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Neil Reynolds' Wraps Week 15

We've just had a very intriguing and revealing round of NFL games, but let me start today's column with my thoughts on some news away from the Week 15 action. This is the first time I get the chance to speak to you since the NFL announced a minimum of eight international games per year will be played from 2025.

This news was also coupled with the confirmation that the league will play a regular season game in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2024. As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told me in Frankfurt last month, the NFL was keen to expand to a new market next season and the feeling in league circles was that heading to Brazil – where there are approximately 30 million NFL fans – was the move likeliest to make the biggest impact ahead of going to a third country in Europe.

NFL fans in Spain may be disappointed at missing out on the 2024 game as that country was in consideration alongside Brazil. But regular season games are coming to Spain in the very near future following the vote by NFL owners last week that will change the landscape of the league forever.

In 2005, the first international regular season game was played in Mexico. But I genuinely believe the real focus of the NFL on the global stage accelerated when the Miami Dolphins played the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium in 2007. That one London game was considered something of a risk and yet here we are, just 16 years later, with confirmation of at least eight contests per year from 2025.

In reality, that is going to be nine games per season because the Jacksonville Jaguars have their own deal with Wembley Stadium that falls outside of that NFL agreement. Other teams are also free to negotiate their own deals in the future should they wish and that could mean even more contests around the world.

Commissioner Goodell and I spoke in Frankfurt about the NFL eyeing a Formula One-style travelling roadshow. It's coming now, for sure. A typical NFL season from 2025 could include stops in the UK, Germany, Mexico, Brazil and Spain. And then there are countries that are really intriguing to the NFL such as France, Ireland and even Australia.

The league is making a bold jump from four to eight games, but don't be surprised if that number has doubled 10 years from now. Commissioner Goodell wants to leave an indelible mark on his leadership and international growth will be at the forefront of his legacy. We could get to a point where there is an international game being played during every NFL regular season weekend – or at least 16 of them.

Such a move will strengthen the NFL's global hand but also benefit the league on the domestic front. If a large number of these contests are played in the 9.30am ET window in America, that opens up the chance to sell TV rights to a brand-new partner. That could mean billions of dollars flooding into the NFL for the owners and the players.

The talk of franchises will always be there, especially in London where the Jaguars are very committed to the UK market. But such decisions to move to the UK and Germany are in the hands of the teams alone. The NFL is no longer waiting to see if that happens. They sense an opportunity to take the global popularity of the league to previously-undreamed of levels. That comes through the playing of these additional regular season games in the knowledge that the London games sparked growth in our country across the board. The same is likely to happen in Brazil, Spain, France and so on.

These are historic times to be covering the NFL and they are wonderful times to be a fan. I grew up in an era where one American Bowl preseason game was played in London every year. The teams came to town, posed for a few photos, played their starters for one series and then disappeared for another 12 months. And then I worked in the NFL Europe League where the England Monarchs once drew a crowd of around 2,000 fans at Crystal Palace as they welcomed in Kurt Warner and the Amsterdam Admirals.

There were some dark days and struggling times as we attempted to grow this great game.

I know new fans of the league have always known NFL regular season games to be in their lives and they get picky about team selections for those contests in London. Some of you even get super-sensitive about which of the five live games per week we show on Sky Sports each week. I don't want to sound like I'm 80 years old, but we would have killed for a live game on TV back in the days when I first became an NFL fan.

We've never had it so good and it's only going to get better. When the history of the NFL is written and discussed in the future, I believe the 20-year period from 2005 to 2025 and then what comes beyond that, will be considered among the two or three most significant periods in league history.

What's Hot?

The Buffalo Bills… As it stands right now, the Buffalo Bills will not be featuring in the AFC playoffs as they are the number nine seed with an 8-6 record. But they are one of the top five teams in the NFL on current form and if they get to the postseason – which I think they will – they have the potential to go all the way to Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas. The Bills were on the ropes a month ago and faced some daunting games. They should have beaten Philadelphia but came up just short and now they have fired off back-to-back victories of note against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Dallas Cowboys. The win over the Chiefs was – as usual – inspired by quarterback Josh Allen. But he completed just seven passes for 94 yards before spending much of the fourth quarter sheltering from the rain in a 33-10 beatdown of the Cowboys. Led by James Cook (179 rushing yards and one touchdown), the Bills ran the ball 49 times for 266 yards and three scores. They were just as dominant on the defensive side and Sean McDermott's team is getting hot at exactly the right time of the year.

The San Francisco 49ers… The Niners clinched the NFC West Division with a 45-29 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in which they flexed all their muscles once more to suggest they are clearly the best team in the league this season. Brock Purdy tuned out all the Cam Newton-led "game manager" talk to throw for four touchdowns, while Christian McCaffrey put on a clinic of how to play running back in the modern-day NFL. He rushed for 115 yards and one touchdown and added five receptions for 72 yards and another two scores through the air. It was the kind of complete performance from CMC that has become a staple of his game. The defense also grabbed some headlines with three sacks and two interceptions, including one that Charvarius Ward ran back for San Francisco's first defensive touchdown of the season. There is no doubt the Niners are the team to beat in the NFC and probably in the entire NFL.

Baker Mayfield… The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have now won three games in a row to improve their record to 7-7 – good enough for first place in the NFC South with three weeks of the regular season remaining. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has played a big role in Tampa's recent successes. He threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Cade Otton with 31 seconds remaining in Week 14 and he put on a real show at Lambeau Field as the Bucs beat the Green Bay Packers 34-20 in Week 15. I like watching Mayfield play. I don't think much of what he does is perfect, but he is a real fighter and I reckon he does what every quarterback should do and that's to inspire those around him. That looks to be the case in Tampa now, but that has not always been the case in Baker's career if reports out of Cleveland are to be believed. But his 381 passing yards and four touchdowns on Sunday pointed to a future in Tampa where he is on a longer-term contract and no longer considered a bridge quarterback. The case to keep Baker around for a longer period of time will only be strengthened if he can lead Tampa to a third straight division crown, which would be a first in franchise history.

Who's Not?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks… The Pittsburgh Steelers have now lost three games in a row to fall out of the playoff picture as the number 10 seed at 7-7. Mike Tomlin's men made a fast start to their Week 15 game in Indianapolis, jumping out to a 13-0 lead against the Colts. Defense and special teams powered those early scores and if not for that help, who knows if Pittsburgh would have scored any points? On the NFL Network broadcast on Saturday night, they talked about speaking to Steelers players who couldn't understand the offensive struggles given the talent on this team. I can tell you the issue. They don't have the guy at quarterback. Mitchell Trubisky struggled badly again on Saturday and I don't even think original starter Kenny Pickett is the answer. In 14 games this season, Pittsburgh quarterbacks have thrown just 10 touchdown passes. Tomlin is on a warming seat so I think he needs to be aggressive and find a new passer for 2024 and beyond.

The Jacksonville Jaguars… Two weeks ago – as Jacksonville headed into a Monday Night Football clash with the Cincinnati Bengals – we were talking about the 8-3 Jaguars as a potential number one seed in the AFC. Not anymore. They lost that prime-time game and have since dropped contests against the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. What have they done to upset the AFC North? The Jags had no answer for what Lamar Jackson can do with his legs as Baltimore rushed 42 times for 251 yards and one touchdown in a 23-7 defeat to the Ravens. It's been a trying couple of months for Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence. He has battled knee and ankle injuries and is now in concussion protocol as the 8-6 Jags look to fend off the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans, who now both have the same record in the AFC South.

The Los Angeles Chargers… Spirits were low among the Chargers and the fans as they headed into last Thursday's meeting with the Las Vegas Raiders. A frustrating season turned even more sour with the loss for the remainder of the campaign of Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert. But that bad news was no excuse for an embarrassing 63-21 loss that saw head coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco fired. Things to change from top to bottom in L.A. because too many injuries derail Chargers' seasons year after year. But make no mistake, the 25-year-old Herbert makes this a very attractive coaching job indeed and I think it will lure in a high-profile candidate like Jim Harbaugh or Bill Belichick.

The Fast Five

  • The Miami Dolphins did on Sunday what they have done for much of this season – they blew away a lesser opponent in their 30-0 win over the New York Jets. That victory improved Miami to 10-4 on the season, leaving them as the number two seed in the AFC playoffs one game behind 11-3 Baltimore. But the Dolphins are not even out of the woods in their own division yet. Their next two games are against Dallas and Baltimore and then red-hot Buffalo will come to town in Week 18. The AFC East crown could yet end up in the hands of the Bills.
  • Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions had endured a little wobble as they headed into Saturday's game against the Denver Broncos as losers of two of their previous three. They answered any critics they may have been gathering with an emphatic 42-17 win in which Goff threw five touchdown passes and no interceptions. Dan Campbell's men believe they can do great things come January.
  • The Los Angeles Rams evened up their record at 7-7 with Sunday's 28-20 win over the Washington Commanders and I continue to be impressed by a supposedly-rebuilding team that now occupies the final playoff spot in the NFC. Matthew Stafford always gives the Rams hope at quarterback, but he was not the star of this show. Kyren Williams rushed for 152 yards and a touchdown, while Cooper Kupp went over 100 yards receiving for the second week in a row.
  • Kadarius Toney continues to make mistakes that will be season-ending come January if the Kansas City Chiefs turn to him in a sudden-death, win-or-go-home situation. Patrick Mahomes threw to his erratic receiver over the middle on Sunday and Toney bobbled a very catchable ball straight into the hands of Patriots linebacker Jahlani Tavai. It ultimately didn't hurt the Chiefs in what was, at times, an ugly 27-17 win; but it was the kind of play that can instantly end a season in the playoffs. The Chiefs – and Mahomes in particular – must be running out of faith in Toney.
  • The Carolina Panthers picked up their second win of a difficult season on Eddie Piniero's game-winning field goal as time expired. But virtually no one was there to witness the 9-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Sure, it was raining and pouring… and the football would have had the old man snoring! But this is the NFL and tickets were being sold for as little as $4. It was a shockingly empty stadium and suggested the good people of Charlotte have had enough… for now. Things hit a new low for the Panthers on Sunday, even on a winning day. That about sums up their season.

Final Thought

This is my last column before Christmas, so I just want to send my warmest wishes to all of you and your families. Look after yourselves and have a wonderful time over the festive period. I would like to thank each and every one of you for taking the time to read this column on a Monday. It's often cranked out on very little sleep and too much coffee, but you stick with it; spelling mistakes and all. And I would like to thank you for your continued support of the NFL. You and your passion are the reason the NFL is now invested in playing at least eight – and actually nine – regular season games around the world in the same season from 2025. When I return in the New Year, the race to Super Bowl 58 will be reaching a higher gear and there is much to look forward to when the decorations come down. But, for now, put your feet up; pour yourself something festive and have a very Merry Christmas!