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NFL Week 14 best and worst: Bills win, and look away from Vikings-Raiders

NFL Week 14 best and worst: Bills win, and look away from Vikings-Raiders

Remember the preseason, when we marveled at the collection of quarterback talent in the AFC? In Week 14, Zach Wilson, Bailey Zappe, Jake Browning and Joe Flacco won games for AFC teams — and all four played great. That’s the kind of strange season it has been. Here is what to know.

The Bills’ terrible week ended with their best day of the season. After he explained why a pass rusher accused of domestic violence would play and took questions about a 9/11 analogy he once made in a team meeting, Buffalo Coach Sean McDermott blew a 14-0 lead to the rival that beat his team in a way it has still not recovered from. Having filled that unenviable Bingo card, the Bills proceeded to notch a victory that may change the direction of their season, if not their franchise.

Buffalo rallied in the fourth quarter, took advantage of a ticky-tack offside call that negated a jaw-dropping Chiefs touchdown and squeezed out a 20-17 victory in Kansas City. The Bills entered Week 14 in grave danger of missing the playoffs. But fellow contenders Pittsburgh, Houston and Indianapolis lost, and the Bills, at 7-6, find themselves in a six-way logjam at the bottom of the wild-card race.

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Based on tiebreakers, the Bills are in 11th place in the AFC. They still have to play the Cowboys next week and the Dolphins in Week 18. But they have new life. Despite another interception, Josh Allen carried Buffalo with his laser-beam throws and rugged running. The way he is playing, nobody will want to face the Bills if they sneak into the postseason. It has been a tumultuous year, but the Bills are not out of it.

The Eagles need a reset. Over the past five weeks, Philadelphia has played the Cowboys, Chiefs, Bills, 49ers and Cowboys again. The gantlet has taken something out of them, as their wan, 33-13 loss Sunday night at Dallas demonstrated. Their linebackers and secondary were a step behind, and their pass rush could not compensate. Jalen Hurts’s knee is clearly banged up. Their star receivers fumbled twice.

The Eagles scored a defensive touchdown and executed a 28-yard fake punt, and they still couldn’t come within two touchdowns of the Cowboys. In the last six meaningful drives of the loss to the 49ers and the first four drives against the Cowboys, the Eagles gave up nine touchdowns and a field goal. In the past two weeks, the two primary challengers for the Eagles’ NFC reign have beaten them 75-32.

The Eagles’ issues shouldn’t diminish the Cowboys’ excellence. They have so often wilted in showdowns in recent years, and Sunday night they delivered. Maybe they’ll lose again in the playoffs to the 49ers, who have separated from the rest of the league. But Dak Prescott — 271 yards, two touchdowns, no picks — is playing quarterback better than anyone else in the NFL, and there is more substance to this iteration of Dallas than previous editions. Rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey is a weapon: He has made all 30 field goals he has attempted, and Sunday night he converted from 45, 50, 59 and 60 yards — no kicker had ever made two from 59 or longer in one game.

While Dallas owns the NFC East lead, the Eagles still have the inside track to the title. Their final four games are the inverse of their most recent five: at Seahawks, Giants, Cardinals and at Giants. If they win all four, the Eagles will win the division. Even still, there’s little doubt about which team is the best in the NFC East, no matter which team ultimately wins it.

Patrick Mahomes might have to play a road playoff game, and he’s not happy. At 8-5, the Chiefs entered Monday two games behind the Ravens and Dolphins in the loss column for the top seed in the AFC. Perhaps more urgently, they are just one game ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West. Apart from Super Bowls, Mahomes has never played away from Arrowhead Stadium in the postseason, but after the Chiefs’ loss to Buffalo, it is nearly certain they will have to go on the road to defend their title.

Their latest loss left the Chiefs furious. Trailing by three with little over a minute left, with the ball at midfield, Kansas City executed an all-time play. Mahomes hit Travis Kelce deep over the middle. Kelce broke a tackle, lumbered upfield and, out of nowhere, turned and winged a lateral, a perfect spiral, about 20 yards across the field to Kadarius Toney, who was all alone. Toney high-stepped the final 24 yards into the end zone.

But an official had flagged Toney for lining up with his toes in the neutral zone. The Chiefs could not gain a first down from there, allowing the Bills to kneel out the clock. Mahomes slammed his helmet and had to be held back on the sideline as he screamed at an official.

The Chiefs had not calmed by the time they retreated into their locker room. Coach Andy Reid called the flag “a bit embarrassing for the National Football League.” Mahomes said he had never seen an offensive offside call. “You wait until a minute left to make a call like that?” he asked.

The Chiefs may or may not have been justified in their anger. What they cannot deny is that their offense remains stuck. They are 2-4 in their past six games, and they have scored more than 21 points just once over that span. Their wide receivers remain unreliable, and Kelce has been merely very good as opposed to the best pass-catching weapon in the league. The Chiefs have recovered from midseason lulls often during Mahomes’s tenure, but this might be the most frustrating one yet.

There’s life after Joe Burrow for the Bengals. Backup quarterbacks have decided so many teams’ fates this season. Cincinnati is still alive in the AFC playoff hunt because Jake Browning has emerged after Burrow’s season-ending wrist injury not just as a placeholder but as a statistically historic passer.

The Bengals throttled the Colts, a fellow wild-card contender, 34-14, behind Browning’s second consecutive stellar performance. After passing for 354 yards last week, Browning threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns and scored another on a sneak. In three starts, he has thrown for 856 yards. His 79.3 completion percentage over that span is the highest since 1950 for a quarterback in his first three career starts, but it’s not built on dink-and-dunk throws — Browning is attacking all levels of the field.

Coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan receive scant praise for an offensive brain trust that has produced results over the past three seasons, but their work with Browning cannot be ignored. It has kept the Bengals in the wild-card hunt at 7-6 with consecutive victories over opponents that entered the game in playoff position.

The Bengals acquired Browning in 2021 after he spent two seasons on the Vikings’ practice squad. He had a prolific career at Washington, where he led the Huskies to the College Football Playoff (which the Bengals love), but many evaluators believed he lacked arm strength. In his first chance, at 27, Browning is proving he can play in the NFL. (Browning exited with an injury in the fourth quarter Sunday, but he explained to reporters that it was only a thumb cramp, the byproduct of forgetting to drink water in cold weather.)

Houston’s dream season turned into a nightmare. The Texans’ magical season imploded Sunday in a 30-6 loss at the Jets. While defeats by Jacksonville and Indianapolis opened the door for them in the AFC South, the Texans yielded 301 passing yards to Zach Wilson, added another crushing injury to their wide receiving corps and, worst of all, lost their rookie franchise quarterback to a concussion.

Late in the fourth quarter, Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams slammed C.J. Stroud to the ground, and the back of Stroud’s head bounced hard off the turf. He left and did not return. Afterward, Coach DeMeco Ryans told reporters that Stroud was in the NFL’s concussion protocol, putting his status for next week at the Titans in question.

Stroud had completed 10 of 23 passes for 91 yards, a lack of production that could be attributed to wide receiver attrition. Nico Collins exited with a calf injury after making a catch on the opening drive, piling on the season-ending leg injury Tank Dell suffered last week. Stroud remains the runaway favorite for rookie of the year honors, and this season has reshaped Houston’s franchise. But the Texans’ playoff hopes are fading.

It’s mayhem in the AFC. One clue about how upside-down the conference is: On the same day the Browns beat the Jaguars to reach the same 8-5 record as the Chiefs, Cleveland Coach Kevin Stefanski declared Joe Flacco his starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

Right below the Browns is a pile of 7-6 playoff hopefuls. The Steelers, Colts, Texans, Broncos, Bengals and Bills are tied for the final two wild-card spots, with Pittsburgh and Indianapolis holding the tiebreakers. It’ll be a scramble to decide the playoff field.

DJ Moore is way more than a throw-in. The biggest prize from the Bears’ trade of the first pick in the 2023 draft will come in April, when the hapless Panthers hand over a first-round pick likely to be No. 1. It’s easy to forget that the Bears’ bounty also included Moore, who has been one of the best wideouts in the NFL. He entered Sunday ranked ninth, with 1,003 yards, then caught six passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. Moore also scored on a beautifully designed play on which he took a shotgun snap, faked an end-around handoff to quarterback Justin Fields and sprinted 16 yards to the end zone.

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Moore’s performance spearheaded Chicago’s dominant, 28-13 victory over the Detroit Lions. Coach Matt Eberflus is mounting an argument to keep his job despite an 8-22 record over his two years in Chicago. The Bears have won three of four and would be on a four-game winning streak if not for a fourth-quarter collapse in Detroit three weeks ago. Opposing coaches have noted how hard the Bears play, especially on defense. They are doing a reasonable impression of the 2022 Lions, who used a strong finish as a launchpad for this season.

Even if the Bears decide they can’t pass up Caleb Williams — and the chance to build the roster with a rookie quarterback contract — with the first pick, Fields’s late-season performance has enhanced his trade value. Moore’s presence has been crucial to Fields’s improvement. The wide receiver is another gift from Carolina that could keep on giving for years.

The Ravens were closers — barely. Tylan Wallace’s spinning, tiptoeing, stumbling punt return touchdown was one of the plays of the season. It also saved the Ravens from another deflating loss. They have led in the fourth quarter of all three of their losses, and they nearly let another victory slip away against the resurgent Los Angeles Rams before Wallace — only playing because usual returner Devin Duvernay exited with a back injury — took a punt back 76 yards as the Ravens prepared for their second possession of overtime.

The Ravens’ 37-31 victory nudged them to 10-3 and into the AFC’s top seed, which the Dolphins can reclaim with a victory Monday night over the Titans. The Ravens are a dominant team, evidenced by their AFC-best plus-143 point differential. But they have also been shaky in the fourth quarter, and even Sunday they had to overcome three crucial missteps.

Coach John Harbaugh lost his typical aggression at the wrong time: With 8:01 left in the fourth quarter and holding a 23-22 lead, Harbaugh punted on fourth and one from his team’s 37, which preceded an 85-yard Rams touchdown drive. Then Baltimore yielded a game-tying, 57-yard field goal drive after the Rams took over with 1:16 left. (It might have been a touchdown had Sean McVay not mismanaged his timeouts, as he is wont to do.) And after receiving the ball first in overtime, the Ravens went three-and-out.

Wallace’s jaw-dropping return — and Lamar Jackson’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass, followed by a crucial two-point conversion — allowed the Ravens to leave M&T Bank Stadium happy, but it wasn’t all good: Safety Kyle Hamilton, who is having an all-pro season, left with a knee injury suffered without contact and did not return.

Zach Wilson played the game of his career. He could not save the Jets’ season after Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles’ tendon, but maybe he can spoil someone else’s. Wilson threw for 301 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in New York’s upset victory over the Texans, another plot twist in the Jets’ 2023 quarterback saga.

Wilson showed flashes of why the Jets picked him second in the 2021 draft. He threw with zip, showed speed when he scrambled and passed with accuracy and confidence on the run. He looked nothing like the uncertain quarterback Coach Robert Saleh benched three weeks ago, and Wilson’s body of work suggests Sunday was a blip. But the talent of a No. 2 pick is still somewhere in him, and the final four weeks could be an opportunity to start to turn around his career.

We regret to inform you that somebody will win the NFC South. The Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers are 6-7, with a combined 10-17 record outside their division. In five weeks, one of them will host a playoff game. The Buccaneers hold the division lead for now after their 29-25 victory in Atlanta, a collapse the Falcons will rue if they allow the division to slip from their grasp.

Tampa Bay resides in first place on the strength of its head-to-head victory over the Saints and its superior record against common opponents of the Falcons. Those distinctions are meaningless right now. The Falcons and Saints will meet in New Orleans in Week 18, and the Saints visit the Buccaneers in Week 17. The Falcons and Bucs have the meaningful advantage of still having a game left against the 1-12 Panthers.

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The Falcons squandered a chance to control the division. They outgained the Bucs, 434 to 290, but fell behind 19-10 because they took a safety and Desmond Ridder threw an interception deep in his own territory. They came all the way back and took a 25-22 lead with 3:23 left, only to yield a 12-play, 75-yard, game-winning touchdown drive. To add to Atlanta’s misery, left tackle Jake Matthews, one of its best players, exited with a knee injury and did not return.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Let’s pretend the Vikings’ 3-0 victory over the Raiders never happened. In an eyesore of a game, ever-likable Josh Dobbs got benched, and Justin Jefferson left with a chest injury less than two quarters after he returned from injured reserve. Yuck.

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