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Around the NFL: Takeaways from Week 15

Catch rule again causes controversy, and more from a wild week

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Week 15 delivered. There was an enjoyable, watchable set of early games and the late afternoon games lived up to the hype. While one was a surprising blowout -- entertaining in its own right -- the other between two of the NFL’s top teams came down to the wire. It’s also a matchup we’ll see again in January.

Patriots-Steelers had a little bit of everything

If this was a preview of the AFC Championship Game, let’s do it. There was so much that went on during this game, including the loss of Antonio Brown, at least for the rest of the regular season. But let’s focus on that last drive for each team, which is where the game really swung.

The Patriots started their final offensive drive on their own 23-yard line with 2:06 remaining, down 24-19. They had an 18 percent chance to win at the start of the drive, per numberFire’s win probability. Then New England pounded the ball to Rob Gronkowski, who was routinely covered one-on-one, whether lined up on the outside or in the slot. Gronk had three consecutive catches for 69 yards, which set up an eight-yard touchdown run from Dion Lewis. When New England went for two, they went right back to Gronk isolated on the outside and Artie Burns had no chance defending the tight end on the fade. The Patriots ended the drive up 27-24 with am 87.3 percent chance to win.

To that point, the game was crazy, but in a general football sense. Then things went off the rails. Pittsburgh immediately got a 69-yard catch and run from JuJu Smith-Schuster that set the Steelers up with a first and goal from the 10. The next play was a touchdown to tight end Jesse James, at least for a little bit, until the refs had to review it.

By rule, it’s clear to see the pass to James was incomplete -- as he went to the ground, James lost possession of the bal. That doesn’t mean the rule isn’t dumb. It is. Quite dumb. James had possession of the ball, turned around, and reached toward the goal line. That should make him a runner regardless of what the rest of his body is doing. But that’s not how the rule currently works and the Steelers still had a chance to win the game. There were 28 seconds remaining, though the Steelers had no time outs.

After a 3-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers rushed to the line for what appeared to be a spike to stop the clock. Instead Pittsburgh ran a fake spike with Eli Rogers running a slant from the left. The pass wasn’t open, but Roethlisberger waited and tried to fit the ball into a small window. The pass was deflected by Eric Rowe and interception by Duran Harmon to seal the game for the Patriots.

There’s a lot to take in just on this play alone. Being aggressive and going for the win is not a bad thing. Trying to catch the defense off-guard isn’t a bad strategy, though it is harder to catch the Patriots sleeping since they practice against just about every possible scenario. Roethlisberger has to know if the route isn’t open to start, he has to throw the ball away and live for another play. As soon as he pump fakes once, the play needs to be abandoned there. Going for the win there is fine and commendable, but worse case scenario there should be a field goal attempt for a tie, not a turnover.

New England’s win just about cemented what the top of the AFC will look like heading into the playoffs. The Patriots and Steelers are both 11-3, but New England now holds the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed with the head-to-head win and they both have a game of the 10-4 Jacksonville Jaguars, who we’ll discuss in a bit.

The AFC now runs through New England and even without the Patriots dominating like they have in past years, that’s not a good sign for the rest of the conference.

The NFC is good —and wide open

While Patriots-Steelers felt like a game between the two best teams in the AFC, the NFC sees a new contender arise as a dominant force each week. Over the course of the season, the Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, and Philadelphia Eagles have all looked unstoppable. At their best teams like the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks looked like they could hang with the top tier.

On Sunday, it was Minnesota’s and Los Angeles’s turn to drop the hammer. The Vikings dropped 34 points on a hopeless Cincinnati Bengals team in a 34-7 win. At 11-3, Minnesota currently holds a first-round bye as the No. 2-seed behind the Eagles.

But no team showed more than the Rams in a 42-7 blowout of the Seahawks. Los Angeles imposed its will on the ground with Todd Gurley rushing for 152 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries. He also added 28 yards and a touchdown through the air. The ground game was needed because even as the Rams seemingly scored at will, the Seahawks held Jared Goff to just 5.7 yards per attempt.

The Rams’ defense wrecked whatever the Seahawks tried to do with the ball. Seattle averaged just 2.8 yards per play while Los Angeles had nine quarterback hits and seven sacks against Russell Wilson. Aaron Donald was a constant presence in the Seattle backfield and when he wasn’t, Robert Quinn was. Sometimes both of them were. At their peak, the Rams can hang with anyone in the league, but so can the other top teams in the NFC. It’s going to make for at least one exciting side of the playoff bracket.

With good quarterback play, the Jaguars are a real contender

It’s a weird feeling when RedZone switches to a Jacksonville offensive possession and your immediate reaction isn’t that something went horribly wrong. That used to be the sole purpose of that channel showing any offensive plays for the Jaguars. Now that pleasure goes to the Cleveland Browns. The Jaguars haven’t just been not bad on offense this season, they’ve been pretty good. Heading into this week, Jacksonville was 15th in DVOA for both the run and the pass. Last year they finished 28th and 23rd, respectively.

Blake Bortles hasn’t just stayed away from mistakes. His 1.8 percent interception rate ranks ninth among quarterbacks and well below his career rate of 2.8 percent. He’s been making plays at points when he needs to. In Jacksonville’s 45-7 win over the Houston Texans, Bortles threw for 326 yards on 29 attempts -- 11.2 yards per attempt -- with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

With a defense as good as the Jaguars have, Bortles doesn’t need to be near that good statistically for Jacksonville to win games. But if he can be an occasional big play threat, the Jaguars could be a serious problem for the other teams in the AFC. We already know they’re going to the playoffs. How far they go might come down to the effectiveness of Borles. Everything about this paragraph is strange.

Start the Garoppolo hype train

In the 11 games before Jimmy Garoppolo started for the San Francisco 49ers, they had one win. In the three games Garoppolo has started for the 49ers, they have three wins. When San Francisco traded a second-round pick to New England Patriots at the trade deadline, it was a move many liked on the basis of the 49ers trying to find their quarterback of the future. No one expected the returns to come this quickly.

Garoppolo led the 49ers to a 25-23 victory over the possibly playoff-bound Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Yes, the Titans aren’t nearly as good as the record would indicate and they entered the week 19th in DVOA and 21st on defense, but the San Francisco offense was still able to move the ball when it wanted to on the back of a 31-of-43 for 381 yards -- 8.9 yards per attempt -- performance from Garoppolo. Marquise Goodwin led the way receiving with 10 catches for 114 yards.

Since Garoppolo took over as the starter, he’s completed 77 of his 113 passes (68.1 percent) for 1,008 yards (8.9 yards per attempt). It’s obviously a small sample, but that yards per attempt figure would easily lead the league right now if Garoppolo had enough attempts to be a qualified quarterback.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has a very quarterback-friendly system, but sometimes it can be hard to pick up. Matt Ryan won an MVP under Shanahan, but it took a full year together with many struggles in the first season. For Garoppolo to succeed in this offense this quickly, could be a great sign for the future of the 49ers.