By Anthony McClean, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus
After avoiding a series of minor COVID-19 outbreaks during the season, the first major outbreak hit the NFL with all of its fury. The outcome: over 100 players on protocols and three games rescheduled to spread Week 15 to Tuesday night.
And as the season begins to wind down, the spectre of COVID-19 will — needless to say — have a huge bearing on the postseason race. While many injuries are also taking their toll on the “greatest season ever”, the league and many of its teams are literally limping to the finish.
One major injury was suffered by Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater who was involved in a scary collision with linebacker Joe Bachie that sent Bridgewater off on a cart and to a hospital for further evaluation of a head injury. Bachie suffered a knee injury on the play and didn’t return. Bridgewater was moving his arms and legs and head coach Vic Fangio said after the game that Bridgewater checked out OK but was held overnight for observation.
The war of attrition begins. Let’s take a look back at the action.
LAST WEEK: 4-5 (69-65 overall)
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City (Win at L.A. Chargers)
The two-time defending AFC champions are peaking at the right time for another playoff push. Travis Kelce had a career-high 191 receiving yards and scored on a 34-yard pass from Mr. Mahomes in overtime as the Chiefs rallied for a key road victory over the Chargers. The Chiefs were 3-4 at the end of October but have won seven straight to improve to 10-4 and go up by two games in the AFC West. As for No. 15, he completed 31 of 47 for a season-high 410 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. It was also another big night for Tyreek Hill who had 12 receptions for 148 yards and a TD. It is his fourth game this season with at least 11 catches.
Cam Newton, Carolina (Loss at Buffalo)
The Panthers (5-9) dropped their fourth straight and lost for the ninth time in 11 games. And the Bills’ defense had four sacks and an interception in the victory a 3 over the offensively challenged Panthers. As for Cam, he finished 13 of 39 for 156 yards and an interception, with 15 carries for a team-leading 71 yards. He extended his NFL record by scoring a TD rushing and TD passing for the 44th time of his career. Newton has lost 12 consecutive starts for Carolina, a skid that began before he spent last season with New England. Newton re-signed with the Panthers last month and hasn’t led Carolina to victory since a 42-28 win against Tampa Bay on Nov. 4, 2018.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami (Win vs N.Y. Jets)
With the win, the Dolphins became the second team in NFL history to get to 7-7 after starting a season 1-7. The other team on that list — the Jets, in 1974. The season was only 14 weeks back then, so that’s where the Jets’ turnaround ended and did so without a playoff berth. While it’s still a bit premature to put the words Miami and playoffs in the same sentence, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. As for Tua, he completed 16 of 27 passes for 196 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions for Miami. The Dolphins swept the Jets for the second consecutive season, the first time that has happened since 1996 and 1997. They’ve also won eight of the last nine meetings with the Jets.
Kyler Murray, Arizona (Loss at Detroit)
This was supposed to have been sort of a coronation for the Cardinals. Instead, it was an embarrassment of epic proportions as the Lions stunned Arizona. The Lions (2-11-1) were at the bottom of the league standings before the first snap and somehow looked as if they were the team that had more at stake. Arizona missed its chance to get in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 with a win over a team it was favored to beat by nearly two touchdowns. As for Murray, he was 23 of 41 for 257 yards with a touchdown and an interception, adding up to a 72.9 passer rating. The third-year pro has had a slightly lower rating twice this season, and the Cardinals lost both games to the Rams and Green Bay.
Dak Prescott, Dallas (Win at N.Y. Giants)
The Dallas defense forced four turnovers for the third straight game as they inched closer to their first playoff berth since 2018 with a 21-6 win over the Giants. The offense, which also got three field goals from kicker Greg Zuerlein, carried the team for the first six or seven games. The defense has shouldered the burden since. As for Prescott, he finished 28 of 37 for 217 yards. Rookie defensive back Trevon Diggs also picked up his league-high 10th interception of the season, one shy of the team record set by Everson Walls in 1981.
Tyler Huntley, Baltimore (Loss vs Green Bay)
For the second time in three weeks, the Ravens had a chance to go to overtime. Once again, they decided to gamble and came up snake’s eyes. With Lamar Jackson out with a sprained ankle, Huntley nearly led Baltimore (8-6) all the way back from a 31-17 deficit. His 8-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds left pulled the Ravens within one, but Huntley’s 2-point conversion pass was incomplete. It was the third consecutive loss for Baltimore, which also fell to Pittsburgh two weekends ago on a missed 2-point conversion in the final seconds. The Ravens dropped into a first-place tie in the AFC North with Cincinnati. Huntley threw for 215 yards and two first-half touchdowns to Mark Andrews. The first, which gave Baltimore a 7-0 lead, was the first time in eight games the Ravens scored an opening-quarter TD.
Justin Fields, Chicago (Loss vs Minnesota)
Chicago lost for the eighth time in nine games, and with 14 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, that seemed inevitable. Receiver Allen Robinson was on it, as was the starting secondary. Fields threw for 285 yards and ran for 35 in his second game back after missing two with broken ribs. The rookie completed 26 of 39 passes playing behind a line missing both starting tackles, with right tackle Larry Borom on the COVID list and left tackle Jason Peters out with an ankle injury. The health issues also hit the coaching staff, with all three coordinators testing positive for the coronavirus during the week.
Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia (Win vs Washington)
Hurts ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, helping the Eagles come back from an early deficit to beat virus-ravaged Washington in a critical showdown with NFC playoff implications. In his first game back from an ankle injury, Hurts scored on a pair of 1-yard QB sneaks to set the single-season franchise record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 10 and connected with Greg Ward on a 19-yard TD pass. Hurts was 20 of 26 for 296 yards passing with the TD and an interception. Philadelphia finished with 238 yards rushing, becoming the first team with 175-plus yards on the ground in seven consecutive games since the 1985 Bears. That’s also a first in Eagles franchise history.
Russell Wilson, Seattle (Loss at L.A. Rams)
With the loss, Seattle’s streak of nine consecutive winning seasons under coach Pete Carroll ended. Seattle is still mathematically alive for its ninth playoff appearance in those 10 seasons but will regret losing an eminently winnable game at SoFi Stadium. With its third victory over Seattle in 2021 (including a playoff win), Los Angeles pulled even with Arizona atop the NFC West with three games to play, although the Cards hold the tiebreaker on division record. As for Wilson, he was 17 of 31 for 156 yards in a losing effort.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Carolina’s Cam Newton rushed for his fifth touchdown of the season on Sunday, his ninth-career season with at least five rushing touchdowns. Newton is the sixth player since 1990 with at least five rushing touchdowns in at least nine of his first 11 seasons, joining Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk (10 seasons), Emmitt Smith (10), LaDainian Tomlinson (10) and Curtis Martin (nine), as well as Ricky Watters (nine). He’s the first quarterback all-time with a rushing touchdown in each of his first five games of a season and is the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era with a rushing touchdown in five consecutive games, joining Kyler Murray (2020).
Anthony McClean can be reached via email at email@example.com.