On paper, Sunday’s Pittsburgh-New England game seemed poised to provide the Steelers another reason to wonder what went wrong and why this season.
After all, beating the Powerball has seemed easier than whipping the Patriots lately for the Steelers. Pittsburgh, which had lost their last three this season, came in understanding the Pats had won their last five games against it.
And then there was the issue of how intent the Pats would be to atone for their astonishing loss to Miami last week, courtesy of the Fintastic Finish fire drill.
But that’s what paper shredders are for.
The Steelers revived their season, and further delayed New England’s AFC East clinching, with a 17-10 win that managed to overshadow another milestone moment for Tom Brady.
Brady surpassed 70,000 career passing yards in the course of a 279-yard day. He joins Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre in the latest iteration of the sport’s Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks.
But it was his final pass, the Pats driving for the tying touchdown with 20 seconds to play, that sealed the win for Pittsburgh. On fourth-and-15, Brady lofted one in the general direction of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkoswski, only to have Steelers corner Joe Haden come down with it at the Pittsburgh 4.
This was not your usual Patriots-Steelers game. There was never a hint of New England’s superiority. The Steelers running game pierced the Pats, especially Jaylen Samuels, who gained 142 yards in place of injured James Conner.
And New England committed 14 penalties, yet another reason for Bill Belichick to pull his hoodie over his eyes. The Pats had not lost consecutive games in December since 2002. Imagine that?
The Steelers reveled in this win, obviously aware that it’s not how you start a season – or fill its middle – that’s as important as how you end it. Perhaps this will reboot them as they try to hold on to the ½-game lead they hold over Baltimore for the AFC North title.
With the New Orleans Saints on the road in the on-deck circle – while the Ravens play at the Chargers – the Steelers (8-5-1) needed the morale boost.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to cut your eyelids off when you want to blink,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Meanwhile, the Patriots, who are 3-5 on the road, are now the No. 3 seed in the AFC after Houston’s win over the Jets on Saturday. The Kansas City Chiefs remain the top seed. If the Patriots do not recover, it will be the first time since 2009 they would play in a Wild Card game.
And consider this: If the Pats finish 0-2 and the Dolphins go 2-0, the Patriots will watch the playoffs from their collective couches for the first time since 2008.
Foles (Who Else?) Brings Eagles To Life
It was last season in Los Angeles in December that Carson Wentz’ knee injury against the Rams forced the Philadelphia Eagles to turn to Nick Foles at quarterback. Unless your cable has been out for a year, you know what happened next.
This year has not been as kind to the Eagles, and it might have been over had Foles not come to their rescue again on Sunday by orchestrating a 30-23 win over the slumping Rams.
After the Indianapolis Colts shutout win over the Dallas Cowboys (8-6), the Eagles – and Washington Redskins – are back to within a game of the NFC East leaders with two games to play. What’s left for Philadelphia are home games against the Texas and Washington.
Is an Eagles’ rally improbable? Perhaps. The Cowboys swept the Eagles this season and own the tiebreaker. But at least the opportunity for a Wild Card breathes. With Wentz likely done with a fractured vertebrae, it will be up to Foles to reprise the magic that resulted in his selection as the Super Bowl MVP.
“’I’m going to stay in the moment,” said Foles.
On Sunday, there were positive signs. Foles, who hadn’t started since Week 2, hit Alshon Jeffery eight times for 160 yards. A stagnant ground attack churned 106 yards. And a battered offensive line someone managed to prevent a sack as Foles went 24-of-31 for 270 yards.
“The difference tonight, I thought, was the commitment to the run game, and just giving Nick throws that he can manage,” said Eagles coach Doug Pederson. “We kind of went back to our core this week. When you get in a situation where it’s win-or-else, sometimes you simplify things and just focus on what you do best.”
But what of the Rams (11-3), already NFC West champs, now suddenly in their own spiral after back-to-back losses?
Quarterback Jared Goff has thrown seven interceptions in his last three games. He did not throw a TD pass on Sunday despite 54 attempts. As a result, the Rams offense, once alive in the fast lane, is now bumper-to-bumper.
“He did a good job continuing to compete … and that’s what you love about Jared. But there’s some things that we all got to be better,” said Rams coach Sean McVay. “Teams are doing different things to us. They’re trying out different things and we just need to find a way to respond.”
But life is good: The Rams finish the season against Arizona and San Francisco, the residue of their division. Consider it a B-12 shot before the playoffs begin.
“The difference tonight, I thought, was the commitment to the run game, and just giving Nick throws that he can manage,” Pederson said. “We kind of went back to our core this week. When you get in a situation where it’s win-or-else, sometimes you simplify things and just focus on what you do best.”
Colts Hand Cowboys Rare Shutout
If you thought the Dallas Cowboys were suddenly immune to embarrassment, you obviously haven’t noticed the jolt in the Indianapolis Colts this season. They can buck just about any cowboy that sits in their saddle.
Two weeks after an ignominious 6-0 loss in Jacksonville, Andrew Luck, operating behind what’s now acknowledged as the league’s top offensive line, handed Dallas its first shutout in 15 seasons. How does 23-0 sound to you, Jerry Jones?
After starting the season 1-5, there is still no guarantee the Colts (8-6) will make the playoffs, not even after ending Houston’s nine-game winning streak last week and throttling the Cowboys. Winning seven of eight only affirms they are in the mix with Baltimore and Tennessee for the only AFC wild card available.
“Even when we were 1-5 we never lost hope,” said center Ryan Kelly after returning following missing three games with a knee injury. “We knew we were so close to winning those games, so there was never a sour moment in the locker room. We hated those losses – they really hurt – but I think it rejuvenated us. We’re a young team so some people might be like, ‘They don’t have a lot of experience.’ But I think it works well for us. We have a lot of young guys who play hard as hell and never quit.”
Not only has the O-line made Luck a bigger weapon, it has made Indianapolis’ ground game purr. Marlon Mack gained a career-high 139 and scored two TDs against a defense that hadn’t allowed 100 yards rushing in its last five games. The Colts racked up 178.
Maybe the biggest surprise about Sunday was how the Colts shut down the Cowboys offense. Dallas has been moving with confidence since the arrival of receiver Amari Cooper in November unclogged the pipeline. If nothing else, it likely showcased the emerging stardom of rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. He was all over the place, Khalil Mack annoying.
Indianapolis dumped Dak Prescott three times. Its defense has 11 sacks over the last three weeks. Can it help carry the Colts to the playoffs? The NFL tells us that 97 teams have started a season 1-5 since the current playoff format was born in 1990. Only the 2015 Chiefs advanced.
Has Marrone Bottomed Out?
Last season, Doug Marrone had Jacksonville within one quarter of winning the AFC Championship before the Patriots turned into the Patriots. At the start of October, his team sat 3-1. On Sunday, he was answering questions about job security.
The Jaguars lost to the Redskins on Sunday. They lost 16-13 to a team starting its fourth QB in a month. They lost for the ninth time in 10 games and only the apparent aberration against the Colts has softened that landing.
When asked if team owner Shad Khan or Tom Coughlin, the easily irritated executive vice president, has patted him on the back telling him not to fret, Marrone was direct.
“No, nothing, nor do I expect any. I’ve never coached where that’s happened one way or the other,” said Marrone, according to the Jags’ transcript.
Now 4-10, with games at Miami and Houston remaining, you wonder if there is anything that’s been left unsaid about one of the most horrifying foundation collapses in recent memory.
“I don’t know,” said Morrone. “That’s not a question for me. I’m just going to keep coaching as hard as I can. I don’t make those decisions.”
The Jaguars better be careful. If Coughlin, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, hires himself as a replacement, their lives will get a lot more difficult. You reap what you sow.
Ravens Keep It Running
Before Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, there were reports Joe Flacco, the veteran QB who led the Ravens to a Super Bowl title, would likely not return next season. That should not surprise anyone. The organization has dumped him for a younger man.
Lamar Jackson is the future of the Baltimore offense. That became even clearer after he ran for another 95 yards to lead the Ravens to a 20-12 win over the Buccaneers.
As hard as this may be for Flacco to accept, how can he question the move after the Ravens became the first team in 42 years to gain at least 190 yards rushing in five straight games?
In case you are wondering, the 1976 Steelers, with Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, were the last to get that done. That team, which pounded out 330 yards in a 45-0 win over the Chiefs during its run, eventually lost to Oakland in the conference championship game.
If the Ravens (8-6) surpass the Steelers in the AFC North or fight off the Colts and Titans for the final wild card, it will be because Jackson revitalized an offense that wasn’t keeping pace with its defense, one of the league’s best. The Ravens will now have to deal with the Chargers and Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens are 4-1 since Jackson became the starter. Jackson does fumble quite a bit. His ninth of the season helped Tampa to its only TD. But Baltimore is willing to take the good with the bad.
“I told coach (John Harbaugh), ‘Freak!,'” said Jackson. “I was like, ‘Man, we have to go score now.’ I don’t like turning the ball over and not putting points on the board, so we just had to do the next job. I was ticked off though. I probably said other things.”
Still, Jackson and his sidekick, Gus Edwards, rambled for 242 yards.
“It’s fun for us offensive linemen to pound the rock like that,” said guard Marshal Yanda, who played at Iowa. “That’s like college football right there.”
Still, no matter how fast Jackson runs, the Ravens won’t outrun playoff elimination if they lose at the Chargers and the Steelers, Colts and Titans all win.