What We Learned From Week 15 in the N.F.L.

The final games of the regular season are meant to solidify playoff seeding, but in Week 15 precious few postseason berths were clinched over a chaotic slate that featured three overtime games. When the dust — and snow — cleared, the Cowboys fell to the resurgent Jaguars, the Raiders picked a win over the Patriots out of thin air, and the A.F.C. wild-card spots were just as up for grabs as they had been before the weekend’s games kicked off.

It is easy for a team’s season to fade quickly in the N.F.L. A few unlucky losses, a bad string of injuries, a couple of poor coaching decisions — any of these could be the margin between a successful season and a wasted year.

On Sunday, the A.F.C.’s wild-card race turned into slapstick with the Raiders’ inconceivable 30-24 win over the Patriots, which was decided on the game’s final play. With the Jets having already lost, New England had a chance to leap-frog ahead in the A.F.C. East and looked to be cruising to overtime against Las Vegas.

Tied at 24-24, the Patriots had the ball on their own 45-yard line with three seconds left. They were too far for a field goal and out of Hail Mary range. New England opted to hand the ball off to running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who lateraled the ball back to receiver Jakobi Meyers. Meyers described what happened next as him “trying to do too much and trying to be a hero,” knowing that he should have let time expire by giving himself up or going out of bounds.

But Meyers tried to throw the ball back to Mac Jones near the line of scrimmage without noticing that the 6-foot-5 Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones stood between them. Chandler Jones picked the pass and stiff-armed Mac Jones on his way to the end zone, giving the Raiders a win in improbable fashion.

That play encapsulated the chaotic A.F.C. wild-card picture. By some miracle, the once 2-7 Raiders still have a 6 percent chance to get in the postseason, according to The Upshot’s playoff simulator. And with the Chargers’ win over the Titans, the Patriots and the Jets were both out of the playoffs as of Sunday.

The Dolphins are currently the No. 7 seed, but their loss to the Bills on Saturday added some complications. The Jaguars then beat the Cowboys in overtime on Sunday, putting themselves just one game back of Tennessee in the A.F.C. South.

It doesn’t feel like there is any use trying to sort out the A.F.C. playoff picture from where it stands now.

Cincinnati’s offense has received most of the praise and scrutiny for the team’s ups and downs this season. The not-that-woeful offensive line, Joe Burrow’s return to shotgun formations and the magic of the Bengals’ receivers have all been named or blamed during the team’s rise back to the top of the A.F.C. North.

But the team’s defense has been an underrated unit, even early in the season, and has turned it up a notch over the past month. Under the coordinator Lou Anarumo, the Bengals had allowed just 16.7 points per game over the three games heading into Week 15, a figure that ranked tied for seventh in that stretch. Only Kansas City scored more than 20 points, but it came in a 27-24 Cincinnati win.

The Bengals’ defense held firm Sunday after the Buccaneers got out to a 17-3 first-half lead, forcing turnovers on four of five drives to start the second half. Tom Brady threw two interceptions and fumbled twice, and only one of those was an unforced error (Brady and his running back botched a handoff).

Just as Anarumo had called for against Kansas City, the Bengals dropped eight defensive players into coverage against Tampa Bay and counted on Brady to force the issue. On the first interception of the second half, with 9 minutes 42 seconds left in the third quarter, Brady tried to squeeze in a stop route at the sticks on third-and-8. The window between two Bengals defenders was too tight, however, and Brady’s low misfire ended up in cornerback Tre Flowers’s hands.

The Cincinnati front seven took over from there. Brady, on the following drive, took his only sack of the day and coughed up a fumble after a hellish blitz from linebacker Logan Wilson. Two drives later, Brady was smacked by the rotational pass rusher Joseph Ossai upon releasing the ball, popping it up for linebacker Germaine Pratt.

What makes the Bengals’ defense dangerous is how well equipped it is to win different games. In victories over the Titans (Week 12) and the Browns (Week 14), the Bengals proved capable of suffocating otherwise prominent run games. D.J. Reader may be the best run-stuffing nose tackle in the league, playing alongside the edge-setters Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson.

Against Kansas City, a pass-first team with the one of the best quarterbacks of the modern era, Anarumo smartly turned to a number of coverages to prevent Kansas City from hitting its home run shots, smattering Cover 2 and 2-Man calls with a dash of the eight-man coverages that gave Kansas City so much trouble back in the A.F.C. championship game between these teams in January.

Cincinnati’s ability to morph its defense to fit whatever offense it has to face and win games however it needs to is a testament to both personnel and coaching. The Bengals don’t quite have an elite defense, but they have a complete unit that can rise to any occasion. In the postseason, that should pay off.

Coming into Sunday’s game, the Lions and the Jets each had a share of the longest playoff drought in their conference. The Jets’ 11-year absence tops the N.F.L., and the Lions’ five-year absence is tied with the Giants for the longest in the N.F.C.

After Detroit won a thriller, 20-17, its playoff hopes were miraculously still alive, a fate that seemed out of the question at the season’s midway point.

Detroit had played several close, high-scoring games, but started the season 1-6 with its only win coming against Washington, which hadn’t yet hit its stride either. All the Lions had to hang their hat on was a hard-nosed running game led by Jamaal Williams, but that hadn’t been enough to consistently produce wins.

A flip switched with their Week 9 win over the Packers, which started a 6-1 stretch. Jared Goff and the passing game found new life, especially with receiver D.J. Chark returning in Week 11 from a six-game absence, and the Lions became a relatively complete football team. Against the Jets, who are trying to remain in playoff contention, Goff and the Lions’ bold gamble on fourth-and-inches, down by 17-13 with less than two minutes remaining, showed that Detroit isn’t done surprising the league.

Near midfield, Goff faked a handoff then targeted tight end Brock Wright on an out route, shocking a defense that had seemed to be loaded up to stop the run. Wright caught the pass and turned upfield for a 51-yard touchdown.

The Jets, who began the season 5-2, now find themselves with a 7-7 record and on the outside of the playoff race, looking in.

The discussion around who will win the Most Valuable Player Award has felt like a two-man race between Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts over the last month. Almost every other early contender — Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow — dropped back for one reason or another, while Mahomes and Hurts kept their teams trucking toward earning No. 1 seeds.

This weekend, those sensational performances continued in narrow wins: Kansas City was pushed to overtime by Houston, despite Mahomes’s three-touchdown, 336-yard passing day, and Hurts ran in three touchdowns in a narrow win over Chicago.

But Josh Allen elbowed his way back onto the shortlist with a heroic performance in the Bills’ 32-29 win over the Dolphins on Saturday night in Orchard Park, N.Y. Allen completed 25 of 40 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and was the Bills’ leading rusher (77 yards on 10 carries) on a snowy Saturday night in which Buffalo clinched the first A.F.C. playoff spot.

Knowing the load Allen carries for the Bills’ offense, Miami pressured him early and the pass rush gained efficacy once Buffalo’s offensive line lost center Mitch Morse to a concussion.

Allen was constantly under siege from linebacker Jaelan Phillips and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, and the Bills had an ineffective running game early on: Through three quarters, the Bills had 11 carries for 21 yards on non-Allen runs. Buffalo’s lack of a ground game put Allen in a ton of obvious passing situations.

Still, Allen made plays out of nothing on a few scrambles, including in the red zone, an area where he had been susceptible to forcing the issue. On the last play before halftime, on first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Allen tried surveying the field normally, but found his receivers blanketed. He resorted to directing traffic before bailing out of the pocket, running all the way to the right sideline before throwing across his body to running back James Cook at the back of the end zone, to push the Bills ahead, 21-13.

The race for the award is still too close to call with three weeks left in the regular season. Mahomes and Allen are first and second in passing yards, and touchdowns; Hurts is tops in quarterback efficiency and his team has the best record of all three players. This should be fun to watch.

Bengals 34, Buccaneers 23: Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ offense had little in the first half, falling behind 17-3. Cincinnati’s fate shifted in the second half when the defense gifted the team a number of short fields. Tom Brady had four turnovers, and Burrow found four different receivers for touchdowns.

Chargers 17, Titans 14: In typical Chargers fashion, this game was harder than it needed to be. With the Titans’ secondary ravaged by injuries, the Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi puzzlingly opted not to test Tennessee down the field. Justin Herbert bailed Los Angeles out anyway. He found Mike Williams on a 35-yard pass with roughly 30 seconds left to set up Cameron Dicker’s 43-yard game-winning field goal, pushing the Chargers into wild-card positioning.

Raiders 30, Patriots 24: The Patriots allowed Derek Carr to drive 81 yards on nine plays to tie the game with 32 seconds left and somehow weren’t done assisting Las Vegas. On the next possession, instead of playing for overtime, New England ran the ball and started throwing laterals, which ended with Raiders defender Chandler Jones intercepting the ball and stomping over quarterback Mac Jones on his way into the end zone.

Broncos 24, Cardinals 15: Three backup quarterbacks played in this game and it felt that way. Both teams entered the game with backups as starters; Colt McCoy for the Cardinals and Brett Rypien for the Broncos. Neither played very well, and McCoy eventually left the game with a concussion, giving way to Trace McSorley getting real snaps. Rypien, by contrast, was sacked seven times, though he did manage to lead the Broncos to their second-highest point total of the season. Both teams are mercifully eliminated from postseason contention.

Jaguars 40, Cowboys 34 (OT): After Jacksonville fell behind by 21-7 in the first half, Trevor Lawrence and the team’s offense exploded for 27 points in the second half, thanks to a number of daring throws, many of which found Zay Jones (six catches for 109 yards and three touchdowns). Lawrence finished with 27 of 42 passing for 318 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. The effort was enough to push the game to overtime, where a Dak Prescott pass bounced off Cowboys receiver Noah Brown’s forearm and into Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins’s arms. Jenkins returned the pick, his second of the game, for the winning score.

Eagles 25, Bears 20: Justin Fields was sacked six times for 61 yards, but he rushed 15 times for 95 yards, nearly half of which came on one heroic 39-yard scramble that set the Bears up for their first score. Fields has exactly 1,000 yards rushing for the season.

On the other end, Jalen Hurts threw two interceptions and was dogged by a chippy game from the Bears’ secondary, but he ran in three scores himself.

Kansas City 30, Texans 24 (OT): Patrick Mahomes diced up the Texans’ secondary all day, but fumbles by Isiah Pacheco and JuJu Smith-Schuster resulted in Texans scores. Houston quarterback Davis Mills was strip-sacked in overtime and Jerick McKinnon ran in a 26-yard score to end the game.

Saints 21, Falcons 18: The N.F.L. debut for the Falcons rookie Desmond Ridder (97 yards passing) didn’t look a whole lot different than any game with Marcus Mariota. Ridder completed just half his 26 passes and ate four sacks, often looking like the game was just a beat too fast for him. The Saints’ Andy Dalton, however, was much more efficient in his limited chances to throw the ball. Most importantly, Dalton executed in and near the red zone, finding Juwan Johnson for 19- and 22-yard touchdowns.

Lions 20, Jets 17: The Lions’ passing offense was held mostly to dinking and dunking, partly a result of Jared Goff’s typical struggles in unsavory weather and the Jets’ lights-out secondary. Zach Wilson’s return as starter yielded a handful of surprising deep throws (317 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, four sacks) but the handful of explosive plays couldn’t bury Detroit, which went ahead on a 51-yard Goff touchdown throw to Brock Wright with less than two minutes remaining.

Steelers 24, Panthers 16: Ball control put the Steelers over the finish line. With Mitchell Trubisky starting in place of an injured Kenny Pickett, the Steelers went into throwback mode with the run game. The Steelers finished with 45 carries for 156 yards (led by Najee Harris’s 86 yards) and converted on 12 of 16 third downs, an exhausting display that kept the Pittsburgh offense on the field.

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