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2023 NFL season, Week 15: What We Learned from Saturday's tripleheader

Cincinnati Bengals
2023 · 8-6
Minnesota Vikings
2023 · 7-7


Christian Gonzales' takeaways:

  1. A tale of two halves for Browning. After being held to three points in the first half, Jake Browning kicked things into gear in the second half of his third NFL start. Cincinnati’s offense only managed to get five first downs in the first 30 minutes, but Browning elevated his play after halftime to help author a comeback that saw the Bengals score touchdowns on three consecutive fourth-quarter drives. Tee Higgins was Browning's favorite target during that span and prompted it all with a TD grab on the first play of the final frame. Higgins proceeded to make the play of the game on the final drive of regulation after Browning heaved a high pass near the right pylon. Despite being smothered by a Vikings defender, Higgins twisted his body and was able to get ball over the plane while getting tackled. That effort got the Bengals into overtime, where Browning found Tyler Boyd on a 44-yard pass to put Cincy into field goal position after the two teams traded possessions to begin OT. Evan McPherson kicked the game-winning 29-yard field goal to keep the Bengals' postseason hopes alive as they ride a three-game win streak into Week 16.
  2. Vikings may have solved their QB dilemma in defeat. Making his first start since the 2021 season, Nick Mullens managed to direct a healthy offense that maintained a lead through the first three quarters by completing 26 of 33 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns. Mullens keyed in on playmakers Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson, a trio that combined for 19 catches for 258 receiving yards, including two touchdowns (both by Addison). Minnesota's offense was able to move the sticks and find the end zone, which was a big difference from a unit that produced just 15 points in the past two games. However, a couple of mistakes by Mullens in the first half may have been the difference. Mullens threw two interceptions with the Vikings in scoring position. Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton made a play on the first one in the second quarter and defensive lineman B.J. Hill made a tremendous play on the second before halftime. As Mullens was being brought down for a sack, he tried to throw it away, but Hill instead cradled the ball into his grasp for for what was one of the most impressive big-man interceptions of the year. Mullens was able to recover his composure and deliver accurate passes when needed down the stretch despite the loss. If Mullens can consistently find his talented receivers, the Vikings may keep their playoff chances alive.
  3. Crucial few games left for Vikings, Bengals. The NFL playoff picture in the AFC and NFC appears to be headed toward an interesting Week 18. Even though the Vikings lost, Minnesota currently remains the No. 6 seed in the NFC. Heading into Week 16, Brian Flores’ defense has kept Minnesota in the playoff hunt despite multiple QB changes, with Mullens seemingly doing enough Saturday to not cause another one. Meanwhile, Cincinnati remains in the thick of the postseason standings with a win that also puts them in the No. 6 seed for now. With Browning’s ability to maintain his composure through an impressive comeback win on Saturday, Cincy showed the ability to persevere after slow starts. Both teams will be able to improve their playoff chances next week in key divisional matchups when the Vikings host the Lions and the Bengals head to Pittsburgh.

Next Gen stat of the game: Bengals WR Tee Higgins had eight receptions that were over 10 yards downfield. Higgins’ game-tying touchdown was a tight window target, his fifth tight-window TD since 2022 (tied-third in NFL).

NFL Research: Vikings WR Jordan Addison’s 111 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns joins Hall of Famer Randy Moss (1998) as the only rookies in NFL history with 100-plus receiving yards and two-plus TDs in multiple non-Sunday games. Addison had 123 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions in Week 7 against the 49ers.

Indianapolis Colts
2023 · 8-6
Pittsburgh Steelers
2023 · 7-7


Bobby Kownack's takeaways:

  1. Colts overcome deficit, loss of WR1 and RB1. Pittsburgh quickly took a 13-0 lead thanks to a 54-yard scoring drive and a blocked punt to set the offense up again at the Colts' 1-yard line, looking determined to take out some anger after consecutive losses against two-win clubs. The only problem is that the Colts took the Steelers’ best punch and had plenty of their own to return. Behind some signature magic from Gardner Minshew, the Colts responded with 30 unanswered points starting minutes into the second quarter. They lost Michael Pittman to a concussion on a brutal hit after the first of those scoring drives, and then Zack Moss departed with an arm injury after scoring to tie it up. Minshew kept rolling regardless, shrugging off a shaky start to throw for 215 yards and season highs in passing touchdowns (three) and passer rating (123.4). The ground game was relentless, too -- a credit to the offensive line -- as Trey Sermon and Tyler Goodson, activated off the practice squad Friday, filled in by picking up huge chunks at a time for a combined 157 yards on 28 carries. The backfield transition to those two went so flawlessly that Indy ran the ball on 20 of its final 21 plays (excluding kneels or kicks) across three possessions that milked 13:40 off the clock.
  2. Steelers are in free fall. It’s going to be a difficult tape to watch for Mike Tomlin’s crew, which was soundly beaten after a quick start turned out to be a mirage. T.J. Watt added two sacks early, marking his fifth multi-sack game this season, and Larry Ogunjobi added one, as well. But the defensive line mustered squat after midway through the second quarter -- Watt’s game-high five pressures all came in the first half. Not only that, but it became a sieve against the run, allowing a gashing-at-will situation from the Colts’ third and fourth options at running back throughout the second half. The offense pulled a simultaneous disappearing act. Mitchell Trubisky might have only thrown seven incompletions in 23 attempts, but he rarely posed a threat and two of those misses were killer interceptions. The second of those, which cut short a drive at midfield with the game still in the balance, led Tomlin to bench him for Mason Rudolph. The loss was Pittsburgh’s third straight. Now treading water at 7-7, with three games remaining against the Bengals, Seahawks and Ravens, the Steelers appear more likely to endure Tomlin’s first-ever losing season than to recover for a playoff spot.  
  3. Indy D has a day. The Colts defense was technically responsible for 13 points allowed, but six of those came after inheriting a Pittsburgh drive one yard from the end zone. The other seven came at the end of the Steelers’ only sustained possession all game. Aside from that 54-yard TD march, Pittsburgh’s offense never went farther than 36 on a single possession, and it eclipsed 20 only three times. Indy shut its opponent out over the final eight drives with a combination of high pressure and a characteristically opportunistic mindset. Linebacker E.J. Speed was everywhere, leading the unit with 10 tackles -- doubling any of his teammates -- while the pass rush delivered four sacks behind Samson Ebukam (1.5), Dayo Odeyinbgo (1.5), DeForest Bucker (0.5) and Grover Stewart (0.5). The Colts also continued their run as the only team in the NFL to force a turnover in every game, per NFL Research, intercepting Trubisky twice and forcing just the fifth fumble of Najee Harris’ career. It was dominant enough that a Steelers comeback never seemed possible despite it being a two-score game until 48 seconds remained.

Next Gen stat of the game: The Steelers lost -25.5% in win probability across three turnovers during the loss.

NFL Research: WR Diontae Johnson became the first player in Steelers history with 500-plus receiving yards in each of his first five seasons.

Detroit Lions
2023 · 10-4
Denver Broncos
2023 · 7-7


Bobby Kownack's takeaways:

  1. Detroit wakes up and then some. After watching two losses and 10 turnovers over the past month of games, Lions fans would be forgiven for sweating a bit when the first quarter yielded three punts from the offense. Jared Goff and Co. assuaged any lingering concerns the rest of the way, however, going into hyperdrive against a defense that has been dominant since the middle of October. They attacked in a variety of ways, all of which were resoundingly successful, to at one point score five straight touchdowns on drives of 80, 61, 81, 75 and 75 yards. David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs continued to evolve as one of the league’s most fearsome backfield duos, combining for 185 yards and a Gibbs rushing score on 28 carries. Gibbs was especially electrifying, breaking ankles with regularity to average 9.1 yards per tote, zipping around containment and also scoring on a TD reception. Goff, who has been responsible for four of the aforementioned turnovers during Detroit’s sketchy patch of play, was a surgeon. He was especially good throwing quick, and he finished the night 24 of 34 for 278 yards, a 134.6 passer rating and five scores. An incredible three of those went to Gibbs’ fellow rookie standout, Sam LaPorta, and the others went to Gibbs and Amon-Ra St. Brown, who put Denver to the torch with seven catches for 112 yards. It’s hard to stop the Lions when even a few of their stars are performing. Tonight they all were.
  2. Denver misfires too often to keep pace. A Russell Wilson fumble in the red zone set the tone for the Broncos’ night. After his defense forced a punt on Detroit’s opening possession, Wilson wasted no time hitting Jerry Jeudy for a 40-yard pick up. Another chain-moving play right after had Denver at the opposing 20-yard line, but the offense came away with no points after the QB fumbled on a strip sack. Four punts followed, and Wilson managed just two completions for 18 more passing yards outside the first drive by halftime. And although he and the Broncos rebounded with scores on both of their third-quarter drives, Denver still left points on the board with mistakes like an offensive offsides on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. That resulted in a field goal, a 28-10 deficit heading into the final frame and Sean Payton yelling at Wilson on the sidelines. The struggles were compounded by a defense that looked lost like it had toward the beginning of the season. Over the last eight games before Saturday, six of which have been wins, Denver had allowed just 16 points per contest. Tonight, it allowed 6.6 yards per carry and gave up five straight TD drives that took 4:07 or shorter despite all going for 60-plus yards. Goff took 72.2% of his drop backs without pressure, and it showed on the scoreboard. Detroit’s 42 points are the most Denver has given up since Week 3.
  3. Lions enjoy most complete game in weeks. Dan Campbell’s bunch had not been playing its best football in five games following their bye. They hadn’t won by more than five points, dropped two divisional games and were giving up 29.8 points per contest. But just as the Lions’ offense made another statement tonight, the defense showed it still has the gusto to make a difference beyond the regular season. Detroit suffocated Denver’s running game, allowing just 62 total rushing yards and limiting Javonte Williams’ team-high 12 attempts to an average of 2.7 yards per carry. Doing so helped contain Wilson and the passing offense, even if the Broncos managed to pad some stats when the game was far out of reach. Wilson was under pressure on 51.4% of his drop backs -- a league-leading fifth time over 50% this season, per Next Gen Stats -- and he seemed to be following through while taking contact with regularity. Ifeatu Melifonwu was a standout, logging one of the team’s two sacks, forcing a red-zone fumble and breaking up two passes. One of his passes defensed was particularly highlight-worthy, as it involved a perfect punch out on a Wilson deep shot that looked primed for either a TD or a goal-to-go situation. The 10-4 Lions are now, at most, one result (Seattle losing) away from their first postseason berth since 2016. If they can build off this, the rest of the NFC contenders are in trouble.

Next Gen stat of the game: Jared Goff threw all five of his touchdown passes targeting in-breaking routes, the most in a game by a quarterback over the last six seasons (since 2018).

NFL Research: Amon-Ra St. Brown (290 career receptions) passed Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry for the fourth-most receptions by a player in their first three seasons in NFL history. St. Brown now trails only Justin Jefferson, Michael Thomas and Christian McCaffrey with three games left to go in his third season.

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