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Neil Reynolds' Wraps Week 14

The Dallas Cowboys went into their Sunday Night Football encounter with the Philadelphia Eagles in fine form as winners of four in a row. And they were scoring for fun during that victorious run.

But racking up 49 points against the New York Giants, 33 versus Carolina, 45 in taking on Washington and 41 in downing Seattle was a very different proposition to facing the NFL-leading Philadelphia Eagles. Or at least we thought it would be.

Dallas sent a message to the rest of the NFL and moved into first place in the NFC East with a 33-13 thrashing of an Eagles team that has now been handily beaten by the other two leading teams in their conference in the past two games.

It was a complete performance from a Cowboys team that has now won 15 home games in a row. Dak Prescott's numbers were not spectacular (271 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions), but he made some incredible throws and looked assured and comfortable for most of what turned out to be a very good night. His throws to Brandin Cooks to set up a Michael Gallup touchdown and to Gallup himself down the left sideline later in the second half were absolute works of art.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones believes we are looking at the NFL MVP when watching Prescott and given the value of that quarterback position, he is likely to get the nod ahead of Tyreek Hill – a very worthy candidate from the Miami Dolphins. Of course, there is much to be determined before that award is handed out.

Prescott was indeed outstanding, but he was not alone. Dallas ran the ball 32 times for 138 yards and a touchdown and the defense held Philadelphia without an offensive touchdown and forced and recovered three key fumbles. Jalen Hurts was never allowed to shine in this game as he was held to 197 passing yards and no touchdowns, while rushing for just 30 yards.

The Cowboys' excellence ran all the way through to special teams where Brandon Aubrey put on an absolute clinic by landing field goals from 60, 59, 45 and 50 yards. A couple of those effortless kicks from the sensational rookie would have been good from 70 yards! Aubrey is now 30 for 30 on field goals this season and seven of those have been landed from more than 50 yards.

As we approach the final month of the regular season, Prescott is playing like an MVP and the Cowboys have a very special look about them. There will be some who doubt they can get by the San Francisco 49ers in the postseason having already lost to them once this season, but the same thought probably applied to the Eagles. Until that demolition on Sunday night.

On current form, there is no reason why the Dallas Cowboys cannot reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1995 season. There would be a glitz and glamour overload if the team with the star on its helmet is playing in the first-ever Las Vegas Super Bowl!

Who's Hot?

Joe Flacco… I never thought I would write about Joe Flacco turning in one of the performances of the day in the NFL. But the 38-year-old, who has spent much of this season watching games on his sofa at home, was outstanding in Cleveland's 31-27 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Having started just nine games over the previous three seasons prior to 2023, Flacco rolled back the years by throwing for 311 yards and three touchdowns. Flacco was certainly helped out by a defense that sacked Trevor Lawrence four times, picked him off on three occasions and recovered a fumble. That team effort improved the Browns to 8-5 on the season, but Flacco is taking the headlines. If he can come out of semi-retirement to lead Cleveland to the playoffs, it will be one of the stories of the 2023 campaign.

Lamar Jackson… Unheralded wide receiver Tylan Wallace will get a lot of the headlines for securing the Baltimore Ravens' 37-31 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Rams with a 76-yard punt return touchdown. It was only the fourth time in NFL history that there had been an overtime punt return score. But Lamar Jackson should also be getting some serious column inches on this Monday. He threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns, including a couple of incredible connections two Zay Flowers on third and 17 and on a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter. Lamar also rushed for 70 yards and turned in the kind of performance that can get a player in the MVP consideration. His connection with Odell Beckham Jr. is growing and proving to be very fruitful indeed. Baltimore had to dig deep against the plucky Rams who would not go away. In securing this victory, the Ravens showed us they are a true Super Bowl contender.

Deebo Samuel… There are others around the league who get more attention, but San Francisco's star wide receiver has to be one of the most valuable weapons in the NFL right now. Deebo Samuel caught seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's 28-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks. He also rushed for a score. That's a very impressive couple of weeks for Kyle Shanahan's Swiss Army knife. In their Week 13 win over Philadelphia, Samuel caught four passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Oh, and he rushed for a touchdown in that game as well! Tough, physical and explosive, Samuel is one of the most complete players in the NFL. He is a Pro Bowl wide receiver, but I'm convinced that if he changed positions full time, he would also be an all-star running back. You can't say that about many players in the league.

Who's Not?

Kadarius Toney… I wonder how many more chances this mistake-prone wide receiver will have with the Kansas City Chiefs? He is not alone in the dropped passes, which continued during Sunday's frustrating 20-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills. But he did make one of the more bone-headed plays of this or any other season that cost his team the win and himself a moment in NFL history. With the clock ticking down and KC trailing by three, Mahomes completed a big pass downfield to Travis Kelce and – on the night we learned that Music City Miracle maestro Frank Wycheck had tragically died at his home at the age of 52 – Kelce turned back the clock and fired a lateral pass across the field. Toney took the ball and sprinted into the end zone. What a way to win a game!! Wait… flag on the field… Toney lined up offside. His total lack of care and attention had him positioned in line with the center. An obvious penalty. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was disappointed in the officials after the game and Mahomes was ready to explode as the final seconds ticked down. Both felt the officials should have told Toney he was aligned incorrectly. How about Toney checks with them? It's as much his responsibility and just the latest in a long list of mistakes he has made in what is becoming a frustrating season for the Kansas City attack.

Jared Goff… There will be some worry that Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff is cooling off at the wrong time of the year. He threw for a season-low 161 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in Sunday's 28-13 loss to the Chicago Bears. The good news is that the 9-4 Lions don't play the Bears again. In two games against Chicago, Goff has now been intercepted five times. Turnovers have crept into Goff's game in the last month and the Lions, who were being considered among the very best teams in the league, have now lost two of their last three outings. They should be fine for the playoffs but days like this remind us that the rebuild and the growth of the Lions is very much a work in progress.

The Pittsburgh Steelers… In the space of five days, the playoff-chasing Pittsburgh Steelers managed to lose to a pair of teams who had just two wins to their names heading into those contests in the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots. Both those clubs are now 3-10 after dropping the miserable Steelers to 7-6. And both losses were on home turf. I was in Pittsburgh for Week 1 and it was deafening – the best football atmosphere I have ever experienced. It was loud in Week 14 as I attended their 21-18 loss to New England, but nothing like opening weekend. It was like the hope and excitement had been sucked out of this storied franchise, especially given their struggles at quarterback and throughout the offense. The defense continues to play so well and it's clear the fans in Steeltown only really love the guys on that side of the ball. It feels like Pittsburgh have been involved in 16-10 and 13-10 scorelines for about three years now. Something has to change, regardless of how the remainder of this season plays out. They are light years behind some of the leading attacks in the NFL right now.

The Fast Five

  • The Cincinnati Bengals were on the knees and almost out of the AFC playoff race this time last week. But they are very much alive as we march on towards Week 15. Back-to-back wins over Jacksonville (34-31) and Indianapolis (34-14) have the Bengals believing again. Good job, Zac Taylor.
  • Given the impact he has made since his return from injury, I would be inclined to keep Justin Fields in Chicago for the foreseeable future. The Bears own the Carolina Panthers' first-round pick in 2024 and that would currently be the number one selection. So, they will be tempted by a top college quarterback turning professional. But Fields can be a box office star and I would sell that pick for three first-rounders and continue to build out the rest of the team.
  • There is nothing between the teams of the NFC South as Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans all have 6-7 records. But it is the Bucs on top of the division courtesy of Baker Mayfield's winning touchdown pass to Cade Otton with 31 seconds remaining. This was a game the Falcons lost as much as it was about Tampa Bay winning it. This division race is far from done and will go down to the wire.
  • In a lost season, the New York Jets enjoyed a rare good day at the office as they snapped a five-game losing streak with a comprehensive 30-6 win over the Houston Texans. The Jets defense served up a reminder why we had them as Super Bowl contenders with Aaron Rodgers in the lineup. They sacked Houston's quarterbacks five times, knocking C.J. Stroud from the game. They held Houston to 135 total yards and 52 net passing yards. And the much-criticised Zach Wilson had himself a day, throwing for 305 yards and two scores.
  • The Denver Broncos are 7-6 and just one game behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West. That's incredible when you look back to Denver's 1-5 start to the year. Sunday's comprehensive 24-7 win over the slumping Los Angeles Chargers saw contributions from a wide range of players and units. Russell Wilson was mostly solid at quarterback, running back Javonte Williams scored on a lovely touchdown run and Courtland Sutton found the end zone for the 10th time this season. Defensively, the Broncos produced six sacks and knocked Justin Herbert from the game. The playoffs remain very much within Denver's reach.

Finish That Sentence

After filing a couple of slightly-shorter columns, Finish That Sentence returns. So, let's see what's on your NFL minds and how I have answered your missives!

From Dave (@dave_says_no)… They say that Brock Purdy is a product of the system… and if he is, that is not an insult, in my opinion. A quarterback is supposed to fit a system like a glove and Purdy certainly does that and much, much more. But, I can understand why it might be seen as a slight. Suggestions that Kyle Shanahan makes stuff much easier for Purdy are true to a degree, but he still has to make a ton of big plays and rarely fails his team. Yes, he is surrounded by elite talent; but I think Purdy is becoming an elite player in his own right. Take Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel or George Kittle out of the lineup and I think the Niners survive. They would likely crumble without Purdy, who threw for 368 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's win over Seattle. He is their most vital player as they chase Super Bowl glory.

From Finn Reynolds (@FinnReynolds2)… The two teams who will win the number one seed in their respective conferences will be… the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. I think their most serious challengers will be the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys. I don't expect the Eagles to fall off the map, but they have suffered a couple of worrying losses now. Miami and Dallas meet on Christmas Eve so one of those teams is going to pick up a loss there. The Dolphins also have tough games against Buffalo and at Baltimore. The Cowboys have some tough outings but could win out on current form. But it might not be enough to topple the equally in-form Niners.

Final Thought

Could the AFC playoff race be any more crowded? There are currently six teams with 7-6 records all the way from Pittsburgh at the number six seed down to Buffalo at 11. And while the Bills have little room for error, they must feel good about their chances when looking around their conference. The Steelers are stuck in mud regardless of whether Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett plays quarterback, the Colts and Bengals are on their backup quarterbacks and we don't currently know the injury status of Stroud. It could be that Houston needs to turn to Davis Mills for a game or two. Buffalo has one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Josh Allen and that kind of hope and optimism could fuel this team for the stretch run.