Week 17’s Top NFL Storylines: Carson Wentz, Tom Brady and Amon-Ra St. Brown
Plus: What another MVP without a Super Bowl win would mean for Aaron Rodgers
With what was likely Ben Roethlisberger’s final game in Pittsburgh now over following the Steelers hosting the Browns on Monday Night Football, the penultimate week of the NFL’s first 17-game regular season is over. While we can’t get to everything that happened over the weekend — like Joe Burrow making a big push in the MVP race — here are four of the top storylines that emerged in the season’s 17th week, and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em.
Buy: Carson Wentz may have cost the Colts the playoffs
Nearly 20 years ago during the 2001-2002 NBA season, star point guard Allen Iverson delivered an infamous rant in front of the media covering his Philadelphia 76ers during which he said the word “practice” 22 times while downplaying the importance of partaking in the word.
Maybe for players like Iverson, an 11-time All-Star who was drafted No. 1 overall out of Georgetown and won an MVP award, practice really isn’t that important and doesn’t have an impact on winning.
For Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz, a one-time Pro Bowler who was selected second overall by the Eagles and won a Super Bowl without playing in one, practice certainly seems to be required, as he was pretty rusty on Sunday in an upset loss to the Las Vegas Raiders after a week when he couldn’t take any reps with his teammates after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. Wentz, who was cleared on Sunday just in time to play against the Raiders, is not vaccinated and it came back to bite him and his team in a big way.
Thanks to the three-point loss to the visiting Raiders, the Colts now must go on the road and beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville, a place Indianapolis hasn’t won since 2014. Had Wentz, who started the game 0-of-4 passing and collected 45 of his 148 total yards on a deflected TD reception by T.Y. Hilton that easily could have been intercepted, played marginally well, it’s likely the Colts would have won and locked up a playoff spot.
Given that the Jags were blown out 50-10 by the Patriots and are probably the worst team in the NFL right now, the Colts will probably win in Jacksonville in Week 18 and sneak into the playoffs. But if they don’t, Wentz deserves the blame for playing poorly after missing a week of practice following his refusal to get vaccinated. Had Wentz gotten the jab, there’s no guarantee he would have been able to practice, but his odds certainly would have been better, as would the Colts’ chances of beating the Raiders and clinching a spot in the postseason.
“Definitely one of the weirdest weeks of my NFL career if not the weirdest,” Wentz said following the 23-20 loss. “But we’re good, locked in the virtual meetings. Just different, wouldn’t say that’s the reason for the performance or the reason we lost today by any means. Just a strange, strange week. It was a weird flow of the game. Definitely offensively not our best.”
And Wentz is to blame, as he also will be if sixth-seeded Indianapolis (9-7) fails to miss out on a postseason berth.
Buy: Rookie WR Amon-Ra St. Brown isn’t getting enough love
Drafted in the fourth round out of Southern California with the 112th pick by the Detroit Lions, Amon-Ra St. Brown was the 17th wide receiver selected in April’s draft.
It took Brown a little while to get going this season for one of the league’s worst offenses, but he’s been on an absolute tear over the last five weeks and has been a huge part of Detroit (2-13-1) notching their only two wins of the season. Against Seattle on Sunday, St. Brown caught 8-of-10 targets for 111 yards and a touchdown and added a 26-yard rushing touchdown and two-point conversion, extending his streak of games with at least eight catches to five. It bears noting that he’s been doing it with backup quarterback Tim Boyle for the last two weeks.
Held without a touchdown through Weeks 1-12, St. Brown has six scores over the last five weeks and has seen double-digit targets in all five games. Though fellow rookie wideouts Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith have received all the attention after all going in the top 10 of the draft, St. Brown has played himself into becoming the Lions’ primary receiving option and it is looking like Detroit got a steal taking him in the fourth round. If nothing else, the 22-year-old has shown his name should have been in consideration after those other three star rookies went off the board.
“I follow most of them. I know one was on the other team,” St. Brown said of the 16 wide receivers who were taken ahead of him. “I follow a lot of them, but I’m just doing what I can to help this team win and keep going. It was gut-wrenching. So it does motivate me. Every time I’m doing something well, people are patting my back, I just think of those 16 that went before me and how I felt and that just keeps me going.”
If that continues in the season’s final week and beyond, more people will start taking notice.
Buy: Tom Brady has only himself to blame for the AB experiment gone wrong
Already missing wideout Chris Godwin for the year with a knee injury, the undermanned Tampa Bay receiving corps lost another soldier on Sunday when Antonio Brown was discharged — or discharged himself — from the Bucs’ 28-24 win over the Jets with about three minutes left in the third quarter.
It was a not-so-surprising ending to Brown’s saga in Tampa and was fairly reminiscent of the way his story ended with the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Raiders in Oakland and the Patriots in New England. Tom Brady, who was one of Brown’s biggest backers with the Pats and petitioned Tampa Bay’s front office to bring the 33-year-old wideout to the Bucs, was an eyewitness to the former Central Michigan product’s downfall in Foxborough and should have known a scenario like this was possible, it not inevitable.
Brady was chiefly responsible for bringing Brown to Tampa and it will be Brady who will now bear the burden of operating a Bucs offense that will now operate with Godwin- and Brown-shaped holes on the outside and in the middle.
A 44-year-old who is not shy about pushing his self-help methods and products on the general public as well as his teammates, Brady thought he could fix Brown and trusted him to stay on the beam. Even after Brown left the field and caused a ridiculous scene that could have resulted in a penalty on Tampa, Brady stuck by him.
As a result, the Bucs will turn to established pass-catchers like Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski and hope inexperienced players like Cyril Grayson, Jaelon Darden and Tyler Johnson will be able to step up in the season’s final week and the postseason as Tampa attempts to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
That task just got substantially more difficult, as Brown was undeniably a useful player on the field when he wasn’t dealing with a suspension and healthy enough to take it. But counting on Brown — who has played in just 16 of a possible 48 games in the regular season over the past three years — to achieve that much was a fool’s bet, and one that Brady, who has missed just 19 games in 22 NFL seasons with the Patriots and Bucs, should have been wise enough not to make.
Now he’s the one that has to pay the price.
Buy: An MVP win without a Super Bowl is a loss for Aaron Rodgers
A three-time MVP who is the odds-on favorite to win the award for the fourth time and second consecutive season, Aaron Rodgers has had an excellent year for the Packers in Green Bay, his 17th with the organization.
From questions about Rodgers’s future in Green Bay to queries about a potential case of COVID toe, it has been a drama-packed season full of twists and turns for the 38-year-old quarterback, and adding another MVP award to his trophy case in the midst of all the adversity would be a neat trick. But unless the MVP trophy ends up with a Super Bowl ring alongside it, the year is a failure for Rodgers and should be viewed as such.
The Packers have the only bye in the NFC after clinching the conference’s top seed with one week left to play in the season and have the option of resting their best players, including Rodgers, for Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Lions. Even if Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur doesn’t sit his stars for the whole game, the Packers have the luxury of getting their players as much rest as they need, because the game with the Lions is meaningless.
That being the case, Rodgers and the Packers will be well-rested when they host their yet-to-be-determined opponent in the divisional round in front of a rowdy crowd at Lambeau Field with the NFL’s likely MVP playing quarterback. Given all those advantages, a loss in that spot will be nothing short of a massive failure.
A loss the following week in the NFC Championship Game, which would also take place at Lambeau if the Packers take care of business in their first playoff game, would also qualify as a failure, albeit a familiar one. With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers have gone to the NFC Championship Game five times and lost four of them, including the last two.
Though Rodgers has racked up three MVPs in the last decade, he hasn’t made it past the NFC Championship Game since making it to Super Bowl XLV and winning it over the Steelers in the 2010 season. If Rodgers wins another MVP but doesn’t make it to the Super Bowl this season, he’ll have been named the NFL’s best player in four seasons and failed to reach or win the league’s final game in all four of them.
“Yes, 100% it would,” Rodgers said when asked if winning the MVP award for 2021 would be more special than his wins for 2011, 2014 and 2020. “This has been one of my favorite years of football. I’m thankful for this opportunity to still be starting here in Green Bay and to lead this team and to play at a high level, and to continue to grow, through the adversity, through the ups and downs, the frustrations and the successes and the triumphs. I’ve really enjoyed this season, and I would definitely love to finish out the year strong and win my fourth.”
If that win comes along with a fifth loss in the NFC Championship Game and a missed shot at winning a second Super Bowl, it will be just another hollow victory for Rodgers.
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