Week 15’s Top NFL Storylines: Antonio Brown, John Harbaugh and an Actual Apology from Bill Belichick?

Plus, the very good NFL team that has a very bad starting quarterback

December 21, 2021 9:14 am
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh at Heinz Field
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh at Heinz Field.
Joe Sargent/Getty

With Monday’s pair of NFL games over and done with, Week 15 of the NFL season still has two games that need to be played thanks to rescheduling due to COVID-19. While we can’t get to everything that happened in the games that were played — like Tom Brady acting like a petulant child in a loss — here are four of the top storylines that emerged in the season’s 15th week, and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em.

Buy: Antonio Brown will be important for the Bucs, sadly

Adding injury to insult in Sunday night’s 9-0 shutout loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as well as pass-catching tailback Leonard Fournette depart the game with injuries.

Godwin, who leads the Buccaneers with 98 catches for 1,103 receiving yards and five touchdowns, suffered a torn ACL against and will miss the remainder of the 2021 season as well as the postseason after it was initially reported he would only miss the remainder of the regular season while nursing an MCL injury.

That status of Evans and Fournette (hamstrings) is less clear, but even if they return at some point as expected, 44-year-old Brady is going to need a new target in the passing game, as he can’t continue to force-feed the ball to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 29 yards on two catches after being targeted a season-high 11 times with Evans, Godwin and Fournette out of action.

Luckily for Brady on the field but unluckily for Tampa Bay’s karma off of it, he will be able to throw to Antonio Brown starting this weekend against the Panthers. Brown will rejoin the team following a three-game suspension for falsifying his COVID-19 vaccination card.  Safety Mike Edwards, who was suspended for the same violation, will also rejoin the team.

“It was in the best interests of our football team,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians told reporters following Sunday’s loss. “Both those guys have served their time and we welcome them back.”

That’s quite a reversal from Arians telling Brown there would be “no second chances” when the Buccaneers brought him in during the middle of last season, but apparently the 69-year-old coach, a three-time cancer survivor who was theoretically put at risk by the 33-year-old lying about being vaccinated, needs to win games more than he needs to keep his word or the moral high ground.

That’s not uncommon at all in the NFL or pro sports in general, but it is unfortunate that Brown, who has 29 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns in just five games for the Buccaneers this season, will go from being a pariah to being Brady’s top target in the passing game.

“Antonio Brown could show up with a full deck of fake vaccination cards tomorrow and he wouldn’t get cut,” ProFootballTalk noted on Sunday.

Sad but accurate.

Sell: John Harbaugh put the Ravens in position to win

Leading the Kansas City 36-35 with 1:05 left and facing a fourth-and-1 at his own 43 with the Chiefs out of timeouts in late September, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh sent quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense back onto the field to attempt to get a first down and effectively end the game.

Called a “gut” decision afterward by Harbaugh, the fourth-down attempt was a success and the Ravens won the game.

Then, against the Steelers on Dec. 5, Harbaugh made a similarly risky decision, opting to go for two when his team was trailing 20-19 with just 12 seconds remaining. The try failed, and the Ravens lost.

Fast forward to Sunday evening, when the 59-year-old made another gut call on a short-yardage situation — again leading to a gut-wrenching defeat that puts Baltimore, the one-time leader of the AFC, on the playoff bubble.

Trailing the Green Bay Packers 31-30 loss after scoring two late touchdowns to get within one point with under a minute left on the clock, Harbaugh elected to go for a two-point conversion attempt with backup quarterback Tyler Huntley instead of having star kicker Justin Tucker kick an extra point and likely tie the game.

Huntley threw incomplete to Mark Andrews after his pass was deflected by Packers safety Darnell Savage Jr. and Baltimore lost on a failed two-point conversion attempt for the second time in three weeks, becoming the first team in NFL history to lose three straight games in a single season by a combined four points or fewer.

“We were just trying to get the win right there,” Harbaugh said afterward. “I think our chances of winning right there were a little bit higher than overtime, maybe if you calculate it out. I felt good about it.”

No matter how Harbaugh felt about his “mostly gut” decision, it was the wrong one. Why? Because despite what he said, Ravens only wouldn’t actually have won the game had they converted the 2-point try. Leading by a point after the conversion, Baltimore still would have had to give the ball back to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense and prevent the Packers from kicking a field goal. Whether the Packers would have been able to do that with 42 seconds on the clock and just one timeout to burn is debatable (though Rodgers has burned teams with less time than that before), but Harbaugh’s decision eliminated the chance for anyone to find out. Kicking the extra point instead of going for two points would have put Baltimore’s defense in the same position, but at least the Ravens would have had a chance to extend the game, and head into overtime. Harbaugh’s call eliminated that chance.

He’d probably make it again if given the opportunity, which is why the Ravens are 8-6 after losing three straight.

Buy: The Colts are good. Carson Wentz is not.

Playing in terrible weather and extreme wind in Week 13 on Monday Night Football in Buffalo, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones threw just three passes as New England almost exclusively ran the ball and played great defense during a 14-10 victory over the Bills.

In Week 15 playing in a dome on Saturday night in Indianapolis, Colts quarterback Carson Wentz threw just 12 passes and completed five of them for 57 yards with one TD and one interception against Jones’s Patriots. Jones, meanwhile, finished 26-of-45 with 299 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Colts 27-17 win, a game that was put on ice when Colts star running back Jonathan Taylor broke free for a 67-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.

While neither quarterback’s state line was great, Jones is a 23-year-old rookie who makes just under $3 million. Wentz, on the other hand, makes more than $21 million, is about to turn 30 and is part of the reason the Colts rushed the ball 39 times (for a stellar 226 yards) against the Patriots in Saturday’s win.

The Colts turned to their running game not only because Taylor (who finished with 170 yards on 29 carries) is a stud, but also because head coach Frank Reich did not trust his signal caller to throw the football, and for good reason: he stinks.

Wentz only finished with one interception, but threw at least two other passes that should have been intercepted by New England defenders before falling harmlessly incomplete. The pick Wentz did toss, which was snagged by defensive back Devin McCourty, came at a key point in the fourth quarter and was the only reason the game was remotely close coming down the stretch. Of the 12 throws Wentz made in the game, six were either defensed or picked off by the Patriots.

Indy’s QB may rank 10th in total touchdowns, third-best in interception rate and eighth in quarterback rating this season, but throwing half of your passes where the other team can get ’em during a pressure-filled game is not a recipe for success in the postseason, and that sort of play is the reason why the Colts are just 8-6 despite having an above-average defense and an MVP candidate in the backfield in Taylor.

For all the praise and money Wentz has received throughout his six-year career, he’s never won a playoff game. That won’t change this year unless the Colts can literally ride Taylor to another victory — an unlikely proposition in the post-season.

Sell: Bill Belichick’s apology was genuine

Meeting with the media on Saturday night after the Colts beat the Patriots after Indianapolis jumped out to a 20-0 lead, New England coach Bill Belichick gave a terse press conference that lasted just over six minutes.

While answering the 14 questions that came his way, Belichick kept repeating that the Patriots either “didn’t play,” “didn’t coach” or “didn’t do” well enough in Indy no matter what he was asked. “I’ve said it like five times, I could just say it another five times,” Belichick said at one point. “We didn’t do anything well enough to win tonight.”

Standoffish with the media during the best of times, Belichick reverted to a parody of himself after Saturday’s defeat.

After acting like his usual curmudgeonly self following Saturday’s loss, Belichick opened his Monday press conference on Zoom with something unprecedented: an apology to the media for his behavior.

“Look, fellas, I apologize if I seemed like I was a little short with you after the game,” the 69-year-old coach said. “Obviously a frustrating game, down 20-0, didn’t do anything well enough. Clearly, we had problems in every area, so there was no simple answer. Every play could have been better, every area of coaching could have been better, every area of playing could have been better. And any of that would have helped. So, not really trying to be short, but honestly, there wasn’t too much to say. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot more to say now. But it’s not your fault.”

Never one to admit a mistake or issue a public mea culpa, Belichick may have just been trying to change the narrative heading into a divisional matchup in Week 16 with the Buffalo Bills that will determine first place in the AFC East. Or perhaps he was hoping to play nice with the media in order to reduce criticism for his team’s sloppy play on Saturday in Indianapolis, which included committing eight penalties and having a player ejected for fighting.

Either way, Belichick’s apology was about as genuine as Aaron Rodgers’s vaccine walkback earlier this year, and the longtime coach certainly had an ulterior motive for issuing it a few days ahead of Christmas. If the Patriots lose on Sunday and fall out of first place in the AFC East, expect Belichick to revert back to being Ebenezer Scrooge when he next addresses the media.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!