Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Just when you think everything is going right, along comes Carson Wentz.
There was a wonky stat floating around on Sunday afternoon. It pointed out that Wentz, the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback, was one game away from playing an entire season without throwing an interception on the road. It’s a neat stat. And it would be meaningful if Carson Wentz was not … Carson Wentz.
Ah, but Carson Wentz is Carson Wentz. Sunday afternoon’s 28-11 collapse in Jacksonville represented a full 10 on the Wentz-ing Scale. The quarterback threw two interceptions on two consecutive plays. He fumbled – again. One absurd sack followed the other. Misreads. Happy feet. Bad decisions. The works.
Related: NFL roundup: Raiders book playoff spot at Chargers’ expense to cap wild finale
Indianapolis entered Sunday with a simple playoff scenario ahead of them: Win and they were in. It was the same last week. They failed then. They failed on Sunday.
It doesn’t get much easier than a Week 18 trip to the hapless Jags, a team with two wins on the season, ranked 31st in defensive efficiency, and with just seven turnovers all year – half as many as the second-lowest figure in the league. This was a Jacksonville team with nothing to play for except future contracts. It’s a team with a rookie quarterback, still trying to find his sea legs in a rudimentary offense. It was a game played in front of a hometown crowd that arrived, en masse, more interested in wearing clown wigs to roast their owner than the game itself.
The Colts fell flat on their faces. They didn’t just lose, they were embarrassed. They were beaten up in the trenches for a second straight week – on both sides of the ball. Frank Reich, the team’s head coach and play-caller, shifted to a pass-centric approach, ditching the run game that had carried the team through its 6-1 midseason stretch. The ball was put in Wentz’s hands. Take us to the promised land.
Even by the standards of the finest Wentz-ings, this was something special. More than any other high-level quarterback, you can feel Wentz’s indecision seeping through the screen. You can almost see the cogs churning. Should I throw this? I shouldn’t throw this. I’m not gonna throw this. Bleep. Did I just throw that?
Sunday’s performance had been coming. Barfing up turnovers is part of the whole Wentz Experience, he has just had an unusual amount of turnover look for extended stretches this season. ProFootballFocus, the NFL’s leading charting service, charted 16 “turnover worthy” throws from Wentz heading into Sunday, with over half of those coming on the road – and that might be a conservative figure. Against the Jaguars, he lodged his eighth fumble of this season, a career-low by his standards, but pushing still pushing his total number of turnovers for the season up to 14 – and his turnover-worthy plays closer to the mid-20s.
A reminder: The Colts are still due to send the Eagles a first-round pick for Wentz in the upcoming draft. Wentz is also on the books for $28m next season, good for the 10th-largest cap hit of any player in the league.
Indianapolis have built an excellent roster. It’s the kind that is tailor-built for a get-hot-for-a-month postseason run: A bruising offensive line; a young running back whose skill-set compliments one of the league’s most bountiful run games; playmakers at every level of the defense. On both sides of the ball, the Colts have smart coaches, all at the cutting edge of where the game is at and where it’s going.
Then there’s the quarterback spot. The Colts bet that Reich’s innovative style could curb some of the quarterback’s baser instincts, that they could scheme around his flaws, hiding some of his decision-making issues with nifty play designs. They could handle the bad, they theorized, so long as it didn’t arrive at the worst time possible. They bet that they could navigate through the regular season, and that Wentz’s off-beat playmaking chops could be a difference-maker in a tight playoff game.
On Sunday, that all went bust. Two weeks ago, the Colts had the look of a stealth contender. Now, they’re outside looking in, once again facing long-term questions about where they go as a franchise and what they do at quarterback.
Video of the week
You saw that right. That’s the 4-12 Giants running a very obvious quarterback sneak on third-and-9 in the second quarter of a Week 18 game. I remind you: ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that Joe Judge will be back as head coach for the 2022 season. Judge has weaponized his special blend of rah-rah nonsense to such a degree that Giants owner John Mara has claimed he sees something of the Bill Belichick or Bill Parcells in the young coach. The video above – and reality itself – would indicate otherwise.
There is no franchise that will head into the offseason in a deeper hole than the Giants.
MVP of the week
Dan Campbell, head coach, Detroit Lions. The Fighting Dan Campbells emptied the playbook against the Packers to hand Detroit a 34-31 win. The Lions ran an assortment of trick plays to bring some much-needed oomph to a ropey offense. Entering the day, the Lions held the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. The win dropped them to second, with the Jags leaping into the first spot. It’s been a tough year for Campbell, but a win on Sunday was the kind that can give a franchise and its fan-base hope heading into the offseason. The roots of something are there – a tough, physical style, with some creative schematic designs on both sides of the ball. Like all bad teams, the Lions are a quarterback away. But quarterback aside, the foundations of a good team are there.
Stat of the week
Thirty years. We have a doozy for you this week: No human in history has ever sent a text message about the Bengals winning a playoff game. The Bengals last playoff win: 1991. The first text message that was ever sent: 1992.
The Bengals head to the playoffs for the first time since the Andy Dalton-Marvin Lewis-AJ Green axis led the franchise to three painstaking defeats in a row. This time, the Bengals enter the postseason with Sleeper Contender status. Cincinnati have all the ingredients: They’re second in the league in explosive play rate on offense; they have the league’s best deep threat; they have a funky defensive scheme; they can rush the quarterback with four; in Joe Burrow, they have one of the league’s finest third-down creators.
The only thing holding the Bengals back: Their head coach’s game management. The Bengals will face the Raiders in the wild-card round next week. If they’re able to beat Rich Bisaccia and co in Cincinnati, you best believe the 5G will be working overtime in Ohio.
Joe Burrow has Cincinnati Bengals fans dreaming of their first playoff win in three decades. Photograph: Jeff Dean/AP
Quote of the week
“Those other three teams have top-shelf quarterbacks, which is obvious to everybody.” – Vic Fangio on what separates the Broncos from the rest of the AFC West
The NFL’s coaching carousel is already up and running. The Broncos fired Fangio on Sunday morning following Saturday night’s 28-24 loss to the Chiefs and three losing seasons. On his way out the door, Fangio offered a timely reminder to prospective head coach candidates to not jump to a head coaching job for the sake of the moniker. It’s about picking the right job. And the right job means picking the right quarterback.
Fangio’s days as a head coach are likely over, but he immediately vaults to the top of the defensive coordinator power rankings. Denver, with a shaky ownership situation and dodgy quarterback room – in a loaded division – is unlikely to be at the top of the list for any of the most sought-after head coaching candidates. The Broncos’ ideal plan would be to swing a coach-quarterback double-deal, tempting Aaron Rodgers away from Green Bay with the quarterback bringing a coach of his choosing along for the ride.
The Broncos have a talented core, and their reputation for organizational competence will see them land one of this carousel’s top names. But the job will only be as good as the team’s ability to find a quarterback in the offseason.
Elsewhere around the league
• The show goes on. Ben Roethlisberger completed a fourth-down pass in overtime to set up a game-winning field to earn the Steelers a spot in the playoffs. Roethlisberger’s goodbye will have to wait at least another week. Kudos to the Ravens, though. In a delightful bit of petty, Baltimore showed a video ‘tribute’ to Roethlisberger during a late-game timeout, in which they showed nothing but highlights and headlines of the quarterback getting sacked or losing. That’s how you do a rivalry.
• The Niners rallied back from 17-3 down at the half to beat the Rams 27-24 in overtime to secure a spot in the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo delivered a pair of clutch drives to first extend the game and then give the Niners the lead in overtime. A late Matthew Stafford interception sealed the win and a playoff berth for San Francisco.
• The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will go through Tennessee. The Titans wrapped up the number one seed in the AFC with a 28-25 win over the Texans. With the win, Tennessee secured the all-important (and sole) bye week, which will give Derrick Henry an added week of rest before he returns to the fold. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the win for the Titans. They have, for the most part, been a mess on offense without Henry, ranking 28th in the league in EPA per play since Henry fell out of the line-up. With Henry, the Titans have championship upside.
The road to the AFC title goes through Derrick Henry and the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. Photograph: Darron Cummings/AP
• The Cowboys rediscovered their offensive bluster on Saturday night as Dak Prescott threw for 295 yards and five touchdowns. Dallas’ star-driven vehicle has looked sluggish for much of the second half of the season. But Prescott et al re-found their early-season magic over course of the last three weeks, just in time for the playoffs. The Cowboys’ blend of offensive efficiency and the playmaking chops they bring on defense is tough to match anywhere in the NFC.
• NFL Network reports that the Seahawks have no plans to trade Russell Wilson in the offseason, though whether Wilson has plans of his own remains unknown. Seattle are staring down a choice between bringing back Pete Carroll and the team’s personnel czar or bringing back Wilson. NFL Network reports that a “mutual” parting of the ways between Carroll and the Seahawks is, at this stage, the likeliest outcome.
• As expected, Matt Nagy is out in Chicago. The Bears job has a solid foundation – a young, talented quarterback; gifted players at every level of the defense – but it’s unlikely to be at the top of any candidate’s list. Justin Fields is a sound starting point, but the rest of the offense needs more than a schematic facelift. While the defense has started to age and creak, with several pieces of the defensive core are set to age out of their prime, hit free agency, or are likely to be cap casualties this offseason.
• Mike Zimmer is expected to be out in Minnesota, too. The Vikings head into an offseason in which they have $40m in guaranteed money (yes, really) tied up in Kirk Cousins. That would represent the third-highest cap hold of any player in the league. The Vikings ditching Zimmer might be an attempt at a soft reboot, grabbing an offensive-minded coach to try to squeeze more out of the Cousins-led offense. Alternatively, the Vikings can trade Cousins before the draft and save themselves $30m, punting on the whole Zimmer-Cousins era and starting afresh.
• Save the best for last, and all that. The Chargers and Raiders eschewed the much-discussed Kneel-Down Bowl in favor of playing out the Game of the Year. On a tense, back-and-forth night, the Raiders wound up the 35-32 winners, setting up a wild-card tie against the Bengals. It was an extraordinary night in Vegas, featuring a performance for the ages from Justin Herbert and a wonky late-game timeout from Brandon Staley that essentially cost the Chargers a playoff spot. With the Raiders running out the clock for a tie in overtime – a result that would have sent both teams to the playoffs – Staley took a timeout to try to force a stop on third down. The Raiders picked up the first down, kicked a game-winning field goal, and dumped the Chargers from the playoff.
• There haven’t been many more impressive coaching jobs than what Rich Bisaccia has done with Las Vegas. Bisaccia guided the Raiders through controversy and tragedy, distractions and adversity. Let’s not get it twisted: The Raiders are liable to be one-and-done in the playoffs. They were fortunate during the second half of the season. After losing five out of six, they drew three straight games against a backup quarterback (Drew Lock), an injured quarterback (Baker Mayfield), and a sick quarterback (Carson Wentz). They won those games by a combined nine points. Still: Bisaccia deserves credit for keeping the train on the tracks in what has been an unusually tumultuous season.