5 Things I care about
Cowboys prove they’re as dangerous as anyone
The Cowboys came into Week 16 with a defense that ranked No. 1 in EPA per play allowed and an offense that kept having the word “slump” attached to it.
They’ll leave Week 16 with only one of those.
If you told an uninformed viewer that one of the quarterbacks playing tonight had a 5:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last month, they’d have never guessed it was Dak Prescott. From the opening whistle to the moment he left the game in the third quarter it was clear Prescott was white-hot. He finished the game with four scores and distributed the ball evenly with elite precision to all of his pass-catchers.
Prescott is way out of MVP contention at this point but this was the type of signature performance MVP hopefuls only dream of.
Dallas came into this game with the NFC East already in hand — thanks to a Broncos loss, oddly enough. So a win was merely another feather in their cap, not a factor in winning the division.
Getting a flawless game from Prescott is more valuable than any sort of improved playoff seeding.
The Cowboys’ defense emerging as one of the biggest difference-making units in the entire NFL has been a huge development for the team. And let’s be clear: That unit’s dominance was on full display in Week 16, as well. One of the reasons it was so great to see the defense rise up was that you knew that no matter whatever you want to call it — slump, dry spell, hiccup — that Prescott and the offense were dealing with was merely temporary.
Great quarterbacks and units littered with star players don’t just disappear out of nowhere. Even if there are those dry spells, once a few players get healthy and a couple of kinks get ironed out, those funks end quickly. They are not forever. Prescott and Dallas’ slump is now over and that makes this group paired with a high-flying defense as dangerous as anyone in the NFC.
The Chiefs are back (again)
Okay, for really real this time: The Kansas City Chiefs are absolutely right back to where they were expected to be heading into this season.
The Chiefs defense was fourth in EPA per play allowed heading into Week 16 and absolutely smothered Pittsburgh in this win. This unit has clicked and now, the offense is playing at the height of its powers.
Patrick Mahomes rang up the Steelers for a 135.1 passer rating as an encore to the Chiefs’ Thursday Night Football show from Week 15. Of course, he did this without the help of Travis Kelce, who didn’t make it off the COVID list for Week 16. Instead, Mahomes was flinging gorgeous, vintage-style passes to players like Byron Pringle against Pittsburgh.
All of the worries about this team are nothing but ancient history when Mahomes is playing like this.
The one bad headline for this Chiefs team coming out of Week 16 is Clyde Edwards-Helaire suffering a collarbone injury. However, Darrel Williams has filled in before and should be more than adequate when called upon next week. Williams totaled 85 yards on 14 touches. He will be one of many strange backup running backs on fantasy championship rosters over the next week or so.
Jimmy Graham’s touchdown
I know I’m getting old because every time I see the Bears No. 80 I think to myself, “Kids today will never know how good Jimmy Graham was at football.”
Graham has become a punch line at worst and a pain in the side of anyone trying to stream Cole Kmet at best. The latter was perfectly encapsulated at the end of this game when Kmet, still searching for his first 2021 touchdown, missed a score by a few inches only to see the ball go right to Jimmy Graham in the end zone moments later.
We should remember that Graham was once the thing in fantasy football. He’s lived the full life cycle. He’s gone from the out-of-nowhere super sleeper loved by everyone who was the quintessential “smartest drafter in the room” prior to his breakout season all the way to being what he is now.
The Seahawks had a 95.8 percent win probability (per Yahoo Sports) with 2:46 left in the game. Something about Graham, a former Seahawk, recording the touchdown to steal that win felt right … even if it’s just for the sake of my nostalgia.
The Bengals need to always play this way
It’s obvious that any team can shred Baltimore’s makeshift secondary right now. Cincinnati’s neutral pass rate had fallen so drastically since the team’s bye week that it was worth wondering if they’d exploit the obvious.
Well, they did that … and more.
Joe Burrow uncorked 46 passes for 525 yards (compared to just 19 running back carries), thrashing a defense full of backups. There’s just so much dynamism in this aerial attack it’s hard to fathom why the Bengals would ever be anything but pass-first.
Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins absorbed 23 targets and both cleared 100 yards. Higgins, Tyler Boyd and even running back Joe Mixon collected a catch of 50-plus yards. It was a full-on showcase of the special young talent Cincinnati boasts on offense. It must have been even sweeter to do it in their second win over the rival Ravens, even in their compromised state.
The numbers won’t look like this often but massive performances are always on the table when Cincinnati plays aggressively. The Bengals have now swept the Steelers and Ravens to announce the dawn of a new era in the AFC North.
The more the team leans into this identity, the better this era can become.
Amon-Ra St. Brown does it again
You can’t beat yourself up over not playing Amon-Ra St. Brown because Jared Goff was on the COVID list. We were dealing with Tim Boyle, after all.
Nevertheless, it was good to see the rookie clear 90 yards and score once again on 11 targets.
St. Brown looks fantastic and continues to garner volume. He’s been a huge hit for the Lions as a fourth-round pick. His dynasty outlook is fascinating to consider. On the one hand, he’s earned this role promotion and it happened post-bye, which is normal for rookies. On the other, many of his big games have now come with D’Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson out or compromised. And it’s a lock that the Lions add to their wide receiver room this offseason.
You don’t want to be betting against a rookie soaring late in his first season, especially when he's playing legitimately well on film. But this environment is going to need to get a lot better in the offseason to support St. Brown and other players. For now, we can certainly say he’s arrived.
5 Things I don’t care about
The rest of 2021 for Washington
The Washington Football Team got embarrassed on national television.
Going down 42-7 in the first half is just wildly humiliating. It never, not for one single moment, felt like Washington was in this game. Frankly, it didn’t appear like these two teams were in the same league from the jump. It was just another reminder of just how badly Washington needs this season to end.
Washington has had its moments of flair in 2021. Taylor Heinicke has had fun episodes and young stars like Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin have at least enjoyed stretches of the season where they reminded you of their potential. But this team is so off the course it meant to ride this year that all of this feels fruitless. Between injuries and a recent COVID rash, it’s past time for them to admit this season is done.
Dallas stamping out their division rival in such dramatic fashion was a fitting end to a 2021 Washington team that’s hung around for a while but has been doomed for some time. This team has some solid young talent but it just never clicked all at once this year.
Week 13 Bills vs. Patriots
Despite missing two of his top three receivers, Josh Allen still went up and down the field against the Patriots’ defense without too many snags.
It’s amazing what can happen in a game that isn’t held in a wind storm.
It felt like we all agreed not to draw massive conclusions from the first matchup between the Bills and Patriots when the footage of the massive winds hit our screens. And yet, as the media cycle must turn, there were plenty of grand findings offered up after the final whistle and beyond.
Perhaps these are just my priors showing as I’m generally a believer in this Bills team but the Week 16 results feel closer to the real story. Allen is the type of quarterback who can take a game over. With 300-plus yards through the air and 64 yards on the ground to go along with three scores, that’s what he did on Sunday.
The Patriots are a very good team who deserve all the flowers they’ve been given but there’s been far too much concern about the Bills of late. They have a quarterback who can ring up any team, even the best of them, on his best days. That makes them dangerous as they currently sit in the No. 1 spot in the AFC East.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s touchdown
Given that it is Ronald Jones … it was worth wondering how all the enthusiasm about Ronald Jones as a fill-in for Leonard Fournette would go wrong. When Ke’Shawn Vaughn ripped off a 55-yard touchdown in the first quarter, it looked like the script was already coming undone.
The Vaughn play was fun, especially for those still desperately clinging onto the enthusiasm they held for the player when he was over-drafted in dynasty leagues last year, but it did not prove to be a serious threat to Jones.
Jones carried the ball 20 times against the Panthers and totaled 65 yards with one touchdown. He even chipped in with two catches on three targets despite all his shortcomings in the passing game. Even if Vaughn takes some passing-down work — he recorded no catches in this game — Jones will still catch some dump-offs.
Jones will go down as an RB1 on the week. Don’t lose sight of the prize here. He'll have an even better outlook against the Jets next week.
Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson projections
Neither the first nor second overall pick has performed up to expectations this year. The two faced off in Week 16 and Zach Wilson emerged victoriously.
I’m not sure that matters one bit in terms of projecting them going forward.
Wilson took a 52-yard run to the house where he embarrassed just about everyone on the Jaguars’ defense. It was seriously one of the most humiliating touchdowns allowed by a defense ever. That was one of the highlights of the day for Wilson but he still didn’t make much noise through the air.
Neither did Trevor Lawrence.
Jets fans can have their fun over Jaguars fans this week but they have a long way to go in creating an ecosystem where Wilson can thrive. Just as the Jaguars have an awful lot of work to do to get things going around Lawrence.
COVID excuses for Chargers
Yes, the Chargers were missing crucial players like Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler and Joey Bosa because of COVID.
News flash: Just about everyone is missing crucial players because of COVID protocols …including the Houston Texans, who took LA to school on Sunday.
At one point, this game was close with Houston holding a 17-12 lead. Then Houston pulled away with three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
The Chargers just can’t lose this game, not when you’re in the thick of a playoff race. It’s about as bad a slip as you can endure. Brandon Staley did elect to kick two field goals around the turn between the first and second quarter. You wonder if that was a direct strategy shift from Staley, as a result of taking so much heat after going for it so often and losing to the Chiefs last week. Or maybe it was a bit of overconfidence because they were playing the Texans. Or maybe it was both.
Whatever the case, it’s not the reason he lost but it does make you wonder — and you know it will be discussed.