The Top NFL Storylines of Week 14: Joe Flacco, Brandon Aubrey and Zach Wilson

Plus, there may be a sneaky hot seat in the AFC North

December 12, 2023 6:13 am
Dallas kicker Brandon Aubrey celebrates after making a kick.
Dallas kicker Brandon Aubrey is having himself a helluva season.
Cooper Neill/Getty

With the NFL’s Week 14 double dip of Monday Night Football complete and another batch of games over and done, there are somehow only four weeks left to go in pro football’s regular season. While we can’t get to everything — like the intriguing situation that is developing in New England — here are four of the top storylines to emerge from the NFL’s 14th week. (Here’s a look back at Week 13 and a peek at Rex Ryan’s reaction to the controversial call that ended Buffalo-Kansas City.)

It’s one game, but give Zach Wilson his flowers

Following what was, even by New York Jet standards, a dysfunctional week that saw injured starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers sniping at the team over leaked rumors suggesting backup Zach Wilson was not interested in playing against the Texans on Sunday, the team pulled off a massive upset and took out Houston 30-6 in a game that featured a scoreless first half.

Wilson, who was benched two games ago in favor of the since-waived Tim Boyle, threw for more than 300 yards and passed a pair of touchdown passes despite facing constant pressure from Houston’s defense and taking four sacks and even more hits. A punching bag for most of his three seasons in New York, Wilson finally punched back and looked a bit like the player the Jets thought they were getting when they selected him at No. 2 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The 24-year-old’s day wasn’t perfect and he did lose a fumble, but Wilson was solid enough to allow the Jets to put up 30 points for just the second time this season and first since New York beat Denver 31-21 in Week 5. The win is probably not enough to save New York’s season, but it does keep playoff hopes alive for a 5-8 team with four games left to play.

Perhaps more importantly, the victory finally provided a glimmer of hope that Wilson might be something other than a career backup. With Rodgers possibly considering a return to the field later this month if he is medically cleared to play, Wilson’s days of starting for the Jets could be coming to a close rather shortly and it’s presumed he’ll revert back to being a backup next season when Rodgers is fully healthy. That being the case, Wilson needs to put as many good plays on tape as he can while he can in order to keep his value as high as possible heading into the final year of his rookie contract.

“From what I’ve seen, that’s the best he’s played,” said first-year Jets wide receiver Randall Cobb. “He just went out and played his brand of ball, without feeling constrained. The pressure he’s faced over the past two or three years — he just went out there and put it aside and played phenomenal tonight.”

Based on what Wilson, who is now 12-20 as a starter and has thrown more interceptions (25) than touchdowns (23) in his career, has been able to do in the NFL thus far, it seems unlikely his phenomenal play will continue. But for an afternoon, he was great and it’s only fair to acknowledge it given all that he’s been through since being drafted.

Ryan Fitzpatrick Left His Heart in Buffalo
The Harvard grad started at QB for an NFL-record nine teams in 17 seasons

Brandon Aubrey may put the Cowboys over the top, finally

On the market for a reliable kicker ever since Brett Maher missed four consecutive extra points in a playoff victory at Tampa Bay last season, the Dallas Cowboys gave former Major League Soccer prospect Brandon Aubrey a shot at the job during the offseason. That may have been one of best choices the Cowboys have made in a long time as the 28-year-old rookie has been spectacular so far this season and was able to outscore the Eagles all by himself on Sunday in a 33-13 win over Philadelphia.

Aubrey, who made field goals from 60, 59, 50 and 45 yards out and converted three extra-point tries in the win over the Eagles, is the first player in NFL history to make two attempts of 59 yards or more in the same game. Not too shabby for a soccer player who spent two seasons in the USFL and didn’t even play football in college.

Though he missed the first extra point he attempted in Week 1 and a few additional point-after tries throughout the season, Aubrey has not missed a field goal attempt in his career (30-for-30) and now owns the NFL record for consecutive field goals made to start a career.

Nicknamed “Butter” by Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott because he’s so smooth, Aubrey believes his leg is strong enough to hit from 70 yards. Even if that’s an exaggeration, Aubrey is just another weapon for Dallas’s potent offensive attack to deploy and it’s certainly possible that the difference between the Cowboys winning or losing a playoff game could come down to a field goal.

“I have to pinch myself to think that it’s been less than 12 months that I didn’t think we were going to make the extra point,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. “It just shows you that that thing can turn, and it has. So, I’m proud for him and proud for us. I don’t know that I’ve witnessed any more impressive kicking exhibition than we had out there tonight.”

For once, Jones wasn’t exaggerating.

Mike Tomlin’s days in Pittsburgh could be numbered

The Steelers, who are unquestionably one of the best organizations in pro football, have had three coaches since 1969. The Panthers, who are unquestionably one of the worst organizations in pro football, have had four coaches in the past two years. Each of the three coaches who have been at the reins for Pittsburgh since ’69 — Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin — have won at least one Super Bowl, and the Steelers have six totals titles combined with the trio.

Tomlin, who just presided over a team that dropped an exceptionally winnable game at home against the Patriots on Thursday Night Football, has never had a losing season as the coach of the Steelers — but he may be in trouble.

The Steelers, as they were under Noll and Cowher, have been incredibly competitive under Tomlin and have never dipped into being one of the NFL’s lower-tier teams. However, they also haven’t won a playoff game since the 2016 season and appear, especially based on the results of Thursday’s game, to still be on the treadmill of mediocrity.

Is it Tomlin’s fault? Probably not. The head coach in Pittsburgh since 2007, Tomlin has weathered many storms and been able to put a competitive football team on the field regardless of what is happening away from the gridiron. Just 51, he still has plenty of coaching left in him and could very well end up being one of the best all-time coaches as the amount of success he’s had at a relatively young age is impressive. However, it’s worth considering that the Steelers may considering making a coaching change during an offseason that promises to see plenty of them.

Although it seems somewhat ridiculous to consider the Steelers (who generally never fire anyone) would move on from Tomlin, Pittsburgh lost in Week 13 to Arizona and became the first NFL team in history over .500 to drop back-to-back games to teams at least eight games under .500 with their loss to the Pats on TNF. Those losses dropped a team that was 7-4 to 7-6 and have the Steelers clinging to their playoff hopes by a thread with all of their remaining games against teams that are above .500.

Given how good the Steelers have been with Tomlin in charge, he does not deserve to get fired, and he probably won’t be. But Pittsburgh also isn’t making a Super Bowl anytime soon. For that to change, Tomlin may have to go.

Joe Flacco might be enough for the Browns to get by

Forced to play without franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson for the majority of the season due to his inability to stay off of the injured list, the Browns won on Sunday using there fourth starting quarterback of the season when Joe Flacco threw a trio of touchdown passes to help lead Cleveland to a 31-27 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Even though Flacco reverted to Cleveland’s practice squad following the game and could theoretically be signed by another team, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski seems committed to the 38-year-old as his starter moving forward.

After using Watson, journeyman P.J. Walker and rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson to win games for a team that now sits at 8-5 on the season, Stefanski is hoping Flacco still has enough left in the tank to help get the Browns back to the postseason for the first time since Baker Mayfield was in town. With four winnable games left on the schedule (Bears, Texans, Jets and Bengals), Flacco certainly has the chance to play hero for Cleveland, especially if he can continue to play the way he did on Sunday against the Jags.

Unsigned and sitting on the couch just three weeks ago, the former Super Bowl MVP, who started four games for the New York Jets last year and did not look particularly good while doing so, has put himself back on the map and could earn himself a training camp invitation next offseason if he continues to play well for the Browns to close out the year.

It’s far too early to predict potential playoff matchups if the Browns are able to qualify for the postseason, but there’s certainly a chance Cleveland would end up taking on Flacco’s former team, the Baltimore Ravens. The division rivals have split their season series and a rubber match involving Flacco would make for some must-see TV.

“Obviously it feels good when it looks like people have confidence in you,” Flacco said. “I know I’ve been in a bunch of locker rooms, but whenever you walk into a locker room, you still want to gain the respect of everybody, and you don’t know if you quite have that until you can go out there and get a win and continue to do it day in and day out. You try to carry yourself the right way and you try to do all the right things, but that doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of going out in the field on Sunday.”

If Flacco can keep slinging it the way he has been, expect to see him out there on the field on plenty more Sundays.

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