AFC playoff picture madness, Vikings’ comeback, 49ers roll and more

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 18: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots reacts after losing to the Las Vegas Raiders following an NFL football game between the Las Vegas Raiders and the New England Patriots at Allegiant Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 18: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots reacts after losing to the Las Vegas Raiders following an NFL football game between the Las Vegas Raiders and the New England Patriots at Allegiant Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images) /

The AFC playoff picture was turned upside down on Sunday afternoon, with three games coming down to the final play.

Who thought the wildest play of the NFL season would come from Jakobi Meyers?

Meyers, a good New England Patriots receiver with a meager Q-Rating, took his team’s game from certain overtime to an impossible, devastating loss.

In attempting to lateral back and across the field for quarterback Mac Jones, the ball found Las Vegas Raiders edge rusher Chandler Jones. The former Patriots star then stiff-armed Jones and rumbled 48 yards for a game-winning touchdown with no time remaining.

For the Patriots, their playoff hopes are essentially finished. At 7-7 and with games remaining against the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, it’s over.

And yet, that’s only a small part of a wild weekend in the AFC.

Coming into Week 15, here were the standings:

1. Buffalo Bills (10-3)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3)
3. Baltimore Ravens (9-4)
4. Tennessee Titans (7-6)
5. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4)
6. Miami Dolphins (8-5)
7. New England Patriots (7-6)

Then, chaos.

On Saturday, the Baltimore Ravens scored three points in a loss to the afterthought Cleveland Browns. For the nightcap, the Bills rallied from eight points down in the fourth quarter to defeat the Dolphins, 32-29.

Come Sunday’s early slate, the New York Jets led 17-13 over the Detroit Lions at MetLife Stadium with the visitors facing a 4th and 1 with 1:49 remaining. On the ensuing play, Lions quarterback Jared Goff found tight end Brock Wright on a short pass into the flat. It turned into a 51-yard touchdown.

Somehow, the drama had only begun. As Zach Wilson directed New York downfield, the Jets refused to call their three timeouts in obvious spots, allowing the clock to wind down. The result was Greg Zuerlein having to attempt a 58-yard field goal to force overtime. Wide left.

While the Jets were choking, the Jacksonville Jaguars were reviving their hopes.

Jacksonville trailed 27-10 in the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys, before striking for three consecutive touchdown drives while averaging a whopping 12.6 yards per play. Then, after a Dallas touchdown gave the Cowboys a 34-31 advantage, Jacksonville tied the game on a Riley Patterson 48-yard field goal to force overtime. In the extra stanza, Rayshawn Jenkins intercepted Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott and raced 52 yards for the win.

In the late window, more insanity.

Simultaneous to the Patriots losing their game in an all-time fashion, the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Chargers waged a defensive battle. Trailing 14-7 in the final moments, the Titans mounted a drive, capped by a Ryan Tannehill quarterback sneak. However, Chargers signal-caller Justin Herbert took wing after an uneven day including two interceptions, throwing an on-the-run, 35-yard rope to Mike Williams to set up a game-winning 43-yard field goal via Cameron Dicker.

Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers took a surprising 17-0 lead on the Cincinnati Bengals before the visitors created four turnovers (more on this game below) to spur on a 34-23 win.

Within approximately a half-hour of real time, the Jets turned a likely victory into a crushing defeat, while Jaguars turned a blowout loss into a scintillating win. Hours later, almost concurrently, we saw the fortunes of New England, Tennessee and Los Angeles altered as well, with the trio creating new races and ending a few others.

All told, here’s how the AFC standings look now:

1. Buffalo Bills (11-3)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)
3. Cincinnati Bengals (10-4)
4. Tennessee Titans (7-7)
5. Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
6. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6)
7. Miami Dolphins (8-6)

The Bills and Chiefs kept their positions while clinching playoff spots, and the Titans stayed put while their divisional lead was cut in half. Everyone else shifted, including the Bengals, who swapped spots with Baltimore.

Going into Week 16, the Patriots have a 19 percent chance to reach the playoffs, while the Jets check in at 21 percent, per 538. Conversely, the Chargers sit at 82 percent, the Dolphins at 72 percent and the Ravens still a robust 98 percent.

Ultimately, it seems we know six AFC playoff teams. The questions are more about seeding, save for the AFC South, which could come down to Week 18 when the Jaguars — who beat the Titans in Week 14 — host Tennessee. For the record, the Titans are given a 57 percent chance to hang on.

Every season, there’s a week where the playoff picture clears. Where the madness leads to calm.

This year, it was Week 15 for the AFC.

And it was encapsulated by Jakobi Meyers giving us one of the biggest bloopers in NFL history.

Power rankings

Top 10 quarterbacks in NFL History to never win an MVP (1957-present)

1. Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys (6x Pro Bowl, 2x SB champ, ’70s All-Decade, HOF)
2. Warren Moon, Houston Oilers (9x Pro Bowl, ’90 OPOY, HOF)
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (13x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, SB champ)
4. Dan Fouts, San Diego Chargers (6x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, ’80s All-Decade, HOF)
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (6x Pro Bowl, 2x SB champ)
6. Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills (5x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, HOF)
7. Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys (6x Pro Bowl, 3x SB champ, HOF)
8. Len Dawson, Kansas City Chiefs (7x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, SB champ, HOF)
9. Sonny Jurgensen, Washington Redskins (5x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’60s All-Decade, HOF)
10. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (9x Pro Bowl, SB champ)


"“First I was thinking, ‘Who’s around me?’. I felt myself stumble a little bit after the stiff-arm, and then I was thinking, ‘Who do I pitch it to?’ I was just trying to keep the ball alive. But when I stayed up, I just turned the jets on. And the rest was history.”"

– Raiders edge rusher Chandler Jones on his improbable, game-winning score

What else can you add? Total madness.


Random stat

With their win over the Houston Texans on Sunday, the Chiefs won their seventh consecutive AFC West title.

Only the Patriots (2009-19) and Los Angeles Rams (1973-79) have ever had such divisional dominance.

Info learned this week

1. Dolphins squander chance for statement win in Buffalo

Mike McDaniel will want some of his play calls back.

The Dolphins lost 32-29 to the Bills on Saturday night in snowy western New York. And while the Dolphins played Buffalo harder than many expected, the result could have gone the other way. Ultimately, it was two McDaniel decisions that altered the game.

– 3rd & 1 at BUF 11; 3:49 in first quarter: After rushing for eight times for 40 yards to this juncture — including the previous three plays for 12 yards — McDaniel called a pass. The result was Tua Tagovailoa being sacked for a 10-yard loss. This was both a failed down, and it took away the opportunity to go for a fourth-down conversion.

– 3rd & 1 at BUF 27; 12:42 in fourth quarter: Miami just strip-sacked Josh Allen and has a 26-21 lead. A touchdown puts Buffalo in brutal position. At this point, the Dolphins have 24 rushing attempts for 187 yards. It’s beginning to snow heavily. Instead of running for three feet on a night where it was averaged 22.5 feet per carry, Miami threw behind the line of scrimmage to fullback Alec Ingold. Ingold is dropped for a two-yard loss.

Those plays cost the Dolphins. There were others, including an essentially game-ending pass interference call on corner Kader Kohou or the dropped touchdown pass in the first half by receiver Trent Sherfield.

But McDaniel, lauded for his offensive genius, has to be better. Much better.

Because in the postseason, mistakes like those will send Miami home.

2. Giants earn enormous win over Commanders, on playoff doorstep

The New York Giants hadn’t won a game in four weeks. Needing to snap their skid or face postseason Armageddon, the Giants showed their stuff.

In a 20-12 win over the Washington Commanders, the Giants did a bit of everything. They scored a defensive touchdown. They got key contributions from running back Saquon Barkley (120 total yards, TD) and quarterback Daniel Jones (195 total yards), and the defense held the Commanders to 1-of-10 on third downs. It also stripped Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke in both red zones for turnovers, and, with the help of an extremely generous non-pass interference call, forced a turnover on downs to end the game.

With the victory, New York is now the NFC’s sixth seed at 8-5-1, and likely only needs to win one more game to be in the postseason. Over at 538, the Giants have 87 percent odds to get in. Should Big Blue go 9-7-1, it would earn a berth barring two of the Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks and Commanders winning out.

For the Giants, this has been a dream season so far. First-time head coach Brian Daboll has turned the program around, largely through a quality draft class, better team health and fantastic staff-wide coaching.

New York will arguably be the least-talented team in the playoffs, but because of the above traits, it won’t be an easy out.

3. Vikings complete all-time comeback over beleaguered Colts

In a season where the Minnesota Vikings have thrived and survived with their fourth quarter prowess, they took things to another level on Saturday.

Trailing 33-0 in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota rallied for a historic 39-36 overtime victory, spurred on by 22 points in the final period of regulation. After a first half where turnovers and a blocked punt typified a lost afternoon, the Vikings showed why they’re NFC North champs, storming back against Colts due in large part to Kirk Cousins’ 460 passing yards.

For Minnesota, it’s win No. 11 and the seventh victory in which the Vikings needed a fourth-quarter score to either tie or take the lead. Overall, Minnesota has outscored its opponents 119-50 in the final quarter of its one-score wins this year, despite having an overall point differential of +2.

Also, a quick postscript. Before Saturday’s miracle, the largest comeback in NFL regular-season history was authored by the 1980 San Francisco 49ers, who rallied from 34-7 down against the winless New Orleans Saints.

The quarterback for the Niners? Some second-year guy named Joe Montana.

4. Niners clinch NFC West as Brock Purdy, defense roll

The 49ers have won the NFC West, and they were a machine in doing so.

Consider the following: the Niners are on their third quarterback this season. He’s a rookie, Mr. Irrelevant. The second quarterback was Jimmy Garoppolo, a man they wanted to trade this offseason but found no takers for. San Francisco has also seen stars such as receiver Deebo Samuel, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, edge rusher Nick Bosa, safety Jimmie Ward and corner Emmanuel Moseley miss a combined 20 games to this point.

None of it has mattered. The 49ers are 10-4 and division champs, having swept Seattle on Thursday night.

Back to that third quarterback, Mr. Irrelevant. Brock Purdy is unbeaten in his three games (earning a 2-0 record), completing 66.7 percent of his attempts with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Purdy won’t make anybody forget the arm talents of Josh Allen and Justin Herbert, but he’s distributing the ball, avoiding mistakes and allowing the league’s scariest defense to do its job.

Come the playoffs, San Francisco will be the No. 2 or 3 seed. There’s a good chance its road is a Wild Card matchup against an overwhelmed team before facing the Vikings, either in Minnesota or the Bay Area. The Niners will be favored either way.

Don’t be surprised if San Francisco is in its third NFC title game in four years. The Niners are playing great football, regardless of its obstacles.

5. Lions continue run towards playoffs with clutch win over Jets

It’s time to start taking the Lions seriously.

As aforementioned, the Lions beat New York 20-17 on the road, moving to 7-7. They’re sitting ninth in the NFC playoff picture, but only a half-game behind the Commanders for a postseason spot. Additionally, Detroit has three favorable matchups to end the season with the Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Each are below .500 and only Carolina has a real shot at the playoffs, despite being 5-9.

But beyond the schedule is a defense coming to the forefront. After being the league’s worst in a multitude of categories over its first nine games, the Lions’ have roared back. Detroit has allowed only Bills to score at least 24 points in its last five outings. In that span, the Lions held Minnesota to 23, the Giants to 19, the Jaguars to 14 and the Jets to 17. All of those clubs are either playoff bound or have aspirations.

If Detroit gets into the postseason, it won’t be a team completely reliant on its offense to win. The Lions will be a threat in the Wild Card round, looking to break a draught of 30 seasons without a playoff victory.

Two cents

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are an unmitigated disaster.

Leading the Bengals 17-0 late in the first half, it appeared the Bucs figured a few things out. Throwing the ball and getting pressure with creative looks, Tampa Bay was throttling Joe Burrow and Co. while moving the ball with ease against one of the league’s most underrated defenses.

Then, leading 17-3 in the third quarter, everything changed.

Tampa Bay proceeded to commit four consecutive turnovers — two fumbles and two interceptions — while its first second-half drive ended when running back Giovani Bernard was unaware he was getting the snap on a 4th and 1 fake punt at his 26-yard line.

The result was predictable. The Bengals scored 34 consecutive points, and the Buccaneers dropped to 6-8.

Really, though, Tampa Bay isn’t the loser. The football viewer is, because thanks to the NFC South, we’re all stuck watching the Buccaneers in the playoffs.

Inside the league

On Sunday, we saw the two worst long-term situations meeting in Mile High.

The Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals have myriad issues moving forward, largely because of bloated and ill-advised quarterback contract extensions.

While Denver will move on from first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett at season’s end, will the Cardinals do the same with Kliff Kingsbury after his fourth campaign? Arizona extended Kingsbury along with general manager Steve Keim and quarterback Kyler Murray this offseason. Owner Michael Bidwell, never known to spend lavishly, would have to eat money to fire Kingsbury before hiring his replacement.

However, with last week’s news of Keim taking an indefinite leave to deal with health issues, does that further jeopardize Kingsbury? Time will tell.

Should both Denver and Arizona have openings, there won’t be a litany of high-end candidates excited for the opportunities. The Broncos are tied to Russell Wilson through the 2025 season at the earliest, and they’re without key draft picks. The Cardinals have Murray for another two years, and after that, $33.2 million in dead money for ’25 should they move on.

A coach going to Denver or Arizona must believe he can fix the quarterback and fast. Because otherwise, he’s going to want to rent, not buy.

BetSided’s best bet

Steelers -1.5 (-114) vs. Raiders

I made the Steelers my upset pick at BetSided last week on the road against the Carolina Panthers, but when I saw the sharps moving the line in favor of Carolina, I got nervous and cashed out the bet.

Sometimes, you just need to listen to intuition.

Over its last three games, the Steelers’ defense ranks eighth in opponent points per play. The unit has also significantly improved its rush defense since the return of T.J. Watt, moving into eighth in opponent yards per rush.

The Raiders, despite their miraculous win over the Patriots in Week 15, remain fraudulent. They’ve put up atrocious numbers on the road offensively. Nine of 10 of Derek Carr’s interceptions have come away from Vegas, and they’ve only rushed for four touchdowns compared to seven at home despite 174 more plays run on the road.

We know Steelers coach Mike Tomlin as the king of being an underdog, but in home primetime games as a favorite of three points or less, he’s 4-2-0 against the spread, winning by a margin of 5.25 per game (via ActionLabs).

I’ll back the Steelers all the way to -2.5, and am on them moneyline as well.

– Ben Heisler

History lesson

The Titans and Chargers have plenty of shared history.

In the American Football League, the two teams won three of the first four championships, with the Houston Oilers — where the Titans originated from — beating the Chargers in both 1960 and ’61. All told, one of them participated in each of the six initial title tilts, earning three rings.

Then, in 1979, the Chargers hosted the Oilers in the AFC Divisional round. Then in San Diego, the Chargers were a heavy favorite, with Houston missing its offensive stars in quarterback Dan Pastorini and running back Earl Campbell. Somehow, Houston won 17-14, with little-known corner Vernon Perry intercepting four passes and blocking a field goal in an all-time upset.

Parting shot

The MVP race is a two-man showdown between Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes.

On Sunday, Hurts led his Philadelphia Eagles to a 13th win, but the effort was pedestrian by his lofty standards. He threw for 315 yards on 8.5 YPA and ran for three touchdowns, but also misfired on two interceptions. As for Mahomes, he rescued the Chiefs from what would’ve been an awful loss, going 36-of-41 for 336 yards and two scores while rushing for another.

Overall, the season-long stat lines for Mahomes and Hurts are as follows:

Hurts: 3,472 passing yards, 8.2 YPA, 22 TDs, 5 INTs, 747 rushing yards, 13 TDs
Mahomes: 4,496 passing yards, 8.1 YPA, 35 TDs, 11 INTs, 313 rushing yards, 3 TDs

If you’re only looking at stats, Mahomes has the edge in total yardage and touchdowns on Hurts. He also leads the league in those figures, along with passing yards, passing touchdowns and QBR.

However, Hurts is 13-1 and Mahomes is 11-3, which matters to some and is a loathed argument by others. Mahomes also has 11 turnovers while Hurts has five.

Going into Week 16, Hurts is the MVP favorite in some Vegas books at -144 compared to +175 for Mahomes.

The race is close, and it should come down to the final few weekends.