The A.F.C. playoff race only gets more and more contentious with each passing week, and teams are adjusting to make sure they can keep pace. To that end, the Jets reset their offense by sitting quarterback Zach Wilson and running back James Robinson. The Bengals and the Titans put their contrasting styles on display in another hard-fought matchup that is becoming one of the conference’s most underrated rivalries.
The Jets’ offense can work.
Coach Robert Saleh hasn’t gone so far as to say that the second-year quarterback Zach Wilson won’t return as the Jets’ starter, but the team’s 31-10 win over the Bears at home pointed out the glaring disconnect between Wilson and the offense’s potential.
On Sunday, Mike White completed 22 of 28 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns, lacing throws to 10 different receivers while starting in place of Wilson, who was inactive for the game after a nightmare performance with just nine completions against the Patriots in Week 11.
When the Jets selected Wilson No. 2 overall out of Brigham Young University in 2021, the bill was that they were getting a semi-athletic, strong-armed scrambler who could go off script and make big plays down the field. He would be a player whose creativity and explosive plays could make up for inefficiency, à la Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray.
But despite the team adding tight end C.J. Uzomah and the rookie receiver Garrett Wilson in the off-season, Zach Wilson hasn’t yet consistently made the types of throws that keep drives alive long enough for firework plays to develop. He doesn’t work the quick game or check through his progressions, and that has made for a wonky fit in Mike LaFleur’s offense, which is built on timing and precision.
LaFleur, who previously worked under Kyle Shanahan, employs a scheme built on play-action calls and throws targeting the middle of the field, similar to those run by accurate quarterbacks like Jimmy Garoppolo and Tua Tagovailoa.
On Sunday, White highlighted what is supposed to work for the Jets (7-4). The team’s first drive featured five short completions before White found Garrett Wilson on a short corner route in the end zone for an 8-yard score that helped put the Jets up by 7-0.
White’s second touchdown, also to Wilson, showcased the big-play potential of the Jets’ personnel. On a first-and-10 near midfield late in the second quarter, the Jets stacked Denzel Mims and Wilson to the right side and had Mims run an over route to clear the middle of the field for Wilson. White reared back and delivered the ball to Wilson right over a linebacker. Wilson made a Bears defender miss, then zoomed to the end zone for a 54-yard score.
This is the second straight season in which White has made a star cameo for the Jets. White, selected in the fifth round by Dallas in 2018, stunned the league in the Jets’ upset win over the Bengals in his first career start last season. He threw four picks to a fierce Bills defense two weeks later. White’s big moment this season comes with a grain of salt: The Bears (3-9) started a backup quarterback of their own, Trevor Siemian, and couldn’t generate a semblance of a pass rush.
Still, LaFleur called plays that got Jets open all over the field and swapped in the rookie running back Zonovan Knight (14 carries, 69 yards) for James Robinson, whom the Jets acquired from Jacksonville after Breece Hall was injured. With a bit of accuracy and balance, the Jets, for once, made winning look routine.
Bengals vs. Titans is an underrated clash of styles.
The cliché that styles make fights holds particular truth at this point in the season, when temperatures drop and the stakes rise with each remaining for would-be contenders.
The ground-and-pound Titans (7-4) hardly have anything in common, stylistically, with the Bengals’ high-flying passing offense and that mismatched pairing once again made for a compelling bout on Sunday. In the sequel to January’s divisional-round playoff game, which the Bengals won en route to a Super Bowl appearance, Cincinnati (7-4) came out on top, 20-16, in Tennessee.
Playing behind a middling offensive line and without receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ offense were stymied for most of the game by the Titans’ bullying defensive line. Instead of trying to win with speed on the edges, the Titans regularly play the 269-pound Bud Dupree and the 285-pound Denico Autry, a beefy duo who can crush the pocket and condense space.
Cincinnati’s first three drives ended in punts and Burrow took his only sack of the day in the first quarter. Tennessee’s defense, one of the league’s best on third downs, held Cincinnati to just 5 of 14 conversions.
But the Bengals’ explosiveness can sometimes detract from how willingly the team’s personnel can adjust. The offense has almost exclusively returned to shotgun formations after a rocky first two games and can spread the field for short gains until a shot opens up for running back Samaje Perine or for Burrow to find receiver Tee Higgins.
Burrow turned to a smattering of quick throws to avoid dealing with the Titans’ pass rush altogether. Tennessee’s offense countered the Bengals’ swarming running back Derrick Henry by feeding him short passes, one of which Henry busted for a 69-yard gain before being stripped at the goal line. Titans receiver Treylon Burks recovered the fumble for a touchdown that put the Titans up, 10-3 after the extra point, in the second quarter.
The game went to halftime tied, 10-10, and the teams traded field goals in the third quarter. The Bengals’ offensive talent only began to win out during their six-play, 75-yard drive that ended in the beginning of the fourth quarter. Higgins brought in two 20-plus-yard snags on the sideline, the second for a touchdown.
The Titans, who did not score a touchdown in three red zone tries, booted a 38-yard field goal and were elated to limit the Bengals to kicking after their defense held on third-and-11 from the Tennessee 13-yard line with two minutes left. Up by 4 points before the try, Cincinnati, had it made the kick, would have left the Titans a little over a minute to try to tie. But defensive end Kevin Strong clobbered the snapper on the field goal attempt and was called for unnecessary roughness, giving Cincinnati a new set of downs to kneel out the clock.
With talent and style clashing until the bitter end, this game was a sample platter of what should be a hard-fought finish in the A.F.C.
Around the N.F.L.
Commanders 19, Falcons 13: The Commanders do not feel like a 7-5 team, but with this win over the Falcons, that’s what they are. Running the ball had been Atlanta’s calling card, but Washington won the ground battle, 176 yards to 167, led by Brian Robinson’s 105 yards on 18 carries. The Falcons had a shot to win with a minute left, but Marcus Mariota’s pass was tipped inside the 5-yardline and fell into the hands of Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller. Taylor Heinicke improved to 5-1 since replacing Carson Wentz at quarterback.
Dolphins 30, Texans 15: Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had no issue finding Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in the Texans’ zone-heavy defense, calling passes over runs at about a three-to-one ratio as the Dolphins scored 30 points in the first half. The starting left tackle Terron Armstead left the game with a pectoral injury, and Miami cruised to its fifth straight win and retained control of the A.F.C. East.
Panthers 23, Broncos 10: Russell Wilson was outdueled by Sam Darnold (11 of 19 passing for 164 yards and a touchdown), who made his first start of the season for Carolina. Wilson finished with just 4.1 yards per attempt, and the Broncos’ lone touchdown came with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. A successful onside kick attempt gave the Broncos brief hope, but Denver turned it over on downs and that was that.
Browns 23, Buccaneers 17, overtime: Cleveland has a bottom-10-ranked run defense, and the Bucs entered the game dead last in rushing offense. Tampa Bay stuck with its high-volume passing game, but was held without a point on their last seven possessions as Jacoby Brissett mounted a 13-point comeback to beat the Buccaneers in what is expected to be his last start before Deshaun Watson returns from an 11-game suspension.
Jaguars 28, Ravens 27: Baltimore’s fourth quarters have been interesting, to say the least. The Ravens entered the final quarter ahead, 12-10, and the two teams combined to score 33 points in the fourth. Trevor Lawrence found Zay Jones and Marvin Jones on back-to-back plays and scored on a 75-yard drive with less than 30 seconds left. Jaguars Coach Doug Pederson’s 2-point conversion attempt was successful. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker nearly made a 67-yarder as time expired, but in a rare moment of mortality, he came up short.
Bengals 20, Titans 16: The Titans’ brutish front-four and tricky coverage schemes put a damper on the Bengals’ offense for about three quarters before Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins decided it was jump ball time. On the other end, the Titans’ offense had its game plan flipped on its head. Derrick Henry was held to 38 yards on 17 carries and fumbled into the end zone for his teammate Treylon Burks to recover and score Tennessee’s only touchdown of the day.
Jets 31, Bears 10: Mike White, starting in place of Zach Wilson, carved up a lousy Bears defense, finding Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore for three total touchdowns. The Bears, on the other hand, looked totally lost with their backup quarterback, Trevor Siemian, who appeared to injure his oblique muscle in warm-ups.