By Nick Shook | NFL.com
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It’s that time of the year. It’s that time when we all start to tire of holiday advertisements, get paper cuts from overpriced wrapping paper and develop a serious disdain for Scotch tape. It’s that time when bad football teams face equally awful football teams and they call it the “Top College Football Player X Bowl.” But most importantly, it’s that time when late-season divisional games populate the schedule, and suddenly, we have very, very important football on deck.
Such was the case across the league on Sunday. Indianapolis clinched the AFC South with a win over division rival Houston, Denver did the same to claim the AFC West crown against San Diego, Buffalo kept its playoff hopes alive in a stunning win over Green Bay, and Carolina somehow gained control of its previously unlikely playoff aspirations. Oh, and the Jets managed to win the Marcus Mariota Bowl in Tennessee, prompting Rex Ryan to tell reporters he doesn’t give a you-know-what about the Heisman Trophy winner or the No. 1 pick.
Meaningful football typically brings the best — and sometimes, the worst — out of players on all levels. You know the saying: Big-time players make big-time plays.
Here are this week’s best big time players on the road.
Greatest on the Road …
Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
This was the week the rookie was going to shine. It was finally his time, and the world would soon learn he is a man to be reckoned with.
Instead of Dec. 14, 2014 serving as the coronation of Manziel as the future face of football in Cleveland and beyond, it was the day when Hill finally put the clamps on the feature back role in Cincinnati. It was also the day he made good on his words that were once seen as ill advised and inaccurate.
That’s right, the same guy who said the Browns were “even worse” than he thought during the hours after Cleveland handled the Bengals in Cincinnati on Thursday Night Football, suddenly opened the eyes of thousands.
Is Cleveland as bad as they looked Sunday? Time will tell, and it will tell us that it’s ultimately irrelevant. What’s important here is instead of retracting his derisive statement, Hill spoke with his play. And boy, did it open the eyes of many.
A Bengals team that inexplicably abandoned the run the first time around against Cleveland made it clear from the outset it was going to lean on Hill, who was more than capable of carrying the load. Hill bullied each and every single one of the 11 Cleveland defenders all afternoon, rumbling for 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 attempts.
While Manziel struggled to gain more yards through the air than Tom Brady had on the ground — a task he finally completed in the fourth quarter — Hill could not be stopped, gaining an average of 5.92 yards per rush.
Sunday’s performance caps a rather impressive month from the rookie running back who led his way into the league with his shoulder, but has since shown agile capabilities, making him one of the more threatening young backs in the NFL. With fellow big back Le’Veon Bell flourishing in year two, could the league be trending back toward power backs?
The only failure on the part of Hill on Sunday came when he tried to jump in the stands and got denied, face-first, by a Browns fan.
That was the least of his worries. I’d say that’s a pretty good day.
Also considered …
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
If we declared possession of years based on how many times a man appears in Greatness on the Road, 2014 is undoubtedly Dez Bryant‘s year.
Bryant’s situation on Sunday nearly mirrored that of Hill — huge divisional game on the road, needing a win to keep pace atop the playoff race — except Bryant is a proven Pro Bowl wide receiver who has giant hands, a representation contract with Roc Nation Sports (which means he gets to hang with Jay Z and maybe get a future name drop in a verse on Watch The Throne 2) and many more difference-making moments than the rookie running back.
I can’t remember the last semi-important game in which Bryant didn’t come up big. If you count an early season matchup against Arizona — a game in which Brandon Weeden was Bryant’s quarterback — that might qualify, but I’m tossing that one out thanks to the ineptitude of Weeden. On Sunday night, Bryant had his way with the man unfortunate enough to line up across from him, Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher.
Bryant torched Fletcher for six catches, 114 yards and three, count ’em, three touchdowns. The first of the three touchdowns? Quintessential Romo-to-Bryant, a back shoulder fade that Bryant palmed for six. The other two scores were on almost the exact same play, with Romo twice dropping long passes into the soft spot between Fletcher and the safety playing over the top in Cover 2.
By the time Dallas walked away as winners, all that needed to be asked was what type of spread Bryant wanted, butter or jam, because Fletcher was simply toasted.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Let us take a moment to reflect upon Pittsburgh’s last two weeks.
Fresh off a humiliating home loss to New Orleans, the Steelers went into Cincinnati last week and turned a close game with playoff implications into a blowout. Behind the arm of Roethlisberger and legs of Bell, the Steelers ran away with the victory.
Fast forward to Week 16, and you get more of the same.
I’d really like to split this award two ways, because although Bell wasn’t nearly as statistically scintillating against Atlanta, he again left his mark on the game. The man heralded by man as the best running back in the league gained 47 yards on 27 carries and scored two touchdowns on the ground against a defense that was clearly bent on stopping him.
No worries, because that’s where Roethlisberger comes in to pick up the slack.
Big Ben took advantage of Atlanta’s gameplan by delivering strikes to receivers all over the field, most notably Antonio Brown, who hauled in 10 passes for 123 yards and was 3 feet shy of a touchdown on this aesthetically pleasing grab. Roethlisberger shredded the Falcons‘ defense for 360 yards on 27-of-35 passing (109.2 passer rating). Though he was shut out of the end zone through the air, he did everything necessary to set the Steelers up on the doorstep of the end zone. There, they turned to Bell.
Roethlisberger punctuated an effective outing by finding tight end Heath Miller on third-and-1 from the Atlanta 39 with two minutes left. The completion gave Pittsburgh a first down, and having used all three of their timeouts, the Falcons were forced to convene at midfield, shake hands and head home a loser.
Wait, can we cut the “also considered” second slot into thirds? William Gay deserves a mention for this touchdown dance, if nothing more: