American Football Expert & Columnist
Sky Sports’ Neil Reynolds has the final word on Week 18 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: 11/01/22 12:30pm
The final week of the 2021 regular season was crazy from start to finish.
At one point on Sunday, I didn’t speak to studio guests Ryan Leaf, Shaun Gayle and Jeff Reinebold for about 45 minutes.
I had my head buried in playoff permutations and NFL RedZone updates. It was a fun and fitting end to this incredible regular season and now here come the playoffs… bring it on!
Five Major Takeaways from Week 18
1) Black Monday hits hard
Sunday night was wild across the NFL and I will get to all of that in a moment. But writing this column on a Tuesday allows me to reflect on news from around the league. And it was a manic Monday as the Chicago Bears fired head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace, the Minnesota Vikings sacked head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman and the Miami Dolphins axed head coach Brian Flores. News of those departures all seemed to break around the same time.
The Denver Broncos had already fired head coach Vic Fangio on Sunday morning, Jacksonville moved on from Urban Meyer in mid-December and the Las Vegas Raiders have given no indication if interim coach Rich Bisaccia gets their job full time. So, there are five openings for sure and likely six. Flores is the one that shocked me the most and it feels harsh. Miami won eight of their final nine games and his record over the past two years has bettered that of a certain Bill Belichick.
2) To tie or not to tie… that is the question
The Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders played a win-and-in game in Sunday’s regular-season finale. But with Indianapolis losing to Jacksonville earlier in the day, that also became a tie-and-both-teams-are-in game. The whispers of such a scenario were growing throughout the evening, especially when Justin Herbert threw a game-tying touchdown to Mike Williams as regulation time expired.
That grew to a cacophony of noise after both teams kicked overtime field goals and the Raiders then faced a third-and-four at the LA 39-yard line with 38 seconds remaining. Would the Silver and Black try to pick up the first down? Or would they do the smart thing and take knees to avoid the risk of an interception, a fumble or a field goal block?
The Chargers would not have complained about the knees. A tie was sending them through. So, why on earth did LA head coach Brandon Staley call a time out there? Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said the time out changed their mindset, they picked up the first down and kicked the game-winning field goal from 47 yards as time ran out. You don’t force the issue there. You hold your nerve and let the Raiders make the call.
3) A tale of two halves in LA
Heading into Sunday’s big contest in the NFC West, Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams were 45-0 when leading at the half. So, the home team must have felt pretty good in jumping out to a 17-0 lead and then being on top 17-3 at the break. The Rams were closing in on the NFC West title.
But San Francisco fought back to take the game 27-24 in overtime, securing the final wild card spot in the NFC in the process. The Niners produced one of the best team performances of the season in the second half. And it took everyone. Jimmy Garoppolo threw for more than 300 yards, Brandon Aiyuk went over 100 receiving yards and the defense sacked Matthew Stafford five times and intercepted him twice. But the star of the show was Deebo Samuel, who caught four passes for 95 yards, rushed for 45 yards and a touchdown and threw a scoring pass to Ja’Wuan Jennings. Get the ball into Samuel’s hands as often as possible during the playoffs.
4) Colts suffer a costly trip-up
On a night of varying permutations, the task was simple for the Indianapolis Colts. Beat the worst team in the NFL and Frank Reich’s men were into the postseason for the second year in a row. Instead, the Colts put forth a miserable and pathetic showing in a loss that was as disappointing as any suffered by any team across the NFL in recent years, not just in this season.
The Colts lost 26-11 and even that scoreline flattered them. The Jags looked superior and, remarkably, more fired up from start to finish. Carson Wentz was not up to the task at quarterback as he looked rattled and lost. He turned the ball over twice against a defense that had forced just seven takeaways in the previous 16 contests. But Wentz was not alone. His offensive line was terrible, giving up six sacks, Jonathan Taylor was a non-factor as he rushed for a paltry – by his standards – 77 yards and the defense lacked intensity.
Reich is also far from blameless as the head coach. This was embarrassing and the Colts are into their offseason instead of preparing for the playoffs.
5) Titans take top spot
Lost in the shuffle of a busy Sunday was a major factor in the AFC playoff race as the Tennessee Titans secured the number one seed, a first-round bye and homefield advantage that goes with that; by beating the Houston Texans.
Tennessee are worthy of top spot in the conference and we should no longer question their credentials under the outstanding leadership of head coach Mike Vrabel. The 2021 Titans are the first team in NFL history to record at least eight wins against teams that finished the season with a winning record. And they did so while using an NFL record 91 players due to injuries. Take a bow, Coach Vrabel.
Oh, and Derrick Henry will be back for the playoffs. The King is about to resume his seat on the NFL throne!
Player of the Week – Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday meant a lot to Ben Roethlisberger as he prepared to play the final regular season game of his career against his greatest rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Big Ben was so excited about this contest that he took a car to M&T Bank Stadium, arriving four hours ahead of kick-off. He had no time to wait for the team bus. He needed to be boots on the ground, soaking up the atmosphere. As is normal, the game turned into a slugfest and like far too many down the stretch in his glittering career, it was not pretty for Big Ben. But he got the job done, specifically converting a fourth-down throw to Ray-Ray McCloud to set up Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal. It was classic Roethlisberger. It hasn’t always looked pretty during a career that I think should send him to the Hall of Fame one day, but he so often finds a way and escapes with the win. So, instead of a fond farewell, Ben gets to play one more week. I hope they open up Arrowhead Stadium in plenty of time on Sunday night. Pittsburgh’s quarterback is going to be an early arrival.
Play of the Week
The San Francisco 49ers were driving to tie the game against the Rams in the second half and were getting physical with their hosts, running the football on 10 straight plays. It looked – for all the world – like Kyle Shanahan had dialled up an 11th straight run as Garoppolo handed the ball to Samuel. But as he rolled right, Deebo didn’t tuck the ball away; he got ready to throw. There was pressure with Von Miller bearing down on him, but Samuel threw on the move and fading away for a 24-yard scoring pass to a wide-open Jauan Jennings. It was another great play design from Shanahan and one that was very well executed in an outstanding second half for the Niners.
Coach of the Week – Darrell Bevell – Interim Head Coach – Jacksonville Jaguars
It would have been very easy for the Jaguars to play out the slate with very little effort on Sunday. The Jags had conceded 50 points the previous weekend and had been on the wrong end of the scoreline in their previous eight games. But they simply wanted this one more than the Colts and Trevor Lawrence looked sharp for the whole contest, connecting time and again with Marvin Jones. The Jags got a morale-boosting win and also held onto the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft as Detroit beat Green Bay. Everything in this offseason – head coaching hire, draft picks and free agent additions – needs to be about bringing out the best in Lawrence, who I still believe can be a star.
On my Radar
Interim head coaches are rarely kept on and given a full chance to shape a team. They are asked to steady and man the ship of another coach’s team. That has been the task assigned to Rich Bisaccia, who has led the Silver and Black to six wins in relief of the fired Jon Gruden, including four in a row at the end of the year to book a berth in the playoffs. Bisaccia’s job has been about much more than wins and losses, of course. He has been tasked with keeping the team together through the Gruden drama and the controversial off-the-field incidents surrounding 2020 first-round draft choices Henry Ruggs and Damon Arnette, both of whom were cut by the Raiders. The Raiders should buck the trend surrounding interim head coaches and give Bisaccia the job on a full-time basis. He has earned it.
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