Five things I care about
Cowboys’ pass protection
This was always going to be a tough matchup for the Dallas offense. The Dolphins defense ranked first in success rate allowed since Jalen Ramsey returned to the lineup. The Cowboys have struggled against good teams on the road all season. There were plenty of reasons for Week 16’s end result but the most significant factor in the loss had to leave Dallas feeling troubled going forward.
Despite missing its best pass rusher, Miami was able to get pressure on Dak Prescott early and often Sunday afternoon. To his credit, Prescott handled the heat well. He was able to escape rushers often and got rid of the ball in the face of what would have been devastating sacks. High-quality quarterbacks can make it work in these types of adverse conditions and to his credit, outside of a few low moments, Prescott generally put the team in a good position.
The Cowboys came into this game without starting left tackle Tyron Smith and Zack Martin nursing a thigh injury that cost him most of Week 15’s loss in Buffalo. The left tackle spot was particularly troublesome. Chuma Edoga let up a ton of blindside pressure and routinely forced Prescott off his spot.
Pressure is bad for any offense but for this unit in particular, it is a huge stumbling block. The West Coast offense is predicated on timing and rhythm. Prescott has played his best football when he can hit the top of his drop and push the ball to open receivers on time. When he has pressure in his face, it ruins the whole plan. Even when Prescott made plays in this game, it came on tight-window throws, showing that the route timing was disrupted.
The Cowboys have the potential to be a great offense but the way they’re set up it takes just a small grain of sand to grind the gears to a stop. Look no further if you’re searching for a reason why this team can’t deal with quality defenses. Getting the offensive line healthy can help but no one is 100% this time of the year.
This is a critical issue for Dallas as it push for the playoffs.
The Lions (and Jared Goff) win
There are so many players, coaches and personnel members who deserve credit for and should relish in the glory of the Lions winning their first division title in 30 years.
But for Jared Goff, this moment has to be especially sweet.
When Goff was traded to Detroit, he was essentially a throw-in and salary dump for the Rams in their effort to get Matthew Stafford. You’ll never get members of the Lions front office or coaching staff to admit it — I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Brad Holmes, who is a staunch Goff guy — but there’s almost no way they envisioned Goff would be the QB1 when this team reached this height. At the time of the trade, his stock was at its floor and it was conventional wisdom that they would eventually move on from him in order to get younger and better at the position.
That assumption could not have been more wrong.
Goff has proven to be the perfect point guard and distributor for a wide-open Lions offense that threatens every blade of grass. When he’s on, he can play like a top-12 quarterback in the league and has been one of the faces of the Lions’ culture change. To see him get emotional in the postgame interview was just a reminder of how far he’s come in this career redemption.
The Lions are just at the beginning of where they want to go. This is an extremely talented team that can do more than just make a cameo appearance in the postseason. For now, it’s worth celebrating a former No. 1 overall pick who was thrown aside so forcefully by his old team. Goff has exceeded all expectations as the Lions quarterback and he still has a ton of time left to write more enjoyable chapters of this fantastic story.
With 265 in Week 16, Amari Cooper now holds the Browns’ franchise record for most receiving yards in a game. That feels fitting because I’ve maintained that no matter what any box score says, Amari Cooper has played the best football of his career in a Cleveland Browns uniform.
Say this often but I strongly believe that Amari Cooper has played the best football of his career in a Cleveland Browns uniform the last two seasons. Great to see him clicking with Joe Flacco now too. https://t.co/Ej0GX0i6Lt
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) December 24, 2023
In prior seasons, Cooper was a movable chess piece as an off-ball flanker. As a Brown, Cooper has run out as the X-receiver and shined as a route runner against physical tough coverage and dominated in tight spots. Those were two areas that, despite great play, he struggled with in both Oakland and Dallas.
Those skills were displayed against the Texans in Week 16’s dominant outing.
Cooper has had success with the other subpar Browns quarterbacks this season, but Joe Flacco’s “devil may care” attitude to flinging the ball down the field has fully unlocked Cooper.
The Browns are now a virtual lock to make the postseason. It’s a remarkable feat in what’s been a chaos-laden season in Cleveland. The current success of the team is a testament to Kevin Stefanski, who remains one of the most underrated offensive play-callers in the game and what Flacco has brought to the group. However, Cooper’s play can’t be understated in what Cleveland’s offense has accomplished. He’s quietly been one of the best wideouts in the league this season. What a home run trade for the Browns.
George Pickens responds
It was a rough week for George Pickens, who justifiably took a ton of criticism for his effort on run-blocking plays the last few weeks and how he responded to reporters asking him about it. Pickens said «He didn’t want to get injured,” on the viral play. You just can’t act like that as a professional football player and the coaches said all week this message was hammered home to Pickens.
Bad organizations let these situations wither into catastrophe that end up seeing the relationship with the player fracture and/or watch as the player in question doesn’t reach their potential. That would be a shame with a player like Pickens, but if Week 16 is any indication, that isn’t how this story is going to end.
Pickens took his first catch on an in-breaking route 86 yards to the house — and didn’t stop there. He caught four passes for 195 yards and two scores. His second touchdown was the most impressive one to me. Pickens has struggled with consistent separation through his two years in the NFL but this route was a reminder of his potential:
You see a perfect release off the line to gain leverage over the corner and the willingness to engage in hand combat to get late separation. For all of his issues as a separator, Pickens has long been great against press coverage when he’s fully dialed in. These types of plays keep you sold on his long-term ceiling.
Many players can go into a slump when negative media attention engulfs them or coaches challenge them behind closed doors. Even if Pickens created this situation on his own, it is an excellent indicator of his drive and football character that he did the exact opposite of that. This is also a credit to the culture Mike Tomlin has built in Pittsburgh. As much heat as we give players, coaches make these situations worse sometimes. Tomlin isn’t that guy. For all his gaffs as a team-builder the last few seasons, this is the reason he’s one of the best in the business.
It’s better for football that Pickens works out. He’s an impossibly fun player when he’s all-in on what’s going on. I trust the Steelers to continue to get the best out of him as he grows. Remember, these are young guys out there. Even if they deserve criticism when they make inexcusable mistakes, it doesn’t give them a dark mark forever. Some grace is needed. When that is given, we can get the best on-field product.
How Austin Ekeler finishes the season
Austin Ekeler dove deep into his thoughts on the changes within the Chargers organization the last week and what his football future may hold on this week’s Ekeler’s Edge:
While he left the door open to this being the end of his journey as a football player, this is certainly the conclusion of his time with the Chargers. It marks the final weeks of an excellent run for the former undrafted running back with the only team he’s played for in the NFL. But to me, Ekeler feels like he still has a lot left to offer another franchise, it just depends on the opportunity he finds waiting for him at the end of this season.
The quality of that opportunity, both from a role and financial standpoint, will depend greatly on how he finishes over the next couple of weeks. Teams know Ekeler came back quickly from a high-ankle sprain and dealt with complications beyond his control once he returned. That’s not to say he wasn’t in his own way at times this season, but he didn’t look anything like a “washed” player in Week 1 when he erupted on the ground against the Dolphins.
With that in mind, games where he shows he can be efficient with his chances are going to help his case going into next season. His stat line didn’t jump off the sheet in Week 16, but he was the clear lead back for a Chargers team that pushed the Bills throughout the night. He had at least one big gaffe in pass protection but averaged 4.3 yards per carry and seven yards per reception.
Ekeler’s time as a fantasy football machine we consider near the top of drafts might be in the rearview mirror. But I think there’s some possibility he can help a contender as a piece of a backfield next season. Ekeler has a chance to finish the season strong and make that case to get the type of opportunity he’s looking for over the next two weeks.
Five things I don’t care about
Miami’s early-game blips
I never thought I’d come out of a late-season, playoff-clinching win for the Dolphins not ready to fall all over myself about their pass offense. Miami was an air show for most of the season. That’s not the team we saw in Week 16. Tua Tagovailoa was efficient and avoided any critical mistakes. There just weren’t any eye-popping, massive yardage plays.
I was actually left wanting by Miami’s run game. The Dolphins are an outside zone run team, I get that. Nevertheless, whenever they ran outside, I pulled my beard hair out. The Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the league defending inside power runs because, without Johnathan Hankins, they’re so light up front and can’t keep the heat off their undersized linebackers. I’d have liked to see Mike McDaniel and Co. hit that weakness earlier.
However, they got there in the end. It was RB3 Jeff Wilson Jr. who took several critical final-drive carries up the gut. At long last, they got to exploiting Dallas’ weakness on defense.
All that matters for the Dolphins is that they finally got a win over a quality opponent and they did it on the back of their defense. A unit that’s been great the last month and a half proved itself once more in a prominent spot. Given the results of Saturday, we are setting up for a critical Week 18 matchup between the Bills and the Dolphins. Miami can feel great about the way it enters that contest.
We know the offense can dominate in any given moment. Miami can hang if that Week 18 tilt turns into a shootout. If they need to get in a slugfest in the postseason, we should have faith that the Dolphins’ stop unit can get the best of an opponent. A gorgeous team-building effort by Mike McDaniel and Chris Grier has come into full view.
Nick Mullens’ turnovers
Kevin O’Connell is one of my favorite offensive play-callers in the league and I think he’s proven a ton this season. He certainly cares about how careless Nick Mullens is behind center. This whole post-Kirk Cousins world has probably aged O’Connell by 10 years.
With how reckless those dudes are with the ball, going from Dobbs to Mullens is about to age Kevin O’Connell like a president. https://t.co/6icPwhgFm6
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) December 24, 2023
However, for purely selfish fantasy football purposes, I don’t care that Mullens gives the ball away. The live by the sword, die by the sword approach to quarterbacking is a bug, but we’ll take the feature.
Mullens pushes the ball when he should not. And while he does give the ball away he can keep the offense moving down the field. Justin Jefferson isn’t going off for 141 yards and a score with some weak-willed passer. The Lions aren’t engaged in a high-scoring affair with a game manager. There’s too much talent on this offense to be kept down by a caretaker.
As of now, Minnesota has slipped out of the playoff bracket. For the hole that Minnesota put itself in to start the season, and then the Cousins injury, it’s a minor miracle they made it this far at all. So, for the rest of the season, I don’t need to see a careful offense. We just need to see points. Mullens will frustrate but he can get that job done.
Too much analysis on Jake Browning
The prevailing Bengals discussion coming out of Week 16 is bound to center around Jake Browning “turning back into a pumpkin.” While this effort was undoubtedly Browning’s worst showing as the fill-in starter, that’s not the big takeaway of this game.
The story was the same as it has been for Cincinnati all throughout this season: the defense is a huge problem.
The Bengals had built one of the more sound and surprising stop units in the NFL over the last few years under Lou Anarumo in a unique fashion. As the team built the franchise’s foundation on the offensive side through the draft, they supplemented the defense with budget free-agent signings. It worked out quite well and the Bengals defense was an underrated part of their success the last couple of seasons. However, as the front office prepared to balance the budget to add mega extensions for some of the offensive stars and sign Orlando Brown at left tackle, they were forced to let defensive players walk.
The impact was particularly felt up the spine of the defense, most notably with the losses of Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell at safety. Those two were critical to the amoeba-like approach Anarumo took to game plans against some of the top passers in the conference in big games. With the middle compromised, the whole defense has fallen apart. The Bengals rank 29th in EPA per play allowed and 31st in success rate.
A mess doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The chasm in that spine was felt from almost the very first whistle on Saturday. George Pickens’ touchdown on the Steelers’ first drive came as he took an in-breaking route down the heart of the Bengals defense.
This kind of play is not uncommon for the 2023 Bengals. The defense has been the type of unit that could have sunk the season, even if Joe Burrow were healthy for the entire campaign.
Browning is what he is: a solid backup who can keep the offense afloat but not the type of quarterback who can dig the team out of a significant hole when his best receiver isn’t on the field. Browning was in a difficult spot when the defense put them in a massive deficit from the jump. He’s not equipped to thrive in that situation.
Browning won’t be a part of the Bengals’ future in any other capacity beyond Burrow’s backup. So it’s not much of a story beyond what happens the next few weeks. The defense, however, is an ongoing issue for this team that they must address in the offseason. This unit put them in jeopardy of losing a playoff spot for this season and they’ll need to throw some resources behind it over the next few months to prevent them from suffering similar disappointments in the future.
James Cook’s Week 16 results
Week 16 was always going to be some kind of letdown for James Cook fantasy managers when compared to his Week 15 eruption against Dallas. The results on Saturday night were indeed disappointing.
Cook took his 20 carries for 70 scoreless yards and didn’t get a look in the passing game. His lost fumble didn’t help his bottom-line fantasy production, either. Cook actually lost yards on his final carry of the day to take him below his projected rushing line.
Hilarious in some senses, but not for some folks.
99% of bets were on James Cook OVER 70.5 rushing yards.
Cook had 73 yards before last carry.
He loses -3 yards on last run.
Cook finishes with 70 rushing yards. 🤮 pic.twitter.com/HE3cTp4Cnu
— John Ewing (@johnewing) December 24, 2023
In the face of that letdown, let’s not lose sight of the big picture for Cook as his second season progresses to the final chapters.
The Bills have now given Cook 45 carries over the last two weeks and he just went over 1,000 yards for the season. We just haven’t seen anyone in the Bills offense be able to step up at running back to handle work like this during the Josh Allen era. Even as Leonard Fournette was activated in Week 16, he only garnered five carries. This is Cook’s backfield and there’s no doubt about that.
All this shows is that if fantasy managers survived this clunker, they should go right back to Cook in Week 17. The Bills will be solid favorites against New England and Cook will get a heavy dose of work. With their passing game suffering through some fits and starts, there’s no doubt he will be a significant factor and perhaps the biggest part of the game plan.
It’ll be interesting to debate Cook’s ranking heading into next season. Cook is ending on such a hot note and he’ll be tethered to one of the league’s most dynamic quarterbacks. That all sounds like a guy who is going to rocket up fantasy draft boards in 2024, but how he holds up to some of the massive workloads he’s bound to get down the stretch will go a long way to settling that discussion.