Come this time of year, most NFL games come down to a few plays. Often, they are part of a theme.
In Green Bay on Sunday night, we saw the same, recurring story unfold with the Chiefs’ start-and-stop offense. In Houston, the Broncos had their chances to win a key game in the AFC wild-card race, but ultimately lost because the passing game couldn’t make the big plays at the right time. And, in Washington, we saw why Tyreek Hill is the most explosive receiver in the NFL, and is threatening the 2,000-yard barrier.
Below, we break down plays from all three contests, digging into the details and finding the why behind each result.
Chiefs’ issues in the red zone
Kansas City has struggled offensively this season, especially compared to its previous standard. The Chiefs are eighth in yardage per game and 11th in points, but the unit has gone in fits for the better part of the season.
We see why in the following play. This was a third-and-goal in the first quarter, and the Chiefs were at the Packers’ 9-yard line. Kansas City allowed a sack on first down and was trying to overcome the negative play with trips to the right, and tight end Travis Kelce isolated on the back side.
Green Bay, as it did much of the night, played zone coverage in the red zone. Here, we saw corner Corey Ballentine (No. 35) in press coverage on Kelce.
On the snap, Mahomes hits the top of his short drop and scans the field. As has been the case so often this year, nobody is open. Kelce is in a wrestling match with Ballentine right at the edge of the legal, five-yard cushion.
Meanwhile, the spacing in the trips set is off, as corner Keisean Nixon (No. 25) is being physical with receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Rashee Rice (No. 4) is running an underneath route, but he’s far short of the goal line.
Finally, look at the line. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor is on an island with edge rusher Rashan Gary (No. 52) and is clearly beaten. In fact, Taylor doesn’t touch Gary until the edge rusher is by him and turning the corner.
The end result is Mahomes doing what he does best. He stepped up and away from the initial pressure, hoping to find a cleaner pocket elsewhere. However, the Packers did a nice job rushing Mahomes as a unit and collapsed the interior, as star defensive tackle Kenny Clark (No. 97) finished with a sack.
All year, the Chiefs have struggled to get open. It happened consistently in Green Bay, and it was only made worse as pass protection broke down, with three red zone sacks on the night.
This is the third-down sack on the Chiefs' first drive. Mahomes has no time with Jawaan Taylor beaten almost immediately.— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) December 5, 2023
But if you look downfield, it doesn't matter. The Packers played zone a ton in the red zone, and KC couldn't get open. pic.twitter.com/1KnIivbMF3
Tyreek Hill continues his assault on the record book
How great has Hill been this year? He leads the NFL with 1,481 receiving yards, 299 more than the second-place receiver, Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb. That gap between Hill and Lamb is a larger gulf than exists between Lamb and Michael Pittman Jr., who checks in at 14th.
On Sunday on the road against the Commanders, we got to watch two things in one play. We saw not only why Hill is perhaps the most dynamic threat in NFL history, but also why Washington is bound to overhaul its coaching staff the second its Week 18 game ends.
Below is the Dolphins’ first possession. Miami had a spread look with trips to the right and Hill in the left slot. The Commanders, for reasons nobody can understand, decided to play a single-high safety look in a Cover 3 shell.
Even more incredibly, that deep safety was on the opposite side of Hill, beyond the far hash.
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa knew before the ball was snapped where it was being thrown. In theory, the man lined up over Hill—rookie safety Quan Martin (No. 20)— isn’t responsible for running deep with him in this zone. But because the post safety is on the other side of the field, Martin had no choice but essentially play man coverage if Hill goes deep.
Tagovailoa didn’t even bother taking a full drop. He shuffled a few steps and lofted the ball to a spot 23 yards downfield. When Tagovailoa released the ball, Martin was still a yard further back than Hill. That changed rapidly.
When Hill’s hands make contact with the football, he’s outpaced Martin by three yards. To the shock of nobody, save Washington’s coaching staff, Hill easily torched single coverage while deep safety Kamren Curl (No. 31) was left to watch the touchdown with everyone else at FedEx Field.
This was a bold, bold strategy by the Commanders against Tyreek Hill.— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) December 5, 2023
Single-high safety shaded to the other hash? Sure! pic.twitter.com/moecH6jbyd
Broncos come oh-so close
In terms of the playoff picture, perhaps no game Sunday was more important than the one in Houston.
The Texans and Broncos both entered at 6–5. Although they didn’t know it yet, a victory would pull either team even with the Browns, Colts and Steelers in the AFC wild-card race. Ultimately, Houston won 22–17, largely because its defense nabbed three interceptions off Russell Wilson, including a game-saving grab on the last meaningful play of the game.
But here, we’re going to watch the preceding snap. The Broncos, down five points, faced second-and-goal at the Texans’ 8-yard line. Denver went two-wide on either side of the formation, with Samaje Perine in at tailback. Houston matched with quarters, playing four in a deeper zone with three defenders underneath.
On the snap, Wilson drops and hits his back foot. Judging from his eyes, Wilson wanted to go to receiver Courtland Sutton—undoubtedly, the veteran quarterback saw the huge void in the middle of the field. However, Sutton cuts behind, not in front of, linebacker Blake Cashman (No. 53).
At that point, Wilson had to hold on to the ball for a second longer, allowing what was a relentless Houston rush to get pressure. On the day, the Texans sacked Wilson three times while hitting him on eight snaps.
As Wilson tries to step out of pressure toward the right side of his pocket, the lane to run collapses. At this point, Jerry Jeudy (No. 10) has pivoted back inside from the left slot and was running free for a walk-in touchdown … but Wilson didn’t have the time or vision to see him.
Instead of finding Jeudy, Wilson tries to hit Sutton in the back of the end zone but throws well behind him. On the next play, Wilson was intercepted for the third time, officially sealing Denver’s playoff hopes into deep peril.
This was the play right before the game-ending interception by Russell Wilson. Jerry Jeudy comes wide open, but the pressure -- which was relentless from the Texans -- forced Wilson to get throw a tick too early.— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) December 5, 2023
Otherwise? Denver almost certainly wins. pic.twitter.com/vQdvg8B82X