AFC East Reporter
The AFC East is beginning to falter near the finish line of the playoff push.
The Buffalo Bills clinched their playoff spot. That was the only positive outcome for the division in Week 15. The Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. But the loss wasn’t crushing for Miami in its postseason pursuit. The Dolphins have a 72% chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight.com. And perhaps they’re learning their shortcomings over this three-game losing streak.
The New York Jets and New England Patriots each suffered losses that nearly killed their playoff chances — both teams have less than 20% chances of making the playoffs. The Jets and Zach Wilson couldn’t hold off the Detroit Lions. New England suffered a loss at the hands of the Raiders on one of the most embarrassing plays in recent memory.
Let’s dive into some takeaways from the week.
Bills QB Josh Allen hasn’t changed but the results have
There were a few games when many wondered whether something broke Josh Allen. It wasn’t that long ago. From Weeks 8 to 10, Allen threw two interceptions per game, including one red-zone interception per game.
Everyone remained calm, right?
There was an upswell of criticism for Allen and first-year offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. But Allen’s turnover problems regressed back to the mean. He has just one interception in the past five games. I don’t think he has adjusted his decision-making all that much. He’s still taking risks. Big ones. He’s just converting them.
Here’s an example from last week. He scrambled out of the pocket and completely drained the clock to throw across his body for a touchdown. Had he missed it, he would have botched a scoring opportunity. But he hit his receiver. The Bills finished the drive with a touchdown.
“Yeah run it down to zero on the clock and throw a touchdown, right? He’s lucky he threw a touchdown pass right there or else,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said with a smile. “I probably would have flattened his tires after the game. He’ll learn from that one, and maybe I will, too.”
Even McDermott knows — at this point — that the Bills need some of Allen’s magic to win big games. And that means riding with him through these risks, which means he’ll fall into rough spells. But he seems hot. And he’ll need to stay hot, if he wants to ride this high into the playoffs.
Where’s the love for Sauce Gardner as Defensive Player of the Year?
Offenses have a tough decision to make when they face Jets CB Sauce Gardner. They have to decide which receiver they want to be erased on any given play. Gardner generally plays a side and will completely shut down that area. Against the Bills in Week 14, Gardner allowed just one catch (6 yards) on two targets despite playing a team-high 35 coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
This season, Gardner has a defensive grade of 87.9 and a coverage grade of 89.6, the highest in the NFL.
As a rookie. Let that sink in.
It feels inevitable that Gardner wins Defensive Rookie of the Year. He deserves it. But what about Defensive Player of the Year? If the Jets make the playoffs, Gardner would have a better case. But not making the postseason shouldn’t exclude him. He has been among the NFL’s best players. He is this year’s version of Ja’Marr Chase, a player instantly elite at his position.
A lucrative Pro Bowl for Tua Tagovailoa
The voters have spoken. Tua Tagovailoa received the most fan votes for the Pro Bowl (306,861).
Not only is that a tremendous accomplishment for Tua and Dolphins fans, but it’s also a notable twist for Miami, which may end up owing the quarterback $6 million more.
If he’s named to the Pro Bowl squad, Tagovailoa’s fifth-year option jumps from $22 million to $28 million. He’s in the third year of his contract, and the Dolphins must decide if they’ll make use of his fifth-year option by May 2023.
They’ll likely pick that up — unless they decide to sign him to a long-term extension.
But if Tua gets to his fifth-year option, his flag-football-style trip to the Pro Bowl will ultimately prove a lucrative one.
Explaining the Dolphins’ bizarre third-down playcalling
Miami coach Mike McDaniel did a terrific job establishing an impressive ground game — only to abandon it when it mattered. The Dolphins averaged an insane 7.52 yards per carry against Buffalo on Saturday. And yet, throughout the game on third-and-short, McDaniel dialed up the quick passing game, which consistently let them down.
In the second half, the Dolphins faced four third downs when they needed four yards or fewer. They threw it every time. The first time? It was a third-and-4, and they scored a touchdown. But then on the ensuing three plays, they needed three yards or fewer. And they passed, ultimately failing to convert every time. They finished 5-of-14 on third downs.
McDaniel was asked about his thought process on leaning on the pass so heavily on third down.
“In a game like that, you have to kind of stay ahead of what the defense is doing,” McDaniel said. “We had to give them a reason to play single safety. I think they played four snaps of man the first time we played them. So you have a choice: You can either play scared, or you can try to continue doing what your offense is built to do. And if they’re blitzing five-man pressures to stop the run, it’s going to get ugly.
“I was fine with the way the game went. … The offensive line and the running backs believe in our receivers and quarterback, and you have to play to each other and take what the defense is giving you.”
Translation: The Bills were in formations that made it easier for the Dolphins to throw the ball. And even though the Dolphins have been a great passing team all year (and even though the Bills were seemingly making it easy on Miami), Tua & Co. struggled to execute against a defense as good as Buffalo’s.
So McDaniel was in a tough spot, where the defense was letting the Dolphins have their strength (the passing game) and they still couldn’t convert on third downs.
What’s next for Mac Jones?
The Patriots QB has been animated on the field, to say the least. I’m not sure if it’s belligerence (against playcaller Matt Patricia) or it’s petulance (at his lack of control over a sinking offense) or it’s an attempt at leadership (to fire up his teammates).
“You don’t want to let your emotions get the best of you. But yeah, I think that’s pretty much it,” Jones said earlier this month. “It wasn’t directed at anybody. Just emotion coming out and we kind of needed a spark.”
But now I wonder how Jones is perceived within the locker room.
Because as much as Patricia is clearly struggling to run an offense, Jones is struggling to set up his teammates for success. And one of Jones’ teammates, tackle Trent Brown, recently liked a post on Instagram that suggested the Patriots pursue pending free-agent quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason.
Of course, who wouldn’t want Brady? Even at the end of his career, the Patriots would probably welcome him back.
But Garoppolo? He’s a middling starter who struggles with injuries. He’s an upgrade over Jones, for sure. But you can debate how big of an upgrade. I’m not sure Garoppolo improves New England’s offense in a huge way.
But it doesn’t really matter what I think. It matters what Patriots players think. And maybe we just got a window into the mind of one player.
If Brown likes the idea of the Patriots pursuing another quarterback, how many other players like that idea? And that begs so many other questions about Jones’ relationship with the team and his future with the franchise.
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Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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