The Dallas Cowboys appeared to be the more lost of the two teams as they entered Sunday night's big game against the Los Angeles Rams. Dallas had lost three straight and the Rams had won two in a row, averaging more than 500 yards of offense per outing.
Dallas played with an intensity and hunger that belied a team that knew its season was on the line. That was a pleasant surprise because it could just as easily have gone the other way given how flat the Cowboys were in their previous game - a loss to the Chicago Bears.
The Cowboys flew to the football on defense and controlled the game at the line of scrimmage - on both sides of the ball. Dallas rushed for 263 yards and held the Rams to just 22 on the ground. That was notable given that when these teams met in the NFC playoffs last season, the Rams rushed for more than 230 yards. The Cowboys marched to a 37-7 lead before easing up ever so slightly en route to a 44-21 statement-maker.
With their season on the line, the Cowboys turned to some familiar faces as Dak Prescott threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns, Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 117 yards and two scores; tight end Jason Witten reeled in a stunning 19-yard scoring grab and Sean Lee had a day on defense as he recorded four tackles, one sack and one interception.
But this was a complete team performance and others stepped to the fore. Tony Pollard rushed for 131 yards and scored on a 44-yard run and there was a cameo appearance from Tavon Austin, who found the end zone on a 59-yard bomb from Prescott.
It will all be on the line when the Cowboys travel to Philly and I would have to give Dallas the edge. The Eagles are riding Carson Wentz as hard as they can right now but they are so banged up at receiver and at many other key positions.
Buffalo's defense...Led by outstanding All Pro cornerback candidate Tre'Davious White, the Buffalo Bills produced an excellent defensive display in Sunday night's 17-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. White got banged up in the first half but still nabbed two of the four interceptions thrown by an out-of-his-depth Duck Hodges. With an additional four sacks and a fumble recovery, this Buffalo defense has once again shown that it is for real and I think that unit gives the plodding Tom Brady all he can handle and then some this coming Saturday evening.
Jameis Winston...An early interception suggested another up and down night for Tampa Bay's enigmatic but exciting quarterback. Winston threw up an NFL-leading 24th pick against Detroit but roared back to throw for 458 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-17 win. This Tampa Bay offense has been very exciting to watch under Bruce Arians and the Bucs have now won four straight. If they split their last two, they can post an 8-8 mark. But with home games against Houston and Atlanta, Tampa could legitimately win out and that would give them six in a row to end the year. That will lead to some positive offseason momentum and a new deal to keep Winston in house for the foreseeable future.
Deshaun to DeAndre...There was not much between the Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans as they played out a big AFC South contest on Sunday night. The Whitney Mercilus interception in the first half was a big turning point in Houston's 24-21 win but the other big factor was Tennessee's inability (not for the first time) to slow down DeAndre Hopkins at receiver as he got on the end of one big Deshaun Watson pass after another. Hopkins grabbed six passes for 119 yards and has been consistent all season long, recording at least five catches in every game this term.
Freddie Kitchens...The Cleveland Browns have plenty of on-field talent, yet they are stumbling towards the finish line following Sunday's 38-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the desert. The Browns are still alive in the AFC playoff race, but only just and their 6-8 record has to go down as one of the biggest disappointments of the season. And much of the blame for that has to fall at the feet of Kitchens, who could still end up being one and done as head coach. The Browns are desperate to rip off that label of being a team that rifles through short-term coaching hires, but you do wonder how much better they could have performed with a bit more experience and nous at head coach.
Philip Rivers...Could the end of the road be coming for one of the NFL's great gunslingers of the last 15 years? Rivers looks lost this season and his arm strength has declined quickly. The second of his interceptions in Sunday's 39-10 loss to Minnesota was all down to him not being able to get the ball far enough downfield. Some feel Rivers will get picked up elsewhere in 2020, but hardly anyone seems to think he will be leading the Chargers. It is the end of an equally great and frustrating run in San Diego/LA for a man who was so often the only one capable of leading the charge for his team.
Andy Dalton...I'm told so often that NFL players do more film study than other sportsmen and that you wouldn't be able to succeed in the league without doing the required amount of preparation for a game. So why did Dalton think it would be smart to consistently challenge All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore in Cincinnati's 34-13 loss to the New England Patriots? Dalton was picked off twice by Gilmore with one of those being returned for a touchdown. In total, Dalton threw a career-high four interceptions on a day when the Bengals also lost a fumble. He has seen off the challenge of Ryan Finley but surely the Bengals go quarterback early in the 2020 NFL Draft?
The Fast Five...
The narrative used to be that the Seattle Seahawks were elite at home and beatable on the road. Well, this team has gone 5-0 in the eastern time zone this season following Sunday's 30-24 win over the Carolina Panthers. If required in the playoffs, the Seahawks are built to travel.
That finish in Oakland was so Raiders. In the last-ever Silver and Black game in Oakland, the Raiders led 16-3 but ended up losing 20-16 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That led to some ugly scenes at the end of the game as Raiders fans wasted perfectly good nachos by throwing them onto the field. That was not all they hurled at Raiders players- there was plenty of verbal abuse as well. Just an ugly ending all the way around.
Gardner Minshew enjoyed his day in Oakland, at least. Jacksonville's rookie quarterback claimed he had never seen so many middle fingers in his life and was more than happy to deliver the party-destroying touchdown pass to Chris Conley with 31 seconds remaining. To me, this was another example of why Minshew has the 'it' factor and could grow to be the Jags'long-time leader.
Patrick Mahomes is truly amazing. He played in a blizzard at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night and still managed to throw for 340 yards and two touchdowns while leading Kansas City to a 23-3 win over the Denver Broncos. There is nothing this impressive young man cannot do.
It was fitting and nice to see Eli Manning get his 'ride into the sunset' moment as the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. That was the least this franchise could do for one of the classiest men in the NFL and the player who delivered two Super Bowl wins against the Patriots.
Fact of the Week
New England scored 30+ points for the first time since Week 7 on Sunday in beating Cincinnati, but there was worrying production at wide receiver. No Patriots wide receiver had more than two catches or 15 receiving yards.
Finish That Sentence
Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we do on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go...
From Dr Ed Johnston (@marksugar)... The wild card team that will go deepest in the post season is... whoever falls into that NFC number five spot out of the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. One of these teams is going to fall to the lower end of the NFC playoff seedings but they are both genuine Super Bowl contenders, in my mind. Both can make a serious run in January, no matter where they end up being seeded. The 49ers are the more banged up of the two sides but have shown they can win big games this season.
From Daire Sweeney (@dsweenpot)... The Green Bay Packers lack of points is...disturbing and a reminder that they are not yet a powerhouse despite their impressive-looking 11-3 record. Statistics can be misleading but there are also times when the numbers don't lie and I think what we're looking at is confirmation of an offense that is a little out of sorts and not explosive enough due to inconsistency at receiver. Aaron Rodgers has been held under 250 passing yards for six straight games now and I think the Packers are looking like a divisional-round-exit team in January.
From Andrew Dee (@andrewdee03)... The Raiders will be seriously competitive once in Vegas becauseI trust Mike Mayock to find the players and for Jon Gruden to coach them up. It might still be a year or two before they are in the playoffs, but I do think the Silver and Black are on the right track and are building a big and fast team with some very promising additions in 2019. I don't think they have 'their' quarterback in place as neither Mayock or Gruden seems sold on Derek Carr. Let's give Mayock a couple more drafts and then I think the Raiders can make some noise.
From Liam (@OAFCLiam)... Ryan Fitzpatrick will get another deal playing for...the Miami Dolphins. I think there is a lot to love about Fitz and his approach to the game. If Miami were able to draft Tua Tagovailoa, they might need Fitz to be their bridge quarterback in 2020. And if they can wheel a deal a way towards drafting Joe Burrow, Fitz could be his perfect backup. I don't think he's getting out of Miami as he has proven himself to be a valuable locker room leader and a fiery competitor on the field.
This time of year often sends me racing for a team's depth chart as injuries take their toll or younger players are given a late-season chance to shine. Injuries have certainly played a role in Greg Ward being thrust into action for the Philadelphia Eagles, but he is hardly involved in garbage time shenanigans. The Eagles needed Ward in a big way on Sunday and it was a great story as he caught the winning touchdown against the Washington Redskins. The former college quarterback has been cut multiple times in his battle to make an NFL roster, including by the Eagles themselves in 2019. Yet the Alliance of American Football refugee made one of the biggest plays of Philadelphia's season to keep their playoff hopes alive. That was a pretty cool story on a busy NFL Sunday.