Sports

What We Learned From Week 17 in the N.F.L.

With just two weeks left in the season, it’s time to put up or shut up. Some teams were ready on Sunday; others were not. The disappointing Buccaneers rose to the challenge, coming back to beat the Panthers and wrest the division title from them. The Commanders, by contrast, lost a game that dramatically hurt their playoff chances.

Mike Evans saves Tampa Bay’s season.

Wide receiver Mike Evans couldn’t have picked a better time to have a career day. With the Buccaneers backed up against the wall, in danger of losing their division, Evans rose to the occasion and embarrassed the Panthers’ secondary. He finished with 10 receptions for 207 yards and three touchdowns, burning a Carolina cornerback straight down the field on all three scores.

It wasn’t until late in the first half that the Bucs realized they could just spam the “throw to Evans” button over and over. With 2:18 left in the second quarter, the Bucs sent two receivers on go routes on the outside, with a vertical option route down the middle from the slot player. Evans, to Tom Brady’s right, torched third-year cornerback Keith Taylor and caught the ball with a good 5 yards of separation before trotting into the end zone.

Evans’s next two touchdowns looked more or less the same. The Panthers’ cornerbacks just did not have the speed to match Evans stride for stride, and Brady played with an unusually aggressive mind set after an entire season of dinking and dunking relentlessly.

Evans did more than just win the day, though. His game-breaking performance put him over 1,000 yards for the season, making him the only player in N.F.L. history to start his career with nine consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. Jerry Rice and Torry Holt were the only two players with eight 1,000-yard seasons to open their career, and now Evans has cleared that bar to sit all by himself at the top.

How many more of these games do Evans and Brady have in them this year? Evans scored as many touchdowns on Sunday as he had all season. But the potential for this kind of performance is always looming, and it will be hard to fully count the Bucs out so long as Brady has a guy like Evans at his side.

The Commanders bet on Carson Wentz and lose.

Carson Wentz couldn’t stay out of his own way on Sunday.Credit…Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Toward the end of a blowout loss to the 49ers last week, Commanders Coach Ron Rivera benched quarterback Taylor Heinicke for Carson Wentz. The change did nothing to help Washington get back into the game, but it did signal that the team was ready for another shake-up at quarterback, clearly desperate for anything that might boost its fortunes this season.

The desperation bled into Week 17, where Wentz got his first start since Week 6. But the game was about as Wentzian as possible.

Wentz’s first three drives ended in an interception, a turnover on downs (after six straight runs, to be fair), and another interception. They weren’t fluky or unusual interceptions, either. Wentz was throwing passes right to the Browns secondary. He showed the exact kinds of mistakes and ball-security issues that got him benched for a career backup in the first place.

On his second pick of the day, the Commanders had a third-and-7 with the ball on their own 12-yard line early in the second quarter. Wentz, under zero pressure, decided to throw straight into double coverage deep down the middle of the field. The decision was bizarre enough, but Wentz dramatically underthrew the ball, so much so that the intercepting defender looked more like he was fielding a punt than picking off a pass.

Wentz couldn’t get out of his own way. He has long had that problem, though. Rivera knew the risk he was taking in starting Wentz, swinging for a slightly higher ceiling in exchange for a lower floor. There is no guarantee that Heinicke would have been much better if he had played, but going back to Wentz with the season on the line, knowing full well that he’s prone to imploding, was ill-advised.

To twist the knife into the Commanders’ wounds, Rivera may not have been fully aware of what was at stake in starting Wentz. It was brought to Rivera’s attention after the game that the Commanders would be eliminated from playoff contention with a Green Bay win over Minnesota, and Rivera didn’t seem to know that was the case. Going into a do-or-die game unaware of the stakes with a quarterback known for his volatility would be a fitting way for Washington’s scrappy but ultimately inadequate season to end.

Around the N.F.L.

Kansas City 27, Broncos 24

Patriots 23, Dolphins 21

Buccaneers 30, Panthers 24

Falcons 20, Cardinals 19

Lions 41, Bears 10

Giants 38, Colts 10

Saints 20, Eagles 10

Browns 24, Commanders 10

Jaguars 31, Texans 3

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