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Here is What Have We Learned from Week 15 of the 2016 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Maturity helps Packers close gap in NFC North race– Coach Mike McCarthy felt maturity played a part in the Green Bay Packers’ latest victory.And that started long before McCarthy’s resilient team came back in the final minute Sunday after blowing a big lead to outlast the rival Chicago Bears 30-27 on the road.
McCarthy praised his older players Monday for urging their young teammates to be sufficiently prepared for the frosty temperatures and the unpredictable footing on the turf at Soldier Field.
“Just going through all of those different things, the comment was (made), of all the games that we’ve played, these guys handled it seamlessly,” McCarthy said.
By weathering that challenge and holding off the Bears’ late charge, the steely Packers are now two wins from completing a late-season resurgence with a once-unlikely return to the playoffs.
“Everything’s right in front of us now,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after his heroics down the stretch Sunday extended Green Bay’s winning streak to four games. Rodgers’ 60-yard heave on a third-and-long play to Jordy Nelson in stride down the middle of the field set up Mason Crosby’s winning 32-yard field goal as time expired.
Coupled with Detroit’s loss to the New York Giants, the Packers (8-6) moved within a game of the first-place Lions (9-5) in the NFC North with two games left.
“Just seeing this team battle through tough situations and adversity and just finding ways to make plays, that’s what it’s about,” Crosby said. “We’re in December football, we’re in kind of playoff football now where those are critical (kicks) at those important times. It was good to have a game like that under our belt moving forward.”
Because Green Bay has an earlier win over the Lions, all the Packers need to do to rally for the division title and earn a playoff spot for the eighth straight season is to win out, culminating with a Jan. 1 game at Detroit.
“We’ve done our part so far, and that’s going to have to continue the next couple of weeks,” said Nelson, who had seven catches for 124 yards as the Packers completed a season sweep of the Bears.
But McCarthy doesn’t want the team looking too far ahead.
The Packers first must get past another division rival and on a short week for just about every team. The Minnesota Vikings, who badgered Rodgers in a 17-14 win at home early in the season, come to Lambeau Field on Saturday for a Christmas Eve matinee.
“Control your own destiny is what you want, but, really, the only time I’ve talked about playoffs is — I hit ’em again with it, I think, last week or two weeks ago — 10 wins, and that’s really all we’ve really focused on,” McCarthy said. “We know we’re at eight, we have to get to nine, and then obviously next week I’ll be answering the question the same way.”
The condensed schedule this week won’t give Green Bay much time on the practice field. But McCarthy is hopeful a few injured players can recover quickly to play against the Vikings.
Guards Lane Taylor (hip) and T.J. Lang (back) had to leave Sunday just before Rodgers’ big throw to Nelson.
“I don’t have any high concern right now for either one of those guys,” McCarthy said.
Ditto on the status for Rodgers, who held up fine in the subzero wind chill Sunday despite playing with a sore right calf.
“The early indication is he’s better today than he was going into the game,” McCarthy said. “We feel good about that.”
- Defense showing its toughness for playoff-bound Patriots– Tom Brady’s ageless performances have carried the Patriots this season.But in a game where he and the offense struggled, New England’s 16-3 win over the Broncos Sunday featured the kind of defensive effort that should make the newly-crowned AFC East champs a much tougher out in the upcoming playoffs.
The Patriots defense more than filled in the gaps as Brady was held to a season-low 188 passing yards, without a touchdown pass for only the second time in 2016.
New England’s defense looked more physically imposing than the Broncos, which came in with the NFL’s third-ranked defense. The Patriots held the Broncos’ offense without a touchdown and forced two turnovers.
They also did it in a bruising style that had previously only shown up in flickers. It included four sacks on Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian and several more big hits on his receivers. The biggest — and loudest — example might have been a drive-ending blow delivered by Patriots safety Devin McCourty in the fourth quarter, dislodging a pass to Demaryius Thomas.
“You could just tell guys were talking and communicating,” McCourty said. “We’re trying to get to offenses the best we can, so when we go out here on Sundays we can just fly around. …They made a couple of plays and then we make a big play.”
It might have also been the most emphatic example that the Patriots defense can not only survive, but thrive following the trades defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Jamie Collins.
Cornerback Logan Ryan, who had his first interception of the season Sunday, attributed the success to everyone remaining as loose as possible on the field.
“We’re getting after the quarterback, we’re playing great defense, guys are feeding off of each other, we’re joking a lot and guys are just having fun playing ball right now so it’s working,” he said. “Plus, we were doubted all year. … We heard about (the Broncos) secondary and their defense so we wanted to come out here and prove something.”
Underestimated or not, everything has flowed together at the right time for Ryan and his teammates.
The defensive line is getting consistent production from Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown. It’s exactly what the coaching staff hoped to see with Flowers healthy after being limited to just one game during his rookie season.
Flowers finished with two sacks Sunday to bring his season total to seven. Brown had one sack Sunday, increasing his total to three in 2016.
“Each week is different. Different offensive lineman, different sets, different schemes as far as defense, you just got to get to them when you can,” Flowers said. “Obviously I’m not the one looking at sack numbers, it’s more about pressuring the quarterback. It’s having him looking at the rush instead of looking down field. Anytime we can flush the quarterback and get his line rattled a bit, is big.”
Flowers said nobody in the Patriots locker room is dwelling on locking up the division title.
“Obviously we worked hard for it and we earned it,” he said. “But we still got a job to do so we’ll continue to work for our ultimate goal.”
- Resilient Titans proving they can overcome own mistakes– The resilient and increasingly confident Tennessee Titans are targeting the playoffs now rather than waiting for the future.”We want to win the division,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “We have an opportunity to do that. We are in the thick of it. We cannot look at the big picture. We have to focus on taking it one game at a time. Get our mind focused for Jacksonville. We will see where the cards fall and hopefully we will be where we want to be at the end of the year.”
Yes, the Titans are setting their sights high considering they haven’t made the postseason since 2008 and their last playoff victory came in January 2004.
Winning four of five can do that for a team, especially with a three-game winning streak that includes a 13-10 win over the defending Super Bowl champs in Denver and a fourth-quarter rally in the coldest game in franchise history to beat the Chiefs 19-17 in Kansas City.
The last two easily are the most impressive, not because of who Tennessee beat to improve to 8-6 and remain tied atop the AFC South with Houston. The Titans shook off Mariota’s worst game as a pro to beat Denver and overcame three turnovers, a 14-point deficit after the first quarter and a failed 2-point conversion to win in Kansas City.
They also lost two defensive starters to injuries when cornerback Jason McCourty left early with a bruised chest and sprained shoulder before safety Da’Norris Searcy had a concussion.
Any of those mistakes would have crushed the Titans’ thoughts of a comeback in previous seasons.
“We’re learning a lot about ourselves, what we’re capable of doing, what we can and cannot do,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Monday with his players given the day off. “That’s going to be a weekly thing for this team until we get where we want to go.”
Against the Chiefs, the Titans fell behind by double digits for the fifth time on the road this season.
They won for only the second time in that situation thanks to a defense with five rookies on the field after those injuries. The Titans had a goal-line stand at their own 1 in the second quarter, held the Chiefs to a field goal after reaching the Titans 16 late in the quarter and got the ball back with rookie cornerback LeShaun Sims’ interception in the end zone in the third.
Mariota shook off a fumble and an interception in driving the Titans to 12 points in the fourth quarter for his fourth comeback victory in 26 career starts.
“That was big for this team to know we can do something like that in a tough environment,” Mularkey said.
Tennessee visits Jacksonville (2-12) on Saturday and the Jaguars interim coach Doug Marrone, who interviewed for the Titans’ job in January.
Tennessee routed the Jaguars 36-22 on Oct. 27. But this franchise was thumped last season by Miami in its first game with an interim coach and has a string of similar losses to struggling teams in recent years. Mularkey, fired by Jacksonville after going 2-14 in 2012, plans to make clear how close the Jaguars have been this season with seven losses by a touchdown or less.
“We will not have a letdown for any reason,” Mularkey said.
Sweeping Jacksonville for the first time since 2008 would set up a regular season finale Jan. 1 in Nashville against Houston with the division title and playoff berth at stake.
“They’ve earned the right to be here right now,” Mularkey said. “We’ll see where it goes from here.”
- Falcons keep high-scoring pace even without Julio Jones– The Atlanta Falcons can afford to be patient with Julio Jones’ return from a sprained toe.After all, there’s no need to rush Jones’ recovery after Atlanta topped 40 points in two straight lopsided wins without the star wide receiver.
These are heady times for the Falcons’ offense, which already has obliterated the team’s single-season scoring record with two games remaining in the regular season. The Falcons play at Carolina on Saturday.
Atlanta is the NFL’s top-scoring team, and the race isn’t even close. The Falcons (9-5) have 469 points, 63 more than the second-place Saints’ 406.
Atlanta’s players aren’t saying much about the scoring record. They’re focused on the more important race the for the NFC South title. Atlanta is one game ahead of Tampa Bay in the division.
“If we have to score three points or we have to score a lot of points, we just want to do our part in winning,” right guard Chris Chester said Tuesday.
Jones watched from the sideline as the Falcons beat San Francisco 41-13 on Sunday to shatter the mark of 442 points set by the 1998 Super Bowl team. He also missed the previous week’s 42-14 win at the Rams.
The Falcons’ success has placed quarterback Matt Ryan in the MVP discussion. He has 32 touchdowns passes with only seven interceptions.
“For me, he’s my MVP,” running back Devonta Freeman said Tuesday.
Ryan has consistently distributed his passes to a large number of targets. Depth at receiver helped keep the offense moving even without Jones.
Aldrick Robinson led the team with a personal-best 111 yards receiving on four catches against the 49ers. Taylor Gabriel added three catches for 60 yards, including his team-leading sixth touchdown reception.
“It shows the depth that we have by having each other’s back,” said receiver Justin Hardy. “If one guy goes down, another guy steps in and we don’t miss a beat. It says a lot about the team and the character we have.”
The Falcons also have good depth at running back with Freeman, who ran for three touchdowns against the 49ers, and Tevin Coleman sharing the carries.
“I think definitely this year it has been fun to see so many people step up and make big plays and that’s been a really exciting part of our offense,” said center Alex Mack. “It’s not just one guy having a great season. It’s a lot of guys doing a lot of good things all over the field a lot of times.”
Jones ran routes at the start of practice on Tuesday and is expected to give the toe a full-speed test on Wednesday.
- After losing playoff control, Redskins left to wait and hope– All of a sudden the Washington Redskins need help to return to the playoffs.With their focus turning to a visit to Chicago after a 26-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Monday night, the Redskins know full well they need to get back on track and hope for the best. They need the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to slip to have any chance of making the postseason.
“We put ourselves in this position, so we can’t sit here and feel sorry for ourselves,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “Obviously we’re not in the driver’s seat anymore and we’re going to need some help, but that all doesn’t matter if we don’t take care of our business.”
A 2-of-12 showing on third down, two turnovers and a running game coach Jay Gruden deemed “atrocious” cost the Redskins (7-6-1) control of their playoff destiny. Games remain at the Bears (3-11) and home against the New York Giants, but they’ll be scoreboard-watching plenty.
The 8-6 Packers host Minnesota and visit Detroit, and the 8-6 Buccaneers visit New Orleans and host Carolina.
“I hate being in this position where you got to wait for teams to win, this team needs to lose,” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. “I hate being in that position because (Monday night) we could have controlled our own destiny now we need help from another team and I hate being in that position but we put ourselves in that hole and now we have to dig ourselves out.”
Some other things we learned from the Panthers’ victory over the Redskins:
STEWART SOARS: Jonathan Stewart ripped through the Redskins for a career-high 132 yards rushing on 25 carries. It was a performance the Panthers had been waiting for all season, and it came with the veteran at less than 100 percent.
“Stew was just typical Stew,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “He did an unbelievable job this week. He came in and wasn’t in his best health. He had some kind of contusion in his leg. The trainers did an unbelievable job of getting him back on the field.
“For him to perform like that, that’s the type of play we’re going to need from him moving forward. He’s a professional. That type of run game kind of sets the tone.”
COUSINS STRUGGLES: Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins had one of his worst games of the season, going 32 of 47 for 315 yards with an interception and a fumble.
“I thought he had good time to throw it for the most part,” Gruden said. “I think he was having trouble seeing some of the coverage and when he did see them I don’t know if he just didn’t have clear throws at them.”
LITTLE AND NONE: The Panthers (6-8) know their odds of making the postseason are, well, hardly ideal.
“Without a doubt it’s minuscule,” coach Ron Rivera said, “but it can happen.”
At this point, the best Carolina can do is finish at .500 and see if that’s good enough.
“Our objective is to go undefeated all the way to the end of the season,” defensive end Wes Horton said. “Playoffs aside, we are playing for pride.”
NORMAN LOSES BATTLE: While Carolina’s defense looked almost vintage Super Bowl caliber, former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman wanted some more action. Mostly he didn’t like Newton not throwing at him.
“He threw that long ball to Teddy (Ginn Jr. and) he came down with it,” Norman said. “After that I didn’t see any more of him all night. I think (offensive coordinator Mike) Shula got in his ear. I wish he didn’t because I’m pretty sure he would have uncontained the beast.”
- Chiefs go from clinching playoffs to chasing Oakland in AFC West– In the span of a few hours Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs went from controlling the AFC West and taking care of a playoff spot to watching the Oakland Raiders take everything instead.The Chiefs, who have already beaten the Raiders twice, were leading Tennessee 17-7 in the second half at frosty, frigid Arrowhead Stadium. But an offense that inexplicably went conservative down the stretch and a defense that finally cracked allowed the Titans to rally for a 19-17 victory.
When the Raiders beat San Diego later in the afternoon, it was Oakland that had improved to 11-3, moved atop the division and clinched its first playoff berth since the 2002 season — and the Chiefs who were 10-4, in second place and with their own postseason fate still in the balance.
“Everything we want is still right there ahead of us,” Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin said. “We just need to go out, get back to the film room, get back to practice, correct our mistakes and learn from them.”
There were plenty of mistakes to learn from, beginning with two scoreless red-zone trips, another poor day of third-down conversions and an offense that went into a shell at halftime. It was the third straight week they failed to score an offensive touchdown in the second half.
“We were awful on third down and we didn’t capitalize in the red zone,” Maclin said. “We could have put the game away much, much earlier, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
The loss was damaging on several fronts for Kansas City, but most importantly when it comes to playoff positioning. The Chiefs own the tiebreaker over the Raiders by virtue of their head-to-head wins, but they are now a full game behind their division rivals in the standings. That means the Chiefs dropped from the No. 2 seed in the AFC, which would have meant a first-round bye and at least one home game, to the No. 5 seed and a first-round game on the road.
“You can sit here and point fingers, you can do all that stuff that bad teams do, or you can fix the problems. So we’ve got to make sure we do that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We’re still in good position. We’ve got a good football team coming in here. We need to have a good week of practice. That’s what is real. I have enough trust in this team that we’ll do that.”
That team coming in will be the Denver Broncos, who are in desperation mode of their own after a loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday. The Chiefs play them at Arrowhead Stadium on Christmas night.
By then, they’ll know what has transpired Saturday in Oakland’s game against Indianapolis.
The Chiefs don’t plan to be scoreboard-watching, though, because what happens in that game doesn’t much matter to them if they don’t take care of Denver. And if they can’t right their wrongs from a disheartening loss to Tennessee, the same fate is liable to befall them next Sunday.
That means better execution on third down. Better play-calling across the board. Better everything when the Chiefs get inside the 20-yard line, the scoring zone that has given them fits all season.
“We have to get it figured out,” said Alex Smith, who threw an interception in the end zone early in the second half when the Chiefs had a chance to essentially put the game away.
“I mean, it’s easy to say (the Chiefs got conservative) when things don’t go well,” he said. “Certainly we were not in a rhythm at all. We did not get anything going. We were pretty stagnant in the second half, so it’s easy to say when things are not going well. You’ve got to look at it and get better.”
Smith paused for a second before putting everything into perspective.
“This time of year, these are all huge games,” he said, “and the littlest things make big differences.”
- Patience runs out this time of year in the NFL– Patience runs out this time of year in the NFL.The demise in less than a week of Jeff Fisher and Gus Bradley as coaches of their respective teams provided examples. Rams owner Stan Kroenke and Jaguars boss Shad Khan grew tired of waiting for the on-field product to match their successes away from football.
Those two firings, even though Fisher led the Rams through a difficult transition from St. Louis to Los Angeles and Bradley was well-liked by Khan and his organization, might be just the beginning.
Consider some of these men in charge to be either in the endangered species class or approaching it: Marvin Lewis, Mike McCoy, Rex Ryan, Todd Bowles, John Fox and Chuck Pagano. It’s not inconceivable that Chip Kelly and Hue Jackson could wind up on the cutting room floor, despite what their backers, uh, owners have said in recent weeks.
It might hardly seem fair for some of those men and, frankly, in many cases it isn’t. Fox, Bowles and Ryan deserve more than two years at the helms of their current teams. Lewis and Pagano have brought consistent winning to their franchises at various times in their regimes and probably could do so again.
As a wise scribe once wrote, the most important position on any NFL team is owner. When that owner has the last name of Rooney, Mara, Allen, Kraft or Bisciotti, panic doesn’t set in. They tend to choose the correct coach for their team and then let him coach.
The rewards have been Super Bowl trophies for all of them under coaches given the opportunity to build a team and help it grow into a champion.
Khan tried that approach with Bradley, who helped put together some great Seattle defenses under Pete Carroll. The arrangement flopped and the ugly end came Sunday when the Jaguars blew a 21-20 lead at Houston and fell to 2-12, with nine straight defeats. Bradley’s 14-48 record was the worst winning percentage (.225) of any NFL coach with at least 60 games.
“I thanked Gus Bradley today for his commitment to the Jacksonville Jaguars over the past four seasons,” Khan said in a statement. “As anyone close to our team knows, Gus gave his staff and players literally everything he had. Our players competed for Gus and I know they have great respect for him, as do I.
“Gus also represented the Jaguars, the Jacksonville community and the NFL in nothing less than a first-class manner as our head coach. That counts for a lot. It is unfortunately evident that we must make a change. I thought it would be best to do it immediately after today’s result so Gus can step away, relax and regroup with his family during the Christmas and holiday season.”
Thanks for the thinking of me so kindly, boss.
In truth, though, Khan showed remarkable patience this season with Bradley, whom he considered firing in October. The Jags spent big money in free agency and thought they could contend for the weak AFC South’s crown. Instead, they’re ahead of only Kelly’s lowly 49ers and Jackson’s winless Browns in the entire league.
Khan’s approach over the past four-plus years should be commended. He looked around at Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Tom Coughlin in New York until the end of the 2015 season, and John Harbaugh in Baltimore and recognized the need for continuity.
But when that continuity manifests itself in so many losses, with hefty signs of regression, it’s time to move on.
That’s why Jackson, a very popular coach in Cleveland, might not be back if the Browns match the 2008 Lions at 0-16. It’s why Kelly, despite his massive contract and only minor rumblings about change even as his 49ers have lost 13 in a row, could go.
It must be remembered, though, that canning both of them after they were saddled with such undertalented rosters — and then hit hard by injuries — means starting over with a new coach. And still with a low number of high-level players in those two cities.
Owners contemplating coaching changes also should look at the standings first. The division leaders in half of the eight divisions have long-tenured coaches. Of the other teams in strong contention to get to the postseason, four more of those have guys who have been in place a while.
And just because their clubs are struggling this season doesn’t mean Ron Rivera, Bruce Arians and Sean Payton don’t know what they’re doing.
Caution before acting rashly pays off. Rushing to judgment rarely does.