The last three weeks of NFL action have reminded us all that fortune does not always favour the brave.
The Baltimore Ravens were a Justin Tucker extra point away from tying up a Week 13 contest with the Pittsburgh Steelers with 12 seconds remaining. They opted for a Lamar Jackson throw to Mark Andrews that fell incomplete and they lost 20-19.
On Sunday, two late touchdown runs from the excellent Tyler Huntley had Baltimore an extra point away from tying their game against the Green Bay Packers with just 42 seconds left on the clock. Again, the decisive pass was thrown to Andrews and it fell incomplete. Baltimore lost a thriller 31-30.
But here is an indication of how much the game has changed and how aggression from head coaches is now very much viewed as a positive and dare I say it, the norm. We all applauded John Harbaugh's decision in our Sky Sports NFL studios and there was little resistance from the FOX crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman calling the game. And when I was driving home last night, I listened to the Football Morning in America analysts and they had no problem with the decision.
Now, there were some issues with the play call. Former first-round quarterback Ryan Leaf said as much in our studio and Drew Brees felt the same way on NBC's coverage of Sunday Night Football. The rolling out of Huntley just limited his options way too much.
First off, it immediately took away half of the field, something that very much irked Leaf. And Brees noted that it was a one-man route. I also noticed that during the time out that preceded the play, Harbaugh called Huntley to the sidelines and then beckoned over Andrews. The whole world knew the ball was going to Andrews, including Packers' safety Darnell Savage, who raced over to ever-so-slightly deflect the pass.
Also, by rolling Huntley to the right, the whole defense worked to that side of the field and that effectively ended the threat of a quarterback run. I think everyone would rather have seen Huntley given a decent option to throw and then a makeable run off that, pretty much exactly how he scored the game's final touchdown just a few seconds before.
While we could be critical of the call, I loved the decision and you could see how much the Ravens players loved the guts of their head coach. In the moments before the two-point conversion, Baltimore's sideline was rocking, Lamar looked super-excited and the stadium was going nuts.
We also have to factor in Aaron Rodgers being on the other sideline. Harbaugh felt going for it from the two – as opposed to juking it out in overtime – was his best move.
In the grand scheme of things and when it comes to building team culture and belief in each other, the Ravens made the right call on Sunday and against the Steelers in Week 13. But there will always be naysayers who will wonder, 'What if the Ravens had sent both games into overtime and won at least one of them?'
That is a fair point to consider because the Ravens are in the midst of a fight for their lives now. They have lost three straight, have lost the division lead in the AFC North and have fallen entirely out of the AFC playoff spots.
Despite all of that, I loved Harbaugh's courage and I wish, at least once, that he had been rewarded for such bravery. I still think his approach will keep his team fighting hard until the very end and Baltimore will sneak back into the playoff picture, despite a tough finish at Cincinnati and then home to the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jonathan Taylor… Can somebody please tell me why the Indianapolis Colts running back should not be the league's MVP this season? I know this award is slanted towards quarterbacks, but who has played better and been more important to their team? Taylor rushed for 170 yards and a touchdown – his 11th straight game with a rushing touchdown – during Saturday's 27-17 win over the conference-leading New England Patriots. JT leads the NFL with 1,854 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns. That's in 14 games. Think about that for a second – every time this guy steps onto the field he is good for an average of 132.4 offensive yards. JT can run over, around and away from defenders. He is special and deserves an MVP award – which would be the first for a running back since Adrian Peterson in 2012.
The San Francisco 49ers… The formula for success in San Francisco has become very clear. Run the football more creatively than any other team in football, ask Jimmy Garoppolo to make simple throws and avoid mistakes; and play solid defense with Nick Bosa making game-changing plays. The Niners won their fifth game out of six with a 31-13 beatdown of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night. San Francisco ran the ball 32 times for 162 yards and three touchdowns, scoring on the ground with a halfback (Jeff Wilson), a fullback (Kyle Juszczyk) and a wide receiver (Deebo Samuel). Jimmy G went 18 of 23 for 235 yards, one touchdown and no picks; and Bosa recorded his 15th sack of the season. At 8-6, the Niners are playing good football and are in a solid playoff spot right now. They won't be an easy out in January.
Efe Obada… How great was it to see British defensive lineman Efe Obada making big plays in Buffalo's 31-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers? Efe recorded three tackles and two sacks as the Bills improved to 8-6 on the season, moving to within one game of the New England Patriots in the AFC East. The two teams meet in Foxboro on Boxing Day. Efe is highlighted in this column because he is somebody we should all be incredibly proud of, but he is also a very fine football player and one who has improved defensive line rotations in Carolina and now Buffalo. Efe's style of play mirrors his life - he plays like somebody who has been required to scrap for everything he has achieved in pro football and away from the gridiron. Years of hurt, frustration, determination and hard work literally come bursting out of his pores on every pass rush. On Sunday, he got his reward. And not for the first time. The big man has been making big plays for quite a few years now. And long may it continue.
The Arizona Cardinals… The Cards were expected to enjoy a 'get right' game on Sunday as they visited the Detroit Lions just days after a humbling home loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The Cards would surely be fine on the road, where they had gone 7-0 this season and won each game by at least 10 points. Kyler Murray entered the contest with a quarterback rating north of 106, good enough for top three in the league. And yet he and his teammates were out of sorts all day long. This was a day for Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions, who recorded just their second victory of the season by a 30-12 scoreline. This was no fluke. The Lions deserved to win and controlled the game from start to finish. Arizona have gone from top seed in the NFC to fourth in the seedings and still have contests against Indianapolis, Dallas and Seattle to come.
The Tennessee Titans… While they fight hard for head coach Mike Vrabel, the Titans do tend to shoot themselves in the foot when losing games this season. The Titans were in control in Pittsburgh, leading 13-3 at the half. But three second half turnovers in 10 offensive plays turned the tide. Ryan Tannehill gave the football up for the 17th time this season (second-most in the league) with an interception and there were also three lost fumbles on the day. Tennessee have little turnover margin for error with Derrick Henry, AJ Brown and Julio Jones (he went down with yet another hamstring injury on Sunday) and their quarterback simply must play better than in the second half of what turned out to be a 19-13 defeat in Steeltown.
The Fast Five…
- As I kept reading promos for Sunday Night Football on Sky Sports, I was thinking 'Sure, Tom Brady has struggled against the New Orleans Saints since joining Tampa Bay, but he'll figure it out tonight.' Well, that never happened. The Saints only rushed for 61 yards with a long of nine and Taysom Hill threw for just 154 and no touchdowns. But New Orleans frustrated Brady once again in recording a 9-0 victory, sacking TB12 four times and intercepting him once. The Saints are very much alive in the NFC playoff race and Brady won't want to see them again in January, that's for sure.
- It was not perfect from a defense that had been playing very well in the previous six or seven weeks, but the Kansas City Chiefs picked up another massive victory on Thursday with a 34-28 overtime result against the Chargers in Los Angeles. Patrick Mahomes looked back to his very best in throwing for 410 yards and three touchdowns. The Chiefs have now won seven straight and are, once again, the top seed in the AFC.
- It was time for Urban Meyer to be moved on as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was just one damaging and embarrassing story after another and nothing good was going to come of him hanging around in a losing season, especially as he was likely gone at the end of the year anyway. His departure clears the decks for a coaching search that simply has to produce better results this time around.
- The Dallas Cowboys recorded a very routine 21-6 victory over the New York Giants in Week 15 and it was definitely a win grounded in defense. For the third game in a row, Dallas' defense forced four turnovers. That is an incredible return from a group that seems to be growing in stature with each passing week. And let's give a nod to cornerback Trevon Diggs, who registered an NFL-leading 10th interception on the year.
- Who doesn't love a big-man-with-football moment or, as Ryan Leaf put it on Sunday night, a 'thick six.' Miami scored a key touchdown during Sunday's victory over the New York Jets – their sixth in a row – on Tua Tagovailoa's short pass to 310-pound defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who leapt into the front row of the stands before performing 'The Worm' in the end zone. It was impressive on all fronts.
Fact of the Week
The Green Bay Packers became the first team to clinch a playoff spot this season when they clinched the NFC North with their win at Baltimore. It was their third straight division crown. No teams were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday. All four divisions in the AFC have two or fewer games separating teams in first and second place and seeds four through 13 are separated by just one and a half games.
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 so often did 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 Joey Simpson (@PackerJoey) The Super Bowl will be between…_ the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, if you're going to push me for an answer. Although this should be taken with a pinch of salt as I think I predicted the Bucs in the Super Bowl this time last week! Both the Packers and Chiefs are battle-hardened, have been on big stages before, have elite franchise quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes; and are backed up by defenses that probably don't get enough attention. But I still believe this race will be wide open and dark horse teams like the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers could be tricky playoff opponents indeed.
From Marc (@bickers83)… Neil Reynolds' shirt was… a bold statement that last night was our final Sunday show before Christmas! It was time for a little bit of fun and, for me, that meant wearing a shirt that has divided the NFL community here in the UK. Some liked it, most hated it. It has been compared to 1990s boxer shorts, pyjamas or those pictures where you stare at them for ages and then see the face of Jesus. The Around the NFL podcast heroes were not fans but I was thinking of defying the outrage and wearing again before the end of the season. But Mrs R delivered a damning verdict this morning – even though she was there when I bought it – so that item of clothing is consigned to television history. Goodbye, entertaining and brave shirt… we hardly knew you!
From Claire Da Bear (@clairedabear85) The biggest upset/surprise this week was… that Lions win over the Cardinals. And not just because Detroit won the game, but because they won it so comfortably and without even a hint of drama. And as I mentioned earlier, I didn't expect the Saints to record the first shut out victory over Tom Brady since the Miami Dolphins in Week 14 of 2006. They really do have Brady's number and that is surprising to me.
In the four games leading up to Sunday's 19-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh's defense had given up an average of 422 yards per contest. Yet the players on that unit were some of the stars of previous great defenses… T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden to name a few. And it was those stars who dragged the Steelers off the canvas on Sunday. It was just a reminder that NFL athletes are prideful beasts who can turn in an outstanding performance when it is needed the most.