The stakes were high for Josh Allen and Joe Burrow this week. Both quarterbacks were facing the most important regular-season games of their lives, playing de-facto divisional championship games.
And let’s not forget, the pressure of the fantasy football semifinals.
Allen and the Bills needed to make amends for the messy, windy loss against New England three weeks ago. Although Buffalo won the AFC East last year, there’s been a big brother/little brother vibe between these teams for a long time, a tone the Bills desperately wanted to change.
Burrow already had a Baltimore win on his 2021 card, but the Bengals wanted to signal that they’ve truly arrived, that they can be counted on to be consistently productive. They’ve had trouble maintaining success at times thus year, losing to a few sketchy teams. Would that be a problem Sunday, up against an injury-ravaged Baltimore club?
Well, the grades are in, and they’re top of the class. A-plus for Allen, A-plus for Burrow, and fantasy superlatives all around. Anyone who stacked Buffalo or Cincinnati angles for Week 16 is dancing between hundred-dollar bills.
Let’s start with Allen, because a domination of the Patriots defense is especially impressive. Allen and the Bills imposed their will on Bill Belichick and Company, racking up 28 first downs and 428 total yards. Buffalo never punted, and to be fair, the 33-21 final score feels a bit misleading. This was a statement game, and a beatdown.
Allen beat New England with his arm (314 yards, three touchdowns), with his legs (64 yards rushing on 12 scrambles) and with his efficiency (no sacks or interceptions). Often it was creative play design (take a bow, OC Brian Daboll) that fueled Buffalo’s success at Foxboro, but Allen also made several winning plays out-of-structure. The Bills also played to win, converting 3-of-4 attempts on fourth down. Is it too late for Allen to get back into the MVP race?
Allen dragged most of his teammates to fantasy glory. Stefon Diggs didn’t smash the Patriots into 100 pieces, but 7-85-1 is a tasty line for any receiver. Isaiah McKenzie stepped into the Gabriel Davis void and dominated, securing 11-of-12 looks, good for 125 yards and a touchdown. Devin Singletary (78 total yards, touchdown) was useful, and Dawson Knox bailed out with a late touchdown, though he had an earlier score called back by penalty. It was a good day to hang in a Buffalo stance.
The Bengals had a much easier assignment, facing a Baltimore defense that’s been destroyed by injury. While the Bills were 1-point underdogs at New England, Cincinnati was a 7.5-point choice over the Ravens. This was a game Cincinnati was expected to control.
But the Bengals didn’t merely control this game — Burrow and mates took the Ravens behind the woodshed.
Burrow posted the second-best passing game in Bengals history — for fantasy purposes — chucking for 525 yards and four touchdowns. And when Burrow goes off, you know other fantasy stars are going to smash; Cincinnati has one of the narrowest usage trees in the league. Tee Higgins was a clinic against the makeshift Baltimore coverage (12-194-2, on 13 targets), Ja’Marr Chase racked up 125 yards, and Tyler Boyd had a 68-yard touchdown catch-and-run. A second Boyd touchdown was wiped out by penalty.
Joe Mixon averaged a modest 3.6 a carry against Baltimore’s staunch run defense, but no matter. He still collected 65 yards rushing, another 70 yards receiving, and two total touchdowns. When the smoke cleared at the end of Sunday’s early window, the Bengals were sitting on the No. 1 quarterback (Burrow), the No. 1 wideout (Higgins), and the No. 2 running back (Mixon). Les Nessman must be going out of his mind.
Buffalo’s the more likely repeat story if we look ahead to Week 17 — Atlanta is a dream draw. Cincinnati, meanwhile, hosts Kansas City, and a defense that’s turned into a nasty unit over the last two months. But we’ll worry about Week 17 matchups tomorrow. For now, let’s savor the glorious pinball Buffalo and Cincinnati played Sunday, a late-but-welcome holiday present for anyone needing them in fake football.
Justin Jackson comes through
The shocker of the early window was the Chargers losing at Houston, 41-29. The LAC entered as a 13.5-point favorite. Both teams moved the ball effortlessly — the game featured 854 yards of offense — but the Chargers coughed up three turnovers, while the Texans didn’t have any. Steady Houston rookie QB Davis Mills (9.4 YPA, two touchdowns) has been one of the underreported great breakouts of the year.
Despite the loss, the Chargers still put some holiday joy under the tree. Fill-in running back Justin Jackson — heartily endorsed by Austin Ekeler during the week — came through for the fake footballers, collecting 162 total yards, eight receptions, and two rushing scores. He did lose one fumble, but his juicy day still went for 30.20 points in standard Yahoo formats, grabbing the No. 1 spot on the running back board.
Houston’s defense had a say in Jackson’s breakout. The Texans entered the week ranked 27th in DVOA rush defense, but a solid 10th in DVOA pass defense. When you see this type of disparity — it’s called a funnel defense — you like to act proactively. Kudos to anyone who snapped up Jackson as a waiver claim, and thanks to our buddy Ekeler, who pitched the angle to everyone (both on Twitter and in his weekly spot with Yahoo colleague Liz Loza). Even when Ekeler can’t help our fantasy interests directly, he’s always looking out for us.
• Mark Andrews goes down as the season’s right answer at tight end, no matter what happens the rest of the way. He’s been quarterback-proof, game-script proof, dominant at all areas of the field. All he needed was the Ravens to commit to an opportunity increase, and they finally signed off. And like so many dynamic pass-catching tight ends, Andrews was a wideout in college.
• We expect the Giants to fall short of 300 yards most weeks, but Sunday at Philly, New York didn’t even make it to 200 yards. It’s a season with plenty of mediocre teams, but the Giants offense stands alone at the bottom of the barrel. This team doesn’t do anything well. Injuries have been a part of the mix, but this looks like another organization that needs to blow up the foundation and start over.
• Tom Brady targeted Antonio Brown off the bus Sunday —15 looks, good for 10-101-0. I don’t think the aim was simply to beat the Panthers (which of course the Bucs did easily); Brady surely knows that if Tampa Bay is going to advance deep into the tournament, it needs Brown to be great. Sunday’s workload was a nod towards the long-term goal, not just the short-term goal.
• There’s only one team with a losing record straight up but a winning record against the spread — the Detroit Lions (2-12-1 straight up, 10-5 at the window). Dan Campbell is still feeling his way through game theory and strategy, but the Lions play hard for him every week. Cashing at Atlanta without Jared Goff was a nifty trick; never forget, Tim Boyle was never a prospect in college (one career touchdown pass, 13 picks, and a completion percentage under 50 percent).
• Leave it to DK Metcalf to break his touchdown drought in the snow, though he still stumbled to a 2-41-1 line against Chicago’s come-and-get-it secondary (22nd in pass-defense DVOA). Russell Wilson hasn’t bene a proactive runner all season, and a divorce between Wilson and the Seahawks appears imminent — heck, it also appears mutually beneficial.
• For the fifth straight week, the Steelers were shut out in the first half, a staggering trend. Just like success, failure has many parents, but start with the stale game plans from OC Matt Canada, and Ben Roethlisberger’s reluctance to run play-action or have pre-snap motion. The NFL gives you a couple of cheat codes, and the Steelers don’t want to use them.
• Trevor Lawrence obviously screwed up at the end of the loss to the Jets, spiking the ball at the goal line when the Jaguars could have run two plays, rather than just one. I don’t want to be too hard on the rookie, who’s been set up to fail by his coaching staff and his supporting cast all season. Jacksonville needs to get the hire right, but I’m still bullish on Lawrence’s future. He just needs to have a short memory, and forget the majority of what happened this year.
• It was encouraging to see the Jets offense kick up its heels. Michael Carter can play. Braxton Berrios can play, too. Still, they somehow got a win despite 4.6 YPA from Zach Wilson. His stock has plummeted over the last four months.
• I thought the Rams were thinking insurance when they acquired Sony Michel, but he’s pushed Darrell Henderson out of the way the last two weeks. The Rams are shrewdly keeping Odell Beckham Jr. engaged, featuring him regularly on potential scoring plays. His corner route for Sunday’s spike was a thing of beauty.