It's a rematch of last year's AFC championship. It features two teams that have dominated the fortunes of the conference for more than a decade. It makes all the sense in the world that Steelers-Patriots would be the standout contest of Week 15. And yet the presumption that it should be considered a preview of another AFC championship game is hasty.
The NFC has been thought to be completely wide-open. The Eagles losing Carson Wentz only further reinforces that impression. Meanwhile, the AFC is thought to be an inevitable march to another Pittsburgh attempt to unseat New England. The Chiefs completely falling apart has surely helped to make that feel certain for many observers.
A team that could insert itself into that championship game is being overlooked. To be sure, it's easy to dismiss the Jaguars. They're the Jaguars after all. Their ninth win of the season on Sunday clinched the franchise's first winning season in a decade. They're led by Blake Bortles. When your quarterback is considered to be the avatar of your team's fortunes, Bortles is never going impart a great deal of authority, even when he has been playing better in recent weeks.
The Jaguars' 30-24 win over the Seahawks was this team's biggest since they went into Heinz Field and plastered the Steelers in Week 5. Tennessee's loss gives the Jaguars a full game advantage in the AFC South. Pittsburgh coming from behind to win over Baltimore likely means the byes in the AFC are set, but Jacksonville is in great position to host a first-round playoff game.
Jacksonville unseating New England is a tremendous long shot. Getting the better of the Steelers a second time this season seems a lot more realistic. If they can get adequate play out of Bortles, the Jags have shown they can play with anyone. The AFC may be top-heavy, but that doesn't mean it's solely a two-team race.
The Jaguars are making it clear that they're the most intriguing team that could be involved in the AFC's wild card weekend, and they're the biggest threat to keep progressing if they clear that hurdle.
The game is the game
As much as being at the epicenter of a political culture war was stressful for anyone who participates or watches the NFL, it did provide a distraction from a lot of the issues that regularly plague the league these days. The Steelers-Bengals Monday night game touched off a renewed focus on making the game safer. The nature of that Monday game made it easy for pundits to lay the blame on players who are too aggressive about delivering big hits and let emotions get the better of them. And sure, there are improvements that could be made on that end. But Houston's handling of Tom Savage on Sunday -- allowing him to return for a series after leaving the field displaying concussion symptoms -- shows that teams and the league have a long way to go, too. Policing defenseless receiver hits is fine, but vicious headshots are going to result in more injuries like Shazier's, and more changes to the game are going to be needed.
Wentz Wagon stops here
Team allegiances aside, it's been a dispiriting season for quality quarterbacking. Aaron Rodgers may yet return for the Packers, but he's still missed a huge chunk of the regular season. Deshaun Watson dazzled for a few weeks before he was sidelined until 2018. And now the Eagles lost Carson Wentz, one of maybe three young quarterbacks who look like they will be able to take the reins of the league when the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers retire in the next few years. It's a situation similar to Derek Carr going down late in the season for the Raiders in 2016: a team having unexpected success only to be derailed in the final weeks. Of course, Nick Foles is better than Matt McGloin. Nevertheless, it requires a heavy store of optimism not to think that Wentz's knee injury during a win over the Rams greatly imperils the Eagles chances of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Important Browns losing milestones
Just because the 2008 Detroit Lions already blazed the trail of 0-16 doesn't mean the Browns can't make some inglorious history in their own right. In somehow blowing a two-score lead late against the Packers, Cleveland has clinched an NFL first: the first franchise to post 0-13 starts in back-to-back seasons. And even though head coach Hue Jackson's job has already been secured for 2018, Sunday's loss means his 1-28 record is the worst of any coach serving his first 29 games, since at least 1960. Even worse than John McKay, the former Buccaneers coach responsible for another one of the NFL's winless seasons.
Fan of the Week
The whole NFL community was shaken up by the scary spinal injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier in Week 13's Monday night game against the Bengals. Pittsburgh obviously felt it most keenly of all. Fans paid for a billboard paying tribute to Shazier, who is showing some encouraging early signs in his recovery, though there is much left to be seen. Teammates wore cleats with Shazier's face and there were signs aplenty at Heinz Field during the Sunday night win over the Ravens. What's more, teammate James Harrison kept one of Shazier's better-known cold weather rituals going.
James Harrison is out shirtless for warmups tonight in an ode to Ryan Shazier's pregame ritual. pic.twitter.com/ISI5qs6OQg- 102.5 WDVE (@DVERADIO) December 10, 2017
In a purely aesthetic sense, snow football can be very beautiful. In a quality of actual football sense, significantly less so. In a Bills-Colts game in which offense was in short supply, it all ran through McCoy. Shady finished with 156 yards on a brutal workload of 32 carries, most of which came after contact. It took an impressive effort by Adam Vinatieri to force overtime with a 43-yard extra point in the snow, but Shady put it away with a 21-yard touchdown to give the Bills a 13-7 win.
It's hard to decide which star receiver shined the brightest on Sunday, Hopkins or Antonio Brown. While AB might have put up bigger yardage numbers, Hopkins accounted for a larger share of his team's output. Hopkins had more than half of the Texans' receiving yards -- 11 catches for 149 yards -- in a loss to the 49ers, to go with two touchdowns. Brown went over 200 yards against Baltimore,, but he'll have more opportunities than Hopkins once December comes to an end.
After dropping six of their previous seven, the Chiefs finally returned to the win column, trouncing AFC West rival Oakland. The downside is the Chargers made short work of the Redskins, meaning that other Los Angeles team remains tied with Kansas City atop the AFC West. That sets up the game between the two next week that's likely to decide the division. If the Chiefs finally found their bearings, it happened at the right time.
The Cowboys are just barely hanging on in the NFC playoff race, and that stands for at least another week thanks to a needed win over the Giants. It was the first game in about a month that Prescott really looked sharp. He completed 20 of 30 for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Dallas might have had the game in hand relatively early, but Prescott was still solid under pressure. We might not be done with Dallas just yet.
His 62-yard run late in the fourth quarter was classic Cam, and was the crucial effort in capturing a key win over the Vikings, another NFC playoff team. What's more, he brought back one of the best rituals of any NFL season: trying to make sense of his postgame presser attire.
True story: Cam Newton says his fez, or "brimless hat," was inspired by Andre 3000 pic.twitter.com/yP1J8c01Nn- Bill Voth (@PanthersBill) December 10, 2017
In a meeting of doomed teams, the Bengals outclassed the Bears in overall lifelessness. Even Green was listless, dropping one catch and fumbling the ball away. Several times, he had chances to secure catches from defenders but came away empty.
It's hard to start a game with an interception only to end up among the bigger liabilities on defense. The young Steelers safety was getting an earful from Mike Tomlin as the game wore on, pass interference penalties accumulated and the Ravens went off for 38 points, a staggering amount for a rivalry in which points usually come at a premium.
The Cowboys were victorious, and when you win, you generally don't worry too much about the performance of your kicker. Still, it's a little startling to see one of the league's more reliable legs miss two field goals and an extra point in one game.
Following the loss to Arizona, it was disclosed that Mariota suffered a knee injury early in the game. It was clear something was amiss, as Mariota looked very much off. Even when he wasn't facing pressure, he struggled to get into any kind of groove. On passes of more than 10 yards, he was an abysmal 5 of 16 for 88 yards and two interceptions. The loss was costly for Tennessee, as the Jaguars' win means they now have sole possession of first place in the AFC South.
The Raiders didn't show up for their chance to put Kansas City away for good this season. It didn't help that they lost Amari Cooper early in the game. Crabtree didn't do much to compensate, dropping two passes and committing three penalties.
The week in celebrations
With the Eagles and Steelers in high-profile Sunday games, there was bound to be at least one memorable group celebration. Though Philly ultimately received a setback likely to reshape the rest of its season, the Eagles were their usual boisterous selves early in the game. After one touchdown, they went into the Flying V, made famous by the "Mighty Ducks" movies. It would be doubly impressive if they followed it up with a knuckle-puck extra point.
In the third quarter of their win over the Seahawks, the Jaguars tried their hands at a bowling celebration that came off a little half-cocked. Perhaps they assume, to join the game's elite, they must need to make their celebrations equally impressive. If that's the case, there's work left to be done. And what's with the extra leg kick? This sport doesn't need any help taking down your teammates.
Ultimately, the best celebration of the week was a solo one. In scoring the decisive touchdown in the win over the Browns, Davante Adams sprinted right through the tunnel after ending the game. It was right there, so the visual more or less presented itself. Gotta hand it to him for having the gumption to go for it.
an actual walkoff for Davante Adams pic.twitter.com/VI4DNQfW3U- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) December 10, 2017