What Have We Learned From Week 16 of the 2018 NFL Season

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Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield smiles as he answers questions during a news conference after an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Cleveland. The Browns won 26-18. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 16 of the 2018 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Big swing: Browns go from winless to almost winners in 2018-CLEVELAND (AP) — Just a year ago, the Browns were winless. They were aimless. They looked hopeless.

    Disgusted with their laughable team, some Cleveland fans spent the holidays planning a tongue-in-cheek parade around FirstEnergy Stadium to celebrate a probable 0-16 season. Coach Hue Jackson promised to jump into Lake Erie.

    Those gloomy days are long gone. The Browns have turned it around.

    “It’s been a long time coming,” wide receiver Rashad Higgins said. “We were due for a winning team.”

    Overdue.

    With their 26-18 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the Browns (7-7-1) completed the biggest turnaround in franchise history. Cleveland’s seven-game improvement — and it could be eight with a win this week in Baltimore — since last season tops the six-game jumps the team made in 1976 and 2007.

    It’s been a remarkable swing for a franchise that has had just two winning seasons since its 1999 expansion reboot. And it’s a stunning rise for a team that endured a late-October coaching change, and if not for a play here and there, would be preparing for the playoffs.

    In an unpredictable season across the NFL, Cleveland’s one-year comeback may be the biggest shocker of all.

    As the final seconds bled from the clock on Sunday and the Browns clinched their best home record in 11 years at 5-2-1, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield took the snap and dropped to a knee before urging the sellout crowd to scream louder than it had all day.

    After shaking hands with a few Cincinnati players, Mayfield, who had been serenaded with chants of “Ba-ker! Ba-ker!” throughout much of the second half, then sprinted toward the locker room.

    In a way, Mayfield’s departure after the home finale felt more like an arrival. The Browns are back, and Mayfield intends to keep them around.

    “I relate to Cleveland,” said Mayfield, who threw three touchdown passes and improved to 6-6 as a starter. “The work ethic, the stuff that you have to earn it around here, that is what the Browns are all about. It is going to be a good relationship for a long time.”

    To interim coach Gregg Williams, Cleveland’s surge this season isn’t a surprise. Williams, who has led the Browns to a 5-2 record since taking over for Jackson, has always felt the team had enough talent to win and is finally putting it together.

    “I don’t ever walk into any game thinking that we can’t win, and I thought that last year,” said Williams, whose candidacy for the full-time job after the season improves with every victory. “I thought we played extremely well enough in many of those games to win games, and that is how close and tough the league is. It comes down to anywhere from three to four to four to five plays a game.

    “Now, we are making more of those plays. The more you make, the easier it is to buy in to understanding of this is how we play as a team. A team wins the game, not individuals.”

    Williams has always put team goals first, and while there are several factors that have led to Cleveland’s turnaround, he believes an emphasis on accountability has transformed the Browns.

    “We have been able to help them understand that you have to do your job and you have to block out the outside distractions,” he said. “You have to focus and rally together and play for each other. They have done a very good job of not only just doing their job but supporting each other. People see that in team execution over individual execution.”

    Williams will likely go into Sunday’s game against the Ravens (9-6) uncertain of his future. Long before the Browns rattled off five wins in six games, general manager John Dorsey said Williams will be one of the candidates he interviews when the season ends.

    Dorsey may never have considered that Williams would emerge as possibly the best coach going forward.

    Williams has not publicly campaigned for the job, and he wasn’t about to start Monday. He declined to say if he was hoping to get a guarantee like the one Baltimore gave John Harbaugh last week.

    “We are on to the Ravens,” he said.

    Williams’ short-term goal is to have his team ready to take on Baltimore’s league-leading defense, and to possibly spoil the Ravens’ playoff hopes. If Cleveland beats Baltimore, the Pittsburgh Steelers could take the division with a win over Cincinnati.

    “We will treat this like it is our playoff game,” Williams said. “We will treat it that way because that is how intense the game is going to be. It will be fun.”

 

  • Bears head into finale seeking first-round playoff bye-LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Bears head into their final regular-season game with a shot at an opening-round bye and some extra rest for their first playoff appearance in eight years.

    Consider those sweet incentives for the NFC North champions.

    A victory at Minnesota combined with a loss by the Los Angeles Rams to the San Francisco 49ers would give the Bears the second seed in the conference and a bye.

    “You have to be realistic in some of this,” Coach Matt Nagy said Monday.

    Chicago and Los Angeles kick off at the same time. And if it becomes clear the Bears have little shot at catching the Rams, Nagy figures to ease up and start pulling his best players.

    But for now, he’s all-in.

    “We’re doing everything we possibly can to win,” Nagy said. “And then I think it’s one of those deals where as you go, you gotta just kind of get a feel for your own game. And you gotta get a feel of what’s going on in that game because … that other game does matter with the Rams.”

    It’s been a long time since games this late in the season mattered for the Bears (11-4).

    They had a chance to make the playoffs in 2013 — their first year under Marc Trestman — only to miss out at 8-8 after faltering down the stretch. They got shredded at Philadelphia 54-11 in Week 16 and closed with a loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in a finale for the division championship at Soldier Field.

    The Bears fired Trestman after finishing last in the NFC North at 5-11 the following year. They went 14-34 the next three seasons under John Fox and never escaped the bottom of the division.

    But a major overhaul in the offseason that included the hiring of Nagy and trade for Khalil Mack spurred a worst-to-first leap. They’re headed to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 team won the division on the way to the NFC title game.

    “Even though we have the playoffs locked up already, we want to finish strong and that’s our mindset,” quarterback Mitchell Trubisky said. “Inside the locker room, just continue to take every game and every opportunity to go out there and play together and take care of business.”

    The Bears are the No. 3 seed in the NFC, a game behind the Rams. But they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker after shutting down Jared Goff and Los Angeles’ high-powered offense in a 15-6 victory at Soldier Field on Dec. 9.

    If they don’t get the second seed, they could wind up playing Minnesota in back-to-back weeks. The Vikings are sixth in the NFC and fighting to hang onto a playoff spot. But Nagy insisted the possibility of facing them the following week won’t impact his approach.

    That’s because the Bears have something at stake.

    “It’d be different if you couldn’t move at all,” Nagy said. “But the fact that you’re going here to win this game and do everything you can based on where we’re at now as we stand in this situation, you have to go about it that way. There’ll be some things maybe here or there that we’ll take a look at. But we’re just trying to keep this as normal as we possibly can, knowing that we’re going to (try to) win.”

    The Bears are rolling with eight wins in nine games, surviving a fight and a late fumble to beat San Francisco 14-9 on Sunday.

    Danny Trevathan made a key interception. A dominant defense kept the 49ers out of the end zone, and Nagy became the Bears’ first rookie coach to win 11 games.

    “We’re growing, we’re still growing and we’re also peaking,” Trevathan said.

 

  • AFC Beast: Pats’ divisional dominance still drives opponents-FOXBOROUGH, MASS. (AP) — The New England Patriots have set a benchmark for divisional dominance in the NFL for nearly two decades.

    Their mastery of the AFC East with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady leading the way — 10 straight titles and 16 in 19 seasons since 2000 — has proven to be somewhat of a double-edged sword for its division opponents.

    It’s the curse that haunts them and the engine that drives them.

    “New England is the team that teams want to be,” 22-year-old Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen said after Sunday’s 24-12 loss in Foxborough gave New England its latest division crown.

    Allen is new to the scene, but he has already had a taste of the Patriots dynasty that has beleaguered the Bills.

    And, the New York Jets.

    And, the Miami Dolphins.

    In all, the Patriots have won the division 21 times. The Dolphins were the last non-New England team to win the AFC East in 2008 — the same season Brady missed all but one game after tearing knee ligaments in the opener.

    The last of the Jets’ four division wins came in 2002.

    Buffalo’s most recent of its 10 division titles came in 1995. The Bills were also the last AFC East team to string together consecutive division championships, doing so in four straight seasons from 1988 to 1991.

    Since the AFC East’s inception in 1960, no team has done what New England has during its recent run. The Dolphins came closest, winning five of their 14 titles consecutively from 1981-85 and 10 in 15 years.

    “I think every team wants to (emulate them),” Allen said. “Obviously, they’ve got one of the greatest coaches to ever coach and one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game of football. … So, obviously, that’s what we want to be.”

    Just about the only thing working against the Patriots is time.

    Brady is now 41 years old and in his 19th season. Belichick, 66, is four decades into an NFL coaching career during which he has won seven Super Bowls, five as a head coach in New England.

    Yet the Patriots still find themselves a Week 17 win against the Jets away from clinching a first-round bye in the playoffs, ensuring them an all-important extra week of rest and at least one more game in Foxborough.

    “We still have one hugely important game left,” Brady said. “We have to finish strong.”

    Unlike years past, the Patriots’ road to the AFC East crown hasn’t been as easy. Their five losses are the most for any Patriots team since going 10-6 in 2009 and losing to the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round.

    Off-field issues such as the abrupt departure of midseason acquisition Josh Gordon, who was suspended indefinitely by the NFL last Thursday for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, have made the road even tougher.

    “Every team goes through things,” Belichick said during a conference call Monday. “When you play football for five months, things happen that you have to deal with as a team and we all have to deal with individually. So, I can’t imagine a season where that would ever not be the case.”

    It’s becoming harder to imagine a season that doesn’t end with the Patriots on top of the AFC East, as well.

Middle

  • Barring ties, NFC playoff picture is clear, AFC more muddled-Barring ties in Week 17 — and there are some wild scenarios should certain games end in draws Sunday — the road to the playoffs is quite straight in the NFC. The path to a first-round bye in the AFC has a bunch of curves in it.

    Already in are NFC division winners Dallas (East), New Orleans (South), Chicago (North) and the Los Angeles Rams (West). AFC divisions clinched belong to New England in the East and, well, nobody else. But there are clear leaders.

    Seattle owns an NFC wild card, and the LA Chargers have one in the AFC, though they can still win the AFC West.

    “You either believe in something or you don’t,” says coach Pete Carroll, whose 9-6 Seahawks made the postseason in what was considered a rebuilding year. “I think just staying the course and knowing we’re on to something. Believing in the history. We know what we’re capable of doing. We’ve shown it over a lot of years. You’re always adapting, but it’s staying what you’re true to. I think that’s what is happening. We look like a team that we have seen before, and that’s powerful.”

    Most powerful so far has been New Orleans, with the league’s best record at 13-2, and a dynamic offense led by Drew Brees. The Saints have home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

    The Rams (12-3) get the other opening-round bye if they beat San Francisco on Sunday. If they lose and the Bears win at Minnesota, Chicago (11-4) earns the week off and Los Angeles drops to the third seed.

    A Bears win also could keep the Vikings (8-6-1) out of the postseason, providing defending champion Philadelphia (8-7) wins at Washington. Only the Vikings or Eagles can get the second NFC wild card.

    “We’ve got to empty the bucket, and that’s the way we’ve got to play next week at home,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph says. “I’m really looking forward to that environment.”

    In the AFC, seeding is more muddled. Any of four teams could be the top or second seed.

    The simplest route is if Kansas City (11-4) and New England (10-5), currently the top two in the conference, both win Sunday. But if the Chiefs lose at home to Oakland and the Chargers (11-4) win at Denver, Los Angeles moves into the top spot.

    Houston (10-5) also could wind up No. 1 in the AFC with losses by the Chiefs, Patriots against the Jets, and Chargers. New England, the only unbeaten team at home this year, would get the first seed with a victory and losses by the Chiefs and Chargers.

    And get this: Houston doesn’t even own a division title. If the Texans fall at home to Jacksonville, the winner of the Colts at Titans game in Tennessee takes the AFC South, and the Texans become a wild card, joining either the Chiefs or Chargers.

    Texans coach Bill O’Brien, whose club began the season 0-3, is intrigued by the division being so ensconced in the playoff picture this year.

    “I think that’s an interesting question because I can remember the question was, two years ago, ‘Why is the AFC South so bad?'” he says. “Now, ‘Why is it so good?’

    “…I’ve never thought it was bad. I think every year it’s been extremely difficult to win games in the division. I just think there’s a lot of great coaches. You’ve got Frank (Reich) in Indy, Mike (Vrabel) in Tennessee, Doug (Marrone) in Jacksonville. You’ve got a lot of great players, quarterbacks, so you’ve got a tough division.”

    The AFC division often looked at as the toughest has been the North, which, not surprisingly, has come down to Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh. Except the Ravens (9-6) host the Browns, while the Steelers (8-6-1) must beat visiting Cincinnati and hope their archenemies from Cleveland sidetrack Baltimore, either beating or tying the Ravens.

    Neither the Ravens nor the Steelers can be a wild card — except if Pittsburgh ties the Bengals, then Indianapolis and Tennessee also tie. Then the Steelers are in.

    Of course, Pittsburgh also can win the North with a draw and a loss by Baltimore.

    Your head spinning yet?

Downs

  • Bengals clinch last place, adding intrigue to Lewis’ fate

CINCINNATI (AP) — A lackluster showing in Cleveland consigned the Bengals to last place for only the second time in coach Marvin Lewis’ 16 seasons and added another twist to Cincinnati’s futile and fan-alienating season.

A 26-18 loss locked Cincinnati (6-9) into last place in the AFC North for the first time since 2010 and raised more questions about whether Lewis will get a 17th chance with the franchise that’s lost games and fans at an alarming rate.

“I don’t know,” end Carlos Dunlap said, when asked about Lewis’ fate. “A lot of things happen. Everybody is making business decisions.”

Not so much in Cincinnati.

Owner Mike Brown has ignored fans’ demands for change while keeping head coaches around. During the 1990s, he extended Dave Shula’s contract while he was in the midst of losing 50 games faster than any coach in NFL history. He’s repeatedly rewarded Lewis with more chances even though he has yet to win a playoff game.

The loss in Cleveland stripped away one of the justifications Brown used last year for keeping Lewis around. The Bengals got blown out by the Bears and Vikings in consecutive weeks, but rallied to beat the Lions and the Ravens in the last two games.

Brown cited the team’s effort in the final two weeks as one of the reasons he gave Lewis an extension following a 7-9 finish, overlooking the franchise’s drop to second to last in the league in home attendance, ahead of only the Chargers in their small, temporary home in Carson, California.

Even fewer fans showed up this season.

The depleted Bengals were listless for most of their game Sunday in Cleveland (7-7-1) against a team that’s also been eliminated from playoff contention. The Browns played harder and better while sweeping their season series with the Bengals for the first time since 2002, when coach Dick LeBeau was fired and Lewis was hired.

Cincinnati wraps up a third straight losing season on Sunday in Pittsburgh, which will have a playoff spot on the line. The Steelers (8-6-1) need a win and a loss by the Ravens (9-6), who host the Browns.

For Cincinnati, the trip to Heinz Field will be a full-circle moment. The Bengals opened the season 4-1 and could have taken control of the division, but the Steelers pulled one out at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 14 with a play that became the signature moment of the Bengals’ implosion.

Ben Roethlisberger saw the Bengals in an all-out blitz and threw a short pass that Antonio Brown turned into a 31-yard touchdownwith 10 seconds left. The Steelers’ 28-21 victory ruptured Cincinnati’s sense that this season would finally be different.

The Steelers have won seven straight and 10 of 11 against their Ohio River rival. The Bengals are a staggering 8-25 against the Steelers under Lewis, including 2-16 at Paul Brown Stadium.

If Brown wants to retain Lewis despite the three straight losing seasons and his 0-7 career mark in the playoffs, he can point to the injuries to star players during the Bengals’ 2-8 fade.

Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green had season-ending injuries. No. 2 receiver Tyler Boyd also is sidelined with a knee injury, leaving backup quarterback Jeff Driskel with few options. He completed only 2 of 6 passes in the first half for 3 yards as Cleveland took control.

The defense wasn’t much better. Baker Mayfield completed 27 of 37 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns without getting hit. The only time the Bengals made contact was when Mayfield ran for a first down and Dunlap hit him at the sideline, prompting a skirmish.

How much any of that figures into Browns’ calculations won’t be known for another week. Players know that something has to change.

“You can make arguments either way,” Dunlap said. “I just want to get back to it, get back to where we started off here, the habits we created. I want that feeling back. Today is not the feeling.”

NEW TIME

The game in Pittsburgh was originally scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff, but the NFL moved it to a 4:25 p.m. start, putting it head to head in the same time slot with the Browns-Ravens game.

 

  • QB Heinicke placed on IR; Allen likely to start vs. Saints-CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers have placed quarterback Taylor Heinicke on injured reserve with an elbow injury.

    Kyle Allen is expected to start this Sunday against the Saints with Carolina eliminated from the playoffs.

    The team has signed Garrett Gilbert, who was with Carolina in training camp, as a backup. The team does not want to activate Cam Newton, who is struggling with a shoulder injury, in Week 17.

    Heinicke got his first career start against the Falcons and injured his elbow on a hit by Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson in the second quarter. He was taken to the locker room, but returned with a brace on his left elbow. Heinicke finished the game, completing 33 of 53 passes for 274 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in the 24-10 loss.

 

  • Broncos assured of 1st consecutive losing years since 71-72-OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — While the Oakland Raiders celebrated with their fans following the possible final game at the Coliseum, the Denver Broncos trudged off the field with a lowly distinction.

    For the first time in 46 years, the Broncos are losers in back-to-back seasons.

    Now the big question following a 27-14 loss to the Raiders on Monday night that provided Denver’s ninth defeat of the season is whether the two down years will cost coach Vance Joseph his job.

    “It’s frustrating,” he said. “Our team, I thought we maxed out every game. Probably the Jets game didn’t max out, but it didn’t feel good today. We didn’t play good enough football to win. Defensively, we had our moments, but still gave up two big drives when we had to get stops. We didn’t play very good football today.”

    That’s been the case far too often in Joseph’s two years at the helm as one of the NFL’s most consistent franchises has run into some tough times of late.

    Denver (6-9) went 5-11 in Joseph’s first year but showed signs of improvement this season when the Broncos beat Cincinnati on Dec. 2 to improve to 6-6 with playoff aspirations.

    But three straight losses to teams that entered the game with losing records followed and now a franchise that won a Super Bowl as recently as 2015 is searching for answers. This is the first time since 1971-72 that Denver posted losing records in consecutive seasons. That had been the longest active streak without doing it.

    “It’s tough,” star pass rusher Von Miller said. “Especially being part of an organization that’s so used to elite play, elite wins and being an elite organization. It’s tough and it’s the story of the season. We played every game tough. We played every game hard for our team and our coaches but came up short.”

    There were plenty of problems against the Raiders on a night the fans came out to celebrate a stadium that might have hosted its final game. The Raiders (4-11) are set to move to Las Vegas in 2020 and have no lease for next year. With Oakland officials having sued the team over the move, the Raiders are looking into other options for 2019, including AT&T Park in San Francisco.

    A decision is expected before the Super Bowl, but many of the die-hards came out for this game knowing it could be the last NFL game ever in the stadium that opened in 1966.

    The Broncos did little to spoil the party, starting with a botched special teams play that led to a 99-yard punt return touchdown for Dwayne Harris, continuing with 11 penalties and ending with a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions by Case Keenum that ended any comeback hopes.

    “We all want to play better,” Keenum said. “Nobody likes not winning. We all hate losing. We all want to play hard and we all want to win for Coach Joseph. We all love him. He’s an incredible human and a great football coach. I want to play hard for him and I want to play hard for everybody in that locker room. That’s a big part of our team and our identity that we stay together, we all like and respect each other and we all fight for each other. But it’s a production league. When you’re not winning, it’s tough.”

    The biggest bright spot for the game became tainted as well when Phillip Lindsay left the game with a wrist injury after becoming just the third undrafted rookie ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

    Lindsay ran for 46 yards to reach 1,037 on the season, joining Dominic Rhodes and LaGarrette Blount in the accomplishment. Lindsay needs 68 more yards to break Rhodes’ record set in 2001 for Indianapolis.

    But he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to play the finale against the Chargers.

    “I’m going to get it looked at it tomorrow and go from there,” he said. “If I can play, I can play. Right now I can’t tell you anything because I don’t even know. I’ll go back tomorrow and get it looked at.”

 

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