decent moments as a Texan, though he hasn’t made the impact you’d think a No. 1 overall pick should make. But in a game that could end up getting the Texans into the playoffs, Clowney made the biggest play.

On third-and-goal at the Houston 3-yard line late in the third quarter, with the Colts trailing 19-10, Clowney showed off the explosion that made him the top pick. Clowney beat tight end Dwayne Allen’s block, strip-sacked Andrew Luck, and the Texans recovered. That play was enormous in a 22-17 win. It was a big win because it pushes the Texans’ divisional record to 4-0 this season. They’ve clinched the tiebreaker over the Colts and Titans based on their divisional record and season sweep of Indianapolis.

Clowney might never reach the stardom many predicted for him coming out of South Carolina, but on Sunday he had a big highlight.

Matt Ryan’s MVP argument: If you don’t like Matt Ryan’s MVP case because he has Julio Jones to carry him, Sunday wasn’t a good day for you.

Ryan was very good Sunday without Jones and Mohamed Sanu, getting a 42-14 win over the Rams that keeps his Atlanta Falcons on the inside track to an NFC South title.

Despite not having Jones, who was out with a toe injury, Ryan was 18 of 28 for 237 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a cool 126.6 rating without one of the best receivers on the planet to throw to.

Ryan has played well most of this season and has the Falcons in a good spot. Atlanta is tied for the division lead with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but has an easier schedule the rest of the way. And Ryan will move back up in the MVP race after this week.

LOSERS

Robert Griffin III and the Cleveland Browns’ likely path to 0-16: Sunday was probably the Browns’ best remaining chance to avoid an 0-16 season. They were at home against their AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals, who were just 4-7-1 coming in and didn’t have A.J. Green. It was cold and snowy, making things a little more unpredictable. And the Browns had some urgency – their past three games are at Buffalo, against San Diego and at Pittsburgh, and they’ll be heavy underdogs in all three games.

The Browns were terrible in a 23-10 loss, and 0-16 is becoming the most likely outcome to their season. Griffin, their quarterback who is still trying to get his career back on track, was really bad.

Griffin was 2 of 10 for 20 yards and an interception in the first half for a 0.0 rating. The Browns trailed 20-0 at halftime as Griffin looked lost. Griffin improved his rating to 38.4 by the end of the game, but that shouldn’t give Cleveland confidence that he can lead the team to a win before the season is done.

Colin Kaepernick: Hopefully you didn’t watch a second of the New York Jets-San Francisco 49ers game. Amazingly, one of the worst matchups of the NFL season went to overtime. The Jets won.

NFL evaluators who suffer through watching the film will see Kaepernick practically ruining his free-agent market next offseason, assuming he opts out of his contract or the 49ers cut him.

Kaepernick had a decent first half with 116 yards. He finished with 133 yards. Yep, in the second half and overtime, Kaepernick had 17 yards on 4-of-11 passing. The Jets defense looked awful against the Colts last Monday night and was bad in the first half too, and Kaepernick did nothing against it after halftime. San Francisco had three first downs, five punts and one turnover on downs after halftime. Unlike last week, when Kaepernick struggled in the snow at Chicago and was benched, the weather wasn’t bad on Sunday.

Kaepernick had a hot streak and it seemed like he was taking to Chip Kelly’s offense and building a market for himself in free agency next offseason. That momentum is entirely gone now.

Russell Wilson: Everyone is allowed to have a bad game, even a superstar quarterback. But Wilson’s bad Sunday was really bad. It’s kind of like the Seattle Seahawks as a whole this season: When they’re bad, it’s really ugly.

Wilson threw five interceptions and didn’t lead Seattle to a touchdown until a meaningless fourth-quarter score in a 38-10 loss. Seattle all of a sudden isn’t even a top-two seed in the NFC anymore. The Seahawks are a half-game behind the Detroit Lions, who needed a late rally at home to beat a bad Chicago Bears team. Nevertheless, the 9-4 Lions are a half-game ahead of the Seahawks (though, Matthew Stafford’s finger injury could impact the race), and Seattle leads the NFC South co-leaders by just a half-game. The Cowboys are running away with the No. 1 seed, but the No. 2 seed means a bye and a divisional round home game. The Seahawks are in danger of losing that.

Wilson wasn’t the only problem. But he wasn’t sharp, and his five interceptions were the most in his career. And two weeks ago, Wilson put up a 38.8 rating and couldn’t lead the Seahawks to a touchdown in a loss to the Buccaneers. When he has been off this season he has been way off, just like his team.

Colts play calling, again: The Colts have made some strange play calls over the years. In the first meeting against the Texans this season, they ran a shotgun formation on fourth-and-1 and didn’t get it. We all remember the miserable punt formation trick that didn’t work against the Patriots.

There was more to question Sunday. With the Colts trailing 22-17 with less than two minutes left and facing fourth-and-1, they ran a screen pass. Of all the Colts’ options on that fourth-and-1, a screen pass to Robert Turbin should be really low on the list. It was incomplete and that sealed the Colts’ loss and maybe their season too.

You can’t count out the Colts in the AFC South because nobody in that division can be counted on to finish strong. But at 6-7, now guaranteed to lose the tiebreaker to the 7-6 Texans, it’s beginning to look bleak. Even if the Colts win out, they’d still need the Texans to lose two of three. That loss Sunday was probably the end of their playoff hopes.

The NFL and its celebration rules: Not that it’s new to get on the league for its ridiculous penalties for fun celebrations, but the NFL needs to rethink things. When Denver Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders’ hilarious baseball-pitcher celebration is a 15-yard penalty, it’s a perfect example of the NFL being out of control with its rules. If you’re upset about Sanders’ celebration, you’re way too serious about football.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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