February 21, 2024
A year ago at this time, the Denver Broncos were mired in a five-game losing streak. Their high-priced quarterback was playing the worst football of his career. Their embattled head coach was weeks from being fired.

In Indianapolis, the Colts were slogging through even more dysfunction: Their head coach had been fired in early November, replaced by an ESPN analyst without any NFL coaching experience, and the team was on the verge of a seven-game losing skid to end a season of unimaginable embarrassment.

Twelve months later, both teams find themselves as surprising players in the AFC playoff picture, especially considering each team’s rocky road to this point. The Broncos started 1-5 but after Sunday’s 29-12 win against the Browns are 6-5, currently tied for the longest win streak (five) in the NFL.

After some rough early days, it’s hard to argue with the Sean Payton-Russell Wilson marriage now.

The Colts had franchise quarterback Anthony Richardson for all of four starts in 2023 — and really, just two full games — before a shoulder injury cost him the bulk of his rookie season. And yet, after Indianapolis’ third win a row, a 27-20 victory against the Bucs on Sunday, the Colts are also 6-5, above .500 after Thanksgiving in a season most pundits figured would be lost by this point, with all signs pointing to a top-five pick in next spring’s draft.

So much for that. Few coaches are getting more out of their roster than Shane Steichen is in Indy.

Whether the Broncos and Colts remain contenders in a crowded AFC playoff race will reveal itself over the coming weeks, but their surprising revivals this season — coupled with that of the Houston Texans, who despite a loss Sunday are 6-5 and in the mix as well — add a layer of intrigue in a conference that’s seen a number of favorites backslide this fall.

AFC playoff picture through Week 12

The Bengals have lost Joe Burrow for the season and are 5-6.

The Chargers have lost three in a row and are 4-7.

And the Bills, on the brink of a much-needed victory Sunday evening in Philadelphia, coughed it up late, losing 37-34 after Jalen Hurts erased a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter and darted into the end zone from 12 yards out in overtime for the winning score. It was a backbreaking loss for a Buffalo team that has suddenly lost three of four and will face the Chiefs after a bye week.

The Bills are 6-6, and when it comes to the current playoff picture, remain on the outside looking in. The Colts currently own the seventh spot by virtue of a head-to-win against the Texans earlier this season and a better conference record than the Broncos. But there’s still a lot of football left.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, bounced back from a loss to the Eagles Monday night with a 31-17 win against the Raiders. And late Sunday night, the Ravens turned over the Chargers four times in a 20-10 victory, becoming the first team in the AFC to climb to nine wins.

A Chargers team with all that talent now sits tied for the second-worst record in the entire conference. A season that began with so much promise has instead soured into one of disappointment.

Elsewhere in the NFL, in what feels like a replay from last season, the NFC South remains the league’s worst division. Disagree? The Falcons moved into first place Sunday despite being a game under .500. At this point, Atlanta (5-6) owns the tiebreaker over the Saints (also 5-6) following Sunday’s 24-15 victory. The two will meet again in Week 18.

The Steelers, five days after firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada, piled up more than 400 yards of offense for the first time in almost five years — a span of 58 games — which proved just enough to beat the Burrow-less Bengals, 16-10.

Here’s what stood out from the Week 12 in the NFL:

Eagles just keep winning

Eleven games in, their record is identical to last year — 10-1 — but this season feels different.

Even the Eagles players, starting with Hurts, will acknowledge the fact that they haven’t played their best football yet. The wins are still coming, but they’re less convincing, less clean.

They’ve been grittier, too.

Sunday was the latest chapter, and probably the most impressive. The Eagles were six days removed from beating the Chiefs in a Super Bowl rematch. They trailed at halftime for the fourth consecutive game. They were behind by double digits at two different points in the game, including early in the fourth quarter. Their kicker, Jake Elliott, had to drill a 59-yarder in rainy conditions on a sloppy field just to force overtime. Then the Bills scored first, inching ahead with a field goal.

And yet, the Eagles found a way — again — to pull it out, their fifth come-from-behind win already this season, with Hurts finding the end zone from 12 yards out for the walk-off victory.

“Just clutch in clutch moments,” coach Nick Sirianni said of his QB.

The Eagles’ 10-1 start is the best in football and the best record by a team coming off a Super Bowl loss since the 1991 Bills.

Next up: a visit from the NFC’s other top contender, the San Francisco 49ers, in a rematch of last year’s conference title game.


At halftime Sunday, Jalen Hurts had a passer rating of 7.0 and 55 total yards. By the end of the game he had a passer rating of 96.2 and 265 yards with five total TDs. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Broncos push win streak to five 

It’s not just Payton and Wilson who have revived the Broncos this year.

It’s been a stunning midseason turnaround for Vance Joseph’s defense, which gave up 70 points in a Week 3 loss to the Dolphins and was yielding 36.2 points per game through five weeks, easily the worst in the league.

But Joseph’s unit found something in October. Getting a few players back from injury, like safety Justin Simmons, helped. So did a flurry of forced turnovers.

The result has been a complete about-face: Across its last six games, Denver is allowing 16.5 points per outing.

Go figure: the Broncos have won all but one of them.

GO DEEPER

Toughness at core of Broncos’ NFL-best winning streak on display vs. Browns

They stretched their win streak to an NFL-best five games — tied with the Eagles — with Sunday’s win against the Browns, the team that’s boasted the fiercest defense in the league since the start of the season. Denver allowed just two third-down conversions and recovered three fumbles. On the other side of the ball, Wilson was an efficient 13-for-22 for 134 yards and a touchdown.

Only three teams in history have rallied from a 1-5 start to make the playoffs, the last being the Colts in 2018, and at the very least, the Broncos have given themselves a chance.

Jaguars, Texans show why “it’s going to be fun for years to come”

Trevor Lawrence is like anyone else. He sees what’s happening down in Houston this season.

“I want teams in our division to be as bad as possible,” the Jaguars QB joked after his team gutted out a 24-21 win against C.J. Stroud and the Texans. “The way they’re playing … there’s going to be some great matchups down the road. C.J.’s playing lights out. To be a rookie and play how he is?

“It’s going to be fun for years to come.”

It’s looking that way for what is shaping up to be one of the league’s budding, inter-division rivalries, Lawrence’s Jaguars against Stroud’s Texans.

On Sunday in Houston, the midseason surge that lifted the upstart Texans to within a game of the AFC South lead hit a wall. But that doesn’t mean Stroud didn’t make it interesting.

Because this game was decided by mere inches.

Nine weeks after the upset victory that changed the course of their season — a 37-17 beatdown of the Jaguars in Jacksonville — the Texans came crushingly short of a season sweep. Stroud, the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, led the Texans on a 11-play, 45-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that set up a potential game-tying kick from Matt Ammendola.

But Ammendola’s kick from 58 yards, which was dead straight, drilled the crossbar and fell short, ending the Texans’ three-game win streak and clinching the Jags’ seventh victory in eight games.

In the loss, Stroud became the first rookie in league history to record 300 passing yards in four consecutive games, and his second-quarter touchdown to Tank Dell helped the pair climb into some impressive company: It’s just the sixth time in NFL history a rookie tandem has connected for six or more scores in a season, and the first since the Colts’ Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton did so back in 2012.

Stroud and Lawrence combined for 668 passing yards and three touchdowns.

The Jaguars are now 8-3, tied with Miami and Kanas City for the second-best record in the AFC, behind only the Ravens. Jacksonville is now two games up in the division race, but both Houston (6-5) and Indianapolis (6-5) remain in the hunt.


Texans-Jaguars is quickly and unexpectedly evolving into a rivalry of relevance. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

A gutting finish, and a new low in Carolina

How are things going in Carolina?

On Sunday against the Titans, the Panthers ran a bubble screen on 4th-and-6 with the game on the line.

The moment he caught it, D.J. Chark was swarmed by the Titans’ defense. Gain of zero yards. Game over.

And with that, the Panthers fell 17-10, dropping them to 1-10 this season. Owner David Tepper was seen screaming an expletive as he exited the locker room after the loss.

While rookie quarterback Bryce Young would later shoulder the blame for the audible, admitting he checked into the play after spying the defensive front, the result speaks to the Panthers’ offensive ineptitude in Frank Reich’s first season as coach. Carolina sits in the bottom three in just about every pertinent offensive category, a tick above teams that have been without their starting quarterback for weeks, and in some cases, months. The Panthers haven’t scored more than 15 points in a game since mid-October.

And this comes after Reich relinquished play-calling duties a month ago to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, only to retake them three games later.

It’s simply not working in Carolina, and it’s more than fair to wonder whether Tepper — already known for impatience — believes this highly touted coaching staff has his franchise headed in the right direction. Though context is necessary — the Panthers have a mediocre offensive line at best and severely lack talent at the skill positions — Reich hasn’t figured out how to get Young going. The first overall pick in last spring’s draft was 18-for-31 without touchdowns. So far, he’s thrown multiple TDs in a game just once this season.

What can’t help is the fact that Stroud, picked one spot behind Young by an equally-dormant franchise, is having a historic first season in Houston.

Same story in New England

In a stunning development just about everyone saw coming, the Patriots’ plan to split practice reps between two mediocre quarterbacks — and not name a starter until kickoff — backfired tremendously Sunday in the Meadowlands. Mac Jones got the nod and was, again, utterly awful, turning the ball over three times before being benched after a scoreless first half. Bailey Zappe came in and finished with nine completions for 54 yards.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Patriots may be the NFL’s worst team and Bill Belichick is out of answers

Still, New England actually had a shot to send it to overtime, but kicker Chad Ryland hooked his 35-yard attempt and the Giants escaped with a 10-7 win. It’s the eighth time this season the Patriots have been held below 20 points, and combined, the two teams piled up seven punts, an interception and a fumble on the game’s first nine possessions.

“Just bad quarterback play,” Jones said after being benched the second game in a row. “If the quarterback doesn’t play well, you’ve got no chance.”

Thus the story of the Patriots’ 2023 season, although the issues don’t end there. A number of draft whiffs, especially among the offensive skill positions, combined with some dubious coaching hires have turned one of the league’s most successful franchises since the turn of the century into a punchline this season. The Patriots (2-9) are headed for their first top-five pick since 1994.

(Top photo of Shane Steichen and Gardner Minshew:
Lauren Leigh Bacho / Getty Images)


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