By Around the NFL staff
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Baby, it’s cold outside — but the playoff races are heating up!
The moribund AFC South showed signs of life on Sunday with each of its three contenders coming away with victories. Brock Osweiler was finally — mercilessly — benched in favor of Tom Savage, who led a major Texans comeback over the Jaguars to stay tied in the lead in the South with the Titans … whose quarterback, Marcus Mariota overcame early errors to ignite a 10-point comeback in frigid Kansas City … but don’t count out the Colts, who rolled over the hapless Vikings and are just one game back.
Elsewhere, a Lions loss to the Giants and a close Packers victory in the sub-zero Windy City closed the former’s lead in the NFC North to one game; and with their respective wins, Baltimore and Pittsburgh stayed neck-and-neck atop the AFC North with next week’s matchup looming. Here’s what we’ve learned so far from Week 15:
1. Atlanta’s greatest weapon early in the season was its air attack, with Julio Jones at the center. But in the last two weeks, the Falcons have thrived even without Jones. The scheduling gods did the Falcons a favor with this two-game stretch against the Rams and Niners, yes, but what’s most impressive is how Matt Ryan spreads it around to anyone wearing red and black. Taylor Gabriel has gotten a chance to show off his route running abilities and pure speed, posting near-identical games in the last two weeks (three catches, 82 yards, one touchdown vs. Los Angeles; three catches, 60 yards, one touchdown vs. San Francisco).
2. The league has been put on notice. Atlanta’s dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is a pair to be feared. A stocky runner who is tough to tackle, Freeman was a force on the ground Sunday, rushing 20 times for 139 yards and three touchdowns against San Francisco’s league-worst run defense. The runs were even more impressive than his numbers, as Freeman broke three tackles to score his second touchdown after strolling into the end zone for his first trip to paydirt. Add in Coleman, who offers another pass-catching option out of the backfield, and you have a Falcons offense that can get it done on the ground and through the air.
3. Carlos Hyde remains one of the very few bright spots on the 49ers roster. After Atlanta took a 21-0 lead in the first, it looked like the game was over before it really even began. That ended up being true, but you wouldn’t have known it by watching Hyde, who rushed 13 times for 71 yards that were much more powerful and eye-opening than the statistics indicate.
— Nick Shook
1. For at least a few days, the heat is off Tyrod Taylor and Rex Ryan. Buffalo got a break with a matchup against the NFL’s worst team in Cleveland and capitalized, running roughshod through Cleveland’s sieve-like defense for 280 yards. Buffalo relied on what it does best offensively, blocking well for LeSean McCoy, who looked as good as ever in slicing through the opposing unit with shifty cuts and bursts of speed. These Bills need a lot of help to sneak into the postseason — they’re not mathematically eliminated, but the chances remain slim — but Taylor and Ryan can avoid questions about their statuses in the coming days.
2. Robert Griffin III did Robert Griffin III things, like rolling out and launching it deep, extending plays with his feet to complete passes while getting crushed as he released, and even running for a touchdown. But for every good thing he did, there were at least two bad things. Griffin badly missed open receivers running mid-level routes on multiple occasions, and held onto the ball for far too long in the pocket, resulting in multiple sacks (Buffalo finished with a total of five). Coach Hue Jackson said that, for the final two weeks of the season, change is possible anywhere and everyone is in play, which is how it should be when you’re 0-14.
3. A young fan held up a sign before the contest that pondered why the game wasn’t scheduled in primetime. Here’s a fun fact: the Browns and Bills have met in a primetime slot twice in the last decade (MNF 2008, TNF 2013). Cleveland won each of those contests, but thankfully for the rest of Americans with working sensory organs, this one was a regional broadcast. The Bills were the better team from the start of the game, dominating Cleveland in the second half and capping it with none other than EJ Manuel entering to take snaps late in the fourth.
— Nick Shook