NFL Week 15 lessons: Bengals are AFC’s hottest team, and maybe its best


It’s the most wonderful time of the year, with the holiday season in full swing and crunch time in full effect in the NFL.

Five teams — Kansas City and Dallas (on Sunday), Minnesota and Buffalo (on Saturday) and San Francisco (on Thursday) — all clinched playoff berths in Week 15.

Epic comebacks also were a theme: Minnesota rallied from 33 down and Cincinnati and Jacksonville both overcame 17-point deficits to win. Those three, plus Buffalo, Detroit, Jacksonville and Las Vegas, all pulled off comebacks after trailing in the fourth quarter. And seven teams (Buffalo, Detroit, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minnesota and the Chargers) recorded game-winning scores in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime.

So what did we learn from Sunday’s 11 contests? Here’s our game-by-game, team-by-team breakdown.

New York: Brian Daboll’s throwback approach in remaking the New York Football Giants is working, and very well could end a six-year playoff drought. A smash-mouth run game, and two big defensive stands, enabled the Giants to improve to 8-5-1 and strengthen their hold on the sixth spot in the NFC postseason race. With his team nursing a five-point lead with 6:06 left, Daboll needed a knockout punch and thus put the game in Saquon Barkley’s hands. The back ripped off runs of 12, 15 and 14 yards to move his team toward field-goal range. In another display of the gritty, physical mindset Daboll is working to instill, New York’s defense came up with two stops (a forced fumble and a turnover on downs) inside the 10 to seal the victory.

Washington: Taylor Heinicke is a feel-good story. Sunday, though, his fumble at the New York 9 loomed large in the eight-point loss, and so too did the undersized quarterback’s struggles to operate in the pocket on obvious passing downs. Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner has done well masking Heinicke’s deficiencies. But shortcomings in these second- and third-and-long situations make it hard to view the Old Dominion product as anything but a bridge quarterback. … Washington (7-6-1) has little margin for error now with San Francisco, Cleveland and Dallas left on its schedule.

Cincinnati: Are the Bengals the best team in the AFC? They certainly are the hottest, extending their win streak to six games and winning eight of their last nine. A 17-0 deficit didn’t even faze Joe Burrow and the boys, who scored 34 unanswered to beat the Bucs and take control of the AFC North.

Tampa Bay: For almost the entire first half, the Buccaneers appeared to have finally figured out the offensive formula that would help them finish the season on a strong note and carry momentum into the postseason. But then came four second-half turnovers (including two Tom Brady interceptions), and a collapse that dropped Tampa Bay’s record to 6-8, and its division lead to just one game.

Las Vegas: Few coaches possess the kind of intimate knowledge of each other as do Josh McDaniels and old boss Bill Belichick. But the former Patriots offensive coordinator prevailed despite blowing a 17-3 lead — thanks largely to continued ineffective work by his miscast successor, Matt Patricia. Chandler Jones, another former member of the Patriots, delivered the pick six for the walk-off victory that kept the Raiders’ slim playoff hopes alive.

New England: Did Patricia really do that poor of a job of teaching his players how to run a hook-and-ladder play, or did Jakobi Meyers panic and go rogue? And why were they running that anyway, when they could have just gone to overtime? Either way, with terrible execution/decision-making like that, and Mac Jones’ constant frustrations with the labored and ineffective play-calling process, Belichick has to know he must hire a real offensive coordinator this offseason. The Patriots’ playoff chances took a significant hit with this loss.

Jaguars 40, Cowboys 34 (OT)

Jacksonville: Jacksonville and Trevor Lawrence (318 yards, four touchdowns) continued their upward trend by stringing together back-to-back victories for only the second time all year. A walk-off pick six by safety Rayshawn Jenkins sealed the improbable victory. After a 2-6 start, Doug Pederson’s squad is 4-2 since Week 9 and still has a shot at the postseason.

Dallas: Is trouble brewing in Dallas? A week after nearly losing a very winnable game against Houston, Dallas did falter against Jacksonville. Thanks to help from the Giants, the Cowboys still clinched a playoff berth. But you want to be playing your best football this time of the year, and Dallas is not. Also, hopes of overtaking the Eagles for the division lead are fading. Dallas now trails Philly by three games with three left and can’t afford to lose to the Eagles on Christmas Eve.

Chiefs 30, Texans 24 (OT)

Kansas City: It sure wasn’t pretty, but a win’s a win, and by defeating Houston in this trap game, the Chiefs clinched their seventh consecutive AFC West title and their eighth straight postseason berth. Truly a remarkable run of dominance for Andy Reid and company, who tie the L.A. Rams (1973-79) for the second-longest division winning streak and trail only the Patriots, who won the AFC East 11 seasons in a row from 2009-19.



NFL playoff picture at Week 15: Commanders lose tiebreaker to Giants

Houston: It’s kinda funky, but maybe Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton are onto something with this Davis Mills/Jeff Driskel quarterback tag-team approach. That’s two weeks now the Texans have kept formidable foes off-balance. But not to worry, the quest for the No. 1 pick remains on course: Houston dropped its ninth straight and is 1-12-1.

Eagles 25, Bears 20

Philadelphia: Which is more impressive: How automatic Jalen Hurts and the Eagles are on the goal-line quarterback sneak, or the fact that 13-1 Philly has five defensive players with at least six sacks this season? Those two elements are a big reason why the Eagles own the best record in the league. Hurts on Sunday scored three times (two sneaks and a 22-yarder), and Haason Reddick, Javon Hargrave and Josh Sweat racked up two sacks apiece. Hurts needs one more rushing touchdown to tie Cam Newton’s single-season record of 14 by a quarterback. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ robust sack leaders list is as follows: Reddick 12, Hargrave 10, Sweat 9 1/2, Brandon Graham 8 1/2, Fletcher Cox 6.

Chicago: The Bears, now 3-11, definitely made the Eagles sweat. Chicago intercepted Hurts (who entered the game with only three picks all season) twice in the first half and took Philly down to the wire. Justin Fields racked up another 95 rushing yards to hit 1,000 for the season, joining Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson as the only quarterbacks in league history to do so.

Chargers 17, Titans 14

Los Angeles: In another display of his ever-improving maturity, Justin Herbert shook off early struggles (two interceptions) and led a game-winning drive. A big win for the Chargers, who at 8-6 now hold the sixth seed in the AFC because of their head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami.

Tennessee: Another performance that reminds us of how poorly constructed this Titans team is. Where would Tennessee be without Derrick Henry (104 rushing yards and a touchdown, team-high 59 receiving yards)? … Tension has to be at an all-time high after Mike Vrabel’s team lost its fourth straight game. At 7-7, its once-comfortable lead in the AFC South is evaporating. The Jaguars (6-8) seemingly are building momentum at the right time, so that season finale with the Titans in Jacksonville could have massive implications.

Lions 20, Jets 17

Detroit: The Lions did just about everything they could to keep the Jets in the game, but ultimately, continued their improbable quest for the postseason by winning their sixth in the last seven games to improve to 7-7.

New York: The Zach Wilson experience cranked back up, and … what an experience it is: 317 passing yards and two touchdowns, but oh so many cringe-worthy moments that came up short, including an interception and 17 incompletions in 35 attempts. “Get well soon, Mike White,” signed, the Jets’ defense and fan base.

Pittsburgh: Mike Tomlin’s streak of consecutive seasons without a losing record (15) seemed to be in jeopardy when the Steelers started the year 2-6. But since their Week 9 bye, Pittsburgh is 4-2 and owns a 6-8 record with three games left. Can the Steelers possibly extend the streak? A sweep of the Raiders, Ravens and Browns may prove too tall a task, but give Tomlin credit for keeping his players engaged and competitive during this year of transition.

Carolina: The Panthers defense just couldn’t find a way to match the Steelers’ physicality and get off the field on third downs, where Pittsburgh converted 12 of 16 attempts and won the time of possession battle 36:11 to 23:49. Yet, at 5-9, the Panthers still could win the dreadful NFC South.

New Orleans: The Saints snapped a two-game losing streak and amazingly, despite owning a 5-9 record, still also have a shot to win the NFC South.

Atlanta: With Marcus Mariota in need of knee surgery and done for the season, Desmond Ridder took over at quarterback and made a forgettable NFL debut. The third-round pick out of Cincinnati managed only 97 passing yards while completing 13 of 26 attempts. Atlanta running back Tyler Allgeier single-handedly outproduced the quarterback, carrying the ball 17 times for 139 yards and a touchdown.

Denver: A rare win for the Broncos, whose offense surrendered six sacks in the first half, but then found a rhythm on the back of Latavius Murray, whose 130 rushing yards eased the pressure on fill-in starting quarterback Brett Rypien. Nathaniel Hackett might be wise to employ this approach when Russell Wilson returns.

Cardinals: A week after turning to Colt McCoy following Kyler Murray’s season-ending torn ACL, Kliff Kingsbury lost McCoy to a concussion. With that, Arizona’s chances of snapping a three-game losing streak went down the drain. The Cardinals were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday, and Kingsbury is now assured of posting his second season of double-digit losses and third non-winning record in four seasons at the helm.

(Photo: Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)


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