Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 15 to Week 16.
Down 20-6 late in the first half against a Bengals team that treated the occasion like a playoff game, Pittsburgh came together to play 32 near-perfect minutes of complementary ball. The Steelers scored on five straight drives and held possession for 11:50 of the fourth quarter, keeping the ball away from Cincinnati like they were palming the noggin of their kid brother. The result: a typical Bengals playoff game, just three weeks early.
I'm going to stop including an asterisk for teams that rely on close, come-from-behind victories. Luck is a factor in winning tight games all the time, but this is just how professional football works in 2016. Entering Week 15, more games were decided by eight points or fewer than in any other season in NFL history. The teams with the best records in one-score games -- the Patriots, Giants, Raiders, Dolphins and Cowboys -- include three of the best teams in football. The most fourth-quarter comebacks have been authored by the Lions (8), Raiders (7), Cowboys (4) and Chiefs (4). Teams better be able to come from behind because that will be a requirement in January.
Consider how different the playoff picture would look following Week 15 if not for Sunday's fourth-quarter comebacks. The Titans would be on the edge of extinction; the Raiders would be out of the mix for a bye; the sky would be falling in Dallas; and Gus Bradley would still have a job. The Ravens and Packers also would be on life support if not for last-second heroics. All of these wild finishes serve as practice for the wild weeks ahead.
This is a season without any truly dominant teams, a season where nothing in the playoffs should surprise. If anything, the Steelers needed this Bengals game to prove they can pull it off. It was their first fourth-quarter comeback of the season and they likely will need a second one if they want to make it to Houston.
Narratives that were busted
1) So much for the Panthers being a dead team walking after potentially losing Luke Kuechly for the season. Monday night's destruction of the Redskins could have been so much worse for Washington than the 26-15 final score. While the decision to let Josh Norman go this season was a mistake, general manager Dave Gettleman did well with his second-round draft pick of cornerback James Bradberry. He's a keeper. The Panthers carried their late 2014 surge over into the 2015 season. Perhaps they can do it again. With Atlanta and Tampa Bay up next, the Panthers will help decide the NFC South. They look like a tougher out after two consecutive convincing wins.
Montgomery gets better every week. The converted running back has rare vision, waiting for holes to open to finish runs like a veteran. He's gone from a nice story to a legitimate difference-maker, just in time for the stretch run. Eddie Lacy, a free agent after the season, might not get his job back.
3) The notion that Bill O'Brien had to ride or die with Brock Osweiler until the bitter end never made sense. Tom Savage was O'Brien's hand-picked draft prospect and has been in O'Brien's system for three seasons. Perhaps there's a scenario where Osweiler improves with another offseason under his belt, but he clearly wasn't improving this season. That's why O'Brien's decision to roll with Savage moving forward was the only one he could make.
There's no telling whether Savage can continue to spark the Texans over the next few weeks, but O'Brien owes it to the rest of his organization to find out if he's real. If anything, we'd argue O'Brien wasted too many weeks to make the switch.
4) Perhaps the Cowboys can find a pass rush after all. One week after Tyrone Crawford and Benson Mayowa made noise against the Giants, David Irving played like a young Julius Peppersagainst Tampa Bay. Dak Prescott shutting down the Tony Romo chatter was massive Sunday night, but so was the performance by the Cowboys' defense. It stopped the Bucs five times in the fourth quarter alone, giving up only 10 yards (!) on five drives, while picking off Jameis Winston twice.
5) One week after dropping nearly 500 yards on the Ravens, the Patriots proved they can win defensive struggles, too. One of the best beat writers in the country, ESPN's Mike Reiss, called it the "most complete win of the season" for the Patriots. The pride that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick took in winning in Denver was obvious because they played error-free, complementary football. They have both been around long enough to know they can't just win shootouts on the way to a title, especially without Rob Gronkowski.
New England's running game and defense are huge parts of the team's 12-2 record and have improved down the stretch. Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Kyle Van Noy and Malcolm Butler represent the next generation of Patriots defenders filling in the gaps following the losses of Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. A favorable schedule has played a huge role, but New England now ranks first in scoring defense.
Owner Shad Khan wrote that general manager Dave Caldwell will be charged with "exploring all options to hire the best head coach possible to lead what I feel is an extremely talented team and reward a very loyal and patient fan base in Jacksonville."
The part about the fan base is on point. Retaining Caldwell is a bid for continuity and a show of conviction in the general manager's vision despite poor results. The part about an "extremely talented team" could be part of the problem.
Self-scouting, an honest accounting of a roster, is critical in the NFL. The Jaguars, like much of the media (myself included), were convinced this Jacksonville team was emerging for much of the Bradley/Caldwell era. The reality: No NFL team has won fewer games since 2013. Tangible progress is hard to see when the high point of the era was a five-win season last year. Failing to win six games for six straight seasons, a run that predates Khan, is hard to accomplish in a league built for parity. The Jaguars don't have a starting quarterback and they probably won't have a Pro Bowler when the team is announced Tuesday. Their best candidate is ... linebacker Telvin Smith?
Of course there are promising young players like the team's talented receiver trio, shockingly led this season by Marqise Lee. The defense can look forward to a future with Smith, rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey, free-agent pickup Malik Jackson and safety Johnathan Cyprien. But you can find players to be optimistic about on nearly any downtrodden team. The Jaguars lack depth or an offensive line. Their defensive players might not fit the next coach's system.
It sometimes feels as if the Jags are better at convincing the media they have promising talent rather than actually building a talented roster. Putting this 2-12 mess all on Bradley isn't fair.
Storylines that deserve more attention
1) He didn't get as much money as Olivier Vernon or the headlines of Janoris Jenkins, but Damon "Snacks" Harrison is a huge part of Big Blue's defensive dominance lately. He's the biggest reason the team has improved from No. 24 in yards-per-carry allowed to No. 3 this season. Stealing him from the Jets was money well spent.
2)Marcus Mariota deserves a ton of credit for a classic fourth-quarter performance in Kansas City that included three scoring drives. But the Titans wouldn't have been in the game if not for their defense's ability to shut out the Chiefs in the second half and minimize the damage of Tennessee's early turnovers. This has hardly been a shutdown unit, but it boasts strong individual performances this season by Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey. The Titans finish the season with Jacksonville and Houston, two limited offenses that Tennessee should be able to handle. Vive le Dick LeBeau!
3) The Broncos' offense has scored one touchdown in its last 10 quarters, a crazy development for a Gary Kubiak-led group. No wonder the team's still-excellent defense is starting to get frustrated. The Broncos need to win in Kansas City on Christmas or we'll have the first playoff field since 2003 without either of the previous season's Super Bowl teams.
4)Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has the ability to be a Defensive Player of the Year at some point. When he gets on a roll, like he has over the last five weeks, he can dominate a game like few others. His best is better than almost any other linebacker's best, with Luke Kuechly being a notable exception.
7) The Raiders have to be concerned with their sluggish offense of late, especially with Denver looming in Week 17. They have experienced two of their four lowest-scoring games in successive weeks against division opponents, including a banged-up Chargers crew. Don't hand the division title and a playoff bye to them just yet.
8) The doomsday scenario for Detroit won't be overlooked locally, but the rest of the country might not realize how close the Lions are to falling from 9-4 to out of the playoffs. The Lions figure to be underdogs in their next two games against the Cowboys and Packers. If they lose both, Jim Caldwell's crew probably will be boxed out of a playoff berth. That Packers-Lions Week 17 game smells like the most obvious candidate to be NBC's "Sunday Night Football" regular-season finale.