Derrick Henry tops 2,000 yards, Cleveland Browns playoff drought ends: Neil Reynolds’ Final Word on Week 17

The NFL pulled off the seemingly impossible on Sunday night when game 256 of the regular season was played between the Washington Football Team and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Even the most optimistic of us cannot have believed this would happen – the entire regular season schedule was played without the need to cancel a single game or add a Week 18.

There were postponements and scares along the way, but we did not lose any games. As we get set for the playoffs – amid the very real presence of the ongoing pandemic – here are my big takeaways…

Five Major Takeaways from Week 17

1) Bills are the real deal

While their game was not as meaningful as some of those where teams were scrapping for their playoff lives, the Buffalo Bills made me sit up and take notice during a 56-26 win over the Miami Dolphins. This was a game Miami simply had to have and it was one in which the Bills played a lot of their reserves after the break.

Yet it was the Bills who won by 30 points, scoring four touchdowns after the intermission when they could conceivably have taken their foot off the proverbial gas. That second-half surge came after quarterback Josh Allen threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the first two quarters of play, reminding us he is now one of the league’s elite players.

With their defence now playing at a higher level than earlier in the year, the Bills are genuine Super Bowl contenders and will provide a stern test for the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC playoffs.

Buffalo head into the postseason as winners of six games in a row and it would have been 10 but for that now-famous Hail Mary touchdown pass from Arizona’s Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins. This team is the real deal.

2) Browns end a long wait

Things got a little scary towards the end of their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, but the Cleveland Browns secured their first playoff berth since the 2002 season with a 24-22 win over their division rivals.

Rather than strengthen my belief about any one aspect of Cleveland’s roster, this playoff-securing victory simply made me believe the Browns are in good hands under the leadership of first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski. After years of failures at each position, Browns fans are beginning to believe in the partnership of Stefanski and quarterback Baker Mayfield.

I do not wish to be a Debbie Downer here, but I think a repeat win against the Steelers in the opening round of the playoffs is going to be a tough task. The game that will be played in Pittsburgh will see the home team return key performers who were rested this past weekend in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey and pass-rushers Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt.

3) Rodgers for MVP

Aaron Rodgers has somewhat quietly put together a season for the ages and the Green Bay Packers quarterback has his team ranked No 1 in the NFC heading into the playoffs.

Maybe it is because he has set such heights throughout his career, but Rodgers has not garnered as much attention as you would expect for a man completing 70 per cent of his passes while throwing for 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions. His connection with wide receiver Davante Adams – who caught his 18th touchdown of the season on Sunday – has been close to unstoppable.

There will be votes for Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry; and perhaps the occasional one for Buffalo’s Josh Allen. But, in my mind, Rodgers has been the most consistent and excellent player throughout this season. With him in the lineup, the Packers have a serious Super Bowl shot in the coming weeks.

4) Crowded NFC picture

In addition to the Packers, there are a few NFC teams in these upcoming playoffs who are capable of getting so red hot for a half here or there that they can turn the entire tournament on its head.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to have found the offensive consistency that had eluded them for much of this season, but it has come against the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons twice. How will they fare against a playoff team? The Bucs played three quality teams in November and lost all of them to the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City.

The Saints are another who can get hot and put up a lot of points, and their defence can also have dominant showings here and there. While they are nowhere near as hot as earlier in this season, the Seattle Seahawks are another very dangerous team on their day, primarily because of quarterback Russell Wilson, who never seems to know when he is beaten. Green Bay are the No 1 seed, but the NFC playoffs have the potential to get blown wide open.

5) The coaching carousel begins to spin

A flurry of activity after Week 17 – along with in-season firings in Atlanta, Detroit and Houston – has seen six head coach vacancies open up across the league. Gone in the past few days are Adam Gase, of the New York Jets, Doug Marrone, of the Jacksonville Jaguars; and Anthony Lynn, whose four-game winning streak at the end of the year could not save his job with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Those last two openings are going to prove hugely attractive. The Chargers are just getting started with young star quarterback Justin Herbert and the roster is loaded with talented players such as receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, running back Austin Ekeler and defenders such as Joey Bosa and Derwin James. I would love to see current-Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy become the new head coach in L.A. He is a creative offensive mind and his attacks in Kansas City have led the NFL since 2018, averaging 31 points per game.

Jacksonville is also going to be attractive because every head coach and general manager in the league wants to know they have a franchise quarterback in place or the opportunity to go and get one. The Jags have that with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and a shot at Clemson’s generational talent, Trevor Lawrence. With plenty of cap room, the Jags can add some free agents as well to speed up their turnaround.

Player of the Week: Derrick Henry

While other backs might feel a bit heavy in the legs or bruised and battered towards the end of a season, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry just gets stronger and stronger. He carried his team to an AFC South title during Sunday’s 41-38 win over Houston, rushing for 250 yards and two scores on 34 attempts.

That effort saw Henry become just the eighth player in NFL history to record 2,000 rushing yards in a single season. Time and again on Sunday, Henry reminded us that he is tough to tackle – but he also displayed the breakaway speed and quick feet that make him the ultimate NFL weapon.

Now, he gets to take on the team whose playoff dreams he destroyed this time last year in the Baltimore Ravens. He will not be tired. It’s January so that means Henry is just getting started!

Play of the Week

Tom Brady’s deep ball is back and just at the right time for the Buccaneers. Brady certainly did not look anywhere close to his 43 years in Sunday’s win over Atlanta, particularly on a laser-accurate 25-yard touchdown strike to Antonio Brown in the second quarter. It was a thing of beauty and came off the back of another great touchdown pass to Chris Godwin which covered 29 yards in the first period. While Brady delivered a nice ball, this play was as much about Brown’s ability to track it in the air.

With Mike Evans banged up, the growth of Brown is going to be huge into the postseason. The controversial receiver caught 11 passes for 138 yards and two scores, while Godwin also went over 100 yards and found the endzone twice. Brady has 40 touchdown passes on the season and at least two in each of his last seven games.

Coach of the Week: Matt LaFleur

Much like his quarterback, maybe Matt LaFleur does not get the attention he deserves. In his first two years as an NFL head coach, LaFleur has led the Packers to back to back 13-3 records.

He inherited a team with some much-publicised in-fighting and there was much talk about how he and Rodgers would get along. I would say it is working out just fine at this stage of proceedings.

On my Radar

I am not ready to jump off the Tua Tagovailoa bandwagon just yet but there are some things that are starting to worry me when it comes to Miami’s young quarterback.

I could not have been more impressed when he engineered a win at the Arizona Cardinals in Week Nine, but he was left wanting down the stretch. Tua got benched in Week 16 at the Las Vegas Raiders but had to suffer on his own in Buffalo with Ryan Fitzpatrick out with Covid-19. And suffer Tua did, throwing three interceptions.

I worry about what he is seeing but also about his ability to get the ball downfield with enough velocity. It is going to be hard to judge Tua properly until there is talent around him. Throwing to Durham Smythe and Lynn Bowden is not the same as Justin Herbert firing strikes to Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

I’m not passing full judgement yet but Tua is on my radar and I wonder what the team thinks about the QB position as owners of the third overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft?

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