They can also thank the New York Jets.
The biggest shift in the playoff picture on Sunday happened with the sixth seed in the AFC. The Raiders, rolling along at 6-4, were crushed 34-3 by the Jets. And the Browns — given up for dead long ago — are just a game out of the playoffs with five weeks to go. They rolled over the Miami Dolphins 41-24 to improve to 5-6.
The Raiders being blown out was a disappointment. Oakland had won three in a row and was in good shape to grab the final playoff spot in the AFC. That would have been a great story, a year after Jon Gruden’s first year in Oakland was so awful. And it still could happen. But if it doesn’t, Sunday’s no-show will be a big reason.
The Raiders were flat from the beginning. They had plenty of dropped passes early, a sign that they were going to sleepwalk on the East Coast for the 10 a.m. Pacific time start. As the offense was dropping passes, the defense was making Sam Darnold look very good. Darnold threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another. Darnold’s touchdown pass to Robby Anderson all but put the game away at 27-3. A one-handed pick-six by Brian Poole shortly after off a deflected pass removed any doubt. The Jets scored 14 points in 14 seconds. Derek Carr was pulled in the third quarter of the blowout for Mike Glennon.
It was an ill-timed terrible performance by Oakland. Gruden’s team has made a lot of strides this season, but Sunday was a reminder of the holes on the roster. The defense is still capable of giving up yards and points in bunches. Carr has been better this season but nobody will mistake him for one of the best in the NFL, and his receivers aren’t great. The Raiders aren’t bad this season but they’re still not the type of team that can be counted on to go on the road and beat teams like the Jets.
Meanwhile, the Browns continue to catch breaks in the AFC race.
The Colts lost on Thursday. They’re 6-5. The Steelers barely beat the winless Cincinnati Bengals 16-10, and they’re 6-5 too, but Pittsburgh’s offensive limitations are a real problem.
The Browns are heating up. They started 2-6 but have won three in a row. If they were in the NFC they’d have no shot at a wild-card spot, but the AFC is top heavy this season and six teams will still be allowed in the playoffs.
While nobody should be too impressed with a win over the Dolphins, the Browns looked good. Baker Mayfield threw some nice touchdown passes to Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Kareem Hunt ran for a score, as did Nick Chubb. The defense played very well, like it did against Mason Rudolph and the Pittsburgh Steelers a week ago. The Browns aren’t playing the toughest competition lately but that’s part of the point. They had a tough schedule early on and it’s evening out now. And they’re taking advantage of it.
The Browns still face the hapless Bengals twice. A game at Pittsburgh next week seems winnable given the Steelers’ issues. The Browns also play at Arizona, and the Cardinals aren’t that good. There is a chance the Browns will get on a nice roll over the remainder of the season. The Browns won’t have Garrett the rest of the season due to his indefinite suspension after last week’s brawl, but at least they’re still in the picture.
The Colts and Steelers still have a say in what happens in the wild-card race, and the Tennessee Titans aren’t out of it either. For a brief time it looked like the Raiders had the inside track. A miserable loss to the Jets changes that math. The Browns aren’t yet leading the race, but at least they are hanging around. Three games ago, that possibility seemed remote. If the Browns go from one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments to rallying for a playoff spot, that would be one of the most remarkable stories of the season. And it’s not that crazy anymore.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Sunday’s Week 12 NFL action:
Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry: The Titans are sometimes slow to come around to good ideas.
For years, they resisted using Henry in a workhorse role, for whatever reason. This season, they had Marcus Mariota starting at quarterback over Tannehill.
The Tannehill-Henry combination is keeping the Titans in the AFC wild-card race, and they’re not entirely dead in the AFC South race either. Tannehill had two passing and two rushing touchdowns, and Henry had 159 yards and two touchdowns in an impressive 42-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The switch to Tannehill has been a good one for the Titans. Tannehill has been efficient, and gives the Titans a playmaking dimension that escaped them as Mariota got more conservative. Tannehill had 259 yards on just 14 pass attempts. It helps to have Henry, who is a fantastic back. He just was underused for most of his first three seasons, a clear mistake the Titans kept making. That’s not the case anymore (most of the time anyway; the Titans still have games in which they become infatuated with Dion Lewis), and he has blossomed into one of the NFL’s best runners.
Don’t forget about them in the playoff race yet.
The Buffalo Bills’ playoff hopes: There’s a reason the other wild-card spot in the AFC wasn’t mentioned above. That spot can likely be reserved for the Bills.
The Bills’ schedule hasn’t been that tough but it doesn’t matter. You can only play the teams in front of you, and the Bills are 8-3. In a soft AFC, eight wins might be enough for a wild-card spot. And the Bills have plenty of easy games to go.
Buffalo wasn’t challenged on Sunday in a 20-3 win over the Denver Broncos. The Broncos, led by fill-in quarterback Brandon Allen, couldn’t move the ball. The Bills have some offensive issues but their defense is talented and deep. Cornerback Tre’Davious White continued his stellar season, shutting down Courtland Sutton and coming up with a big interception deep in Bills territory near the end of the first half. The Bills offense finally put the game away on John Brown’s nice touchdown grab against Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. early in the fourth quarter.
The Bills aren’t a juggernaut even at 8-3, but they won’t be a pushover in the playoffs. And barring something really weird, they’ll be in the playoffs.
Jarvis Landry: Generally players want to show out against their old teams. Landry had an enormous game against the Miami Dolphins, who traded him to Cleveland last year.
Landry had 148 yards and a couple scores against the Dolphins on Sunday. Odell Beckham Jr. has not had the huge season many figured for him when he was acquired by the Browns, but Landry has been hot lately. He has become Baker Mayfield’s favorite target.
On a team with a lot of notable offensive players, Landry is emerging as the most steady player the Browns have. The Dolphins could use a guy like that.
Dwayne Haskins Jr.: Haskins didn’t have a great game on Sunday, but he’ll remember it for a long time.
The Washington Redskins’ first-round pick helped lead Washington to just its second win of the season, over the Detroit Lions. Washington won 19-16 on a last-second field goal. And Haskins did his part down the stretch, leading the game-tying and game-winning drives in the final minutes. The game-winning drive came after a bad interception by Lions quarterback Jeff Driskel near midfield.
Haskins has struggled, but he’s also on a terrible team. Everyone knew he was raw and there would be a learning curve. Haskins will probably get ripped for taking selfies before the game was officially done, but at least he and the Redskins have at least one nice highlight from this season.
Receivers against Stephon Gilmore: It’s tough for a cornerback to win NFL defensive player of the year, but Gilmore might be making a case.
Gilmore is the best player on the best defense in the NFL, and he was great on Sunday. Gilmore held Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper to no catches and had one catch of his own, a nice diving interception. According to Jeff Howe of The Athletic, that was Gilmore’s second straight game holding a receiver to no catches. Howe said Gilmore hasn’t allowed a catch since Week 9 against Baltimore, and has shut out three receivers in a game this season. That’s really hard to do.
The Patriots improved to 10-1. Their MVP just might be their No. 1 cornerback. Perhaps he’ll get a look for the league’s top defensive award.
Christian McCaffrey: On a better team, McCaffrey might be an MVP front-runner, even as hard as that is for running backs in this quarterback-dominated era.
But it’s becoming clear the Panthers aren’t very good, no matter how much McCaffrey tries to carry them. And that stinks for one of the NFL’s best players.
McCaffrey was great again on Sunday. He had 133 total yards and scored a couple touchdowns against the New Orleans Saints. He has been practically unstoppable all season. And he watched from the sideline as Joey Slye somehow missed a 28-yard field goal attempt just after the two-minute warning that would have given Carolina a lead. Then the Saints marched downfield for the game-winning field goal as time expired.
The Panthers fell to 5-6, practically removing them from the NFC playoff conversation. A running back has little chance of winning MVP anyway because voters always look at quarterbacks first, but a running back on a non-playoff team might need 3,000 yards or 30 touchdowns to win MVP. McCaffrey will fall short of that, though not by too much.
Running backs don’t have unlimited chances to succeed. McCaffrey is a physical freak, but the Panthers ride him as hard as any other back in the NFL. It would be a shame if he wastes his best years on bad teams.
Mason Rudolph: It hasn’t been a good week-and-a-half for the Steelers quarterback.
Lost in the hoopla over the brawl with Myles Garrett was that Rudolph played terribly in Week 11 against the Browns. Then he played terribly in Week 12 against the Bengals. He was benched, and rookie Devlin Hodges immediately threw a long touchdown to James Washington. Hodges finished out an ugly 16-10 win over the Bengals.
Rudolph has struggled badly on the field. He got clubbed over the head with his own helmet by Garrett. He became a household name, as everyone wondered if he deserved more blame for the fight. Garrett accused Rudolph of calling him a racial slur, and he was fined $50,000. Then on Sunday he lost his job, might not get it back and even if he does it’s pretty clear he isn’t a good long-term option to replace Ben Roethlisberger.
That qualifies as a pretty bad couple weeks for Rudolph.
Carson Wentz: Let’s get this out of the way: Wentz had very little help on Sunday. Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor were inactive. DeSean Jackson has missed most of the season. Right tackle Lane Johnson was out too. The Eagles’ supporting cast, outside of their tight ends, was a lot of no-names.
Still, Wentz is paid to carry his teammates, not the other way around. A supremely disappointing offensive performance in a 17-9 loss against the Seattle Seahawks — and this is no longer the “Legion of Boom” Seahawks D — will put a lot of heat on Wentz. Philadelphia didn’t get in the end zone until a meaningless touchdown in the final seconds. The Eagles are too good to be 5-6, but that’s where they stand after Sunday’s loss.
The season is still alive for the Eagles because their schedule is favorable and a Week 16 rematch against the Cowboys will happen in Philadelphia, but this is a disappointing team. They haven’t been good enough, especially on offense, and a lot of that falls on Wentz, regardless of how many injuries are around him.
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