Week 15 of the 2021 NFL campaign provided a welcome gift exactly one week before Christmas: Saturday football! So, for the first time this season, I'm using this space to reflect on a wild weekend, as opposed to just a Sunday Funday.
Who were the joyous winners? The crestfallen losers? Let's break it down Schein Nine style, starting with Saturday night's statement-making squad ...
Indianapolis' 27-17 win over New England on Saturday night was gigantic, fantastic and thunderous. The Colts' defense was stifling, as Darius Leonard and Co. spooked Patriots rookie Mac Jones early. But obviously, the story was Jonathan Taylor. Again.
The second-year pro is a legit MVP candidate in a wide-open race. At 5-foot-10 and 226 pounds, Taylor is the ultimate blend of power and speed. There are so many nuggets to express his immense value to the Colts, but my favorite is quite simple: Indy is 8-0 when Taylor hits 100 yards rushing, 0-6 when he doesn't. Of course, the first three of those losses occurred in the first three weeks of the season. In the nine contests since, Taylor has averaged 122.5 rushing yards per game, scored 19 total touchdowns and carried the Colts to an 8-3 record. On Saturday night, he ran wild on Bill Belichick's defense, racking up 170 yards on 29 carries, including a 67-yard touchdown sprint late to seal the deal. That extended his streak of consecutive games with at least one TD run to 11, one short of the NFL record shared by Hall of Famers John Riggins and LaDainian Tomlinson.
The Colts are peaking at the right time, with five wins in their last six games -- and the only loss was a 38-31 barnburner to the defending champion Buccaneers. Indianapolis is squarely in the playoff picture and feels like a team that can make a run in January.
Speaking of MVP candidates ... If the season ended today, Aaron Rodgers would get my AP vote by a hair. His value and domination was the difference on a day when Green Bay's defense couldn't stop the Tyler Huntley and Mark Andrews show. In a 31-30 win at Baltimore, Rodgers threw three more touchdown passes against zero picks, giving him a sparkling 13:0 TD-to-INT ratio over the past four weeks. While the great Davante Adams scored another touchdown, Rodgers brilliantly spread the ball around on Sunday, with six Packers logging at least two receptions. Green Bay's defense was sloppy. The special teams were deplorable. And the Pack couldn't do much on the ground against the Ravens' top-ranked rush defense. But when you have Rodgers playing at this level, that's really all you need.
In a loaded NFC with five legit title contenders, the Packers hold the coveted No. 1 seed. And with No. 12 under center, I expect them to keep it, especially considering their draw over the final three weeks of the regular season: vs. Cleveland, vs. Minnesota, at Detroit. Sure looks like the NFC playoffs will go through Lambeau Field.
When Houston selected Davis Mills in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, I thought it was wasteful, especially considering it was the Texans' highest pick. Well, once again, I was wrong. General manager Nick Caserio deserves credit here. You can make the argument that Mills has been the second-best rookie quarterback this season, behind only Mac Jones. And on Sunday, he outplayed No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence in Houston's 30-16 win at Jacksonville.
Another guy who deserves some love? Someone I've actually always loved: Brandin Cooks. The criminally underrated wide receiver flies under the radar in Houston, but after a second consecutive 100-yard game, Cooks sits just 53 yards shy of a second straight 1,000-yard season for the Texans. On Sunday, he opened up the scoring with a 22-yard catch-and-run touchdown and then put the game away with a 43-yard screen-pass scamper to the end zone.
I liked everything about Cincy's 15-10 win in Denver, starting with ... well ... the result. Fresh off two straight losses, the Bengals needed a win. And they were the better team, despite hitting Mile High with the same 7-6 record as the home squad. No, this wasn't Joe Burrow's best game, but he came up big Cincy needed it most, responding to Denver's go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter with a 56-yard scoring strike to Tyler Boyd, giving the Bengals a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Meanwhile, the Bengals' defense flew around the field all afternoon, providing the kind of effort that, as my colleague Jeffri Chadiha wrote on Sunday night, could make Cincy a true AFC contender.
And now the stage is set for a gigantic AFC North showdown on Sunday between Cincinnati and Baltimore. The Bengals blew the Ravens off their own field back in Week 7, winning 41-17, and now the rematch comes to Paul Brown Stadium. I think Cincy wins the game and, eventually, the division.
I've been a harsh skeptic of these Steelers all year long -- and for the most part, the criticism has been merited. But I can't say enough about Pittsburgh's gutty 19-13 win over Tennessee on Sunday. More specifically, I can't say enough about Pittsburgh's opportunistic defense.
The Titans had 10 more first downs than the Steelers, easily winning the yardage battle, 318-168. But Pittsburgh won the all-important turnover battle 4-0. T.J. Watt continued his Defensive Player of the Year push with 1.5 sacks, bringing his season total to an NFL-high 17.5. Not too shabby, considering he's missed two games. And if the Steelers end up sneaking into the playoffs, we'll look back at Joe Haden's game-clinching tackle as a season-saver. Picture-perfect stuff from the veteran CB.
I've taken a number of (deserved) shots at the 2021 Steelers. But their guts and toughness were on display Sunday. Touché, Mike Tomlin.
Nobody will want to face San Francisco in the playoffs. I've been saying that for a while, and with each passing week, it feels more like fact than opinion.
The 49ers spanked the Falcons on Sunday, 31-13. It was San Francisco's fifth win in six games, and the Niners are simply imposing their will on teams. Deebo Samuel continues to amaze, scoring his seventh rushing touchdown of the season -- a new NFL record for a wide receiver. You do not want to try and tackle this beast in the open field -- just ask A.J. Terrell. Meanwhile, George Kittle is a man on a mission, catching all six of his targets on Sunday for 93 yards. Over the past three weeks alone, Kittle has 425 yards and three scores. And hey, how about Jeff Wilson Jr. joining the party on Sunday with 110 rushing yards? He'd entered the game with 139 ground yards on the season. DeMeco Ryans' defense did its job, too, holding Atlanta to just 275 total yards with Nick Bosa continuing a Comeback Player of the Year type of season with his 15th sack. You see any lasting effects from the ACL tear? Me neither.
The Niners didn't exactly start the season as a world-beater, but now they're rounding into form as a bully no one wants to see in a single-elimination tournament.
A blowout loss to ... Detroit??! Truly one of the most staggering results of the season. While I spent much of last week on radio and TV wondering aloud if the DeAndre Hopkins injury would make Arizona a one-and-done playoff team, I did NOT see this coming. Credit to Dan Campbell, who still has the Lions competing week in and week out. But man, what a horrible look for Kliff Kingsbury and Co. The Cardinals coach lamented his team getting outworked early and often.
"Obviously pissed to come out, play like that," Kingsbury said postgame. "That's not who we want to be or what we want to be. But I've got to tip my hat to Detroit. I thought they had a tremendous plan. They outcoached us and outplayed us. We got to be better."
Indeed, coach. That was shocking, unacceptable -- and extremely costly in the playoff picture. No time to dwell on the loss, either, as Arizona has games against the Colts and Cowboys on tap next. Could the Cardinals' two-game losing streak stretch out to four?
Count me among the folks who don't understand John Harbaugh's calculus.
Filling in for Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley played great, particularly in the fourth quarter, when he scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in the final five minutes of regulation. But then, with 42 seconds remaining and the Ravens trailing 31-30, Harbaugh elected to go for two instead of kicking the extra point and likely sending the game into overtime. The two-point attempt failed, the game ended and I was left at a loss.
Baltimore had all the momentum, with the home crowd feeding off the energy of a multi-score comeback. Send Justin Tucker out there, tie the game and bet on Huntley continuing to bedevil Green Bay's defense in the extra period. I just don't get it. Then again, I didn't get Baltimore's game plan from the opening drive, when the Ravens marched 70 yards before passing on a field goal attempt and coming away with zero points. When did it become taboo to kick a field goal? It cost Baltimore, just like it cost the Chargers on Thursday night. This trend is odd. It's wrong.
Rough weekend for Tom Brady's MVP hopes. Once again, Dennis Allen's Saints defense completely flummoxed the G.O.A.T. How completely? ZERO POINTS -- the first time Brady has been shut out since 2006. And this took place in Tampa, on the prime-time stage. Adding injury to insult, the quarterback lost his leading receiver for the season, as Chris Godwin suffered a torn ACL. Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette were also sidelined during the game with hamstring issues, but their injuries are less severe.
On the plus side, the Buccaneers' final three regular-season games are quite manageable: at Panthers, at Jets, vs. Panthers. Unfortunately, they're now one game behind the Packers in the race for the No. 1 seed. And as I mentioned above, Green Bay's closing stretch looks pretty appealing to Packer Backers.