By Around the NFL staff
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Who wants the sixth seed?
The Titans‘ upset win over the Broncos in Nashville drew Denver even with teams previously out of the playoff picture in the AFC. With a win over Arizona, the Dolphins moved to 8-5, tied for the final spot, but their victory was costly; Ryan Tannehill is believed to have torn his ACL.
There are zero questions at quarterback or running back in Pittsburgh. The Steelers rolled over Buffalo in the snow, thanks to a three-score afternoon from Le’Veon Bell. Also at 8-5, Pittsburgh has a brief stranglehold on the third seed, one that will be questioned when Baltimore plays the Patriots on Monday night.
Meanwhile, in the NFC, Washington all but knocked Philadelphia out of playoff contention with a late strip sack on Carson Wentz and moved to within a half-game of the Buccaneers. Minnesota escaped disaster in Jacksonville, keeping its playoff hopes alive at 7-6, while the Packers kept pace following their dismantling of Seattle at Lambeau.
Here’s what we learned from Week 14:
Atlanta Falcons 42, Los Angeles Rams 14
1. What a huge win for the Falcons, who find themselves in a heated fight for the NFC South after Tampa Bay edged New Orleans to remain tied at 8-5. Atlanta played excellent football in all three phases of the game and silenced the L.A. Coliseum crowd early on — the loudest roar of the second half came during the two separate, unlawful appearances of fans on the field — taking advantage of the phenomenal field position afforded to them by the Rams‘ opening blunder and never looking back. Ryan threw two touchdown passes in the first half, fellow rookie Deion Jones picked off Jared Goff and housed it, and the Falcons simply rolled in one of the bigger blowouts of the 2016 season. Not exactly a good look for Jeff Fisher, whose preseason extension has become a hot topic, while his team cools off more and more with each week.
2. The Rams are bad, but it’s not for a lack of talent. Los Angeles struggles because it can’t get out of its own way. The Rams opened the game by fumbling the kickoff on their own three. Right tackle Rob Havenstein got caught in quicksand when trying to pass drop against Vic Beasley, resulting in a strip sack and return for touchdown. Goff had a pass in the red zone deflect off his receiver’s hands for an interception. Oh, and there was that pick-six. Coaches harp on it from the earliest stages of the game: Turnovers will end your football hopes and dreams. They built a climb to the summit of Everest and left their rookie with little help.
3. Goff looks like a rookie, but shows an occasional sign that maybe, just maybe this will work out. While the Rams were being torn down from every which way — deep bombs to wide open wideouts such as Taylor Gabriel didn’t help the competition — Goff hit receivers on quick plays and connected a couple of times on deeper passes, including one that was nullified thanks to offensive pass interference on Brian Quick. But for every positive completion, there were the passes Goff sailed beyond open receivers, and the half-beat too long he often took while under pressure. Goff even scored a rushing touchdown, but was pulverized between two defenders at the goal line. The rough development continues.
— Nick Shook
Cincinnati Bengals 23, Cleveland Browns 10
1. The Bengals are the more notable team in this matchup, and have been for some time, winning their fifth straight over Cleveland on Sunday. The last time the Browns beat the Bengals, they moved to 6-3 and the top of the AFC North — in 2014. Their record since then: 4-32. This game played like the mismatch it appeared to be. Despite a wet snow and dropping temperatures, the Bengals exerted their will on the Browns, rushing with ease and denying any offensive response. It resulted in a 20-0 halftime lead, and a win to keep a heartbeat for their playoff hopes. The tale of this contest was quite simple: Cincinnati is a much better team than Cleveland, as are the other 29 teams not named San Francisco.
2. Robert Griffin III reached halftime with a passer rating of 0.0, but he wasn’t that bad overall. Sure, a few of his passes were wayward, and he threw an interception on a flea flicker heaved from his own end zone. But Griffin also brought another dimension to Cleveland’s offense in his ability to run the ball, and extend plays by scrambling. On a couple of occasions, it resulted in fresh sets of downs for the Browns. Combined with the running of Isaiah Crowell (113 yards on 10 carries), Cleveland’s read option became effective in the third and fourth quarters. It was a welcome sign of a team that, featuring its true starter for the first time since Week 1 and still without a win in Week 14, wasn’t going down without a fight.
3. Jamie Collins has had at least eight tackles in every game he’s played in orange and brown. He bested that Sunday with 13 takedowns. Collins was all over the field, providing life and a handful of vicious tackles to keep Cleveland’s defense from lying down after giving up 20 straight points in the first half. Unfortunately for the Browns, an outside linebacker can’t singlehandedly stop an opponent’s running game, evident in Cincinnati’s 213 yards rushing and stranglehold on time of possession (34:53 to 25:07). If Cleveland wants to climb out of the doldrums that is 2016, it needs to start by retaining the little high-level talent (Collins and Terrelle Pryor) currently on its roster.
— Nick Shook