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NFL Week 14 winners, losers: Panthers may win NFC South (yes, for real)

Though there was a lighter slate of games Sunday as six NFL teams were on their bye, Week 14 saw some outcomes that presented significant implications for the postseason and beyond.

And there’s a massive dose of uncertainty in the NFC South, where interim Panthers coach Steve Wilks has Carolina just one game out of first place in the division. The team in first place, however, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, looks vulnerable and suddenly old and could be headed toward an offseason of transition.

Elsewhere in the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys had looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender until Sunday, when they struggled against the one-win Houston Texans. So, what should be made of their near-historic upset?

Follow every game: Latest NFL Scores and Schedules

Here are the winners and losers from Week 14 in the NFL.

WINNERS

In Tua-Herbert debate, this was all about the Chargers’ coaches

It’s foolish to draw any conclusions based on one game between two players who will be forever linked to one another, Tua Tagovailoa of the Dolphins and Justin Herbert of the Chargers. And while Herbert handily outdueled Tagovailoa, this was more of a masterclass of game planning by the Chargers’ coaches.

On offense, coordinator Joe Lombardi, who has deservedly faced criticism this season, crafted plays that got Herbert (39-of-51 passing for 367 yards with one touchdown) on the move and out of the pocket to mitigate an offensive line that has battled inconsistency and injuries. On the other side, coach Brandon Staley asked his corners to be physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of Miami’s offense and also clogged the middle of the field with zone coverages, where Tagovailoa (10-of-28 passing for 145 yards with one touchdown) loves to attack.

Steve Wilks has earned the Panthers job

After he fired Matt Rhule, Panthers owner David Tepper said interim Steve Wilks could eventually land the full-time gig if he did “an incredible job.” Though that was an unfair standard to hold him to, relative to other candidates, Wilks has Carolina (5-8) on the fringe of the playoff picture, just one game out of the lead in the NFC South. The Panthers, in fact, control their own destiny.

With Sam Darnold at quarterback, Carolina’s offense has been more efficient and the unit’s identity has been on the ground. And the defense, Wilks’ specialty, has been aggressive and is generating lots of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Wilks, frankly, got a raw deal in his lone head coaching opportunity, in 2018. He was fired after just one 3-13 season in charge of a bad Arizona Cardinals team that started Josh Rosen at quarterback.

Break up the Lions

Winners of five of their last six games, the Lions (6-7), moving forward, should be treated as a team that can compete with just about any in the NFC on a game-by-game basis. The Lions secured a huge victory against the NFC North rival Vikings and are creeping up the conference standings.

Detroit is doing it by protecting the ball in an offense dominated by play-action passes. After giving the ball away 11 times in their first six games of the season, the Lions have done so just three times in their last seven. Jared Goff last threw an interception in Week 9. Alternatively, the Lions forced just five turnovers through their first six games; in their last seven, they have created 12. The Lions finished Sunday as the NFC’s No. 9 seed. If they keep this pace, they might be in line to make the postseason for the first time since 2016.

Don’t overreact to the Cowboys’ near-loss

It would’ve been a historic upset, sure. But even though the Cowboys needed a game-winning touchdown to come from behind against a one-victory Texans team over which Dallas was favored by 17 points, don’t buy into the overreactions just yet.

To be clear, it was a poor game. Dak Prescott threw a couple of costly and unnecessary interceptions. The running game lagged. For the first time all season, the defense failed to generate a single sack. But the Cowboys are still loaded with talent across the board and have the ability to correct these mistakes. Now, does that mean that the Cowboys should just dismiss what happened Sunday? Of course not. Dallas, at times over the past couple of seasons, has been susceptible to slow starts. The Cowboys also showed that, as in several of their games, they can be the ones to beat themselves.

LOSERS

The Buccaneers are broken

Even if Tampa Bay (6-7) does happen to limp into the postseason, it almost certainly won’t last long. The Buccaneers offense suddenly looks old and slow, they start games miserably slow and are forced into obvious passing situations and Tom Brady, at 45 years old, can no longer mask the team’s deficiencies.

The pressure also appears as though it’s getting to Brady, who has constantly looked frustrated and has been yelling on the sidelines. Part of that is understandable, as Tampa Bay is underperforming, but receiver Mike Evans (228 receiving yards in his last five games) has been a nonfactor. The Buccaneers are the NFL’s worst rushing team and rank 29th in time of possession. Brady, who signed a deal in March 2021 that essentially voids after this season, is set to become a free agent. Based on the way this season has gone, the Bucs might be best served to overhaul completely and build for the future.

The first-half Titans keep sliding

After winning seven of eight games, the Titans (7-6) are now in full free fall. Tennessee has lost three in a row, the latest against a Jaguars team it had previously dominated. In a concerning trend that has continued all season long, Tennessee stagnated in the second half.

Against Jacksonville, the Titans scored eight points after intermission. That means that Tennessee’s total for second half points this season now sits at just 67, compared to its mark of 171 total points in the first halves of its games. Star running back Derrick Henry posted 98 rushing yards in the first quarter. He had just two in the second half. The Titans are still in first place in the AFC South, but if they don’t figure out how to finish games, their two-game lead could very well dwindle.

It was dangerous to stand behind the Jets OL

The Jets have done a lot of nice things this season. They have a ferocious defense that made life difficult for the Bills and Josh Allen. They have young, speedy players like receiver Garrett Wilson who look like stars in the making. But their offensive line on Sunday let them down.

The Jets (7-6) gave up four sacks and eight QB hits. There have been poorer performances this season from other offensive lines, but it was the quality of blows the Bills could deliver on quarterback Mike White that put him in danger. Blown assignments led to unobstructed pass rushers. Now, some of these issues could’ve been mitigated by White himself, adjusting line protections to ease oncoming pressure, but the bulk of the blame falls on the line. After the game, White had to go to the hospital to be evaluated for rib and internal injuries.

The Giants were a mirage

Let’s say this first: The Giants (7-5-1) have exceeded expectations this year. But after going winless in their last four and posting one victory in their last six, it’s clear this team had peaked and is now on the decline. Sunday’s blowout loss against the Eagles shows just how far the Giants have to go.

A significant reason why the Giants have stumbled is because their identity that made them so productive, a sound rushing offense, simply hasn’t been there over the last month and a half. New York averaged 173.4 rushing yards per game through its first seven of the season. Since then, that number has dropped to 117.5. Credit Brian Daboll for setting a solid foundation of competitiveness early in the season. But with New York declining to pick up the fifth-year option of Daniel Jones, who is in the final season of his contract, transition may soon be coming.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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