You want to talk about gut-wrenching losses? Pittsburgh’s loss to New England last week was all that and more. Not only did the rival Patriots regain the upper hand for home-field advantage in the AFC, but the Steelers also lost Antonio Brown to a calf injury that will sideline him at least through the regular season. A controversial call that wound up costing Jesse James a touchdown in the final minute only added to the misery.
It would have been understandable if the Steelers, who have played down to their opponent on several occasions this year, came out flat in the wake of last week’s crushing defeat. But what’s rule No. 76? In case you’ve forgotten (or if you’ve never seen Wedding Crashers), Rule No. 76 is “No excuses, play like a champion.” And that’s exactly what the Steelers did on Christmas Day.
The Steelers locked up a first-round bye with a convincing win Monday over the hapless Texans, who have now dropped five straight and seven of eight overall since losing rookie phenom Deshaun Watson to a torn ACL. Pittsburgh’s first two touchdowns came from a pair of unlikely sources. Justin Hunter registered the first touchdown of the day on a five-yard strike from Ben Roethlisberger before fullback Roosevelt Nix vultured a one-yard score with just over four minutes remaining in the first half.
Le’Veon Bell had a quiet afternoon, at least by his usual standards, but salvaged the day for fantasy owners by punching in a 10-yard touchdown to give Pittsburgh a 27-0 advantage with 1:48 to go in the third quarter. Bell and JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrated by re-enacting the snowball fight from the holiday classic Elf. Speaking of Smith-Schuster, the 21-year-old got off to a slow start and actually lost yardage on his lone first-half catch, but woke up by delivering five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown after halftime. The touchdown was his sixth of the year, which leads all rookie wide receivers. He’s also second among rookies in receiving yards behind only L.A.’s Cooper Kupp.
Monday didn’t bring much holiday cheer for the Texans, who managed just 93 yards through the air on eight-of-17 passing. DeAndre Hopkins was responsible for most of that output, totaling four catches for 65 yards and a touchdown with all off his production coming in the second half. Hopkins made a circus catch against Joe Haden (who was back after missing five games with a broken leg) for his league-leading 13th touchdown in the loss. He’s the first player in franchise history to score a touchdown in all eight home games.
Quarterback has been a revolving door for the injury-plagued Texans this year and that trend continued in Monday’s defeat. T.J. Yates came out with a head injury late in the first half but returned later on after clearing the concussion protocol. Taylor Heinicke filled in during Yates’ absence but lasted just nine snaps before landing in the concussion protocol himself. Monday marked Heinicke’s NFL debut.
There have been rumblings that fourth-year head coach Bill O’Brien could be on the hot seat and it’s easy to see why following another rocky effort in Week 16. Obviously, O’Brien can’t be blamed for Houston’s multitude of injuries (J.J. Watt, who is out for the year with a fractured leg, missed a chance to play against his younger brother T.J. on Monday), but his sketchy play-calling leaves much to be desired. O’Brien, who also serves as the Texans’ offensive coordinator and chief play-caller in addition to his role as head coach, oversaw a particularly head-scratching sequence with Houston driving in the second quarter. After a five-yard gain on first down brought Houston to the one-yard line, O’Brien inexplicably used Alfred Blue out of the wildcat (he was stuffed at the line for no gain) before opting for two straight passes with the second resulting in a drive-killing interception on fourth-and-goal. If the Texans had any momentum going into that drive, there was none left after it.
Not much went right for the Texans on Monday, though at least they got a strong performance from Alfred Blue, who led the way with a season-high 108 rushing yards on 16 carries. His 48-yard run in the second quarter was the longest of his career. Blue, who started the year as a third-stringer, has out-touched Lamar Miller in back-to-back games and has outgained Miller by 75 yards from scrimmage over that span. Also of note, David Quessenberry made his NFL debut by logging nine snaps at right tackle in Monday’s loss. Quessenberry was drafted by Houston in 2013 but just recently returned from a three-year battle with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Eagles Squeak By Raiders
For fantasy owners competing in championship week, it all came down to one game. And boy was it ugly. At one point Monday night, Philadelphia and Oakland combined for three turnovers in a span of four plays. But in the end, the Eagles prevailed, narrowly holding off the Raiders in a Christmas night nail-biter.
Nick Foles threw for an NFL record seven touchdowns against the Raiders in 2013 but wasn’t as successful this time around. Making his second start in place of an injured Carson Wentz, Foles completed just 19-of-38 passes for 163 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He got his touchdown out of the way early, finding Jay Ajayi for a 17-yard score in the first quarter. The touchdown was only his second of the year and his first career receiving touchdown. Foles was later intercepted on a throw to Zach Ertz, ending a run of 170 straight passes without a pick. That had been the longest active streak in the NFL.
Defending the run has been a strength for the Eagles this year. In fact, Philadelphia hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 6 of 2016 (Matt Jones was the culprit), though Marshawn Lynch came awfully close on Monday night. The 31-year-old continued his second-half resurgence with 95 yards on 25 carries. Jalen Richard also went for 42 yards on the ground, though he torpedoed the Raiders with a pair of costly fumbles.
Amari Cooper, who was active after missing the previous game with a high-ankle sprain, nabbed three-of-four targets for 66 yards including a 63-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Cooper dusted Jalen Mills on the play, which has been a frequent occurrence for Mills throughout his career. Mills has steadily improved since earning PFF’s worst cornerback grade as a rookie last season, but was caught snoozing on the Cooper touchdown and missed a chance for an easy interception later in the game. To Mills’ credit, Michael Crabtree had his worst game all season, failing to catch any of his three targets from Derek Carr. It was Crabtree’s second goose egg in his last four games, though the other time he failed to catch a pass was because he was ejected for fighting Aqib Talib in Week 12.
Rookie kicker Jake Elliott shanked a 33-yard attempt before halftime but redeemed himself by booting the go-ahead field goal with 22 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The Raiders coughed up the football after a series of laterals on the game’s final play with Derek Barnett recovering for a 23-yard touchdown. Though it didn’t affect the game’s outcome—the Eagles were already winning—the play had a major impact on Vegas as the touchdown allowed Philadelphia (favored by 8.5 points) to cover the spread. With the win, Philadelphia clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC, assuring them home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Going into Philadelphia, where the Eagles are 7-0 this year, will be a tall task for any opponent, even without Wentz.
Quick Hits: Jaelen Strong is done for the year after tearing his ACL in Sunday’s loss to the Niners. Strong was signed off Jacksonville’s practice squad last week … Giants interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo confirmed Eli Manning will start this week’s regular season finale against the Redskins. Manning and the Giants will take a five-game losing streak into Week 17 … Landon Collins is out for the season after suffering a broken right forearm in Sunday’s loss to Arizona. Collins, who was recently named to his second straight Pro Bowl, leads the Giants with 104 tackles this year … Despite Dallas missing the postseason for the fifth time in seven years, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he “feel[s] good” about head coach Jason Garrett. The Cowboys were eliminated with Sunday’s loss to Seattle … Melvin Gordon hurt his ankle in Sunday’s win over the Jets and is sporting a walking boot on his left foot, according to Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. With Austin Ekeler (broken hand) also banged up, Branden Oliver could see an expanded role in Week 17 … Travaris Cadet will sit out this week’s regular season finale after suffering a dislocated ankle in Sunday’s loss to New England. Cadet will need 12 weeks to recover after doctors reset his ankle on Wednesday … DeMarco Murray is unlikely to play this week after spraining his knee late in Sunday’s loss to the Rams. Derrick Henry will act as the workhorse if Murray sits against Jacksonville in Week 17.