What Have We Learned From Week 16 of the 2016 NFL Season

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George Atkinson

Cleveland Browns running back George Atkinson (25) celebrates after the Browns defeated the San Diego Chargers in an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 16 of the 2016 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Not Hue, Whew Jackson: Browns coach, players relieved by win– Browns coach Hue Jackson didn’t drive to work on Monday as much as he floated to his office.The weight has been lifted in Cleveland by one, hard-to-get, almost-hard-to-imagine win.

    The Browns erased that ugly zero on their record.

    “It is very freeing,” Jackson said with a chuckle on Monday, two days after the Browns got their first win in more than a year, 20-17 over the San Diego Chargers . “I feel better today than I did at any time during this year to be very honest with you.”

    Pressure has given way to relief for players, coaches, fans, everyone associated with the Browns (1-14), who no longer have to discuss the possibility of joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in the NFL’s exclusive 0-16 losers club.

    During a festive time of the year, that’s something worth celebrating.

    “It is a relief, especially for the veteran guys who do not have very many cracks left at this, if at all,” wide receiver Andrew Hawkins said.

    “You never want to be associated with that — a historically bad season. I was glad I was able to avoid it.”

    Jackson had spent weeks preaching to his players to keep fighting, that the only way for them to end their misery was to play a complete game. And while Saturday’s performance was far from flawless, it was good enough.

    When Chargers kicker Josh Lambo sailed his rushed 45-yard attempt to the right as time expired, the Browns had ended a 17-game losing streak stretching to last season and gave their fans an early Christmas gift, not another lumpy loss.

    When they reached the locker room, weeks of despair, double-digit losses and disappointment were forgotten.

    The Browns celebrated with cheers and tears of joy.

    Jackson struggled to address his players, and at one point tackle Joe Thomas, who was selected to his 10th straight Pro Bowl last week and has endured more suffering than any player should have to, wept openly in front of his teammates as he embraced his coach.

    The raw emotion deeply moved Jackson.

    “I cried like a baby with him to be very honest with you,” Jackson said. “That was probably one of the moments that I will always remember in my coaching career, watching a future Hall of Famer overcome with emotion because he knows how hard he has worked to help this young team and these players get this victory.

    “He was very deserving of it, and he did everything he could in that game to fight to make sure that we have a chance to win.”

    Hawkins said seeing the respected Thomas being so sentimental toward Jackson was poignant and powerful.

    “People who don’t know Joe, he doesn’t normally have that relationship with coaches,” Hawkins said.

    “He is someone that every guy in this locker room respects and looks up to. When you see the amount of love and respect that he gives Hue and how much he cares for him, it is special. That is how a lot of the young guys know that was real.”

    Jackson had somehow kept his players motivated and hungry, a challenge as difficult as any he had ever faced.

    He knew his team had become a national embarrassment and that some fans incensed over the team’s continuous tumble were planning a parade to rejoice in a 0-16 finish.

    The Browns, though, didn’t buckle and rewarded Jackson.

    “I know how hard this group has worked and I know how hard it has been for these guys to go out every week and give it everything they have and come up short and to be the brunt of jokes and to be talked about and people saying we were going to be 0-16 and there were parades and this and that,” he said.

    “I just thought all that emotion just came to a head. I was happy for them. It was more about them. It is not about me.”

 

  • Role players growing up on job for playoff-bound Steelers– The image of Antonio Brown’s seemingly elastic left arm fighting off a pair of tacklers to stretch the ball across the goal line and send the Pittsburgh Steelers into the playoffs will live on. One more highly GIF-able moment in the star wide receiver’s weekly dance with the improbable.Zoom out, though, and the picture gets crowded by the guys who played vital parts in the drive that saved Pittsburgh’s season, a group of “who’s that?” players forced to grow up on the job for arguably the NFL’s hottest team.

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw eight passes of consequence during the 10-play masterpiece that moved the Steelers 75 yards in 69 seconds. Sure, two went to Brown, but three went to back up tight end Jesse James , thrust back into the starting lineup with Ladarius Green out with a concussion. One went to rookie Demarcus Ayers, who deftly stepped out of bounds to stop the clock after the first catch of his career, a 9-yard gain that pushed Pittsburgh (10-5) to the end of field-goal range. One went to undrafted first-year player Eli Rogers, whose leaping grab pushed the Steelers inside the red zone. Still another went to practice squad graduate Cobi Hamilton.

    Oh, and all that came after third-string tight end Xavier Grimble hauled in a leaping 20-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger in the first quarter.

    This is not the group Roethlisberger thought he would have his disposal when the season opened. Yet there they were, delivering with a division title hanging in the balance in a raucous 31-27 victory .

    “Sometimes it just doesn’t matter where you’re drafted, it doesn’t matter where you are on the depth chart,” Roethlisberger said. “Sometimes if you have the want to and the desire to get out there and make something happen, if you make the most or your opportunity, you get to do it and some of those guys did it.”

    Even if the road to get here tested their patience and resolve. The Steelers took a flier on Ayers in the seventh round of the draft envisioning him as a return specialist but he couldn’t stay healthy during training camp and was cut before landing on the practice squad. He finally earned a spot on the 53-man roster against Cincinnati but was inactive on game day.

    Ayers was told on Christmas Eve he’d be on the active roster for the first time in his career. In an effort to quell Ayers’ nerves, Roethlisberger tried to give the rookie a pep talk.

    “Ben told me (Saturday) night, he said ‘Go to sleep, get some good rest, relax. It’s just football at the end of the day. You’ve been playing this your whole life,'” Ayers said. “Before I went to bed, that’s the only thing I could think about.”

    Suddenly Ayers found himself walking onto the field with the Steelers trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter. Lined up on the outside, Ayers darted downfield on a go route while Roethlisberger heaved it his way. The ball sailed just out of reach but Ayers drew contact from Baltimore defensive back Tavon Young. The 35-yard pass interference penalty put the Steelers in position to kick-start their comeback. It also showed just how far Ayers has come.

    Roethlisberger tested Ayers with a similar play in practice on Friday to see if Ayers could win a one-on-one battle with a cornerback. Ayers then watched the pass on a loop Saturday looking to see how he could do a better job of getting behind the defender. He easily slipped by Young at the line when it mattered to get a momentum-turning flag then later added his first ever grab as a professional.

    “I grew up today,” Ayers said.

    It’s a path that mirrors the one Rogers took a year ago when he broke his foot and spent the entire season on injured reserve. He’s played erratically this fall as the de facto second option at receiver following Martavis Bryant’s suspension and injuries to Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

    In a de facto elimination game against an arch rival, Rogers finished with 84 yards receiving on four receptions, including a 39-yarder that set up a field goal and his leaping 20-yard gain five snaps before Brown went full Mr. Fantastic on the Ravens.

    “We do it every day at practice,” Rogers said. “You just try to take those same elements you have in practice and take it to the game. That way guys don’t get tight. They don’t get tense. We knew we had to make plays. We stayed calm and poised.”

 

  • David Johnson continues to set new records in Cardinals’ victory– David Johnson earned all the yards he gained on the ground Saturday.The Seattle Seahawks were determined to keep Johnson from taking over the game running the ball. No matter how much they tried, Seattle couldn’t completely stop Arizona’s star running back.

    “There is nothing else to be said about that kid,” Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said. “Every adjective used to describe him is spot on. There is not one that is a reach, he’s spectacular.”

    Johnson continued to rewrite the Arizona record book with three touchdowns in the Cardinals’ 34-31 win over the Seahawks. Arizona won in Seattle for the third time in the past four years and Johnson was the biggest reason why.

    The Arizona workhorse scored on a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs and added a 2-yard run to give him an NFL-leading 20 total touchdowns for the season. He set franchise records for rushing (16) and total touchdowns (20), bettering marks held by John David Crow since 1962. Johnson now has 33 touchdowns in 31 regular-season games.

    But while the touchdowns were important, it was his two receptions on Arizona’s final drive that were crucial. After Seattle pulled even at 31-31 on Paul Richardson’s 5-yard TD catch with 1:06 remaining, the Cardinals went 50 yards to set up Chandler Catanzaro’s winning 43-yard field goal on the final play.

    Johnson was responsible for 42 of those yards. He had a 13-yard catch over the middle to get Arizona an early first down. He followed with a 29-yard catch down the sideline on a perfectly thrown ball by Palmer, beating Seattle safety Kam Chancellor. The catch got the Cardinals into field-goal range, and after an 8-yard reception by Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals rushed out their field goal unit.

    Catanzaro’s kick was true.

    “We were looking to see if it was a linebacker or Kam Chancellor guarding me,” Johnson said. “I was going to try to get open on a go route. And Carson saw that he overplayed a little bit and I noticed it, too, (Chancellor) just turned and ran. Carson threw a great ball and I was able to catch it.”

    Arizona coach Bruce Arians said he was surprised they got that matchup with Chancellor on Johnson. Seattle coach Pete Carroll could only compliment the execution of the play.

    “It was a really good play by a really good quarterback and a really good player. That’s a nice throw and catch there because Kam was right on the guy,” Carroll said.

    For most of the day it looked like Johnson would struggle to continue his string of at least 100 yards from scrimmage, a streak that started with the opener. He was held to 95 yards rushing, and only once was able to completely break free of Seattle’s defenders, when he cut back for a 33-yard run in the fourth quarter that helped set up the third of his touchdowns.

    But the streak continued thanks to the two receptions on the final drive. It’s the longest streak of at least 100 yards from scrimmage to start a season in league history. Johnson became the first player with 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns in the same season since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.

    Earlier in the week, Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright said he believed Johnson should be the league’s offensive player of the year. Johnson now has 1,233 yards rushing and 841 yards receiving. Johnson needs 159 yards receiving in the season finale against Los Angeles to be the third player ever to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

    “It does really mean a lot,” Johnson said of the records. “All the success is due to, tribute to, the guys up front and Carson believing in me and throwing me the ball or (Arians) putting me in those situations where I could help out the team.”

Downs

  • Bills fire coach Rex Ryan ahead of last game of season– The Bills have fired coach Rex Ryan before the end of his second season after he failed to build Buffalo’s defense into a bully or lead the team to the playoffs.The Bills announced Ryan’s firing on Tuesday, three days after a 34-31 overtime loss to the Dolphins dropped the Bills to 7-8 and officially eliminated the team from playoff contention. The loss extended the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 17 seasons.

    Assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn takes over as the interim, and is expected to be a candidate to replace Ryan full-time. The Bills close the season in a meaningless game on Sunday at the New York Jets (4-11).

    Lynn is a longtime Ryan assistant and was promoted to offensive coordinator after Ryan fired Greg Roman following an 0-2 start.

    Team owner Terry Pegula reached the decision over the weekend and informed Ryan during the team’s day off on Tuesday.

    “We mutually agreed that the time to part ways is now,” Pegula said in a statement released by the team. “These decisions are never easy.”

    Pegula then noted his wife in saying: “Kim and I and our entire Bills organization share in the same disappointment and frustration as our fans, but we remain committed to our goal of bringing a championship to western New York.”

    The Pegulas made the decision to fire Ryan after attending Saturday’s game and then spending Christmas at their second home in the Adirondacks.

    Ryan was 15-16 in two seasons.

    The Bills also fired Ryan’s twin brother, Rob Ryan, from his position as an assistant head coach with the responsibility to oversee defense.

    Rex Ryan came to Buffalo saying this would be his last job after six seasons with the Jets, and vowed to build the Bills into a bully.

    This has been a difficult year for the Ryans, who mourned the death of their father, Buddy Ryan, in June.

    Buffalo’s drought is tied for the fifth-longest in league history, and the longest since the New Orleans Saints failed to make the playoffs during their first 20 NFL seasons (1967-86).

    The Pegulas are now on their third head coach since October 2014, when they finalized purchasing the Bills from the estate of late Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson.

    Ryan replaced Doug Marrone, who opted out of his contract following a 9-7 finish in 2014.

    Though Buffalo’s offense has featured the NFL’s top running attacks over the past two seasons, Ryan was undone by his failings on defense, which was supposed to be his specialty.

    Last year, the Bills finished 19th in yards allowed — the worst ranking for Ryan in his 11 years as a head coach or coordinator. Buffalo also managed just 21 sacks, a franchise-low for a 16-game season, and after the defense led the NFL with 54 the previous season under coordinator Jim Schwartz.

    The defense has underperformed once again this year, despite Ryan’s offseason vows that it would be markedly improved.

    The Bills have allowed 30 or more points five times and allowed more than 400 yards offense four times, both matching last year’s total.

    Worse still, Buffalo has been porous against the run having given up 200 yards rushing to an opponent three times this season. Miami’s Jay Ajayi did it twice, including a 206-yard outing on Saturday. And Le’Veon Bell had 236 yards rushing — the most against Buffalo in franchise history — in Pittsburgh’s 27-20 win at Buffalo on Dec. 11.

    Add in Ajayi’s 214 yards rushing in Miami’s 28-25 win in October, and the three rushing performances rank among the top-six worst against Buffalo.

 

  • Seattle keeps adding questions approaching NFC playoffs– The end of December is when the Seattle Seahawks are supposed to be on a surge, not limping toward the conclusion of the regular season with questions clouding whether the Seahawks are true contenders when the NFC playoffs arrive.But that is how Seattle (9-5-1) sits after squandering control of the No. 2 seed in the NFC and continuing a streak of a win, followed by a loss that has lingered for the past six games.

    “I don’t think it’s alarming. I just think it’s what we’re working with,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on Monday.

    “Obviously it’s going to be really difficult to expect us to play a great game until we do. You want to see that. I know that’s what you’re waiting for.

    “But we’re counting on our guys being able to play off one another, playing off the defense and how their playing, and special teams and put together good games. We got one big game coming up and we’ll see where we are after this week.”

    Seattle’s 34-31 loss to Arizona on Saturday could have lingering effects that end up derailing what at times has appeared to be a team capable of being a Super Bowl contender and at other moments one not worthy of being in the postseason.

    Seattle’s only hope of landing the No. 2 seed requires help from others, most notably the Atlanta Falcons losing at home on the final day to New Orleans.

    Seattle must also win at San Francisco on Sunday and while it’s possible the Falcons falter, they are also 6½-point favorites over the Saints. An Atlanta win would leave the Seahawks with no rest and a home playoff game the first weekend of January.

    And the Seahawks will have no one to blame but themselves for kicking away their chance for a week off and some needed rest for a team that had their bye the first weekend of October.

    “It would have helped for sure, but you couldn’t win it all tonight anyways,” Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said after the loss.

    “We like a little toughness. We don’t like having to make it tough, but we can handle any situation.”

    Seattle’s path to the No. 2 seed was simple: Beat Arizona, beat San Francisco and get a break during the wild-card weekend.

    Instead, the loss to Arizona continued to expose a number of Seattle’s limitations and resulted in one major injury with the loss of wide receiver and kick returner Tyler Lockett for the season to a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his lower right leg.

    Carroll said Lockett underwent surgery late on Saturday night, a procedure that didn’t wrap up until about 4 a.m. Sunday morning.

    Carroll said he spoke with Lockett and there is optimism that the wide receiver will be ready for the start of training camp next summer.

    But the severity of his injury was the capper to an otherwise miserable day which seemed to mirror much of Seattle’s inconsistent season.

    While Seattle’s defense played well — minus one big play — in the first half, the Seahawks offense was unable to protect Wilson and get started.

    The Seahawks had just 94 yards in the first half and Wilson was sacked five times. When Seattle’s offense made changes and found a second-half rhythm that led to 28 points and 297 yards, the Seahawks’ defense was unable to shut down big plays that allowed Arizona to gain 192 yards and score 20 points in the fourth quarter.

    “This one coming up is hugely important for us to find some rhythm that goes from start to finish and play complementary football like we have a good part of the year,” Carroll said.

 

  • Panthers want to see QB Newton improve throwing mechanics– There are times Ron Rivera watches Cam Newton throw a football and thinks he can be one of the best quarterbacks of all time. And there are other times the Panthers’ coach studies Newton’s release and says to himself, “Aw c’mon, you have to have better footwork.”Rivera would like to see Newton improve the consistency of his throwing mechanics as the Panthers look toward the future.

    Newton, in his sixth NFL season, has completed a career-low 53.5 percent of his passes this season and has failed to complete 50 percent of his passes in five of the last six games while battling soreness in his right throwing shoulder.

    The Panthers are 6-9 and won’t make the playoffs after reaching the Super Bowl last season. They wrap up the season Sunday at Tampa Bay.

    Newton, last year’s MVP, has seen a dramatic drop off in his production, throwing just 18 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions one year after tossing a career-high 35 TDs with 10 INTs.

    Rivera attributes some of Newton’s issues with accuracy to an offensive line that struggled to protect him early on — 21 sacks in his first seven starts — and a late-season shoulder injury that has left him limited in practice and at times grimacing in pain after taking a hit on game day. Over the past six games Newton has completed 91 of 201 passes (or 45.2 percent) while playing behind an offensive line without two-time All-Pro center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Michael Oher, both of whom are on injured reserve.

    “I think a lot of it is reflective on how much pressure he received earlier in the year,” Rivera said. “I think sometimes it kind of sets you back a little bit.”

    Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Monday that Newton’s struggles are a team issue that goes far beyond the play of the quarterback.

    “We as a passing offense need to be better,” Shula said. “Coaching, throwing, catching, protecting, getting to the right spots. … You can’t look at a completion percentage and say, ‘Oh, he’s not very accurate.'”

    Shula has heard the criticism over Newton’s throwing mechanics and believes everyone can work to get better.

    But Shula was quick to add that “every quarterback “has his own style,” and Newton is no different.

    “You hear about him throwing off his back foot, but there are a lot of guys who make throws off their back foot,” Shula said of the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton. “That’s not how you teach it but sometimes you have to do that. Cam has the ability to do that and make some great throws whereas other guys couldn’t do that.”

    Shula said Newton is taught to stay balanced, but if he can’t do that while under duress then the key is get the throwing shoulder all the way through on his release and making sure he follows through to the intended target.

    “If you don’t, your accuracy goes down,” Shula said.

    Shula remains extremely confident in Newton’s ability — and his mechanics as a passer — despite the criticism.

    “You don’t have to have the ability to step up and still make accurate throws,” Shula said. “You teach a good foundation, a good base so even if you can’t step up (because of pressure) you are sitting there with a good base where you can transfer your weight.”

 

  • Missed calls aplenty, and the NFL is looking for fixes– This has been the year of the penalty in the NFL.Not so much because more flags have been thrown in 2016 — through Week 15 teams were averaging 8.09 flags a game this season compared to 8.10 in 2015 — or because a larger-than-normal number of games have been decided by questionable calls.

    More because the questioning of the competence of the officials began, literally, on opening day with a flurry of unflagged hits to the head of the reigning MVP, Cam Newton, and continued, in some form, virtually every week, without a stop.

    Patterns? There weren’t any, in particular.

    Phantom pass interference calls have been as common as unflagged hits to the head, the likes of which sent Newton to the commissioner’s office to discuss. There were petty calls for hugging refs (Earl Thomas) and throwing towels (Travis Kelce got ejected ), all underscored by a flurry of flags for celebrations that grew more subversive the harder the NFL tried to curb them.

    Replay worked — sometimes. But it didn’t change anything at the end of the Cowboys-Vikings game. Cedric Thornton wasn’t flagged even though he clearly hit Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford in the head as Bradford threw for a potential tying 2-point play.

    Also not reviewed: The non-call for Richard Sherman’s takedown of Julio Jones at the end of the Seahawks-Falcons game; or a particularly poor spotting of the ball in an especially poorly called game between the Texans and Raiders.

    “The scrutiny and the attention are at an all-time high on anything related to NFL, and that is a very positive thing,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating. “And sometimes it can be negative, and we understand that in officiating.”

    What to do about all this?

    Nothing new here — there is no single answer, but merely a list of remedies the NFL has committed to and could consider in the offseason.

    ___

    FULL-TIME REFEREES: The league is considering hiring 17 full-time officials and increasing the size of officiating crews from seven to eight. The part-time official has long been a staple of the league, and there’s good reason for it. Why would an official quit his day job for one with very little job security? Only if the league and the unions representing the players and officials can figure out a way to guarantee full-time officials some job security will this work out. Even then, 17 full-time referees will only represent a bit more than 10 percent of the workforce.

    “Over 60 percent of (questions from coaches) are not about calls made but those not made,” Blandino said. “So we could cover more of the field of play, which of course is a positive.”

    ___

    PASS INTERFERENCE: It’s an almost annual cry: The NFL should consider changing its long-held rule on penalizing pass interference at the spot of the foul in favor of the more lenient college rule, which calls for only a 15-yard penalty.

    If Mike Pereira, the former VP of officiating for the NFL, could change one single thing in the NFL, this would be it.

    “You can change the course of a game on one of those calls, and what if a referee’s not sure?” said Pereira, now an analyst for Fox.

    The con to this is that it would now pay for a badly beaten defensive back to dive and tackle a receiver who was breaking open for a sure touchdown.

    Of course, the league could consider a major and minor version of pass interference, though that has the potential to raise as many questions as it answers.

    ___

    TARGETING REPLAY: Week 14 was Exhibit A, but hardly the only example of an instance in which officials could have used help from the booth to determine whether to eject a player for targeting to the head.

    Darren Sproles of the Eagles was moving forward to field a punt when Deshazor Everett of the Redskins launched himself into Sproles and hit him helmet to helmet, knocking Sproles out of the game.

    In college, this play might’ve been sent to the booth to determine if the rule calling for an automatic ejection should be enforced. The NFL does none of that, and Pereira explained that the call wasn’t as automatic as many outraged posters on social media made it sound.

    “Sproles didn’t call for a fair catch, and you’ve got a guy running toward him, trying to time the hit with the ball behind him and he can’t see it,” he said. That doesn’t always make it a play worthy of an ejection, Pereira explained, but rather a timing play that went awry.

    ___

    SPOTTING THE BALL: The Nov. 21 game between the Raiders and Texans may have been the worst-called game of the season.

    Among the misses: a pair of questionable spots with the Texans trying to gain short yardage to keep a potentially go-ahead drive going. Replays indicated the officials may have missed the spots both times. (That Texans coach Bill O’Brien didn’t challenge the first spot is another issue).

    The league is looking into technology already used in soccer: inserting a chip into the football that would help officials locate the ball and make more accurate spots.

    “It’s not as simple as to simply have a chip in the football,” Blandino said. “Players get in the way, it doesn’t tell us if the knee is down, and there are other factors that play into it that you don’t have in, say, tennis or soccer.”

    ___

    NO FUN LEAGUE: It’s become almost a weekly exercise to see which NFL striped shirt will throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct on a player trying a new celebration. Thomas hugged an official; Emmanuel Sanders wound up in the manner of a baseball pitcher and threw the football into the wall; Antonio Brown twerked ; Odell Beckham Jr. pretended to take a picture of Victor Cruz while Cruz was dancing.

    Penalties for celebration were up more than 50 percent from 2015 midway through the season. Blandino said for all the fuss, only 27 had been called through Week 15. But the league will review the rule in the offseason.

    “The (competition) committee is really focused on not taking the spontaneous emotion out of the play,” Blandino said, “and not take away that collegial feeling with the fans in the stadium.”

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