NFL Week 15 Recap: Amazing Finishes Alter Division Races

NFL Week 15 had some dramatic moments and the best were fortunately reserved for the games drawing national audiences, namely Green Bay’s stunning comeback from 23 points down to win at Dallas, and Baltimore’s dramatic 61-yard field goal to beat Detroit last night.

A collection of five results–including the main late afternoon national TV game (Packers-Cowboys), Sunday night (Bengals-Steelers) and Monday night (Ravens-Lions) have created a situation where winner-take-all showdowns are now set up in the AFC North, NFC North and NFC East for Week 17.

It’s those games, along with Chicago-Cleveland and Philadelphia-Minnesota that our review of NFL Week 15 will begin.

Green Bay 37 Dallas 36: I wish I could add something the mainstream media hasn’t already said about the way Dallas blew a 26-3 lead at home to a team playing with its backup quarterback. But what is there to add when we’ve already heard the following…

*A Cowboy defense that the previous Monday night had never stopped the Chicago Bears offense from scoring, gave up five touchdowns in the second half alone. Whether it was Eddie Lacy running or Matt Flynn spreading the ball around, the Cowboy D was befuddled.

*In spite of Demarco Murray running 18 times for 134 yards, Dallas did not keep feeding him the ball when they had the lead, which was all but a minute-plus.

*And Tony Romo’s decision to force a ball into coverage over the middle when he still had a 36-31 lead late in the fourth quarter was the kind of move that’s barely tolerable for a rookie. For a veteran, the word “inexcusable” isn’t strong enough.

The Cowboy collapse is a bigger story than the Packer comeback, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t salute the latter. Green Bay hasn’t thrown the ball without Aaron Rodgers, and they haven’t gotten turnovers all year. They did both when their season hung in the balance.

Chicago 38 Cleveland 31: It took Jay Cutler a little while to get going in his first start back from injury, but the Bears put up 21 points in the fourth quarter to get this road win. What’s more impressive is the way Chicago ran the ball, with Matt Forte going for 127 yards. And what’s most impressive of all is the way this defensively-challenged team shut down the previous unstoppable Cleveland wideout Josh Gordon, holding him to three catches.

Pittsburgh 30 Cincinnati 20: The Steeler defense completely took away Cincinnati’s running game with Giovanni Bernard, and Pittsburgh also shut down any downfield passing attack. Even though Andy Dalton played high-percentage and mistake-free, it wasn’t enough. Pittsburgh struck quickly with 21 points in the first quarter, including a punt return by Antonio Brown and Cincy didn’t have the firepower to make it a game again.

Baltimore 18 Detroit 16: In a franchise history marred with devastating losses, this one stands to rank pretty high on the list for the Detroit Lions. The Baltimore Ravens did nothing offensively, never scoring a touchdown and even on their final drive to the winning field goal, Joe Flacco threw about five bad passes mixed in with one halfway decent throw to Jacoby Jones. It speaks volumes to Flacco’s ineffectiveness that his coach, John Harbaugh, felt a 61-yard field goal was a higher percentage move than the big-money quarterback completing a 4th-and-7 pass and making the distance more manageable.

But this is the Detroit Lions we’re talking about. They did get robbed on a bad no-call on what should have been pass interference in the end zone on third down late in the third quarter. You can argue that because that call cost them four points and they lost by two, a Lions fan can run the math and say with some legitimacy that play was the difference.

But this is the Detroit Lions we’re talking about. Is there really a reason to think they wouldn’t have just found some other agonizing way to blow the game? Matthew Stafford was intercepted three times and Calvin Johnson dropped a two-point conversion that would have at least ensured overtime, after Detroit had scored to take a 16-15 lead.

It’s tough to lose a game when the other team can’t find the end zone and does nothing well offensively. It’s tough to lose a division title when your two primary rivals each lose their starting quarterbacks. But this is the Detroit Lions we’re talking about.

Minnesota 48 Philadelphia 30: If the Eagles would have won this game they would have set themselves up to clinch the NFC East this Sunday. They still control their fate, but so do the Cowboys. And while the Eagle defense allowed Matt Cassell to morph into the 1998 version of Randall Cunningham for the Vikings, an even bigger surprise was the failure of LeSean McCoy to generate anything on the ground.

Philadelphia was unable to exploit its comparative advantage on the ground with Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart both out for Minnesota, and the Vikings offense erupted in the fourth quarter.

The situation in the three divisions means that the Week 17 games between Green Bay-Chicago, Baltimore-Cincinnati and Philadelphia-Dallas are set to be winner-take-all, so long as they each take care of business in Week 16.

Other games around the league in NFL Week 15…

San Diego 27 Denver 20: In a stunning road upset on Thursday night, the Chargers kept their playoff hopes alive because they ran the ball. Ryan Mathews went for 127 yards on 29 carries, Philip Rivers was efficient and San Diego took away Denver’s own running attack. Peyton can’t do it all by himself.

Miami 24 New England 20: Ryan Tannehill’s growth as a quarterback continues to impress. He didn’t much ground support, and the Patriots sacked him four times, and knocked him down five more. But Tannehill still went 25/37 for 312 yards and no interceptions. He threw three touchdowns, the last to win the game with a minute and change left. The Patriots bogged down twice inside the 10-yard line and settled for field goals, clearly missing Rob Gronkowski.

St. Louis 27 New Orleans 16: Zac Stacy ran 28 times for 133 yards, and allowed for a balanced offense, while New Orleans asked Drew Brees to throw 56 times. The 24-3 halftime lead the Rams got out to surely accounted for a lot of that, but the Saints’ problems on the road and running the ball even a little bit continue.

San Francisco 33 Tampa Bay 14: There’s nothing the 49ers didn’t do well in dominating a team that has played well the last several weeks. Colin Kaepernick was both efficient and hit a long touchdown pass to Vernon Davis. San Francisco ran the ball with Frank Gore and stopped the run. This was a team that’s peaking at the right team, though they still need one more win to punch their ticket to the dance.

Arizona 37 Tennessee 34 (OT): The Cardinals took away Chris Johnson and forced Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw the ball. Though the result was closer than I expected, eventually Fitzpatrick made his mistakes, throwing three interceptions and Arizona was able to survive on the road and keep the pressure on San Francisco.

Carolina 30 NY Jets 20: Cam Newton turned a 16-for-24 passing day into 273 yards and that kind big-play capability helped the Panthers overcome an atypically soft run defense. The Panthers are now even with the Saints in the NFC South and with a Week 16 showdown coming up, the 2-seed in the NFC is up for grabs.

Kansas City 56 Oakland 31: Matt McGloin played an awful football game for Oakland. In spite of Kansas City not generating much pressure, McGloin threw four interceptions. Alex Smith was 17-of-20 for 287 yards and his best receiver was an unlikely candidate–Jamaal Charles, normally seen running over people between the tackles had eight catches for 195 yards. Great showing for KC, but I think Oakland incompetence is the bigger takeaway here.

Indianapolis 25 Houston 3: Indy’s defense got after Case Keenum, sacking him four times, knocking him down eight more and Keenum struggled to a day both inefficient (18/34), mistake-prone (two interceptions) and lacking in big plays (just 168 yards off those 18 completions)

Seattle 23 NY Giants 0: Eli Manning’s five interceptions, the lack of a running game and lack of pass protection certainly stand out for the Giants. Let’s not overlook Seattle’s own pass protection was lacking as they allowed four sacks and that’s with a mobile quarterback in Russell Wilson. The Seahawks are 12-2 and almost home free in both the NFC West for the #1 seed, but they need to clean this stuff up now.

Atlanta 27 Washington 26: Nice showing for Kirk Cousins, as the Redskins’ backup quarterback threw for 381 yards on 29/45 passing after RG3 was shut down for the year. Cousins made some killer mistakes–a fumble and two interceptions all in really bad spots–that made a difference, but for his first start of the year and second of his career, there was a lot of promise there. Washington lost five fumbles total though, continuing the “if it’s not one thing it’s another” pattern that exists in poorly coached football teams.

Buffalo 27 Jacksonville 20: Both teams generated a lot of pressure on the quarterback and thus contained pass yardage, and both teams ran the ball well offensively. Buffalo ran it a little bit better though, with the Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller tag-team helping to combine for 198 yards overall.