NFL Week 15: Biggest Takeaways as 2022 Playoff Push Intensifies

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonContributor IDecember 19, 2022

NFL Week 15: Biggest Takeaways as 2022 Playoff Push Intensifies

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    Doug Pederson (left) and Trevor Lawrence (right)
    Doug Pederson (left) and Trevor Lawrence (right)AP Photo/John Raoux

    In Week 15, the NFL kicked off action Saturday with a tripleheader, and fans who watched those games saw a historic finish, a hard-nosed defensive battle and two high-scoring rivals going head-to-head down the wire.

    The Minnesota Vikings stole the show in the opening game on Saturday. While they have a lot to celebrate, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan may have felt a familiar feeling in the pit of his stomach as his team lost a 33-point lead.

    At 11-3, two teams have separated from the pack in the AFC. Ironically, one of those squads has clinched a division title while struggling through the previous two weeks, and the other club looks more like a Super Bowl contender, though it needs to wait for a guaranteed home playoff game. We'll break down both teams.

    In the AFC South, a two-team race for the division title took a turn that's worth your attention in the next three weeks. An upstart club on a hot streak could overtake a perennial playoff contender.

    We'll dig into the biggest takeaways from this weekend's games with a focus on the playoff picture. Who's hot? Which teams are starting to fade down the stretch?

Sloppy Buccaneers Keep Their NFC South Rivals Alive in Playoff Race

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    Tom Brady
    Tom BradyAP Photo/Mark LoMoglio

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could've taken a two-game lead in the NFC South with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, but they collapsed in a turnover-ridden second half and lost 34-23.

    The Buccaneers had a 17-0 lead in the first half, but the Bengals scored 34 unanswered points. Between the third and fourth quarters, Tampa Bay turned the ball over on downs and then committed four consecutive turnovers. The Bengals followed those drives with a field goal, three touchdowns and a punt, capitalizing on the Buccaneers' miscues.

    Tom Brady, who's known for his clutch play, lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions in this game. In addition to the giveaways, the Buccaneers committed seven penalties, which cost them 58 yards.

    Tampa Bay's inability to pull away in the NFC South keeps the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, who are all 5-9, alive for the division title.

    In their last three contests, the Buccaneers will play the Arizona Cardinals, who had third-string quarterback Trace McSorley on the field in place of Colt McCoy (concussion) on Sunday, the Panthers and Falcons.

    Tampa Bay will likely see rookie third-round quarterback Desmond Ridder in its Week 18 matchup with Atlanta, though Carolina poses a significant threat. The Panthers beat the Buccaneers 21-3 in Week 7.

Raiders Defense Makes Statement in Chaotic Walk-Off Win

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    Chandler Jones
    Chandler JonesAP Photo/John Locher

    The Las Vegas Raiders had a few extra days to get over a heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14 and responded with a complete team victory, topping the New England Patriots 30-24.

    Though the Raiders nearly blew another double-digit lead, they battled back thanks to Derek Carr's 30-yard touchdown pass to wideout Keelan Cole and Chandler Jones' 48-yard fumble return on the final play of the game.

    The Patriots tried lateraling to advance the ball for a game-winning score as time expired, but Jones cut off Jakobi Meyers' throw to quarterback Mac Jones, stiff-armed him and scored a touchdown.

    Overall, the Raiders' 24th-ranked defense had a solid outing, allowing just one touchdown and then sealing the victory. Carr, whose future with the team may be in question according to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, had a pick-six, but he also threw three touchdown passes.

    In the days leading up to this game, Vegas activated wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller from injured reserve. The latter caught three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.

    With Waller and Renfrow back in the fold, the Raiders could finish on a strong note. In Week 16, the Silver and Black will go on the road to face the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) in the Christmas Eve prime-time matchup. The loser of that game can certainly put the kibosh on thoughts of sneaking into the backdoor of the postseason.

Time For Titans to Hit Panic Button Following Fourth Consecutive Loss

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    Derrick Henry
    Derrick HenryHarry How/Getty Images

    The Tennessee Titans continued to falter on their post-Thanksgiving skid, dropping their fourth straight game in a 17-14 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

    What is most alarming for the Titans is that running back Derrick Henry has recorded at least 104 rushing yards and score in their last two games, which means Tennessee cannot simply ride him to a triple-digit performance on the ground and a victory.

    In Weeks 13 and 14, the Titans surrendered 71 combined points. Even though they only gave up 17 points on Sunday, their defense allowed the Chargers to advance the ball into field-goal range within 44 seconds, which allowed Cameron Dicker to put Los Angeles ahead with four seconds left in regulation.

    In Week 16, Tennessee's defense won't face a tough challenge at home with the Houston Texans' 31st-ranked scoring offense. However, the Texans almost upset the Dallas Cowboys (10-4) and Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) in the past two weeks.

    In their final two contests, the Titans may have to match touchdown drives with the Cowboys' third-ranked scoring offense and the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-8), who beat them 36-22 in Week 14.

    Tennessee should look over its shoulder at Jacksonville in an intriguing AFC South division race.

Falcons' NFC South Title Hopes Fade as Quarterback Questions Come to the Forefront

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    Desmond Ridder
    Desmond RidderChris Graythen/Getty Images

    On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons dropped their third consecutive game, losing 21-18 to the New Orleans Saints. Desmond Ridder had an uninspiring regular-season debut, completing 13 out of 26 passes for 97 yards. He took four sacks.

    The Falcons relied primarily on the run game, with Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson rushing for 191 yards and two touchdowns combined. Ridder added 38 yards on the ground as well.

    At 5-9, the Falcons can still win the NFC South, but they have an uphill climb from the bottom of the division. They've also lost their season series with the Saints.

    Going forward, head coach Arthur Smith should focus on where Ridder fits in the team's future since quarterback Marcus Mariota is on injured reserve (knee) with an expiring contract.

    Atlanta picked the first-year passer in the third round of the 2022 draft, which doesn't ensure him a shot to start next year. The Falcons went into Week 15 with the eighth overall pick in the 2023 draft (h/t Tankathon).

    Unless Ridder leads a strong finish for the Falcons, general manager Terry Fontenot will likely dig deep into his draft notes on the incoming quarterback class over the next several months. Even if the rookie signal-caller shows flashes, Atlanta would be wise to consider a top prospect at the position on Day 1 of the 2023 draft.

Jaguars Upset Cowboys, Keep Pressure on Titans in AFC South Title Race

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    Trevor Lawrence
    Trevor LawrenceMike Carlson/Getty Images

    Aside from the Minnesota Vikings' 33-point comeback over the Indianapolis Colts, the Jacksonville Jaguars delivered arguably the biggest stunner of the weekend, beating the Dallas Cowboys 40-34 in overtime.

    The Cowboys blew a 17-point third-quarter lead after Brett Maher kicked a 53-yard field goal that elevated them to a 27-10 advantage with 5:21 left in that frame. Thereafter, the Jaguars went on a 30-7 run.

    Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw three touchdown passes in the second half. Though he lost a fumble late in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville forced Dallas to go three-and-out and then drove down the field to kick a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation.

    After a drive that resulted in a punt, Jacksonville won a walk-off pick-six. Safety Rayshawn Jenkins sealed the deal for the Jaguars, who have won three of their last four games.

    At 6-8, the Jaguars can surpass the Tennessee Titans (7-7), who have lost four consecutive contests. Remember, Jacksonville and Tennessee will play in the season finale, so the Titans have little cushion in their slight lead over the Jaguars in the division.

    In the next two weeks, Jacksonville will play the New York Jets, who have lost three consecutive contests, and the Houston Texans (1-12-1), who have the league's worst record. Meanwhile, the Titans will get the Texans as well, but they also face the Cowboys on a short week before their Week 18 meeting with the Jaguars.

Chiefs Look Unimpressive While Clinching AFC West Title

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    Patrick Mahomes
    Patrick MahomesAP Photo/David J. Phillip

    On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs clinched their seventh consecutive division title, but they needed an extra period to do it.

    Since the Chiefs' Week 13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, they've stumbled in their victories.

    Last week, Kansas City led the Denver Broncos 27-0 but allowed its division rival back into the contest and won 34-28. The Chiefs didn't look quite like Super Bowl contenders in a seesaw matchup with the Houston Texans either.

    The Chiefs beat the Texans 30-24 in overtime, but they turned the ball over twice and committed 10 penalties that cost them 102 yards along the way. Running back Jerick McKinnon scored the game-winning touchdown after defensive end Frank Clark forced a fumble, and linebacker Willie Gay Jr. recovered it.

    While the Chiefs should pop champagne bottles for winning another division title, they're far from a team that looks primed for a deep postseason run. Fortunately for Kansas City, it has at least three weeks to round into playoff shape with the slumping Seattle Seahawks along with a couple of sub-.500 division rivals in the Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders left on the schedule.

Jets Defense Wastes Zach Wilson's Solid Performance in Crucial Game

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    Zach Wilson
    Zach WilsonAP Photo/Seth Wenig

    Coming into Week 15, quarterback Zach Wilson garnered headlines as he regained the starting job in place of Mike White, whom doctors did not clear to play because of fractured ribs.

    Wilson needed a decent performance to strengthen his future standing with the New York Jets. Even though he turned the ball over on a poor throw in the third quarter and completed 51 percent of his passes, Gang Green's defense let him down in a 20-17 loss to the Detroit Lions.

    On Sunday, Wilson made enough big plays for the Jets to win. He went 18-of-35 passing for 317 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The second-year signal-caller tossed a touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah, who walked into the end zone with four minutes and 41 seconds left in regulation. At that point, New York led Detroit 17-13.

    On the ensuing drive, the Jets allowed tight end Brock Wright to scamper 51 yards downfield for the go-ahead score. Despite that backbreaking play, Wilson put Gang Green in a position to tie the game with three first-down throws to wideouts Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore, but Greg Zuerlein missed a 58-yard field goal.

    In terms of touchdown-to-interception ratio, Wilson had his best passing performance of the season, but the Jets defense, which carried him earlier in the campaign, failed to close out the game.

    The Jets have a tough slate ahead, with the surging Jacksonville Jaguars up next on a short week and a couple of road games against the Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins to finish the season. Gang Green's playoff hopes took a big hit with Sunday's gut-wrenching loss.

Vikings' Miraculous Comeback Puts Another All-Time Blemish on Matt Ryan's Career

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    Justin Jefferson
    Justin JeffersonStephen Maturen/Getty Images

    We could understand if you turned off the first game of the Saturday tripleheader after the Indianapolis Colts went up 33-0 over the Minnesota Vikings by halftime, but anyone who did that missed an incredible finish.

    The Vikings didn't score until eight minutes and 22 seconds into the third quarter, and the Colts answered with a field goal nearly three-and-a-half minutes later. From there, Minnesota went on a 32-0 run that extended into overtime to get the victory. Fullback C.J. Ham scored on a one-yard run, and quarterback Kirk Cousins threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Greg Joseph split the uprights on a 40-yard game-winning field goal.

    The Vikings completed the biggest comeback in NFL history, which gives their fans a second Minneapolis Miracle to celebrate when they discuss the team's improbable victories. Even sweeter for the Vikings, that win clinched their first NFC North title since the 2017 campaign, which is the same season that the original Minneapolis Miracle happened (during the postseason).

    The Vikings may not be a juggernaut playoff team because of a bottom-tier defense, but they can use Saturday's victory as a strong momentum boost going into the postseason.

    On the other hand, Colts quarterback Matt Ryan has played for teams that lost the biggest leads in Super Bowl and NFL history. Despite a great career with the Atlanta Falcons, a league MVP, four Pro Bowl years and an All-Pro campaign, he'll find his name attached to the wrong side of two historic games, which is unfortunately part of his career legacy.

    As for the Colts, they'll hire a new lead skipper next offseason—after a 54-19 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13 and Saturday's stunning defeat, interim head coach Jeff Saturday won't get the job. Indianapolis has been outscored in the second half (and overtime) 72-9 in its last two games.

Ravens Need Lamar Jackson Back for a Shot at AFC North Title

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    Lamar Jackson
    Lamar JacksonAP Photo/Nick Wass

    Since the Baltimore Ravens lost Lamar Jackson (sprained PCL) in the first quarter of a Week 13 game with the Denver Broncos, they have scored 29 points without a passing touchdown and only made two trips to the end zone—both rushing scores (Tyler Huntley and J.K. Dobbins).

    Even though Jackson posted modest passing numbers before his knee injury sidelined him, throwing for two touchdown passes and an interception in four games between Weeks 9 and 13, Baltimore misses his ability to make something out of nothing as a ball-carrier. It forces another defender—who may drop into coverage otherwise—to account for him on the ground.

    Last week, Huntley missed some time with a concussion, but he's rushed for 41 or fewer yards (with a score in Week 13) in each of Baltimore's previous three games. Jackson has topped that number in nine of his 12 outings this season.

    The Ravens have won two of their last three games, but they'll need Jackson to finish the 2022 season on a strong note. Baltimore will face the Atlanta Falcons, who still have a chance to win the NFC South title, and two division rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.

    Despite their 13-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Saturday, the Ravens would claim the AFC North title if they win out.

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Baltimore is "hopeful" that Jackson returns to practice and suits up against the Falcons in Week 16.

Bills Gain Separation in the AFC East, Eye No. 1 Seed in the Conference

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    Josh Allen
    Josh AllenKevin Sabitus/Getty Images

    Following a hard-fought 32-29 win over the Miami Dolphins on Saturday, the Buffalo Bills can look toward bigger playoff aspirations than clinching a playoff spot.

    Sure, the Bills punched their postseason ticket with a victory over the Dolphins, who beat them in Week 3, and they'll likely win the AFC East title as they go into Week 16 with a three-game division lead over Miami. With that said, at 11-3, Buffalo leads the AFC, and it beat the Kansas City Chiefs, who have the second-best record in the conference (10-3).

    While the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC may come down to the final week of the season, the Bills have a realistic chance to get a first-round bye week, which would shorten their road to Super Bowl LVII, and host games on the pathway to Glendale, Arizona.

    In its last three games, Buffalo will face the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals on the road and then finish off at home against the New England Patriots.

    Cincinnati (9-4) is also in the mix for the top seed in the AFC, and Buffalo shouldn't sleep on the Patriots, who may be vying for a playoff spot in Week 18. If the Bills rank atop the AFC at the conclusion of the 2022 term, they'll have worked for it.

    Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.