Skip to main content

Neil Reynolds' Wraps Week 17

Happy New Year! And based on what I saw on Sunday evening, 2024 could be a very good one indeed for the players and coaches of the Baltimore Ravens, as well as their fans.

The Ravens have enjoyed quite the couple of weeks. On Christmas Day, they recorded an emphatic 33-19 road win against the number one seed in the NFC in the San Francisco 49ers. And on New Year's Eve, they hammered home their dominance in the AFC with a 56-19 thrashing of their closest challengers, the number two seed Miami Dolphins.

It was yet another big stage upon which quarterback Lamar Jackson has delivered an elite performance this season. The favourite to be named the NFL's Most Valuable Player has now beaten 10 teams with winning records during this campaign.

Can anyone stop Lamar or the Ravens? It's hard to look past them when it comes to lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Las Vegas in February.

Jackson produced the perfect NFL passer rating of 158.3 as he hit on 18 of 21 passes for 321 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. But you didn't need those numbers at all. You simply needed to watch him for three hours on Sunday night to know that quarterback play doesn't get any better than that.

And the leader of all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards barely needed to take off on scrambles, running just six times on the night. Even with Lamar playing within himself in that department, the Ravens still rushed for 160 yards and two scores.

While Lamar was the headline act, this was a total team performance. Five different players caught touchdown passes and the defense recorded two sacks and two interceptions. Over the past two weeks, against their closest rivals and star-studded attacks, Baltimore's top-ranked defense has registered seven sacks and seven interceptions. That is a bruising way to deliver a message to the rest of the offenses around the NFL.

I visited the Ravens this summer and there was a quiet confidence in the air. At that time, the media circus was focused on the likes of Kansas City, Miami, Cincinnati and the Aaron Rodgers-led New York Jets in the AFC and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was absolutely fine with that. He knew the talent and toughness he had on his team and was willing to let others find out for themselves down the road.

Lamar was talking Super Bowl in the summer and Odell Beckham Jr. told me that he chose the Ravens on his comeback trail because of their quarterback situation and their championship-level talent across the board. The feeling inside Baltimore's camp as far back as July was that this was going to be a special season.

They're not there yet and it should be noted that Lamar Jackson is 1-3 in the playoffs and has never advanced past the Divisional Round, but the Ravens are the class of the NFL this season and are playing an old-school, physical brand of football that has served Super Bowl champions of the past very well indeed.

They're undoubtedly the team to beat with just one week of the regular season remaining.

Who's Hot?

Joe Flacco… The Cleveland Browns are into the playoffs following their 37-20 win over the New York Jets in Week 17. And it is not an exaggeration to say that 38-year-old quarterback Joe Flacco, who spent much of this season watching the NFL from his sofa, has saved their season. Even with star receiver Amari Cooper sidelined with a heel injury, Flacco still threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets. The Browns are now 4-1 since signing Flacco and he is an obvious and significant upgrade on Dorian Thompson-Robinson and P.J. Walker. The former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player has now thrown for 300 yards or more in four straight games – the longest streak of his career and certainly the most unexpected run. It feels like the Browns are on a magical journey with Flacco at the helm and the greybeard veteran is writing one of the biggest stories of this and any recent NFL season.

George Pickens… Pittsburgh's wide receiver has been accused of not caring about his team and only playing for himself in recent weeks. It all came to a head a couple of weeks ago when he openly admitted to not throwing a block for Jaylen Warren during a Week 15 loss to Indianapolis because he didn't want "to get injured." Since then, Pickens has played at an other-worldly level. He caught four passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 16 win over Cincinnati and Sunday saw him reel in several logic-defying catches as he went seven for 131 yards in a victory over Seattle. Pittsburgh need a Week 18 win and other results to go their way to get into the playoffs and I have a feeling they will live to regret back-to-back home losses to the lowly Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots, but at least they have finally woken something in George Pickens. He has true superstar potential.

Kansas City Chiefs Defense… The Cincinnati Bengals had the Kansas City Chiefs on their heels with 6:23 remaining in the first half on Sunday, taking a 17-7 lead at Arrowhead Stadium on Jake Browning's touchdown run. The Chiefs were staring down a seventh loss of the season and a fifth in front of their own fans. But the Bengals never scored again thanks to a Kansas City defense that is now firmly considered one of the best in the league. That allowed Kansas City to clinch the AFC West for the eighth year in a row even though their last six scores were all Harrison Butker field goals. The Chiefs dialled up consistent and confusing pressure that was too much for Browning. He was sacked six times and Cincinnati were held to just 263 total yards. There is no doubt Kansas City are stuck in mud on offense, so it looks like any title run is going to need to be powered by the defense.

Who's Not?

Philadelphia Eagles… The demise of the reigning NFC champions in recent weeks has been one of the most stunning developments of the past month or so. Philadelphia lost for a fourth time in five games on Sunday as they fell 35-31 to the Arizona Cardinals. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has openly questioned the commitment of the team while receiver A.J. Brown has not spoken to the media since December 22. The offense was a problem once again in Week 17, gaining just 275 yards and suffering another Jalen Hurts turnover. But it was the defense that could not get off the field and allowed the Cardinals to gain 449 yards and to score 35 points. Philly's pass rush has dried up a year after being one of the best in NFL history. And this talent-laden team is now staring down entering the playoffs as a Wild Card outfit and not as a division champion. On this form, few will expect Philly to make much postseason noise this time around.

Carolina Panthers Offense… It's tough to take any positives out of this season for the Carolina Panthers because their team has just not advanced and there has not been nearly enough growth out of first overall pick quarterback Bryce Young. That is a problem that has been exacerbated by the excellence of the young quarterback taken one spot later in C.J. Stroud, of the Houston Texans. During Sunday's 26-0 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina registered 57 rushing yards and an embarrassing 67 net passing yards. They ran 53 plays for a total of 124 yards and don't really have much to look forward to as the first overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft has already been given to the Chicago Bears in the deal made to acquire Young. And now owner David Tepper is being investigated by NFL Security after video emerged of him allegedly throwing a drink over fans in the stands. These are dark days in Charlotte and I don't know how the Panthers are going to entice a high-calibre head coach to oversee proceedings.

The Minnesota Vikings… With their 33-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers on New Year's Eve, the Minnesota Vikings dropped their fifth game out of their last six. And it leaves them all but out of the NFC playoff race with one round of games remaining. Minnesota started Sunday's game with Jaren Hall back at quarterback, but he could only muster 67 passing yards and an interception. They turned back to Nick Mullens, who had been an up-and-down substitute at best. Ultimately, Hall, Mullens and Josh Dobbs have not been able to get the job done in the absence of Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins. There is no doubt Cousins has his critics and Vikings fans often complain about him, but look how valuable he is to this team? I believe that Minnesota are a playoff club with Cousins at the helm. His value to that team has actually risen in the weeks he has been away from the field. I would expect to see him back and leading the Vikings' challenge in 2024.

The Fast Five

  • The Miami Dolphins faced an interesting dilemma when trailing the Baltimore Ravens 35-13 a minute and a half into the third quarter. Do you give up the ghost on that game and rest some starters for a must-win Week 18 clash against Buffalo? Or do you look to build momentum ahead of the season finale? It was never a question among the experts I asked – you keep playing your guys and find some form. That probably was the right thing to do but that meaningless second half did see Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffer a throwing shoulder injury that will need to be monitored. And Pro Bowl edge rusher Bradley Chubb was lost for the season to a torn ACL. I'm not saying I told you so, I'm just highlighting why the question was raised in the first place and to show the thought process coaches have to consider.
  • Dan Campbell and his Detroit Lions insist they reported the correct offensive lineman as eligible as they went for a game-winning two-point conversion on Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Taylor Decker reported, according to the Lions, and caught the winning pass from Jared Goff. But he was flagged for a penalty because referee Brad Allen said that Dan Skipper had reported as eligible to catch a pass. If this was an officiating mistake, it was a huge one. But the Lions did try to get cute. They had three lineman around Allen but only one could report as eligible. They aimed to confuse the Cowboys and may have confused the official in the process.
  • The Chicago Bears are now locked in as owners of the first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and I'm sure they will be sorely tempted to grab one of the top quarterbacks coming out of college football. But Justin Fields is making a case for any future team to be built around him. He threw an absolute beauty of a touchdown pass to D.J. Moore and ran for a score in a 37-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons. With seven wins to their name, the Bears have produced a pretty decent season that offers hope for the future. But will that future feature Fields at quarterback or a fresh face?
  • The kingdom has well and truly collapsed and the New England Patriots are in ruins. Sunday's 27-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills, which featured another four giveaways in a sloppy outing, saw the Patriots record 12 defeats in a single season for the first time since 1992. And they have finished bottom of the AFC East for the first time since 2000. Bill Belichick and his team have been on a slow slide since Tom Brady left town but it has been a speedy decline in 2023 and one that should see the Hall of Fame head coach either retire or move to pastures new in 2024. I expect a mutual parting of ways as soon as Monday and then Belichick will either be traded to another team or allowed to pursue a fresh challenge. I think that will be a move that is good for both Belichick and the Patriots.
  • The Houston Texans improved to 9-7 on the season with Sunday's 26-3 victory over the Tennessee Titans. And they now play the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night knowing a victory will see them reach the postseason. The return of C.J. Stroud at quarterback and the form of young defenders such as Will Anderson and Derek Stingley Jr. should have the hopes fairly high in Houston. But, regardless of what happens in Week 18, this has been a season of huge success for DeMeco Ryans. The Texans have already won nine games having picked up just seven victories in the previous two seasons combined. In stark contrast to the aforementioned Panthers, the future looks bright in Houston.

Final Thought

We now know that the road to Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas will run through Baltimore in the AFC and San Francisco in the NFC as the Ravens and the 49ers have clinched the top seeds in their respective conferences. But there is still much to play for in Week 18 and that's just the way the NFL likes it. They want wide open races that keep hopes alive and fans and media guessing. As we head towards the games on Saturday and Sunday, four divisions and five playoff berths are still up for grabs. We may know the favourites at the top of the NFL pile, but plenty of others fighting for an invite to the postseason party will be keeping us entertained over the coming weekend.