Around the NFL: Week 17 NFC Recap
Updated: Jan 13
After recapping the week 17 NFL playoff relevant games in the AFC yesterday, we take a trip around the NFC today see how the final slate of games of the regular season panned out for all the contenders and pretenders.
By Ryan Edwardson.
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The NFC has been fairly wide open this season and there were a number of games this weekend that saw seedings and even playoff teams decided. There was no intentional resting of starters in this conference (not unless you ask Doug Pederson anyway) and this provided a slew of competitive games to take on!
Who doesn’t like a good NFC West defensive battle? Both defenses held the opposing offenses at arm’s length for most of the first half in this one. The Hawks went up 6-0 but found themselves pegged back to a tie just after halftime.
With a stuttering offense being held to three yards in the third quarter by a strong Niner D, the momentum swung in favour of San Francisco, who started to expose Seattle’s weak secondary with some deep C.J. Beathard passes. George Kittle spectacularly plucked a 40-yarder out of the air with one hand to set the 49ers up for a field goal, before Jeff Wilson Jr continued his fine run of form to score a touchdown on a long drive set up by a 27-yard third down conversion to Kendrick Bourne.
Suddenly Seattle found themselves in the fourth quarter and trailing, but like he has done so many times previously, Russell Wilson managed to carve out some offense and claw the game back. After being given a 15-yard leg-up due to Tyler Lockett being slammed into the ground despite obviously being out of bounds, the Seahawks were into 49er territory for the first time in the half. Wilson then found Will Dissly for 20 yards before buying some time in the pocket and finding Tyler Lockett in the endzone.
The Niners were unable to respond and the Hawks made sure that Jason Myers’ missed extra point didn’t matter too much as they put together their best drive of the day. 80 yards and 13 plays later Seattle were faced with a tough fourth down call. Electing to go for it, Wilson connected with Lockett on the left-hand side of the endzone, Lockett tiptoeing for his second of the day.
There was still a chance for San Francisco, but it was ripped away a few plays later. Benson Mayowa got through to C.J. Beathard and stripped him of the ball, setting up Seattle on the edge of the RedZone. It was a returning Alex Collins, of Seattle and Baltimore run games of old, who sealed the game. Fighting his way into the endzone from eight yards out, Collins stretched the ball and the Seattle lead by an unassailable margin.
The Niners did then execute a great two-minute drill, working their way swiftly down the field to allow Jeff Wilson another touchdown. Niner fans should be buoyed by their overall performance, even if they came away with a loss. With continually strong rushing and defensive performances, the team is still in a good position to succeed in future years if they can sort out their passing game. The Seahawks will go on to face the Rams, in a matchup that could go either way if this offense can’t get flowing like it was in the beginning of the season.
For the Rams and Cardinals, the funk of 2020 lasted just a few more days than for the rest of us. Hands up who predicted that the battle for an NFC Wildcard spot would star John Wolford and Chris Streveler. Actually, better question, hands up who had even heard of John Wolford and Chris Streveler?
With Jared Goff’s thumb (and confidence) broken against the Seahawks, Sean McVay decided to ignore the possibility of suiting up Blake Bortles (Sorry Blakey) and instead gave a start to John Wolford, formerly of the Arizona Hotshots.
The day didn’t start too well for John, as his first pass went directly to Jordan Hicks. This would be fine, except for the fact that Hicks is an Arizona Cardinal (John obviously thought he was still playing for the Hotshots at this point). This error allowed Arizona great field position, which they turned into seven points via a shovel pass to wide receiver Jonathan Ward. However, it wasn’t Kyler Murray who gave the ball to Ward. No, after hampered performances due to shoulder and knee injuries in previous weeks, Murray suffered an ankle injury on an 8-yard sack at the end of the Cardinals’ first drive and was replaced by Chris Streveler for the best part of three quarters.
The loss of the Pocket Rocket Quarterback stifled what was an already struggling Arizona offense and put the Cardinals into a hole they simply couldn’t get out of. Although that’s not to say that the Rams ran away with this.
Despite his early mistake Wolford remembered which team he played for and recovered from the interception, seeming calm with the ball in hand and happy to run with it (he ended the day as the Rams lead rusher). With a final stat line of 22/38 for 231 yards, he was more than an adequate fill-in for Jared Goff, but those stats didn’t fully translate into points due to an Arizona defense that has been playing like more than the sum of its parts lately.
The Rams scored a field goal and then found themselves back on the Arizona goal line a drive later, but a returning Cam Akers had the ball stripped as he tried to get into the endzone and the Cardinals turned it over. Not to be outdone, the Rams applied a lot of pressure to Streveler and, not for the first time this season, the Arizona O-line committed a holding penalty in the endzone, leading to the officials to awarding a safety. Streveler’s day didn’t get much better when Troy Hill pulled down one of his passes and returned it almost the full length of the field to give the Rams a lead for the first time.
Two field goals in the third quarter extended the Rams lead to 11 points. This prompted Kliff Kingsbury to put Kyler Murray back into the game in a last-ditch attempt to get the Cards into the post-season. Despite a promising first drive back in the game, it simply wasn’t to be. Zane Gonzalez’s field goal was blocked and with Murray’s ankle still injured, there was no real rushing threat from Arizona. Conversely the Rams were able to resurrect on their previously non-existent run game to wipe four of the last five minutes off the clock.
The loss eliminated the Cardinals from the playoffs, leaving them ruing their inconsistency on offense towards the end of the season as well as losses to the Lions and Panthers. After an off-season that promised so much Kliff and Kyler will likely be trying to figure out what they can do to kickstart this team next year.
For the Rams the big question is Will Jared Goff be ready for Saturday? With the even bigger question being whether or not it would be a big difference if Wolford was playing instead? They face the Seahawks for the second time in three weeks. With both teams struggling on offense, who will make their mark and proceed to the Divisional round?
After a victory propelled by a record-breaking running back, how do you then transition into a week without any recognised running backs? Well, if you’re the Saints you score three touchdowns through the air, let your hybrid QB-RB run the ball, unleash a defense that forces five turnovers and turn Ty Montgomery into a 100-yard rusher. Simple eh?!
As they have done for most of the season, the Panthers hung around with the all-star Saints for the first quarter but couldn’t keep it up for too long. Two endzone interceptions of Teddy Bridgewater and a failed fourth down conversion (when you’re only down by six? Really Matt Rhule?) meant that the Saints were able to pull away from the Panthers by the start of the third. The appearance of P.J. Walker midway through that quarter didn’t do much to kickstart Carolina’s chances of victory – Walker only bested Bridgewater in one stat – throwing three interceptions to Teddy’s two.
Despite these passing woes Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore both had 100-yard games. Their performances throughout the season should give Panthers fans some hope that they can turn things around with another full season under Matt Rhule’s guidance, especially if some of their 2020 defensive draft picks (all of them) can continue to improve.
For the Saints, this ended up as a simple task, locking up the #2 seed and setting up a game against the Chicago Bears in next week’s Wildcard round. Drew Brees continued to dish the ball around to a myriad set of Saints receivers, but will surely be looking forward to the return of Michael Thomas next week. Questions will surround Alvin Kamara’s status due to a positive COVID test, but after dismantling two rather poor defenses over the past few weeks they should be in fine form to take on the Bears.
Nowhere screams “Home Advantage” like Lambeau Field, even without fans in the stands. With victory over Chicago, the Packers have now ensured that the path to the Superbowl runs through cold, snowy, miserable Wisconsin. But it would not be the whole truth to think that the Packers had it all their own way.
Green Bay have struggled on occasion this year, but with Aaron Rodgers in MVP form it’s easy to see why the Packers have secured their second 13-3 season in a row. Rodgers had a perfect first half, going 10/10 for 153 yards and three TDs, the highlight being a huge 70+ yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdez-Scantling to give the Packers the lead.
The Bears offense did well, keeping in lockstep with Green Bay until they reached the RedZone and this would ultimately stop them from competing in the game. Their second quarter drives involved settling for two short yardage field goals and giving away a fumble, allowing the Packers to get an 8-point advantage at half-time.
Another short yardage field goal brought the Bears to 16 points in the third quarter, but they wouldn’t get any further. The RedZone struggles continued as Matt Nagy tried to force a fourth and one on the Green Bay 25, but Trubisky couldn’t complete a short pass to Allen Robinson. The Packers responded with a long 7-minute drive, basically sealing the game with a four yard Aaron Jones TD run. Trubisky tried to reduce the deficit, but forced a pass which was intercepted by Adrian Amos. The game was completed with Davante Adams getting his now mandatory touchdown catch.
The Bears resurgence of the past few weeks means that they still make it into the playoffs, but they’ll need to convert more of their chances if they stand any chance of beating the Saints. The Packers will enjoy a week off, hoping to give their defense a rest before they try to make up for last year’s playoff collapse. With the added bonus of a Lambeau Winter at their back, not many people will be betting against them.
The Giants and Cowboys were fighting for the chance to win the division in the early game, though at times it looked like they were fighting for the chance to NOT win the division. A Cowboys offense that seemed to have found it’s groove last week looked as if they were all on different planets in the first half.
The Giants meanwhile got into the endzone three times – Sterling Shepard with a run and a catch and Dante Pettis diving to pull down a well-thrown bomb before bouncing (literally) into the endzone. Dallas managed to keep in touch with the Giants with three field goals, but the Giants defense kept them from troubling the endzone in the first half.
The Giants showed their usual inconsistencies by allowing the Cowboys back into the game. Jones was intercepted at halfway allowing Dallas the chance to get into the RedZone for the first time in the game off the back of a long pass to CeeDee Lamb. Zeke punched one in from short yardage and Greg Zuerlein slotted over another three points to bring the Cowboys within a point of a seven-win record.
But the stage proved to be too much for Dalton. The Giants defense redoubled their efforts and Leonard Williams put the exclamation point on a great season with his third sack of the game. Graham Gano gave the Giants some breathing room with a 50-yarder, but the Cowboys still pushed them close.
Dalton seemed to remember how he played last week as he took Dallas back to the RedZone but came up short. With the Giants defense in his face Dalton threw a wild pass into the endzone which was picked off by Xavier McKinney to seal the game.
Or did it?! Wayne Gallman decided this game needed another twist as he put the ball on the ground after making it past the first down line. The ball somehow ended up back in Gallman’s hand (after he sat on it, rolled over it and allowed it to bounce around for a few seconds) and the refs ruled he had possession of it before the ensuing game of 22-man pile-up began. This was critical as it made it harder for the Cowboys to get the ball back on the review, but they eventually found an angle which confirmed the original ruling.
The Giants then had to wait breathlessly until the end of Sunday Night hoping for a Football Team loss to confirm their trip to the playoffs – but it wasn’t to be. A topsy-turvy game saw Washington come out on top of the Eagles thanks in part of the Eagles own coaching staff. Neither team fully impressed on offense, with turnovers from both units but Washington did take a 17-14 lead into halftime thanks to scores from their two best receiving threats throughout the season – Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas.
Jalen Hurts struggled to make too much headway through the air but did rush for the Eagles two touchdowns to keep them in the game. If the offenses failed to impress in the first half, they went out of their way to annoy in the second. The longest drive of both quarters only totalled 35 yards and the only points of the half came with seven minutes left, Dustin Hopkins stretching the lead to 20 points.
The Eagles could have scored but following an Alex Smith interception deep in his own half, Doug Pederson decided to try and put the ball in the endzone on fourth and goal from the four. This might have qualified as ‘gutsy’ had the Eagles had anything to play for, not been down by just three points or had they not failed miserably on three successive attempts to get score from the exact same distance on the three previous plays.
Hurts was stopped and Pederson seemed to take this as a sign that this was the time to put Nate Sudfeld into the game. Did Pederson think this would help his ailing offense? A deliberate attempt to improve their draft pick? A way to stick it to the Giants and give Washington a chance to win? Only Pederson truly knows, but a few hundred thousand angry New York fans certainly seem to have an idea too.
As expected Sudfeld looked awful, throwing a gimme interception and fumbling the ball. Food for thought: maybe putting a guy who hasn’t really played all year up against Chase Young and Montez Sweat, both desperate to take their inspirational quarterback and head coach to the playoffs wasn’t the best idea?
Washington closed out the game to much celebration from their bench, securing a division title for the first time in five years and denying the Giants their first title since they went on to win the Super Bowl in 2011 (Where did all that time go?)
Questions will rage on about Pederson’s handling of this situation and it won’t do much to quell the rumours of a fractured locker room. News of Carson Wentz requesting a trade coupled with the many shots of confused and annoyed players on the Eagles bench will leave Philly fans and front office staff wondering what on earth happened to this team in 2020.
As a reward for their win the Football Team get to host the red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers who secured the fifth seed with a dominant offensive performance over the flailing Falcons. (Sorry Bucs fans, this piece is already running long, and I refuse to watch Atlanta again until they get some kind of identity on either side of the ball).
Tampa may be without Mike Evans who hurt his knee early on in the game, but will the Football Team be able to cope with Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown? Once more the game will likely be on the shoulders of Young, Sweat and the rest of the defence, as this Washington offense really doesn’t seem up to a playoff push. Still, stranger things have happened and as we’re all aware – defenses win championships.
After this week the NFC playoffs look as follows:
Chicago Bears (7) @ New Orleans Saints (2)
Los Angeles Rams (6) @ Seattle Seahawks (3)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5) @ Washington Football Team (4)