What Have We Learned from Week 14 of the 2017 NFL Season

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Myles Jack

Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack (44) celebrates a play against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 14 of the 2017 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Division-leading Jags poised for 1st playoff berth in decade-The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars were alone atop the AFC South this late in a season, they lost three straight and missed the playoffs.

    They don’t expect it to happen again.

    Having won six of their last seven games and with quarterback Blake Bortles playing the best football of his NFL career, the Jaguars (9-4) believe they’re poised for a December push that will result in the franchise’s first postseason game — maybe even at home — since 2008.

    “This is not the old Jaguars team,” rookie running back Leonard Fournette said following a 30-24 victory against Seattle on Sunday.

    There’s little doubt this is Jacksonville’s best team in a decade, maybe even longer. The Jaguars finished 11-5 in 2007, earned a wild-card berth and then won at Pittsburgh. They lost the following week at then-undefeated New England and have failed to get back to the playoffs since.

    Their best shot came in 2010, when they were 8-5 and leading the division before stumbling down the stretch.

    Tight end Marcedes Lewis, the lone holdover from Jacksonville’s last playoff team, said this year feels much different.

    “In the building, we knew what was ahead of us, and nobody tightened up,” Lewis said. “This win was big for us and next week is going to be even bigger for us.”

    The Jaguars wrap up a three-game homestand next Sunday against injury-riddled Houston (4-9), which has dropped three straight and five in a row on the road. Jacksonville can clinch a playoff berth with a victory.

    “It’s obviously the best it has ever felt since a lot of us have been here,” Bortles said. “There are a couple guys that have been around for a while. I think for the majority of the locker room and the team and the guys that have been here for a year or two or three years that this is really the first taste of playing meaningful football in December.

    “It feels good. It’s tough to explain. It is awesome. It’s a good feeling.”

    The Jaguars have a lot to feel good about right now.

    It starts with Bortles, who has been close to flawless the last two games.

    Bortles completed 44 of 62 passes for 577 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, in consecutive home wins against Indianapolis and Seattle. He was sacked just once in those games, too.

    “He’s doing his thing, and he’s cool as a cat,” Lewis said. “When we’re not doing well or we take a bad loss, he gets all the blame, so he deserves a lot of praise for what’s he’s doing out there and how he’s been leading. He’s been leading from the front. He doesn’t blame nobody when people drop the ball or a negative play happens. He doesn’t blame nobody. He just goes out there and continues to work.”

    Bortles has a fully healthy offensive line for the first time since early October, has Fournette (ankle) back at full speed and is getting productivity from rookie receivers Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. Fellow receiver Allen Hurns (ankle) is expected back this week, so that could be a plus down the stretch, too.

    Special teams have provided a spark in recent weeks, with Jaydon Mickens’ 72-yard return that set up a touchdown against the Seahawks being the latest boost. Josh Lambo, signed off the street in mid-October, has made 16 of 17 field goals and 13 of 14 extra points.

    And Jacksonville’s defense continues making big plays. Even though Russell Wilson torched the vaunted secondary for touchdowns of 26, 61 and 74 yards Sunday, he also threw three interceptions that the Jaguars turned into 10 points.

    All those performances have Jacksonville playing meaningful games in December for the first time in years.

    Cornerback Jalen Ramsey said the Jaguars don’t really care about what people think.

    “It’s our first winning season in a while,” Ramsey said. “We’re happy about that. We’re going to keep grinding, trying to stack some wins. That’s what it’s about right now.”

 

  • Lions keep playoff hopes alive with another win late in game-The Detroit Lions have earned the right to keep their hopes of making the playoffs for at least another week.

    Perhaps fittingly, they did it by making enough plays late in a game to win.

    Detroit ended its second losing streak of two or more games this season, going 49 yards to set up Matt Prater’s 46-yard field goal to beat Tampa Bay 24-21 Sunday.

    In Jim Caldwell’s four seasons, the Lions lead the league with 20 wins on drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

    “The biggest thing is they are not daunted by some huge task and adversity,” Caldwell said Monday. “They use it more as a friend than a foe.”

    Detroit (7-6) faces Chicago (4-9) at home Saturday, aiming to close the regular season strong enough to stay in postseason contention.

    The Lions will have to win their next three games and get some — or a lot — of help to reach the playoffs for the second straight time and third overall under Caldwell.

    Carolina (9-4), New Orleans (9-4) and Atlanta (8-5) are all ahead of them in the NFC, and they all beat Detroit to own a potential tiebreaker.

    Detroit’s best chance to beat the Bears, win at Cincinnati and defeat Green Bay at home is to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford as well as it did against the Buccaneers.

    Stafford was not sacked for the first time in a game this season. He was sacked 13 times the previous four games and stepped on once, leading to him throwing with a banged-up hand.

    “Matthew’s been incredible in that sense,” Caldwell said. “Tough. Hard-nosed. Quick healer. And when he doesn’t heal exactly like you’d want to and feel great, he finds a way to play through them and play well through them. So, that’s an unusual trait.”

    Stafford usually doesn’t have much of a running game, forcing him to throw a lot and lately he has been very accurate in the one-dimensional offense that relies on his right arm.

    He is the first NFL player to complete at least 80 percent of his passes in consecutive road games with at least 29 attempts. Against Tampa Bay, he was 36 of 44 and his 81.8 percent completion rate tied for the third-best by an NFL player with at least 44 passes in a game.

    “Our guys on the training staff did an unbelievable job helping me out getting this feeling as good as I possibly could,” Stafford said. “Our guys did a great job of keeping me upright and they allowed me to sit in there and throw the ball around and make the game feel pretty good.”

 

  • At 36, Philip Rivers is on a roll with surging LA Chargers-Deep in his 12th season as the Chargers’ starting quarterback, Philip Rivers is playing some of his best football.

    In his first game since turning 36 years old, Rivers carved up the Washington Redskins’ secondary on the way to 319 yards and two touchdowns in Los Angeles’ 30-13 victory Sunday.

    That blowout win was just the latest big game in Rivers’ string of savvy performances for the Chargers (7-6), who have won four straight heading into Saturday’s showdown with Kansas City (7-6) for first place in the AFC West.

    While the Chargers have an increasingly impressive defense and several offensive playmakers, the quarterback with the three-hour daily commutefrom San Diego is the engine driving them toward the postseason.

    “We’ve been on a good little run the last few weeks,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said Monday. “A lot of it has to do with Philip and the way he’s playing.”

    During the Chargers’ winning streak, Rivers has 1,348 yards passing with eight touchdowns and four straight passer ratings over 100. He also hasn’t committed a turnover during that four-game stretch, the longest turnover-free streak of his entire career.

    “He’s unstoppable,” said receiver Tyrell Williams, who caught a beautiful 75-yard TD pass from Rivers on Sunday. “I don’t even have a word for him. He’s just playing great. I know he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing, and if he keeps playing like that, we’re going to be a hard team to beat.”

    Not bad for a quarterback who threw a career-worst 21 interceptions last season and then wondered if the end of his Chargers career was near when they started 0-4 in their relocation season.

    “(There were) a lot of different emotions,” Rivers recalled Sunday. “A little bit of, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! Could it be any worse right now? We moved up the road. We’ve lost four in a row. Is this my last 12 games here?’ You have all of those thoughts.”

    Instead, the Chargers have won four straight home games while moving above .500 for the first time since September 2015.

    The Chargers have given themselves the chance to be the first NFL team since the 1992 San Diego Chargers to make the playoffs after starting 0-4. A win in Kansas City would put the Chargers on an inside track to their first division title since 2009, the last of four straight AFC West champions led by LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Rivers.

    “While it’s been real exciting, we’ve been right here before on the cusp, and we lose the last two or three, and you end up a game out,” Rivers said. “While everybody is excited and feeling pretty good about what we’ve done to get back in it, we’ve got to make sure nobody relaxes. … You hear all this positive stuff about the Chargers now, but we have to make sure we continue to move forward like we have been.”

    In some previous seasons in San Diego, Rivers and the Chargers got off to outstanding starts before fading down the stretch, either due to nagging injuries or slumping performances by a team that has made the playoffs once since 2009.

    This season has been something different: Rivers completed just 63.3 percent of his passes and made five turnovers during the 0-4 start, only to improve steadily as the season progressed.

    Rivers has moved up to fourth in the NFL with 3,611 yards passing, behind only Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford. His 23 touchdown passes are fifth in the league, and he has thrown only seven interceptions all season — just three in the past 10 games.

    Most importantly, Rivers and his offense are playing with palpable confidence while winning seven of their past nine games overall. Rivers said he felt good about the Chargers’ chances against the Redskins after just one look at their scripted plays for the start of the game.

    Although he has never been the NFL’s most nimble quarterback, Rivers has been remarkably adept at avoiding rushes and blitzes in recent weeks. He was sacked twice by the Redskins, but avoided trouble on several additional plays.

    He didn’t show that caution while leading the blocking for Travis Benjamin on a reverse running play in the second half, however. Although Rivers didn’t end up hitting anybody, that play still sent shivers up the spines of Whisenhunt and head coach Anthony Lynn one day later.

    “He looked like a parade master going down the field,” Whisenhunt said. “I would have preferred if he had just gone ahead and run out of bounds so he could just get out of the action.”

Middle

  • Despite loss in Pittsburgh, Ravens control playoff fate-Following an agonizing night in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore Ravens took consolation in knowing their fourth-quarter collapse won’t necessarily impact their chances of reaching the playoffs.

    In spite of Sunday night’s 39-38 loss to the Steelers, the Ravens (7-6) can end a two-year playoff drought by winning their final three regular-season games. It’s a task that does not appear to be all that imposing, given that the collective record of those three opponents is 8-31.

    After facing winless Cleveland on the road Sunday, Baltimore hosts Indianapolis (3-13) on Dec. 23 before wrapping up with Cincinnati (5-8) at home on Dec. 31.

    “It’s the National Football League. Those will be three very challenging football games for us, but we’re capable of doing it. We expect to do it,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We’re right there to earn a wild-card berth, but there’s three games left and we’ve got to make it happen for ourselves.”

    Baltimore took a three-game winning streak into Pittsburgh and was coming off its most complete performance of the season, a 44-20 rout of Detroit. After spotting the Steelers a 14-0 lead, the Ravens moved in front 31-20 before being outscored 19-7 over the final 15 minutes.

    “In the fourth quarter, the defense dropped the ball,” linebacker Terrell Suggs acknowledged.

    Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards and a Baltimore defense that led the NFL in takeaways didn’t get any. Playing their first game without injured cornerback Jimmy Smith, the Ravens had no answer for Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, who finished with 11 catches for 213 yards.

    Asked one day later if he regretted not using double-coverage against the gifted receiver, Harbaugh replied, “I’m sure baseball pitchers wish they hadn’t thrown a fastball when they threw a fastball or a curveball when they hung one there for a home run.”

    It was a stinging defeat against a bitter rival, and it provided the Steelers with the AFC North title. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the loss what that a defense that has already registered three shutouts this season didn’t force a punt in the first half and allowed Roethlisberger to throw for 228 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

    “If you would have told me that our offense would put up 38 points against them, I would have 100 percent said we would have won,” Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “This is going to sting for a while, especially for the guys on defense because we care so much.”

    But in a crazy up-and-down season in which the Ravens started 2-0, slumped to 4-5 and then won three in a row, they’re still in the playoff hunt.

    “If we win out, we are going to go into the playoffs coming off a three-game winning streak, having won six out of seven,” Weddle said. “Hopefully this will just build our character and make us better in the long run.”

Downs

  • Eagles turn to Nick Foles after Carson Wentz goes down-Carson Wentz got the Eagles this far. Now, it’s up to Nick Foles to deliver Philadelphia its first Super Bowl title.

    Wentz has a torn left ACL and will miss the rest of the season and playoffs, forcing the NFC East champions to turn to a familiar backup who once had one of the greatest statistical seasons in NFL history.

    “The reason we got Nick Foles is for situations like this. I’m excited for Nick,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday. “I hate it for Carson Wentz. I hate it for the season that he’s been having. But at the same time, it’s been the next-man-up mentality and that’s how we approach it.”

    Wentz was a favorite in the NFL MVP race during a breakout sophomore season. He threw for 3,296 yards and set a franchise single-season record with an NFL-leading 33 touchdown passes while only tossing seven interceptions.

    “From my standpoint, you don’t waver, man. You don’t let people see you sweat,” Pederson said. “You just put your head down and you just go to work. You get everybody ready to play. It was evident when Carson was out of the game, you saw Nick come in and come back and lead us to victory in that game. So that right there is a great step in the right direction.”

    Wentz got hurt diving into the end zone on a scramble late in the third quarter Sunday at Los Angeles. Pederson said it appeared Wentz tore his anterior cruciate ligament before contact with two tacklers. The touchdown was nullified by a penalty, but Wentz stayed in the game and tossed a TD pass to Alshon Jeffery four plays later.

    Foles replaced him on the next series after the Rams took the lead and rallied the Eagles (11-2) to a 43-35 win that secured the division title and put them in first place in the conference with three games remaining.

    The Eagles have overcome several key injuries and now have to move forward without their most indispensable player. Nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, return specialist/running back Darren Sproles, star linebacker Jordan Hicks and special teams captain Chris Maragos already went down for the season.

    “This has been a resilient football team all season long,” Pederson said. “If there’s ever an opportunity for me as a head football coach to rally the troops, now might be the time.”

    Foles led the Eagles to their last playoff appearance — a 2013 home loss to New Orleans. That came after he threw 27 TDs and only two picks in 10 starts after replacing an injured Michael Vick during Chip Kelly’s first season as coach. Foles posted a passer rating of 119.2, the third highest in league history. He tied an NFL record with seven TD passes in a game at Oakland in November 2013 and went to the Pro Bowl, winning the offensive MVP award.

    A third-round pick by former Eagles coach Andy Reid in 2012, Foles in his second stint in Philadelphia. He is 20-17 as a starter, including playoffs. Kelly traded Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford after the 2014 season. Foles spent a year with the Rams, then a season in Kansas City with Pederson as offensive coordinator, before returning to Philadelphia as a free agent this season.

    “My confidence is extremely high in Nick,” Pederson said. “He’s a veteran player who has played and won a lot of games. Nick’s a highly intelligent football player. He’s smart to the point of he and I are going to continue to dialogue like Carson and I did during the week. I want to make sure there are plays in his plan that he’s comfortable with and that he likes. I want him to speak his mind just like Carson would, and we keep going. This is a veteran player we’re talking about. So I feel comfortable doing that.”

    Second-year pro Nate Sudfeld is Philadelphia’s No. 3 quarterback. Pederson said he hasn’t spoken to personnel boss Howie Roseman about adding a third quarterback yet. Sudfeld was selected in the sixth round by Washington in 2016 and hasn’t played a down in the NFL.

    “Nate’s done a really good job,” Pederson said. “That’s part of the reason why we brought him up (off the practice squad) earlier in the year. Teams were interested in Nate, and we feel really comfortable with him.”

 

  • Indianapolis continues to struggle with spate of close calls-Frank Gore watched as the referees huddled in the snow.

    All Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano wanted was an explanation.

    Now, there’s no time to fret.

    One day after a go-ahead 2-point conversion was negated by an offensive pass interference call, thawed out players and coaches returned to work and tried to turn the page on yet another befuddling loss.

    “Really, really hard for me to get over there. I’ve seen some coaches try that of late and it didn’t bode so well. And that’s with no weather,” Pagano said, again using humor to combat the mounting frustration. “It was a long ways away. I couldn’t get anybody’s attention.”

    For the Colts (3-10), it’s been tough.

    Andrew Luck hasn’t played a snap since undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder.

    On Monday, Pagano confirmed the star quarterback continues to rehab in Europe as team doctors stay in contact with Luck through emails and text messages.

    Center Ryan Kelly, Indy’s first-round pick in 2016, missed the first four games this season with a broken foot and the past two with a concussion. Safety Malik Hooker, this season’s first-round pick, sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 7.

    Only two defenses have allowed more yards than the Colts and only one has allowed more points.

    With those numbers, Indy has predictably blown six leads — four in which it had double-digit leads in the second half.

    But the latest blow really stung.

    After Jacoby Brissett’s successful conversion pass to Jack Doyle appeared to give the Colts an 8-7 lead with 1:16 left in regulation, Indy thought it finally succeeded in turning the corner.

    Instead a late flag was thrown, the play was negated and Adam Vinatieri had to make a 43-yard extra point in blizzard conditions just to tie the score. Then they lost 13-7 in overtime . The impact was still being felt 24 hours later.

    “I’m still trying to thaw out a little bit,” rookie running back and Florida native Marlon Mack said. “I’m still a little cold.”

    The biggest issue might be recovery time.

    Pagano said the weather conditions probably took more out of his players than normal and that some had “dead legs,” hardly an ideal situation for a team facing a Thursday night home game against Denver (4-9). Even Gore , who had a career-high 36 carries, acknowledged he’d play it safe this week.

    “I’ll try to give my legs some rest this week,” the 34-year-old running back said. “I’ll get some massages at the hotel or whatever I need.”

    Of course the best remedy for all of this would be a win.

    Still, it would only provide solace in an already lost season.

    The four-game losing streak is the longest in Pagano’s six-year tenure with the Colts.

    Indy has been eliminated from playoff contention and the three-year postseason drought is the franchise’s longest since a seven-year run from 1988-94.

    Logically, the focus turns to Pagano’s future in Indianapolis for the third straight year.

    “You know what you got into. It’s all I’ve known forever,” he said. “The shelf life for these jobs is not long. You know what I mean?”

    When asked about being one of the league’s longest-tenured coaches, Pagano quipped: “I’m the grandfather of the (AFC) South.”

    But if the Colts can finish strong, it would at least help them cope with the looming long, busy offseason.

    “No, we’re not making the playoffs, but there are still games to be played and plays to be made,” rookie cornerback Quincy Wilson said. “And that’s what we’re going out there to do.”

 

  • End of winning streak gives Vikings enough time to recover-The Minnesota Vikings returned home from Carolina as a defeated team for the first time in 10 weeks, carrying with them a long list of cringe-worthy and uncharacteristic blunders that contributed to the loss.

    The outcome, though, could actually work in their favor.

    With all that postseason capital built up over the eight-game winning streak, the Vikings had a margin for the error they exhibited Sunday while being beaten by the Panthers 31-24 . Provided they can steer themselves back on track over the remaining three games on the schedule and maintain their grip on a first-round bye for the playoffs, they will have rid themselves of some sloppiness before it truly hurts them. They host the Cincinnati Bengals (5-8) this weekend.

    “It could be way worse. We’re in a good situation, and we’ve just got to keep it going that way,” said defensive end Everson Griffen, one of several upbeat players in the locker room Monday at team headquarters. “We’re a very composed team, and I don’t think we’re going to let this get to us at all. We’re going to go back to work. We’re going to have that sense of urgency.”

    Playing on the road against a confident and deep team, the Vikings (10-3) trailed by one point at halftime despite an opening-drive interception thrown by Case Keenum , a 60-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Stewart against a defense that has surrendered few long gains all season, and rare dropped passes by Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen.

    A reception by Rudolph likely would’ve put the Vikings in field-goal range during a possession that ended in a punt. Thielen had two chances for a touchdown with the Vikings sniffing the end zone late in the second quarter, but after one throw hit him in the chest and bounced away, he bobbled another that was ruled incomplete by a replay review that angered head coach Mike Zimmer. Thielen sounded resigned to the controversial rule requiring receivers to fully control the ball without any movement when they hit the ground.

    “The ball moved a little bit,” he said. “That’s just how it is.”

    The second half included a fumble by Keenum that looked like an incomplete pass, leaving the Vikings unaware they needed to try to cover the ball, and a second interception off a bobble by Stefon Diggs.

    “We don’t want to have any mistakes, regardless, whether it’s now or later on,” running back Latavius Murray said. “But the fact that they’re right now and we still have everything we want in front of us, I think that’s a good thing. So it’s a chance for us to learn from that.”

    The Vikings fell one game behind Philadelphia for the NFC lead, though the Eagles lost quarterback Carson Wentz to a season-ending knee injury.

    With right tackle Mike Remmers missing for a fifth straight game, the last two because of lower back trouble, center Pat Elflein joined him on the sideline with a shoulder injury in his first career scratch. Then left tackle Riley Reiff hurt his ankle in the third quarter, prompting Remmers’ replacement Rashod Hill to switch sides; Jeremiah Sirles to move from left guard to right tackle; and Danny Isidora to enter at left guard. Nick Easton had slid over from left guard to center to play for Elflein, which thrust Sirles into the starting lineup.

    “Even with how poorly we played up front, which we thought we played poorly watching the film, we still had a chance to win it there at the end,” Sirles said. “Which just goes to show if we can be on our game up front, it doesn’t really matter who’s in there, we can do well.”

    Elflein practiced last week on a limited basis, so his injury is not serious. Reiff’s departure from the stadium in a walking boot raised a significant concern, but Zimmer said his ankle was “a lot better than he thought it was going to be” when he was treated Monday.

    “When you have injuries, you’re going to have backup players play in there,” Zimmer said. “We’re not going to make an excuse for this game or for players that come in or anything else. We’ll take ownership of what we did Sunday, and we’ll move forward.”

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