Week 15 provided a reminder that everything in the NFL exists in a temporal state. The Green Bay Packers were a rebuilding mess, became a resurgent playoff contender and then morphed into a disappointment. The Buffalo Bills were a waste of talent until they beat the defending champions and destroyed the hottest team in the NFL. Don’t like what’s happening now? Just wait till next week. Here is what to know.
When the Bills are good, they’re great. They are talented enough to win the Super Bowl, as evidenced by the 31-10 shellacking they delivered to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, one week after they outmuscled the Kansas City Chiefs. James Cook is becoming a weapon out of the backfield, Buffalo’s defense is coalescing after early-season injuries, and Josh Allen remains the closest thing the NFL has to a superhero playing quarterback, even though he only needed to throw for 94 yards Sunday.
Now the Bills just have to make the playoffs. The early turbulence of their season leaves them at 8-6, still outside the playoff picture because of tiebreakers. Nothing sums up their roller coaster of a season better than this: They have lost to Zach Wilson and Mac Jones and beaten Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott.
The Bills’ 3-6 record in one-score games has made their season frustrating and cemented concerns about Coach Sean McDermott’s bedside manner in the clutch. But they are also one of two teams, along with the Baltimore Ravens, that has not lost a game by more than one possession. Their plus-125 point differential ranks fifth in the NFL. The Bills are a powerhouse cloaked by the record of a fringe playoff contender.
They’re also adding to what they can do. Cook, a second-round pick last year, has started to provide what the Bills expected he would. He ran 25 times for 179 yards and a touchdown added two catches for 42 yards and another score. With Cook easing Allen’s burden, the Bills are scary on offense.
Buffalo faces the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots over the next two weeks before finishing with the Dolphins. Miami must play the Cowboys and Ravens before that Week 18 showdown. The path for the Bills to win the AFC East is there.
There’s magic left in Joe Flacco’s right arm. The 38-year-old quarterback spent most of autumn tossing passes to his kids on his lawn, hoping an NFL team would call. He had not been a starting quarterback for a full season since 2017. It is now a near-certainty that he will start a playoff game after he led the Browns to a 20-17 comeback victory over the frisky Bears, which Cleveland secured only after a Hail Mary slipped out of Chicago wideout Darnell Mooney’s hands as he lay on his back in the end zone.
Flacco’s sudden and improbable renaissance reached new heights Sunday. He overcame three interceptions, passed for 374 yards and led the Browns back from a 10-point deficit. He has recaptured the gun-slinging, rocket-armed style that propelled him to a Super Bowl MVP at his peak in Baltimore. Flacco thrives on play-action and deep passes, which makes him a perfect fit for Coach Kevin Stefanski’s system and an ideal complement to the Browns’ ferocious defense.
The Browns lost Deshaun Watson to a season-ending shoulder injury and cycled through two other quarterbacks before signing Flacco. At 9-5, with games left against the New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans, they’re a safe bet to claim a wild-card spot.
Flacco has thrived in part by unlocking tight end David Njoku, a 2017 first-round pick who had never tapped into his potential the way he has while catching passes from Flacco. Njoku has surpassed 90 receiving yards each of the past two weeks, which he had done only once before in his seven-year career. He caught 10 passes on a whopping 14 targets for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Bears, including a 34-yard reception on third and 15 that set up Cleveland’s game-winning field goal.
The NFC playoff picture is fuzzy but about to get clearer. The Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have streaked into playoff position at 7-7. A key game Thursday night — the New Orleans Saints (also 7-7) at the Rams — could provide clarity in the NFC wild-card race and the NFC South. The Rams have won four of five after their 28-20 victory over Washington, leaning on running back Kyren Williams and Matthew Stafford’s quarterbacking artistry.
The Bucs, who host Jacksonville next week, have won three in a row, including a 34-20 drubbing of the Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field that knocked Green Bay (6-8) out of playoff position. The Bucs hold the tiebreaker over the Saints in the South, but the next two weeks will determine their season. After they play the Jaguars, the Bucs host the Saints in Week 17.
The Vikings hold a wild-card spot at 7-7, ahead of the Saints and Rams based on tiebreakers. They have to play the Lions twice and the Packers in the final three weeks, but if they can navigate their schedule, they will benefit from other NFC contenders handing one another losses.
The Dolphins can win without Tyreek Hill after all. Around noon Sunday, the Dolphins did not figure to be one of the most emphatic winners of the week. They were still swallowing their Monday night collapse against the Titans. They made Hill inactive after a pregame workout in which he tested the ankle he had injured during that loss. Hill’s intermittent absence rendered Miami’s offense impotent Monday, and Miami’s opponent Sunday, the Jets, boast one of the best pass defenses in the NFL.
Beating a 5-9 team going nowhere is no meaningful feat, but the Dolphins’ 30-0 victory was still an encouraging performance. The Dolphins’ defense led the way by swamping Zach Wilson, who left late in the second quarter with a head injury and was replaced by the equally overmatched Trevor Siemian. The Jets did not cross midfield until late in the third quarter. But Tua Tagovailoa showed he could operate without Hill. Jaylen Waddle replaced Hill’s explosiveness, catching eight passes for 142 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown.
The Dolphins needed the victory on two fronts. It allowed them to keep pace with Baltimore for the top seed, and it maintained a two-game gap between them and the Bills, whom they host in Week 18, for first place in the AFC East.
Sam LaPorta is already a cornerstone for the Lions. Tight ends traditionally blossom in their second or third seasons because their role requires more multifaceted demands than most other positions. LaPorta, though, arrived in Detroit ready-made as one of the best tight ends in the NFL. He caught three of Jared Goff’s five touchdown passes in the Lions’ stabilizing, 42-17 victory Saturday over the Denver Broncos, another milestone in a remarkable rookie season.
Among tight ends, only Travis Kelce, T.J. Hockenson and George Kittle have more receiving yards than LaPorta’s 758, and none have more than his nine touchdown catches. Only five tight ends have ever gained more receiving yards as a rookie. LaPorta has a real chance to break Mike Ditka’s rookie record for receiving yards as a tight end of 1,076, which has stood since 1961.
It has been a banner year for young tight ends. Arizona’s Trey McBride has emerged as one of the league’s best in his second season, Dalton Kincaid is a contributor to Buffalo’s passing game as a rookie, and the Packers have leaned on rookies Tucker Kraft and Luke Musgrave. But none compare to LaPorta. He’s a strong blocker, seemingly always gets open and runs like a log truck rolling down a mountain without brakes. There weren’t many better draft picks than the Lions’ selection of LaPorta early in the second round, at No. 34.
Atlanta may soon have the opportunity to underuse yet another skill player drafted in the top 10. The Falcons suffered one of the most damaging and embarrassing losses of the season, a 9-7 defeat that gave the Carolina Panthers their second victory and damaged the Falcons’ playoff chances.
Atlanta came into Sunday tied with the Saints and Buccaneers atop the NFC South at 6-7, and they lost pace with a dismal showing in a driving rainstorm in Charlotte. As the Saints and Bucs won, the Falcons didn’t score in the second half and yielded a 17-play, 90-yard drive over the final 7:35 that ended with a game-winning field goal. The Falcons are 2-5 in their past seven games, with losses to two-win Carolina and three-win Arizona.
The Falcons’ swoon calls into question Coach Arthur Smith’s future. He is regarded as a bright offensive mind and play caller, and he inherited a franchise transitioning away from an iconic quarterback, Matt Ryan. But Smith is 20-28 and in danger of missing the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. He was not given an easy task, but coaches with that kind of record don’t escape scrutiny.
Sunday provided a microcosm of Smith’s failure to get the most out of tight end Kyle Pitts, wideout Drake London and running back Bijan Robinson, whom the Falcons drafted fourth, eighth and eighth over the past three years. The weather stifled offense Sunday, but Pitts, London and Robinson combined for 75 yards on 13 touches.
DeMeco Ryans should be the coach of the year favorite. Dan Campbell, Zac Taylor and Kevin O’Connell warrant strong consideration. But no coach has done better work this year than Ryans, the rookie who has the Texans — winners of 11 games the past three years combined — in the playoff hunt even after a demoralizing loss last week and a barrage of injuries, including the absence of quarterback C.J. Stroud, this week.
The Texans had already won a game in which an injury forced them to use a running back at kicker. Now they’ve won one with Case Keenum at quarterback. They outlasted the Titans, 19-16, in overtime when Ka’imi Fairbairn blasted a 54-yard field goal as time expired.
The Texans fell behind 13-0 after Keenum threw a pick-six early in the second quarter. Playing without top wideouts Nico Collins and Tank Dell, Houston leaned on Ryans’s defense, chipped away on offense and stole a victory to get to 8-6. Given how tightly packed the standings are and a finishing schedule composed of Cleveland, Tennessee and Indianapolis, the Texans still could miss the playoffs. But they know they have a resourceful, galvanizing coach for years to come. Ryans turned around a rudderless franchise, withstood adversity and kept winning.