Around the NFL: Week 17 AFC Recap
We’ve come to the end of 2020 (not a moment too soon) but with it comes the close of this year’s NFL regular season. This week saw a number of playoff spots being decided in the AFC with the last game of the season for many teams. Here’s a review of all the playoff relevant action from the American Football Conference.
By Ryan Edwardson.
Miami’s dreams of a first playoff game in four years looked to be intact for the first 15 minutes of this game, but a second quarter offensive blitz by the Bills soon saw those dreams turn into a defensive nightmare.
Isaiah McKenzie scored three touchdowns: the third coming from a winding, weaving punt return. A returning Smokey Brown caught a Josh Allen bomb to put the Bills up 28-3 at the half, and the Dolphins never looked like getting back into it from that point on.
Miami’s offense was stagnant for most of the game, with passes either being misplaced by Tua or simple catches dropped by his receivers. Hopefully his first full off-season with the team will lead to the Fins sorting out their offensive troubles for next year.
However, it was their defense, their strength throughout the year, that really failed them in this contest. Bills receivers were finding space all over the place and Allen barely felt any pressure for the half that he played. This forced the Dolphins to be more aggressive, allowing the Bills defense to pounce and exploit Tua’s inexperience.
Despite his struggles on offense, there is more than enough talent in the rookie to be thinking about replacing him in this year’s draft. Instead, Brian Flores and co should be looking to put more players around him that will allow him to develop. The Bills meanwhile have the second seed in the AFC and take a bucketload of momentum with them too. With the offense and defense both in form, it’s tough to look past this team as potential AFC title contenders. They take on the 11-5 Colts in the early kick-off on Saturday.
Anybody who expected Cleveland to waltz into the playoffs this week obviously haven’t been watching the Browns for the past decade and a half. Yes, they did end their 18-year playoff drought, but the Steelers backups still gave them a scare towards the end.
The Browns kept themselves ahead for much of the game, with their defensive line holding Mason Rudolph in check and an early 47-yard rushing TD from Nick Chubb allowing their running game to dictate play on offense. But Cleveland never looked completely at ease, Mayfield was held under 200 yards in total for the game and the score was 9-10 halfway through the third quarter.
It was then that the Browns managed to wrestle back control of the game when a 26-yard rush from Baker Mayfield put Cleveland in position to complete a touchdown pass to a wide-open Austin Hooper. This was compounded when Marvin Stewart Jr picked off Mason Rudolph, giving Baker Mayfield an immediate RedZone drive which Jarvis Landry topped off with a 3-yard rushing touchdown.
With the prospect of facing a rested Ben Roethlisberger and other Steelers starters on Monday, the Browns will be concerned with how the game ended. On their two offensive possessions in the fourth quarter Mason Rudolph was able to find the pacey Steelers receivers on long passes, and Pittsburgh were within a missed 2-point conversion of tying the game and stretching the nerves of Browns fans to breaking point.
However, it was Baker Mayfield, who fumbled away a chance at victory last week who converted on a final third and short, finally fulfilling the promise he first showed a few years ago for this resurgent Cleveland team.
The Baltimore Ravens confirmed their playoff credentials with a bang, literally trampling over the hapless Bengals on their way to the post-season. After a mid-season stumble, the Ravens have now won five in a row and the COVID racked team that lost three on the bounce are now a distant memory.
Baltimore had seven players rush the ball in this game and they combined for over 400 yards. J.K. Dobbins has certainly hit form at the back end of the season, ripping off a 72-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter.
The rookie has now fully taken over from Mark Ingram as the number one runner in the backfield – apart from the quarterback of course. Lamar Jackson looked a shadow of his former MVP-self for much of this season, but as we hit the business end of the season, he appears to have shaken off those demons and is back to terrorising defenses with his stutter-steps once more.
It wasn’t just Jackson’s run game that had the Bengals on the backfoot – despite only amassing 113 passing yards on ten completions, Lamar connected with Hollywood Brown in the endzone twice and found Miles Boykin with a 40-yard bomb too.
The Ravens will want to carry this energy into Sunday’s clash with the Titans, the team who eliminated them from the playoffs last year. If they do then the Titans may struggle to contain Baltimore’s rushing attack and with a defense that has conceded just 30 points in the past three games the Ravens will certainly fancy their chances of making it to the divisional round.
For the Bengals, another season goes by without forging a real identity. After a stilted off-season they’ll once again be looking to the draft and to free agency to provide some experience and weapons to complement Joe Burrow, but they may need more time to allow Zac Taylor to try and turn this team around in what is certainly the strongest division in the AFC, possibly in football.
Tennessee Titans fans have long wanted a team with an offensive identity like the one that their current team has, but not many will have expected to see their defense ship in 38 points to a four-win Texans team. The Texans of course are much better than their record suggests but it’s a sign of how far this Titans defense has fallen that they only won this game thanks to a last-minute Sam Sloman field goal.
The main story, aside from the Titans sealing the AFC South championship, was Derrick Henry making it two successive seasons with 2,000 rushing yards under his belt. The Titans fed Henry 34 times and he repaid them by racking up 250 yards and two TDs on the ground. This is the way that Titans win games at the moment: ram Henry down your throat and then get Ryan Tannehill to expose your secondary with his on-point passing. Of course, this strategy relies on not committing turnovers and your own secondary not getting exposed in return, which is what happened in the third quarter.
The Texans may only have four wins, but with 365 yards in this game DeShaun Watson captured the passing yard title, taking his total to 4,823 yards for the season. He found Brandin Cooks and Pharaoh Brown in the endzone with David Johnson adding a 7-yard rush in between.
This flurry put the Texans into the lead for the first time in the game and the two teams would trade points on each ensuing possession. The Titans took eight minutes off the clock to regain the lead, lost it in 90 seconds more but then regained it in 20. A long pass to A.J. Brown splitting the Texans at the seam and setting up the Sloman field goal.
The Titans will need a more stable defense if they’re to make a run to the AFC Championship again, though with an offense as fluid as this they’ll be able to go toe-to-toe with every other team in the AFC. The Texans face an offseason of questions – with no head coach, no GM and no first-round pick, what can the front office do to improve this team? DeShaun Watson signed a four-year contract ahead of this season and is seemingly worth every penny, but he can’t do it all on his own.
With a Miami loss, the Colts had a win and in scenario against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. Simple no? Well, yes, for the most part. The Colts are a good team, as long as they’re all working together. Jonathan Taylor rounded off his rookie season with an impressive 250 yard, 2-TD showing making up for a less than impressive passing performance from Rivers and the Colts receivers.
The lack of passing didn’t matter too much in the first half and the Colts found themselves up by 20 before the end of the first half. But it was then that the jitters seen in recent Colts performances started to come back to the fore.
Mike Glennon connected with Laviska Shenault twice to bring the Jags back within six, and it looked like the Colts might be about to blow yet another game and gift the Dolphins the last AFC wildcard spot. However, despite three punts and a Rivers interception, the Colts defense was able to hold the resurgent Jaguars and led by Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner found their way into the backfield multiple times, stymying the Jags efforts to spoil Indy’s party.
In the end it was Jonathan Taylor who put the Colts beyond the reach of the Jaguars. After an initial 5-yard gain Taylor made the Jags miss at the line of scrimmage and busted off a 45-yard run to go into the endzone untouched. Rivers found Hilton for the 2-point conversion and the Colts booked themselves a match-up with the rampant Buffalo Bills on Saturday afternoon.
They will need to take every opportunity given to them to topple the Bills, but with a defense that is able to put pressure on Josh Allen, and a running game that can control the clock it would be foolish to count the Colts out just yet.
For the Jags fans, a date with Trevor Lawrence is on the cards for April’s NFL Draft – even despite his loss in the NCAA Semi-finals it looks like the Jags are all set for the latest in a long line of rebuilds.
So, the Wildcard round in the NFL Playoffs is set for the AFC:
Indianapolis Colts (7) @ Buffalo Bills (2)
Baltimore Ravens (5) @ Tennessee Titans (4)
Cleveland Browns (6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (3)