Houston Texans: The great tank
For the record: I will never insinuate that an NFL team, especially the players, is actively tanking and trying to lose football games to get a better position in the upcoming draft. Most players won’t care about the draft position of their franchise. They are ambitious, and they play the game for the next contract. There’s no point for players to try to play poorly or worse on purpose so their team can pick a college player two spots higher five months afterward.
But there’s a case to be made that coaches and organizations might care more about the draft spot in the upcoming draft than winning a meaningless game in December. In Week 18 of the 2020 season, then-Philly coach Doug Pederson swapped quarterback Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld while trailing late in a one-score contest against Washington. The Eagles had nothing to do with the playoffs, whereas the Commanders were playing for the division title. There was no reason to swap in Nate Sudfeld if Pederson (and probably the organization) cared about winning the game. Sudfeld was the worse option over Hurts, and the Eagles lost the game. The Eagles made ground in the draft, got the sixth overall pick, and flipped it for another first-round pick and DeVonta Smith. It worked out well.
On Sunday, the Texans were up 23-20 against the Cowboys as 17-point underdogs and had a second-and-goal at the Dallas 5-yard line. With a touchdown, the Texans would have very likely won the game and got their second win of the season, inching closer toward Denver and Chicago in the draft order. Jeff Driskel threw short to Chris Moore, who stretched himself and tried to reach the goal line. The broadcast only showed one angle, and it looked like Moore could have had a touchdown. But the refs called him short. Texans head coach Lovie Smith did not throw a challenge flag. He had nothing to lose – throw a challenge flag to get the chance to win the game and reward your wide receiver for the great effort. If the call stands, so be it. But he did not. The Texans turned the ball over on fourth-and-goal (going for it was the right decision), and the Cowboys won the game. I got some hard Eagles 2020 vibes. There’s still a decent chance that Lovie Smith is just out of his mind. But that situation was mind-boggling.
Is the Roar finally Restored?
The Detroit Lions are winners of five of their last six matchups. They are one game behind a wild card spot in the NFC. The Commanders and Giants hold a wild card berth, but the Lions have the head-to-head tiebreaker over both teams. Detroit could jump into a wildcard spot as early as this week.
Since Week 9, when they started their 5-1 run, the Lions rank fourth in EPA/play and sixth in success rate offensively. Their defense is progressing because they don’t force the offense into shootouts.
This might not even be a hot take, but the Detroit Lions are the fourth-best team in the NFC right now. The Eagles, Cowboys, and 49ers are playing in a different ballpark, but Detroit comes next. Dan Campbell and his boys closed as -2/-2.5 favorites at home against the 10-2 Minnesota Vikings and beat them 34-23. To be fair, the Vikings had a turnover at the goal line, and the Lions converted a fourth-and-7 in their half via a fake punt. However, Detroit moved the ball at will, and they were not fortunate to beat the Vikes. They are a better team than the Giants, Commanders, and Seahawks. And no one could make a good case as to why the Bucs should be favored over Detroit on a neutral field.
The Lions are the fourth-best team in the NFC. They are fun to watch. Every football fan deserves to watch them in the playoffs. Their path is Jets, Panthers, Bears, Packers. Three road games, and at home against the Bears. Depending on how the market swings this week, they could be favorites in all four games.
The upcoming matchup with the Jets is fascinating. Detroit is coming off three straight home games and will now play on the road in – maybe – sloppy conditions where Jared Goff has not fared extremely well historically. His home/road splits this season are also drastic. During their 5-1 stretch, they’ve also played five defenses that rank 18th or worse in DVOA. Only the Bills were a top-five defense. The Jets defense is in the same neighborhood.
The Bengals are heating up
Neither was it a blowout nor will you find highlight reels of the most recent Browns/Bengals matchup. But it was a demonstration by the Bengals. On the one side, their defense held the Browns – with Deshaun Watson, a good offensive line, and David Njoku back – to only 10 points. Trey Hendrickson, their best pass rusher, played through the fourth quarter with a broken wrist.
Joe Burrow had to play without three of his top-four pass-catching options on the other side of the ball. Hayden Hurst was out, and Tee Higgins (hamstring) didn’t play due to a coaching decision. And Tyler Boyd got injured early in the game. Guys like Trenton Irwin and Trent Taylor combined for 92 receiving yards. Ja’Marr Chase got force-fed with 15 targets. The Browns defense still couldn’t find too many answers. The Bengals averaged 0.17 EPA/play and a success rate of 46 percent on early downs. Cincinnati only struggled on third downs, going 6-for-15. The final score also included an interception by Joe Burrow at the CLE 24-yard line.
Since their 17-19 loss at Baltimore in week five, the Bengals went 7-1. That includes four matchups without Ja’Marr Chase. Since week six, they rank fourth in EPA/rush and second in rushing success rate. When Joe Burrow drops back to pass, the Bengals offense ranks third in EPA/play and first in success rate. Remember—four games without Chase and one game without Higgins, Boyd, and Hurst. The Bengals are heating up and becoming very dangerous going into the playoffs.
AFC South race: Still undecided
The Jaguars beat the Titans convincingly, 36-22. Tennessee is quietly falling apart, dropping their last three games while dealing with some critical injuries. The Titans are 7-5 and will face the Chargers, Texans, Cowboys, and Jaguars again in Week 18. The Jags are 5-7 and will face the Cowboys, Jets, and Texans. Let’s take a win against the Texans for granted. The other two games for both teams will decide whether we’ll get a clash for the division crown and a playoff home game in Week 18. The Jaguars need to win one more game than the Titans over the next three weeks, and they will control their fate.