Congrats, NFL. Although COVID-19 threats persist, you’ve hobbled to Week 17 with the schedule's timeline intact. Whew!
Thus, items of interest heading into the final day of the regular season…
Pressure’s on: Tua Tagovailoa. It’s Tua’s time to perhaps take another huge step when his team needs him the most — and there’s no falling back on FitzMagic. Last weekend, Ryan Fitzpatrick came off the bench in Las Vegas and sparked a remarkable comeback win after Tagovailoa sputtered. Now Fitzpatrick is on the COVID-19 list. That’s life in a pandemic and such a tough break for Miami (10-5), needing to win at cold, snowy Buffalo of all places, to get into the playoffs.
Dolphins coach Brian Flores has masterfully handled his quarterbacking vibe all season, knowing when to promote the rookie to the starting lineup, then knowing when to push the buttons for Fitzpatrick to bail them out of jams — all without controversy as the coach has been up-front about intentions and the players buying into the team concept. It got them to this point. Along with a big-play defense and other clutch contributions. But so much falls on Tagovailoa, prone to typical rookie hot and cold streaks this season, to handle the challenge of leading his team to another breakthrough that would be the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2016. It’s games like this that inspired the Dolphins to select the former Alabama star with the fifth pick in the draft. Tua Time might also be Validation Time.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can get into the playoffs with a win at Buffalo. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Who’s hot: Aaron Rodgers. The Packers quarterback, out to trigger his team to a win at Chicago that would clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, has likely already clinched his third NFL MVP award. The stats and facts are impressive enough. An NFL-high 44 TD passes. A 119.4 efficiency rating that is third-highest ever, threatening his league-record 122.5 mark from 2011. He could become the first to notch 14 games rated 100-or-better in a season. He’s the first to pass for 40 TDs in three different seasons. He’s passed for three TDs in 11 games, four TDs in six games. And on and on. Green Bay drafted a quarterback, Jordan Love, in the first round last spring. Rodgers has only shown the kid — and the rest of the football-watching universe — that he is still capable of living up to … Aaron Rodgers standards.
Key matchup: Washington Football Team’s defensive line vs. Jalen Hurts. So much has happened since the WFT rallied from a 17-point deficit to upset the Eagles in Week 1. The season opener pitted a Dwayne Haskins vs. Carson Wentz quarterback matchup. Now it’s Alex Smith (or Taylor Heinicke) against Hurts. One thing that remains the same: Washington’s defensive line is one of the league’s best. In Week 1, that D-line brought the intense heat that sacked Wentz eight times. It was quite the omen for what would come as the benched Wentz has been sacked an NFL-high 50 times.
Now, with WFT (6-9) needing a win to claim the NFC East title, Hurts embodies another type of threat against a fourth-ranked defense that has been stung this season by quarterbacks who can run. Kyler Murray rushed for 67 yards and two TDs as Arizona ran for 160. Lamar Jackson had 53 of Baltimore’s 144 yards. Russell Wilson had 52 of Seattle’s 181. Washington lost all three games against the mobile quarterbacks who opened up the overall rushing attacks. Now comes Hurts, with a chance to play spoiler.
Next man up: John Wolford. With Jared Goff undergoing surgery last week for a fractured thumb, the Rams are forced to try winning their way into the playoffs at Arizona with an untested backup whose last big game was with Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl. This is not normal. Wolford, 25, has never taken an NFL snap. That just part of the challenge for the Rams, as wideout Cooper Kupp and defensive end Michael Brockers will miss the game, placed on the COVID-19 list. Running back Darrell Henderson (ankle) is another scratch, placed on IR. And linebacker Leonard Floyd is questionable due to abdominal pain. No, the circumstances are not ideal. But at least the Rams (9-6) can still claim a playoff spot if Chicago loses to Green Bay.
Rookie watch: Jonathan Taylor. A 1,000-yard season hardly seemed to be in the cards at midseason for the Colts running back, who (despite his pedigree and even with Marlon Mack lost to a torn Achilles early in the season) was relegated to spot duty and rushed for 61 yards during a three-game stretch in November. But the second-round pick from Wisconsin (41st overall) has sparkled down the stretch, rushing for nearly 98 yards per game and more than 5 yards per carry over the past five games. And with 84 yards against the Jaguars, Taylor — the only player in FBS history to rush for 6,000 yards in just three seasons — can join Jacksonville’s James Robinson as the only rookie 1,000-yard runners.
Stomach for an upset: Steelers at Browns. It’s a perfect set-up for Cleveland’s win-and-they’re-in playoff scenario. Pittsburgh clinched the AFC North title last weekend and will rest Ben Roethlisberger, a noted Cleveland-killer, along with other key players such as Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and T.J. Watt. The Browns (10-5) are desperate, favored by 10 points. But weird stuff happens. Steelers backup quarterback Mason Rudolph returns to FirstEnergy Stadium, where he was clubbed with his own helmet by Myles Garrett during a brawl. He’ll want to prove something. The Browns have had COVID-19 disruptions this week, twice closing the facility and will be without their best cornerback, Denzel Ward, safeties Karl Joseph and Andrew Sedejo, and linebacker Malcolm Smith. But after stumbling and fumbling in a Week 16 loss to the Jets, the wide receiver group struck out last week by COVID-19 is back intact for Baker Mayfield. Having Cleveland’s playoff hopes hinge on beating a dreaded rival works.
If the playoffs were today… Indianapolis would be out. That’s what blowing a 17-point lead at Pittsburgh has done for the Colts (10-5), who dropped to the eighth slot and now need help to avoid being the AFC team that misses the playoffs despite posting double-digit victories. Indianapolis can still win the AFC South if it defeats the Jaguars AND the Titans (10-5) fall on their faces at Houston. The odds are better for claiming a wild-card spot, but that’s iffy, too, as the Colts will need to win plus get a loss from either Cleveland, Baltimore or Miami. Scoreboard-watching is a real thing.
Did you notice? Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who recently garnered his third Pro Bowl selection, has had maybe the best season ever by a quarterback on a team that heads into its finale at 4-11. The analytics group, Pro Football Focus, has graded Watson’s season to this point (91.9) as tied with Tom Brady for second-best behind Aaron Rodgers (94.9) among QBs. By other measures, Watson has posted career highs for passing yards (4,458), TD passes (44) and completion rate (70.1%) while throwing a career-low 6 INTs and leading the league with a 12.6-yard average completion. All this in a year when he lost his best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, to an offseason trade, had Will Fuller IV’s impressive season cut short by a suspension (performance-enhancing drugs) and had new addition Randall Cobb short-circuited by a toe injury. Watson also saw his coach, Bill O’Brien, fired, hasn’t been supported by a consistent running game and has been sacked 45 times, tied with Russell Wilson for second-most in the NFL (Carson Wentz, 50).
Stat’s the fact: Cam Newton heads into the Patriots finale against the Jets with five passing touchdowns and 10 rushing scores. Since the 1970 merger, no starting quarterback has ever posted more TDs on the ground than through the air. So, yes, Newton’s attempt to revitalize his career and provide New England with a viable option to follow Brady has been rather historic in another sense.
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