Week 16 saw more teams clinch their spots in the playoffs, with the Chiefs, Rams, Buccaneers and Cardinals all securing berths on Sunday.
That brings the total to six teams, with that group joining the Packers and the Cowboys.
But some of the bigger stories from the weekend came in divisions that aren’t yet settled, though two in particular may have gotten closer to a resolution. The Buffalo Bills’ commanding victory over the Patriots to get their revenge from three weeks ago puts them in the driver’s seat in the AFC East, while the Cincinnati Bengals are one step closer to a changing of the power structure in the AFC North after dismantling the Ravens.
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Here are the winners and losers of Week 16.
Josh Allen’s $258 million contract
This is exactly why teams drop that kind of money on franchise quarterbacks when they draft them. Sometimes it’s risky, sometimes he makes plays that look like they have no business of working, but Allen put the Bills on his shoulders in the biggest game of the season and dominated the defense of the division-rival Patriots in a 33-21 victory.
Allen completed 30 of 47 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns. He also led Buffalo with 64 rushing yards on 12 carries. What made Allen’s play against the Patriots exceptional was the at-any-cost determination: a couple of backhanded flip passes in a key drive in the fourth quarter, an 8-yard rush on a fourth-and-1 earlier on that same drive, a 25-yard scramble up the middle in the second quarter that put Buffalo in field goal range. The risk is that it’s perhaps unsustainable or unrealistic to ask a franchise quarterback to make magic when plays break down, especially as competition stiffens late in the season and in the playoffs. But because of Allen, Buffalo is on track to win the AFC East in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991, the tail end of their streak of four straight division championships.
The cutthroat Cincinnati Bengals
It wasn’t just their getting a massive win over the Baltimore Ravens to take command of the AFC North, but the way the Bengals did it that might be the most noteworthy. First, they completed the reversal of a trend of futility in the division: Cincinnati swept the Steelers and Ravens — long considered to be the powers of the division — for the first time since they last did it in 2009. But, the Bengals won those games by a combined margin of 147-58.
Late in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati was still throwing the ball downfield. That was part of the reason why quarterback Joe Burrow finished with 525 yards, 30 shy of the all-time single-game record. Credit Bengals coach Zac Taylor for trying to install this culture. “Our guys need to develop a killer instinct right now,” he said after the game. “Now’s the time that we’ve got to be playing our best football.” He’s not wrong. This is a young team with players who need to know how to put teams away. But with Burrow and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, and running back Joe Mixon, this offense is already well on its way to being a problem for the rest of the AFC, let alone the North.
The Miami Dolphins
They didn’t play Sunday but they still won big. The Dolphins started Sunday as the No. 11 seed in the AFC. But losses for the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1), Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) and Baltimore Ravens (8-7) have all put Miami in an extremely unlikely spot: right in the middle of the playoff picture. If the Dolphins (7-7) can topple the Saints (7-7) Monday night, Miami will slide into the seventh seed and final spot in the AFC playoffs. Furthermore, it gives Miami control over its future; as long as it wins out, it will be in the playoffs. Which is remarkable, considering this team started the season 1-7.
The good luck for the Dolphins (7-7) doesn’t end there, either. They’ll face the COVID-19-depleted Saints as cases continue to mount in their locker room. Rookie Ian Book will start, with both Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list. To show just how bad things have gotten for New Orleans, it went from being favored by 3½ points at the start of the week, according to Tipico Sportsbook, to now being underdogs by 2½, as of late Sunday night.
Mac Jones, the Patriots and baffling slow starts
For the second week in a row, an abysmally slow offensive start doomed New England. Unfortunately for the Patriots, this one came in a 33-21 loss against the Bills in what was the biggest game of the season in the AFC East. Now the Patriots (9-6) ceded control of their chances at winning the division to Buffalo (9-6).
In the first halves of their last two games, the Patriots have been outscored by a combined margin of 34-7. And while New England battled back in the second halves of both those games, the early holes were simply too significant. A lot of blame has to fall to quarterback Mac Jones. He completed just 14 of 32 passes for 145 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. In fact, because the Patriots opted to run the ball almost exclusively in their Week 13 victory over Buffalo, a game in which Jones attempted just three passes, Jones finished both games against the Bills with only 164 passing yards. New England converted just one of 10 third down tries. To be fair, the Patriots defense put the offense in an impossible spot; for the first time in his 22 seasons as the Patriots’ head coach, a Bill Belichick-led defense failed to force a punt. For better or worse, it has been a streaky season for the Patriots. And while a wild-card spot is still very much in the works, any hope for a deep run means this team will once again need to avoid turnovers — Jones has four picks over his last two games — move the chains and get stops.
Ben Roethlisberger’s Pittsburgh Steelers
It has become difficult to watch the Pittsburgh offense when Ben Roethlisberger is at quarterback. Kansas City’s dominant 36-10 victory showed just how much of a gap exists between the competent offense of the Chiefs and the floundering one of the Steelers. Roethlisberger completed 23 of 35 passes for 159 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
The Pittsburgh passing game just does not have a deep passing component, as Roethlisberger’s arm strength has waned over the years and injuries he has sustained. In fact, the Steelers (7-7-1) have been outgained in passing yards in nine of their 15 games this season. Now, there are plenty of reasons for why the Steelers have struggled this year. The defense ranks last in rushing yards per play (4.95) and gives up way too many first downs. Chris Boswell has been inconsistent in the kicking game. Young players like Chase Claypool have suffered lapses of concentration in key moments. But at this point in his career, Roethlisberger is a liability and far too inconsistent. Roethlisberger has reportedly told some people close to him that he expects this to be his last season in Pittsburgh. At this point, for the Steelers, that would be for the best.
The slumping L.A. Chargers
The hot start to the season is now a distant memory. After its utterly disappointing 41-29 loss to the Texans, Los Angeles has now lost six of its last 10 games in a tumble that has seen the team fall all the way to the No. 8 seed and out of the AFC playoff picture. L.A. had entered Sunday as the sixth seed. The Chargers (8-7) — with a defense that has been a disappointment all season long and often head-scratching offensive play-calling — are wasting a solid season from second-year passer Justin Herbert.
In particular, the rushing defense and third-down defense have been too much to overcome. Against Houston (4-11), the Charger defense allowed nine of 13 conversions (69.2%) on third downs. The Texans entered Week 16 with the NFL’s worst rushing offense, not even cracking 80 yards per game. They racked up 189 rushing yards at a 5.3 yard-per-carry clip against the Chargers. What’s most disappointing is that it’s so often effort and concentration (especially in tackling) that is lacking on this defense. Both teams were short because of COVID-19 cases, so that can’t be used an excuse for L.A. Now, the Chargers missing the playoffs after a 4-1 start is a very real possibility.
The fight in the WFT
It was all kinds of bad for the Washington Football Team in an embarrassing 56-14 trouncing against the Cowboys. The sideline spat between defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, in which Allen took a swing at Payne, will get the most play, but the biggest concern wasn’t that fight, but rather the lack of it on the field.
The first play in which a Washington player showed toughness and resolve came near the end of the third quarter, when tight end John Bates broke several tackles before rumbling to a 32-yard reception down the sideline. The score was 49-7 by that point. This is a team that is still dealing from the fallout of a COVID-19 outbreak and a car crash Thursday night that left a passenger in the car of safety Deshazor Everett dead. Coach Ron Rivera addressed that after the game and said it has been “hard on them.” That’s understandable and perhaps it’s even unfair to discuss football in light of those circumstances. Yet it’s a guarantee that Rivera, a detailed coach who emphasizes discipline and responsibility, will address questions about effort over the next week in practice.
A change in Seattle
We’re not calling for the job of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll here. But after the Seahawks fell to the Chicago Bears, 25-24, to officially eliminate them from playoff contention, it’s clear that some changes need to come within the organization. It’s not that the Seahawks lack talent, though they could certainly use some upgrades. Most concerning for Seattle is how it has imploded in second halves, resulting in blown leads and losses.
The defeat marked Carroll’s first season with 10 or more losses at any level since he coached the New York Jets in 1994. It will mark the worst season of the Russell Wilson-Carroll partnership in Seattle and will be just the second time they miss the playoffs. This will be Seattle’s first last-place finish in its division since 1996 — when the Seahawks were in the AFC West. Wilson was the focus of trade discussions over the offseason, but this team is stronger with him as its quarterback. Seattle would be better served in targeting an edge rusher or two, a tight end, a running back who factors into the passing game. Either way, Carroll will be 71 next September, so the window for him to run the franchise is almost certainly closing.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 16 winners, losers: Josh Allen lifts Bills, Chargers stumble