The New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers showdown lived up to the great expectations anyone could have had for it, and everyone will remember one of two things from it: Jesse James’ controversial non-catch and Ben Roethlisberger turning a spike play into an interception.
What shouldn’t be lost is that once again, Tom Brady showed why he’s the greatest quarterback in NFL history and the Patriots showed why they’re champions.
The Patriots probably should have been done long before the wild ending. They led for about only three of the game’s first 59 minutes. They didn’t light up the scoreboard and Brady threw a rare interception deep in his own territory in the third quarter. When the Steelers held New England to a field goal with 3:56 left, that should have been it. The Steelers led 24-19 and hadn’t gone three-and-out the whole game. Then, when the Patriots held the Steelers to a three-and-out when they needed it most, you knew what was coming next.
For most teams, and most quarterbacks, needing 77 yards and a touchdown in 2:06 would seem like a difficult challenge. For Brady, it seemed like a foregone conclusion. He hadn’t had a fantastic day to that point, but you had to know what was coming.
Brady completed three passes to Rob Gronkowski for 69 yards. Then Dion Lewis strolled into the end zone for the final 8 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. This is just what the Patriots do. Had they lost, the Steelers were probably going to get the AFC’s No. 1 seed and the Patriots were in danger of getting stuck with the No. 3 seed behind the Jacksonville Jaguars. A loss Sunday would have changed the Patriots’ playoff outlook in a dramatic way. Other teams and quarterbacks might shrink in the moment, but that drive exemplified what makes Brady the greatest quarterback of all time (it showed why Gronkowski is great too). We might as well just give him the MVP award now.
You’re sick of hearing it. The Patriots and Brady have been great for so long, and not always in the most loveable way. Patriots fans love the team – try criticizing the Pats sometime and you’ll find out – and everyone else is waiting for their dominance to finally be over. Or at least for Brady to look like he’s 40 years old. For most of Sunday afternoon it seemed like the Patriots were going to get some comeuppance. New England looked bad in a Monday night loss to the Dolphins. It rarely looked Sunday like they were going to pull out a crucial win. And somehow, with a clutch drive at the end and a finish that was borderline miraculous, the Patriots won. Again. They won the AFC East, for a ninth straight time. That’s an NFL record. With home wins over the Bills and Jets the next two weeks, they’ll be the first seed and the AFC will go through Foxborough. Again.
The last time the Patriots weren’t a part of conference championship weekend was 2010. Had a two-point conversion in the final seconds against the Denver Broncos in the 2015 AFC championship gone their way, we might be talking about a Patriots team trying to win its fourth straight Super Bowl. This run has been unlike anything in NFL history, and given the challenges of the salary cap and in a league set up for parity, it’s arguably the greatest sustained run in American professional sports history. The only player that was around for the first Patriots title and the last one is Brady. He’s having the greatest season for a 40-year-old quarterback in NFL history. The only other good season for a quarterback that old was Brett Favre in 2009. You’d think Brady would fade and the Patriots would follow. Instead, Brady has been incredible and the Patriots have lost one time since Oct. 1.
This Patriots team might not win it all. They have looked vulnerable at times. The Kansas City Chiefs dominated the Patriots in Week 1, and they’re a likely divisional round opponent. The Steelers can play with the Patriots and might finish the job in the AFC title game, even if it’s on the road. Sunday’s loss doesn’t mean they can’t beat New England in a rematch. But this much remains true, especially after the win in Pittsburgh: If any future opponent has the Patriots on the ropes, you better bury them. If Brady has a chance to win it, he’s going to find a way.
Here are the winners and losers from Week 15 of the NFL season:
All the awards the Rams might win: The Rams’ 42-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks should serve notice they’re a championship contender. It might also help some individuals win hardware.
Sean McVay is practically a lock for Coach of the Year at this point. There’s still make an argument for Bill Belichick, but it’s going to be McVay. The blowout of the Seahawks should remove any drama.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald might have won his first Defensive Player of the Year award. He had three sacks and that doesn’t begin to tell the story of how disruptive he was. The Seahawks did practically nothing on offense in a key home game, and it’s because nobody could block Donald. He is an outstanding player and was at his best in the Rams’ biggest game of the season.
Also, running back Todd Gurley will become this week’s hot MVP pick after 180 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. The problem is that running backs need historic seasons to win an MVP anymore, and Gurley won’t set any records. Tom Brady will win the award because voters don’t like to pass on a deserving quarterback. Gurley probably is second in the race now, and that’s impressive.
Of course, the trophy the Rams want is the one they’ll hand out after the Super Bowl. After Sunday’s destruction of the Seahawks, that looks like a possibility.
Ron Rivera: Rivera won’t win Coach of the Year, like he did in 2015, but this is one of his best jobs.
The Panthers keep on winning. They’re 10-4 after a 31-24 win over the Packers, and still tied for first place in the NFC South. Carolina doesn’t have a roster that should scare anyone. They don’t have a conventional quarterback in Cam Newton. They rely on rookie running back Christian McCaffrey to supply way too much of the passing offense. The defense is very good, but it probably doesn’t have as much talent as the Jaguars or Vikings.
Rivera, with a big assist from offensive coordinator Mike Shula, just makes the pieces fit. The Packers rallied late and had a chance after an onside kick, but for most of the game the Panthers were the better team. Newton, who has unique abilities as a passer and a runner, threw for four touchdowns. Carolina is on the verge of clinching a playoff berth and could steal a division title if the Saints lose one of their final two. It’s a credit to Rivera, who has proven himself as one of the best coaches in the NFL.
His leadership is going to be even more important in the upcoming weeks, given the controversy with team owner Jerry Richardson. Richardson is being investigated for inappropriate workplace behavior, and announced Sunday he’ll sell the team at the end of the season. It’s a distraction the Panthers probably don’t want to deal with during a 10-4 season. When there was a controversy with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, coach Doc Rivers became the de facto spokesman for the franchise. Rivera will be in that role for the Panthers, but he has shown he’s capable of being the leader the Panthers need.
Tyrod Taylor: Hey, remember when Sean McDermott couldn’t wait to bench Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman?
The Bills are still alive in the playoff race after a 24-16 win over the Miami Dolphins (a loss by the Titans helped too), and Taylor came back from injury and played well. Taylor passed for 224 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 42 yards and a score. The further removed we get from McDermott’s decision to bench Taylor, the crazier it looks.
LeSean McCoy is the Bills’ MVP. He became the 30th player in NFL history with 10,000 rushing yards. He scored a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. He’s the player that makes the Bills go, but don’t forget about Taylor. He’s playing well enough that it’ll be tough for the Bills to consider moving on from him in the offseason. Especially if the Bills, who are 8-6, end the NFL’s longest playoff drought.
Jimmy Garoppolo: It’s funny when you consider that if C.J. Beathard had never gotten injured, Kyle Shanahan might not have started Jimmy Garoppolo this season.
Garoppolo has hurt the 49ers’ draft position, but they probably shouldn’t care too much. The 49ers are now 3-0 with Garoppolo starting at quarterback after a last-second 25-23 win over the Tennessee Titans. Garoppolo threw for 381 yards and when the 49ers needed to rally in the final minute to get into better field position, Garoppolo calmly guided them. When Shanahan was stalling on starting Garoppolo, he said that Garoppolo wasn’t fully up to speed in the offense. Garoppolo looks like he knows how to run the offense pretty well. He has shown every sign that he can be a very good starter for the 49ers for years to come.
No matter how much the 49ers brass loves Kirk Cousins, Garoppolo is now their quarterback. And that’s looking good after three starts. There’s still the issue of having to pay him when he becomes a free agent this offseason, but it’s not the 49ers can say no now.
Those waiting for Blake Bortles to ruin the Jaguars: Forget what you think about Bortles for a moment. He has a reputation that will be impossible to shake. Even Jadeveon Clowney called him “trash” after Sunday’s game. But ignore that, and acknowledge that over the past three weeks Bortles has been one of the best quarterbacks in football. It’s true.
Over the past three weeks, Bortles has 903 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. The Jaguars didn’t have star running back Leonard Fournette on Sunday and scored 45 points. Bortles lost top receiver Marqise Lee in the first quarter, and still threw for 326 yards. He threw two touchdowns to Jaydon Mickens, who had one career catch before Sunday. Keelan Cole, an undrafted rookie, had 186 yards. If another quarterback was delivering big plays to undrafted rookies like that, we’d be praising him all week.
Think what you will of Bortles, and it’s not unfair if you believe he’ll turn into a pumpkin in January. We’ve seen Bortles play poorly for most of his career, and a good three-game stretch doesn’t erase all of that. It will be hard to trust Bortles in a big playoff moment. But what if this streak is the start of something? Bortles played very well for the third straight week, and his top two targets on Sunday were guys practically nobody heard of a few months ago. He’s playing very well. And after Sunday’s win and the Titans’ loss to San Francisco, the Jaguars will win the division with one more win or one more Titans loss.
And if Bortles plays anywhere near this well in the playoffs? It could make for some interesting results. We all know that everything around Bortles seems to be of championship caliber.
Andy Dalton: Dalton will enter this offseason in a new situation. For the first time, Marvin Lewis won’t be his coach.
The Bengals might make sweeping changes, and the new regime might not be too impressed with how Dalton is ending the season. He completed four passes in the first half against the Vikings on Sunday. He finished with 113 yards and threw a pick-six as the Bengals were steamrolled for a second straight week. Dalton was on a nice run before the last two weeks, and the Vikings are a tough opponent. Still, Dalton has to be better than he has shown the past two weeks.
A new coaching staff will take over as Lewis departs. Dalton won’t be their biggest problem, but he’s also seen by many as a limited quarterback who won’t win a championship. Sunday didn’t help that reputation.
Eagles defense: Given how bad Philadelphia was on defense Sunday, you’d have thought Carson Wentz played on that side of the ball.
Philadelphia’s offense, without Wentz after the quarterback tore his ACL, looked just fine with Nick Foles. You’d think that if Foles threw four touchdowns, the Eagles would have blown out the New York Giants. That wasn’t the case.
The Giants’ offense is horrible, but somehow looked great Sunday. New York had 504 yards. Eli Manning threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns. The Giants haven’t played that well on offense all season, and yet they picked apart the Eagles.
We’ll give the Eagles a pass for now. They’ve been good on defense all season, and got the stop they needed Sunday to seal a 34-29 win. But it was troubling. The Eagles can’t expect Foles to play this well every week, especially against teams better than the Giants. Perhaps Sunday was an anomaly.
Cleveland Browns: To sum up, the Browns fell to 1-29 under Hue Jackson, who they’ve already said will be back next year as head coach. Jackson, who has done almost nothing to turn around the Browns, questioned quarterback DeShone Kizer.
“I think that’s a fair question if he’ll ever get it,” Jackson said, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I think he will, but he has to keep working.”
The Browns looked terrible again Sunday. It seems likely that the Steelers will have playoff seeding on the line in Week 17, so the Browns won’t even catch them playing their backups and resting. Cleveland’s last shot at a win looks like it will come next week at Chicago. It’s pretty bad when a second straight 1-15 season would be reason for elation, but it’s better than 0-16.
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