American Football Expert & Columnist
Sky Sports’ Neil Reynolds has the final word on Week 17 in the NFL; join Neil and guests for Inside the Huddle, every Tuesday at 9pm on Sky Sports NFL as they look back on the best of the weekend’s action…
Last Updated: 04/01/22 3:00pm
The penultimate weekend of the NFL regular season cleared up some of the playoff picture, but certainly not all of it as we head into Week 18.
There are still two divisions to be decided and three playoff spots up for grabs with one more game to go…
Five Major Takeaways from Week 17
1) The Playoff Picture
The AFC East is down to the Buffalo Bills (10-6) and the New England Patriots (10-6), with the former needing victory over the New York Jets (4-12) to secure the crown. The NFC West is the other division up for grabs, with the Los Angeles Rams (12-4) holding a one-game lead over the Arizona Cardinals (11-5). The Rams cannot afford a slip up against the San Francisco 49ers (9-7) this weekend or the Cards could pounce.
In the AFC, the Wild Card situation is relatively simple. The Indianapolis Colts (9-7) secure the No 6 six seed with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14), while the Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) and Las Vegas Raiders (9-7) play a win-and-in game on Sunday Night Football for the final spot. The only long shots are the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) and Baltimore Ravens (8-8), who face each other, but the winner will also need the Colts to lose to the Jags and for the Chargers-Raiders contest to not end in a tie.
The NFC’s final Wild Card spot will go to the 49ers or the New Orleans Saints (8-8). San Francisco need to beat the Rams to get in. The Saints must hope the Niners lose and that they beat the Atlanta Falcons (7-9). Then New Orleans will get in courtesy of a better conference record.
2) Burrow on fire!
The Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) were clinging onto the coat tails of the fast-scoring Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) in the first half of their Week 17 contest, only to come storming through for a 34-31 win that gave them their first AFC North title since 2015. It was no fluke. This was a victory that was very deserved.
Even though Joe Mixon is north of 1,500 scrimmage yards and has 16 touchdowns this season, the run game was rightly ignored on Sunday as the Bengals needed to match the pace with which the Chiefs were scoring. It was also the right plan given the form currently being enjoyed by Joe Burrow. The Bengals quarterback was stunning as he threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns. In his last two outings, Burrow has thrown for 971 yards – the second-most in NFL history for a two-game span!
3) Titans take AFC top spot
Cincinnati’s victory moved the resilient Tennessee Titans (11-5) back into top spot in the AFC playoff seedings and they can book home-field advantage throughout the postseason with a win at the Houston Texans (4-12) on Sunday. That will be huge for Tennessee as they look to get Derrick Henry back from a midseason foot injury. Playing on January 22 or 23 instead of January 15, 16 or 17 could prove to be quite a factor.
The Titans have gone 5-3 without their star running back and still rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s 34-3 beatdown of the Miami Dolphins. D’Onta Foreman has subbed in admirably for Henry and Tennessee show themselves to be a battle-hardened team week in and week out. That is a credit to head coach Mike Vrabel.
4) A very public meltdown
As someone who has been writing about the NFL for 30 years and covering the sport on a full-time basis for the past 24 years, I thought I had just about seen it all. Then Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown stripped off and stropped off with three minutes remaining in the third period of his team’s 28-24 win over the New York Jets.
Brown was reportedly asked to go into the game by Bruce Arians and refused. He was then benched and that sparked the most embarrassing and public outburst of Brown’s controversial career to date. He took off his shirt and shoulder pads, removed his vest and ran off down the tunnel, straight to a car and onto the airport.
Arians says Brown will never play for the Bucs again – he has not been officially cut at this time of writing. I doubt he ever plays another down in the NFL. He has self-destructed in a truly historic way and could use some help and advice that likely will not come given the yes men he has surrounded himself with.
5) Brown and out
It’s been coming for a while now, but the Cleveland Browns (7-9) are officially out of the NFL playoff race. They have to go down as the NFL’s most disappointing team this season.
We all came into the 2021 season thinking the Browns could make some real noise this year. A close Week One loss on the road at Kansas City did not put me off. I thought they would be contenders, although I have often doubted Baker Mayfield.
It’s not all Mayfield’s fault, to be clear. He has been more beaten up than at any stage of his career to date and the latest bruising loss saw him sacked nine times by Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Injuries, controversy and poor play have all plagued the Browns and it has been a team-wide problem. That said, it’s so often about the quarterback and I wonder if Cleveland makes a serious long-term commitment to Mayfield. I certainly do not think he gets paid top dollar if he does indeed receive a contract extension.
Player of the Week: Ja’Marr Chase
Burrow delivered one great pass after another in Cincinnati’s dramatic win over Kansas City. But somebody had to get on the end of those strikes and, time and again, that was Ja’Marr Chase, who is well and truly out of his midseason slump.
Chase caught 11 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns. The first of those scores kick-started the Bengals as Chase took a short slant route 72 yards to the house, running away from defenders like he was a man among boys.
He is truly special and especially exciting to watch when the ball is in his hands. Chase becomes a running back or a return specialist who is so tough to bring down and who boasts blazing speed. With 1,429 receiving yards on the season, Chase has become the most prolific rookie wide receiver in the Super Bowl era.
Play of the Week
CARDINALS 2⃣5⃣-2⃣2⃣ COWBOYS
Kyler Murray threw two touchdowns to Antoine Wesley as Arizona snapped a three-game losing streak with victory in Dallas on Sunday.
📰🎞 Report and highlights. ⤵
📺 Watch Browns @ Steelers, tonight, live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.15am
— Sky Sports NFL (@SkySportsNFL) January 3, 2022
It’s hard to top that 72-yard catch and run from Chase, but there were a couple of other outstanding plays through the air that caught my eye on Sunday. Antoine Wesley looked about eight feet tall as he did his best DeAndre Hopkins impression in getting on the receiving end of a 19-yard touchdown pass from Kyler Murray.
It was a key score in a very impressive 25-22 win for the Cardinals in Dallas. How about the connection between Tom Brady and Cyril Grayson that covered 33 yards to see the Buccaneers get out of jail with a 28-24 win over the Jets? That was a gentle reminder that Brady can work with lesser receivers and does not always need an all-star cast around him.
Coach of the Week: Mike Tomlin
This may seem a strange one given that the Steelers have been poor for large parts of this season and remain a very long shot to make the AFC playoffs, but I think the fact Pittsburgh have been so turgid at times yet still remain alive at 8-7-1 is a credit to head coach Mike Tomlin.
Victory over the Browns on Monday night meant Tomlin set a new NFL record with 15 non-losing seasons to start a head coaching career. It might not seem like much given that Pittsburgh need a rebuild and are a long way from being leading lights in the NFL, but I think it speaks to the standard that Tomlin sets in Steeltown.
Even when they are pretty bad – as they have been this year – the Steelers do not have losing seasons. Tomlin often says “the standard is the standard”. Not having a losing season is the absolute minimum standard expected in Pittsburgh.
On my Radar
The good news is Matthew Stafford threw two touchdown passes to dig the Rams out of a hole for a 20-19 win over the Ravens on Sunday. The bad news is Stafford turned the ball over three times for the second week in a row and threw his fourth pick-six of the season in the process.
Stafford has been productive and often prolific during his first season with the Rams, but errors have also crept more and more into his game in the second half of the year.
The mistakes currently being made by Stafford are the type that can end a season abruptly in the playoffs. With the rest of the Rams seemingly rounding into shape, Stafford has to tidy up his game if any true Super Bowl challenge is to be mounted.
Join Neil Reynolds and guests for Inside The Huddle, every Tuesday from 9pm on Sky Sports NFL for a look back on the best of the weekend’s NFL action.
Source : Sky Sports