What We Learned: 33 Expert Takeaways from Week 14

On Sunday, the NFL saw its first team to clinch a playoff berth this season, a near monumental upset in Big D, and a tightening sub-.500 race in the NFC South. The 33rd Team’s experts weighed in with 33 takeaways from the day’s games:

Bengals 23, Browns 10

1. “Deshaun Watson struggled early and showed some rust but seemed to settle in and looked more comfortable than he did in his first game back last week against Houston. The Browns
needed a win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, but they were out of sync and looked choppy, committing nine penalties for 98 yards — several of which were critical, including roughing the punter.” — T.J. McCreight

2. “In a game the Browns needed to win to have any hope to get into the playoff mix, they played one of their weaker games of the year. The defense was solid but not great and their offense struggled.” — Joe Banner

3. “The Bengals’ offensive line continues to struggle, but other than that this team seems to be getting better and better as the year goes on. It will be interesting to see how far they can go in the playoffs after their strong postseason last year.” — Joe Banner

Cowboys 27, Texans 23 

4. “In my opinion, the Texans should have kicked a field goal to go up by six rather than go for the kill shot on fourth down. And I’m not second-guessing here. They should have kicked the field goal because now they’re up by six. It puts all the pressure on the Cowboys’ offense to drive the length of the field and score a touchdown as compared to just needing a field goal to tie and possibly go to overtime. Down by six and needing a touchdown, that’s a lot of pressure on the offense. It affects play-calling. It affects you offensively. It affects the players. It’s one of those mentalities: I can’t make a mistake. One mistake will kill the drive.” — Dave Wannstedt

5. “I’m not so concerned about the Cowboys. They were a 17-point favorite over a team that has only won one ball game and you can kind of take that game for granted. It’s a trap game for the Cowboys. They won big last week. You’re going to have those kind of games. The fact that they found a way to win, that’s encouraging.” — Eddie George

6. “The Texans lack talent, but Lovie Smith deserves credit. Despite their record, they’re playing as hard as any team in the league every week. At some point, they’ll need to keep the effort high and add more talent in order to win some of these games.” — Joe Banner

7. “I don’t know what happened at halftime, whether Mike McCarthy went to offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and said, ‘I’ve seen enough of this, run the football. Or if McCarthy just decided I’m going to run the ball and start calling plays, or Jerry Jones came out in the press box. Something happened in there that all of a sudden the Cowboys, in the second half, came out and went to a run-first, pass-second offense, and that made all the difference for Dak. Their best players are those running backs. Their offensive line isn’t fantastic, so take some pressure off of them by running the ball. And keep that defense rested. That’s how the Cowboys can make a run through the playoffs and to the Super Bowl.” — Dave Wannstedt

8. “The Cowboys kept themselves in the mix in the NFC East, but with the way Philadelphia is playing, it’s hard to imagine that’s anything more than on paper.” — Joe Banner

Eagles 48, Giants 22

9. “The disadvantage of being in man-to-man against the Eagles is, let’s just say you match up well in man-to-man against those receivers. You don’t match up against that quarterback. There’s nobody in man-to-man to account for that quarterback. I think you have to be very careful of how much man-to-man you play against that team because the matchup, most of the time, depending on who it is, is gonna favor the Eagles.” — Mike Martz

10. “The Giants’ struggles at the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball, were their downfall against the Eagles. They failed to protect their quarterbacks and gave up 253 yards rushing. Saquon Barkley only rushed the ball nine times for 28 yards.” — T.J. McCreight

11. “The Eagles demonstrated that, even against a scheme that is likely one of the more difficult for Jalen Hurts to execute against, they were still dominant.” — Joe Banner

12. “The Giants showed what many of us know: they finally have the front office in place to give them a chance to compete over the next few years. Despite their fast start, they still have very significant deficiencies, particularly on both lines. They have a big decision to make on the quarterback position going forward.” — Joe Banner

Lions 34, Vikings 23

13. “When you watch the Lions play, they really take on Dan Campbell’s personality. And you knew he had something to prove. What’d you see against the Vikings? A fake punt, a pass to seal the game to Penei Sewell, their tackle. They pulled out all the stops, and that’s Campbell’s philosophy. They’re at a point right now where they have nothing to lose. They’ve won enough games to put themselves in position to be in the playoff hunt, and they’ve got a schedule that may lean their way. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up sneaking in and maybe grabbing one of those final wild-card spots if they continue to play the way they’re playing.” — Rick Spielman

14. “Minnesota’s defense appears to both lack talent and a scheme that can elevate that talent to compete against better teams.” — Joe Banner

15. “The Vikings have to play better defense. That’s where playoff teams are able to advance, by being able to run the ball and being able to play good defense. And the Vikings haven’t done that. They’re the worst in pass defense in the NFL. They play a lot of shell coverage, and they’re kind of a bend-don’t-break defense. Against the Lions, they really bent a lot until they finally broke.” — Rick Spielman

16. “If we look at teams that have followed the formula for successfully turning around a franchise to achieve sustained success, that’s exactly what the Lions are doing. They spent the first year with their new coach changing the culture, adding talent, and positioning their draft picks and cap for the future to become more aggressive this year and next year. This is certainly a team with a chance to sneak into the playoffs this year but is being built to position themselves to be the favorite in the NFC North next year.” — Joe Banner

Ravens 16, Steelers 14

17. “This leaves the Ravens in a position to make the playoffs, get Lamar Jackson back, and have a chance to make a run.” — Joe Banner

18. When you are playing your backup quarterback, you hope they can do enough to keep you in it and grind out a victory. If they must play for an extended period, the expectation of a good backup is to keep your team in the hunt and go at least .500. The Ravens-Steelers game was a game of backup quarterbacks. Tyler Huntley and Anthony Brown did not throw any interceptions, but Steelers backup Mitch Trubisky threw three in a game the Steelers lost by 2 points. — T.J. McCreight

19. “The Steelers continue to play hard and are playing better, but they still have a ways to go from a talent perspective and need to develop their quarterback. I worry that their offensive and defensive coordinators are not up to the level that they’ve historically had.” — Joe Banner

20. “Baltimore’s defense has become very opportunistic, and that’s why they’ve been staying in games and not losing ones they were losing earlier in the year. Against the Steelers, they ended up picking off Trubisky three times, which was a critical piece in this close game and sealing the victory.” — Rick Spielman

Jaguars 36, Titans 22

21. “Even though the Jaguars only averaged 2.4 yards per carry on the ground, Trevor Lawrence may have had the best game of his career. He finished with 368 yards, three TDs, zero picks and a rating of 121.9. Doug Pederson was the right hire by Shahid Khan and a perfect fit to develop and prepare a young, talented quarterback.” — T.J. McCreight

22. “I don’t know where this Titans team is right now. Two weeks ago Mike Vrabel said this team is at a crossroads, then they go and fire Jon Robinson. … They seem to be reeling a bit, trying find their identity. I’m really concerned about the long-term view of this team and where they are, and just what’s next for them.” — Eddie George

Bills 20, Jets 12

23. “It’s very important the Bills get a home game in the playoffs, and they get homefield advantage throughout. They want Kansas City, the second seed right now, to come into Orchard Park in January to play a playoff game. That’s what they’ve been waiting for. ” — Andre Reed

24. “Something seems to be off with the Bills, who still found a way to win and stayed in position to have a bye if the season ended today. There’s a big difference in the way Buffalo played in the first half of the season and how they’re playing now. The good news is they’re the No. 1 seed as we sit here today, they’re well-coached and have excellent talent. There is reason to believe that, despite whatever isn’t clicking as well as it was, they’ll figure it out.” — Joe Banner

25. “The Jets continue to play hard and demonstrate that their defense is at or close to the level of being able to compete against the best. They clearly need another year and a solution at quarterback before they’ll be ready to compete with some of the better teams in the league.” — Joe Banner

49ers 35, Buccaneers 7

26. “Brock Purdy is a quarterback who is very smart. You can see that when you watch him play; he has very good pocket presence. I think he’s got better mobility than people give him credit for. I think if you watch the game against that Buccaneers defense, you see a quarterback that’s resourceful, that can create and manufacture some plays when he has to.” — Rich Gannon

27. “The 49ers, with all their weapons, are incredibly difficult to match up against, even when your defense is healthy and at full strength. Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk take everything you have and then some to defend. And now that we are in December, teams are banged up and often missing key players, or their key players are not totally healthy. With small NFL rosters, just having enough healthy players to line up and play can be a challenge. This is one of the biggest shocks for head coaches that come from college and don’t have NFL experience. Even though the 49ers are playing with their third quarterback, they could still be a tough team to play come playoff time. As we saw against Tampa Bay, they just keep on rolling. And even with Samuel most likely missing time, they should still be able to sustain.”  — T.J. McCreight

28. “I don’t know that Byron Leftwich is really helping Tom Brady and this offense. If you’re struggling to run the football, you have to find creative ways on the early downs to take some of the edge off the pass rush. You have to be able to run the football a little bit to help your quarterback. I just don’t see that from Byron Leftwich. They’ve got enough talented backs to be able to do that, and yet they just seem to defer to Brady and the passing game all too often.” — Rich Gannon

Panthers 30, Seahawks 24

29. “The Panthers are now 4-4 with Steve Wilks as the head coach and find themselves only one game out of first place. With some time to establish his style and system, they have won three out of their last four games and are giving better effort and are much more disciplined than they were just two months ago. Look at the distractions and adversity that he has had to deal with in the last eight weeks — the head coach and defensive coordinator were fired after five games, the quarterback who started the season was released, and they traded their best player. If I were David Tepper, I would change Wilks’ title from interim to permanent right now. — T.J. McCreight

30. “As long as they play clean ball, Geno Smith doesn’t turn the ball over, and they continue to get splash plays on the offensive side of the ball, the Seahawks can play with anyone in the league when they have DK Metcalf on one side and Tyler Lockett on the other. But if you turn the ball over, and at the same time you can’t take it from the other team because they continue to pound the ball down your throat, there’s no way you can win any game in this league. If you can’t stop the run in the NFL you can’t win.” – Tank Williams

Chiefs 34, Broncos 28

31. “For Chiefs fans, I think doubt is creeping in again. Coming off the Cincy game last week, now this performance, it’s not all the way there. The defense is giving up way too many points. Offensively, they looked really good in the first half but they’re struggling to put together a full game.” — Mitchell Schwartz

Chargers 23, Dolphins 17

32. “The Dolphins offensively have got to come up with a more strategic plan as far as spreading the field out. The past two weeks with them losing to the 49ers and the Chargers, I think defenses have realized that Tua is at his best when he’s throwing the ball inside the hashmarks. His arm strength isn’t Justin Herbert or Patrick Mahomes. It’s easier for him to get the ball to Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and those guys in space. Interesting thing is that the Chargers played everything from outside leverage and forced the Dolphins to go with inside releases, and there’d always be a ‘robber’ in the middle of the field. And you’d see Tua be hesitant to throw the ball. So they’ve got to come up with a different way to dictate to defenses how to move and not just be able to take away the middle of the field from them.” — Samari Rolle

33. “Miami and whoever does not win the North (Cincinnati or Baltimore) are probably in the playoffs, and the Jets, Patriots and Chargers are going after that last spot. Usually I would pick the team with the best quarterback (Justin Herbert), but I don’t have faith that the Chargers can finish.” — T.J. McCreight

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