Even after all the rough patches this season, the Dallas Cowboys were in pretty good shape to make the playoffs.
They survived until Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension was done. The Detroit Lions, who could have put the Cowboys all but out of the playoffs by beating two bad teams to finish the season, inexplicably lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in an early game Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons’ loss on Sunday helped too. The Philadelphia Eagles were expected to win on Monday, clinch a No. 1 seed and bench some starters against the Cowboys in Week 17. All the Cowboys had to do was beat a Seattle Seahawks team that lost 42-7 a week before, beat an Eagles team with nothing to play for next week and hope the final few pieces fell in their favor.
And when it mattered most, the Cowboys’ three superstars let them down.
Quarterback Dak Prescott wasn’t good. He threw for 182 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. One was a terrible decision that was returned for a touchdown. The other bounced off Dez Bryant’s hands. Bryant came up small the entire game. He had three catches for 44 yards. Bryant was seen on the sideline in the first half doing what he often does, yelling at teammates and coaches over whatever (it’s hard to say he was complaining, because we’ve assumed that before and it hasn’t been the case), and then he lost a fumble that turned around the game. Elliott was fine in his return. He had 97 yards rushing and 21 more receiving. He played pretty well. But perhaps the Cowboys wouldn’t have been in such a dire spot had Elliott not gotten suspended in the first place. The Cowboys were 3-3 without him. They would have had a much better chance of winning one of those three losses with Elliott in the lineup.
That was the problem with this year’s Cowboys: It was always something. There were suspensions early in the season, the Elliott suspension and courthouse drama, Jerry Jones’ sudden concern about who was standing for the anthem … always something other than football.
Elliott was a big part of that. Prescott and Bryant just weren’t good enough on the field to overcome everything else. Prescott was just OK all season, and nobody should be surprised that he regressed after an unbelievable rookie season. But he had some no-shows that really hurt the Cowboys. In those three losses without Elliott, Prescott had no touchdowns, five interceptions and a 57 rating. He didn’t play well Sunday, and this wasn’t the Legion of Boom he was facing. The Seahawks are without Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman in the secondary, Cliff Avril has been out most of the season and linebacker Bobby Wagner is playing through a hamstring injury. Prescott averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt against a injury-plagued Seahawks defense that was torn apart by the Rams last week. Prescott’s interception that was returned for a score was a wild throw off his back foot that a good quarterback just shouldn’t make. It’s worth noting Prescott is still a very young quarterback.
The Seahawks had 136 yards (don’t dare blame the Cowboys defense for this loss) and 142 penalty yards. They became the first team since the 1966 Eagles to win a game with fewer yards gained than penalty yards, according to Fox’s broadcast. You can only do that if you get turnovers, and Prescott helped in that. So did Bryant. Bryant is only 29 but he has looked much older this season. Bryant hasn’t had a 100-yard game all season. He has only had one game with more than 73 yards. And on Sunday he made no impact while losing one fumble and having one pass go off his hands that was picked off.
Dallas had to win to stay alive on Sunday. It was basically a playoff game. You won’t win often when some of your best players don’t rise to the occasion.
And if you want to lay this all on head coach Jason Garrett’s feet and see him fired, Jones indicated that won’t be happening.
Jerry Jones, asked about his faith in his team’s leadership, said he understands fan frustration after a game like that, but added he has confidence in Jason Garrett. pic.twitter.com/0fFGld9apW
— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 25, 2017
The Cowboys should be back in the hunt next season, but this was a wasted year. The Cowboys have the blue-chip talent to be championship contenders, and they’re 8-7 and playing for nothing next week. Prescott is a good quarterback and he’ll improve, even if it’s possible he never reaches the heights of his incredible rookie season again. Elliott is talented but the Cowboys need him to stay out of trouble. His suspension aside, Elliott’s maturity has been a constant story in Dallas. And it’s fine for Bryant to be demonstrative on the sideline when he’s producing, but not many receivers with 771 yards and six touchdowns put on that show. Bryant needs to quickly prove this was a one-off season and not the start of a downward slide. And it wouldn’t be the worst thing next season if Jones didn’t create unnecessary story lines, though that might be asking a bit much.
Dallas came into this season with Super Bowl hopes. They’ll come into next season with Super Bowl aspirations too. The overall talent isn’t a question. But they’ll need more out of their superstars if they’re going to make it happen.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Sunday’s Week 16 action:
The Chargers’ playoff chances: The Los Angeles Chargers are, inexplicably, still alive.
The Chargers won 14-7 against the New York Jets. Unlike last week, their defense showed up in a big way. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but it did the job. And the Chargers got some help. The Buffalo Bills lost to the New England Patriots, and the Tennessee Titans’ slide continued with a loss to the Los Angeles Rams. That opened up an avenue for the Chargers to get in the playoffs despite an 0-4 start.
If the Chargers beat the Raiders, the Titans lose to the Jaguars and the Ravens beat the Bengals, the Chargers are in. The biggest concern might be the Jaguars, who have a division title clinched and can not get a first-round bye if the Steelers win Monday. Jacksonville might rest their starters in Week 17. The Titans could get into the playoffs with a backdoor win over a Jaguars team with little to play for.
The Chargers seem to be on a constant roller coaster, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they are staying alive by the skin of their teeth heading into Week 17. The rest of the AFC is probably hopeful the above scenario doesn’t happen. Anyone in the AFC playoffs would much rather see the Titans find their way in than a talented Chargers team.
Clutch Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers: Newton is one of the biggest names and greatest talents in the NFL, and he’s pretty good in the clutch too.
The Panthers were in a bind Sunday. Somehow, they trailed the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers 19-15 at home with three minutes to go. But a missed field goal by the Buccaneers (seriously, are they just jinxed at kicker?) opened the door for Newton to stage a comeback, and he did.
Newton hit a huge pass on third-and-10, moving around in the pocket to keep the play alive and hitting Kaelin Clay for 11 yards. The Panthers picked up a fourth-and-1 later in the drive when Jonathan Stewart bulled ahead for a yard. Then on the next play Newton gave Panthers fans a momentary heart attack when he fumbled the snap, but he picked it up on the move and got into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown run.
The Panthers said they’d cut back on Newton’s running, but it seems that will never happen until Newton isn’t effective anymore. Newton led the Panthers with 14 carries and 52 rushing yards on Sunday. His talent as a runner is one reason he’s one of the NFL’s best. The Panthers just keep winning, and the biggest reason is Newton. It will be a tough NFC playoff field, but Newton gives the Panthers a chance to make some noise.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s accountant: OK, now we know why Kyle Shanahan didn’t want to start Garoppolo. Shanahan probably knew if Garoppolo played, he’d play well. And that’s not the best news for the 49ers at the negotiating table.
We all know the quarterback market is crazy. Brock Osweiler got $18 million a year. Mike Glennon got $15 million a year. Case Keenum is probably getting at least $16 million per year and maybe as much as $18 million a year next offseason. So what does Garoppolo’s agent do? Put on a tape of Sunday’s performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars and ask for a blank check?
The Jaguars not only have the best pass defense in the NFL, they have one of the best defenses in many years. Garoppolo was unimpressed. He came out firing from the opening kickoff and led a 44-33 beatdown of the Jaguars. Garoppolo had 242 yards and two touchdowns, and aside from one ill-advised interception he was in control the whole game. The 49ers defense helped in a turnover-fest against Blake Bortles (yeah, he’s getting a mention in this space, a little later on), but Garoppolo undeniably played well. He has been a revelation for the 49ers, who have won four in a row with him starting. The thought of the 49ers scoring that many points against the Jaguars’ defense a month ago, when Shanahan was stubbornly holding onto C.J. Beathard as his starter, was laughable.
Garoppolo, who was a steal in a trade with the New England Patriots, will be a free agent next offseason. At very least the 49ers are going to give him the franchise tag – though, as we’ve seen with Kirk Cousins, that is not always a cure-all. More realistically, after Garoppolo’s big finish, the 49ers are simply going to have to pay him whatever he wants.
Dion Lewis: Do the Patriots have a factory in which they create running backs?
It doesn’t seem to matter who lines up behind Tom Brady, because they all produce. Lewis’ turn was Sunday, with Danny Woodhead and James White out. All he did was rush for 129 yards an a touchdown in a win over the Bills. He also had a receiving touchdown.
Lewis has had some fine moments before, and he is a shining example of how the Patriots can save careers. Lewis looked done when he missed the 2013 season with an injury and was unsigned for all of 2014. The Patriots signed him to a futures contract at the end of the 2014 season, the kind of move that works for the Patriots at a much higher rate than anyone else. Lewis has become a nice role player and when he has been asked to do more, he delivers.
The Patriots keep cruising along. They will clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win over the New York Jets next week. And once the Patriots get to the playoffs, just assume whoever is at running back will make some plays.
Los Angeles Rams: The Rams winning a division title since 2003 is a great milestone. It was also impressive how they handled a tough spot.
The Rams were coming off their biggest win since probably 2003, playing a Titans team that isn’t easy to get up for. It was an early game for Los Angeles, and that’s not always the best spot for West Coast teams. And while it wasn’t the most dominant win, the Rams got out of Nashville with a 27-23 win. That the Rams could keep cruising along is a testament to coach Sean McVay having the team focused, even if Jeff Fisher thinks he was really the reason for the victory.
Detroit Lions: The Lions had a clearer path to the playoffs than anyone mentioned in the past week or so. If the Lions won out they would have been in good shape, although the tiebreakers would have been tricky. The Lions’ final two opponents were a Cincinnati Bengals team that looked utterly horrible the previous two weeks, and the Green Bay Packers with Brett Hundley at quarterback.
Maybe nobody was talking about the Lions because everyone knew they’d screw it up.
The Lions were flat and bad in a horrible loss to the Bengals. Jim Caldwell gave Lions ownership a lot to think about, in terms of his future, when he failed to challenge a Golden Tate catch in what should have been an obvious spot to challenge. The Lions went from being in a good spot to make the playoffs to being eliminated.
Caldwell hasn’t been a bad coach, but it will be interesting to see what the Lions do this offseason. They’re a franchise perennially stuck on a road to nowhere. It couldn’t have surprised anyone on Sunday when they lost to a bad Bengals team Sunday with their season on the line. That’s who the Lions are. The Lions might not be able to get a better coach than Caldwell, but a shake-up might be in order anyway. At some point, maybe the Lions will get it right.
Devonta Freeman: Freeman is a great player, but he had a rough day on Sunday.
Freeman had a crucial fumble on the goal line that the Saints recovered. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Freeman was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Those plays were huge in a 23-13 loss.
The Falcons finished the early games still looking OK in the playoff race because they held tiebreakers over the Cowboys and Seahawks. The Seahawks won, and the Falcons will be in the playoffs with a win next week. But they’ll need to beat the Panthers next week, and the Panthers are still in the NFC South race. To beat the Panthers they’ll need Freeman to have a big game, as he had many times in his career. He’ll be looking to rebound from a tough afternoon.
Eli Manning: Eli Manning got his job back. And … well, we’ve mostly seen why he was benched in the first place.
Manning was bad again on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. The Giants lost 23-0, the first time they have been shut out since 2014, and the Cardinals’ first time shutting out an opponent since 1992 when they were still the Phoenix Cardinals. Manning threw for 263 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. While Manning deserved better when he was benched by lame duck since-fired coach Ben McAdoo, he hasn’t had a good season. While it’s true he hasn’t had much help from a frighteningly thin offense, Manning’s play has brought up many questions about his future. The last three weeks, after he was reinstated following the infamous benching, have been inconsistent. The Giants are going to get either the second or third pick of the draft and be in position to draft a quarterback, which they should do. Manning will be 37 next season. Not that Josh Rosen’s reported preference to play with the Giants means everything, considering the Browns have clinched the top pick, but that would be a nice consolation prize for the Giants after a terrible season (it is pretty funny to think Rosen could end up with the Giants because he refuses to play for another team … remember that Manning ended up on the Giants because he forced the hand of the Chargers, who had the first pick when he was drafted).
And that brings us back to Manning. Would the Giants keep him around as a bridge to Rosen or whoever they draft? If not, would Manning waive his no-trade clause to help out the Giants or simply force the team to cut him and then explore his options? Whatever will happen this offseason, Manning’s Giants career might be ending with a pretty meek whimper.
TheJacksonville Jaguars and Blake Bortles’ bandwagons: If you refused to buy into the Jaguars being legitimate contenders, mostly because they’re the Jaguars and the wheels would fall off for Bortles at some point, take a bow.
What happened in San Francisco on Sunday was alarming. Bortles looked terrible after a good three-game stretch. He missed some easy passes and some of his best completions were right into the hands of 49ers defenders. Bortles rallied the Jaguars late, but his three interceptions put the team in a huge hole. There was also the mess of linebacker Myles Jack getting a personal foul for taunting Carlos Hyde and then defensive end Yannick Ngakoue getting a bad unnecessary roughness penalty later in the drive. And at the end, needing a stop to get the ball back after a late rally, defensive end Malik Jackson couldn’t stop himself from head-butting a 49ers player and picking up a 15-yard penalty. The Jaguars melted down in every way.
That does help the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers clinch a first-round bye if they beat the Houston Texans on Monday night. The Jaguars have looked good for most of this season. But there has been skepticism, mostly because they’re the Jaguars. That was justified on Sunday. So on a day in which the Jaguars clinched their first division title since 1999, when they won the AFC Central, it didn’t seem like a time to celebrate.
The NFL, in hopes that Week 17 would bring some excitement: There’s not much the NFL can do about how Week 17 falls. Some weeks there is great excitement with many races in the air. Other years are like this one.
There is not one game next week between two teams fighting for a playoff spot or a division title. Seven of the eight division titles have been clinched. The eighth is between the Panthers and Saints for the NFC South, but they don’t play each other. Both first-round byes in the AFC will be clinched if the Steelers win Monday, and the Eagles can clinch a No. 1 seed on Monday night. The only way the Vikings won’t get the second NFC bye is if they lose at home to the Bears, the Panthers win at Atlanta and New Orleans loses or ties at Tampa Bay (h/t to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press).
In short, we won’t have a Week 17 filled with important games. There is still intrigue with wild-card spots in both conferences, and those will be interesting to watch unfold. But as the NFL got together to figure out which game to flex to Sunday night next week, they had to quickly realize there was no good option. The NFL has been catching a run of bad breaks all season, and the bad luck continues through the Week 17 schedule.
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