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NFL: Packers Toppled As Broncos And Patriots Clinch Divisions

football

Can you believe we’re through week fifteen of the NFL season already? There are just two regular season games left, and yet it feels like it was only yesterday that the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks were in tremendous turmoil, and Philip Rivers was the favourite to become MVP. The New York Jets had a winning record, but that does feel like it was a long time ago. We’re right in the crunch of the action now, so let’s look back and see what happened in week fifteen.

Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers (22-10)

The Denver Broncos claimed the AFC West crown for the fourth consecutive year with victory here. They even did so with Peyton Manning missing a chunk of time in the first half, but Brock Osweiler’s zero completions from two attempts is unlikely to unseat the Hall of Famer any time soon. Instead, Denver ran and ran hard, with C.J. Anderson taking 29 carries for 85 yards. Sure, not huge yardage, but it allowed the Broncos to control time of possession and protect their lead, keeping the defense on the sidelines. Demaryius Thomas had 123 yards and a touchdown off just six passes. Remember when people thought he was in a slump?  That well rested defense is bouncing back, only giving up ten points on the road to a divisional rival with a winning record. The Broncos are now bracing themselves for the post-season, but winning out could yet secure top seeding in the AFC.

Things just would not go right for the San Diego Chargers here. Needing a win to keep the division alive, Philip Rivers threw two interceptions, Nick Novak missed two field goals and they were on the wrong side of some questionable officiating. But the Chargers were simply second best here. The Broncos executed flawlessly, even with Manning out of the game, and this defense could not find a takeaway when it needed it most. The run game was essentially marked absent with Ryan Matthews out. The wild card race is still there for San Diego, but winning out is their only option.

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (13-41)

This was a classic New England Patriots home performance. Outplayed for long spells in the first half, when a blocked field goal was returned to give them seven of their fourteen points, the Patriots re-adjusted magnificently at half time. They won the third quarter 24-0, killing the game early. The return of Jonas Gray from the doghouse was a boon, with his 62 yards off 11 carries really helping New England move the chains in a way that LeGarrette Blount failed to do. Rob Gronkowski only got open in the second half, and it is no coincidence that the Patriots got hot when he did. But a lot of credit must go to the defense, who tormented Ryan Tannehill all afternoon. With Dont’a Hightower racking up tackles for losses and Rob Ninkovich tipping balls at the line, they gave the young quarterback a fitful afternoon. And what about Tom Brady’s seventeen yard run? Mock him all you want, but his increased mobility has certainly helped the Patriots out this year.

The Miami Dolphins are on the very periphery of the wild card chase, so they can’t even take solace in that. These Dolphins are a long time trying to knock the Patriots off top spot, and now it looks like it’ll be all change in Florida again. When the Dolphins scored that late touchdown at the end of the second quarter, you felt they were laying down the gauntlet. They got slapped down from there on out, and it’s really hard to evaluate how good this team really is. Great defensive front, some good corners, but everything else is up in the air.

San Francisco Forty-Niners at Seattle Seahawks (7-17)

The Seattle Seahawks are another team who make fantastic half time adjustments that sway games. This is not the first time that Pete Carroll has done this successfully against the San Francisco Forty-Niners, either. Having looked relatively pass-happy in the first half (in which they scored the grand total of three points), the ‘Hawks did what they did best, and handed off to Marshawn Lynch, and began to generate momentum. Russell Wilson and Robert Turbin also chipped in with big runs, as Seattle moved the chains and controlled the clock. Jermaine Kearse was getting open, and the defense, particularly Bobby Wagner, was steamrolling through blockers. They shut down the passing game, allowing only eleven completions for 141 yards, and came up with a crucial stop on 4th and 1 that effectively killed the game. And they looked mighty good doing it.

The San Francisco Forty-Niners will rightly bemoan an incorrect roughing the passer penalty from which Seattle scored a touchdown instead of  a field goal, but they were the second best team for long spells in this one. It didn’t help that they lost both Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde in the backfield, making it far easier to stop them on fourth down. But Colin Kaepernick missed open receivers at crucial times, as the Forty-Niners were eliminated from the playoff hunt. There are a lot of good pieces in place in San Francisco, albeit many of them injured right now, but Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman’s replacements will be the ones trying to bring them back to the promised land next year.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Atlanta Falcons (27-20)

Ben Roethlisberger had great fun against that defense. 27/35 for 360 yards is a statement on how well Roethlisberger’s resurgent year is going, how sticking with Todd Haley was a good idea, and how the home team is not going to put up enough stops to make the playoffs. Big Ben and Antonio Brown are putting up phenomenal numbers every week, with Brown adding another 123 yards this week. No one has successfully shut down Antonio Brown this year, with his lowest game total being 74 yards. MVP? Everyone’s name is getting thrown in there as it is. LeVeon Bell also had over a hundred yards on all touches, as Pittsburgh blew the former NFC South leaders away. The Steelers are so dependent on their offensive juggernaut, because the defense is not a vintage Pittsburgh hard-nosed unit, but they look good for the post-season as of now.

To be fair to the Atlanta Falcons, they were missing the other worldly Julio Jones. They ran fairly well for once, and Harry Douglas, Devin Hester and Roddy White put up good numbers through the air. Matt Ryan had the game’s only turnover, but anyone blaming the skill positions for Atlanta’s struggles isn’t watching the games. It’s a shame that their defense is so shoddy, because there are genuine superstars playing in Atlanta. They still can win the NFC South, though. 4-0 in divisional games already, if they win out against their divisional rivals, they will go to the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers at Buffalo Bills (13-21)

The Buffalo Bills deserve serious respect for what they did in this game. Making Aaron Rodgers turn in the worst statistical performance of his career with their season on the line? That’s exactly what they did on Sunday. Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams are the best defensive line in football. Bacarri Rambo’s two interceptions of Rodgers were massive, and they stunted any momentum the NFC leaders (at the time) were generating. This is an awesome defense, and a team with some talent in the back field and out wide. But they do not have a quarterback. Kyle Orton was woefully incapable of punishing the turnovers, keeping the opposition in the game right until the end. The Bills are still in the wild card race, but Orton seems unlikely to get them there. A real shame.

Ralph Wilson Stadium is not Lambeau Field. The Bills gave the Green Bay Packers a taste of playoff intensity, and they couldn’t match it on Sunday. The Packers fell from number one NFC seeding to projected sixth seed off the back of this loss, which reflects how scarily close things are in the NFC. It was just an off day though, with Rodgers under tremendous pressure and uncharacteristic drops from Jordy Nelson and company. The Packers fate is in their own hands, but a looming clash with the Detroit Lions and their own ferocious offensive line now looms large.

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