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NFL Winners and Losers: Oh no, Kliff. Cardinals showing signs of another late-season fade?

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  • Kliff Kingsbury
    Kliff Kingsbury
    American football coach

Last season, after the Arizona Cardinals beat the Buffalo Bills on DeAndre Hopkins' Hail Mary, they were 6-3. They finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. 

When people ripped head coach Kliff Kingsbury this offseason, it was because of that late-season fade. All of that criticism seemed meaningless when the Cardinals started this season 10-2. The Cardinals were fantastic. Kingsbury was a Coach of the Year candidate. Another late-season collapse? No way. 

Not so fast. 

The Cardinals lost last Monday night and while that was a damaging loss, it was excusable. What happened Sunday was not. The Cardinals were awful in a 30-12 against a Lions team that was 1-11-1 coming in. They were listless. The offense did nothing. The defense wasn't great either. They trailed 17-0 at halftime. According to NFL Research it was the Lions' largest lead all season and Arizona's largest halftime deficit on the road since 2018. Then it got worse. 

There were some signs of life from the Cardinals to start the second half but they settled for a field goal. Then Kyler Murray threw an interception to Amani Oruwariye, and during the long return Murray was gesturing at AJ Green for presumably running the wrong route. The Lions scored right afterward and led 24-3, which took over as the Lions' largest lead of the season. 

There weren't many highlights later on. The Cardinals got some points but were dominated. Yes, the Lions dominated someone. It's the kind of loss that legitimizes all of the skepticism over the Cardinals' hot start. 

The Cardinals' loss on Monday to the Los Angeles Rams knocked Arizona out of the NFC's No. 1 seed. The loss in Detroit could cost them a division title. The Rams can tie Arizona for first place in the NFC West with a win on Monday. And given how Arizona finished last season and is hitting a slump this season, can we trust they'll beat the Rams for the division title? Getting blasted by Detroit isn't a good sign they can beat anyone down the stretch. 

Arizona isn't in danger of missing the playoffs. The NFC's wild-card contenders aren't good enough to supplant them. But in the span of seven days, the Cardinals went from a Super Bowl contender to a team that got blown out by the Lions and might not even win the division after a 10-2 start to the season. It's not like Kingsbury is getting fired if the Cardinals go to the playoffs, even if they're one-and-done. But expect a repeat of the criticism for Kingsbury we heard this past offseason — and a trip back to the hot seat — if the Cardinals continue to slide again. 

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) is sacked by Detroit Lions outside linebacker Charles Harris (53). (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) is sacked by Detroit Lions outside linebacker Charles Harris (53). (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 15 in the NFL: 

WINNERS

Bengals' standing in the AFC North: The Cincinnati Bengals have to feel pretty good.

The Bengals went on the road and beat the Denver Broncos 15-10 on Sunday. That strengthens the Bengals’ wild-card chances, but more important they’re right in the division race too.

The Bengals’ win combined with a close loss from the Ravens means those teams are tied at 8-6 with three games to go. The Browns can also improve to 8-6 with a win on Monday against Las Vegas.

The Bengals already beat the Ravens this season. They can sweep them and clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win next week at home vs. Baltimore. The Bengals look better than the banged-up Ravens. A win next week would be a big step for them. 

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers will be in the playoffs. The rest of the NFC wild-card contenders won’t stop them.

The question might be how far they can go.

The 49ers continued a nice hot streak in the second half of the season with an easy 31-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers are 8-6. That’s not too bad after a 3-5 start.

San Francisco is doing a lot well. The offense is getting a lot out of playmakers Deebo Samuel, who scored again Sunday, and George Kittle. The defense has tightened up. Nick Bosa in particular has been making a ton of plays. He had a forced fumble on a sack Sunday. The 49ers are the type of team that would be a tough matchup in the playoffs. 

The 49ers will be a wild-card team next month. They might be the team none of the division winners want to play.

Buffalo Bills' division title hopes: The New England Patriots' loss on Saturday night was a big deal in Buffalo. The Patriots' Week 1 game against the Miami Dolphins is a big reason. 

The Bills are alive in the AFC East race after beating the Carolina Panthers 31-14. The Bills are a game behind the Patriots and play them next week. If the Bills win, they'd also have an upper hand in the tiebreaker. The Bills would be 4-1 in division games if they win next week and the Patriots would be 3-2. The Bills can thank the Dolphins' Week 1 win at New England for that edge. 

The first meeting between the teams was a memorable game in a windstorm. The second one might decide the AFC East champ. 

Tua Tagovailoa, kind of: Tagovailoa helped the Miami Dolphins to their sixth straight win, keeping alive their hopes at an unlikely playoff berth. But Sunday's 31-24 win over the Jets wasn't without rough moments. 

Tagovailoa threw a pair of picks, including a bad pick-six in the fourth quarter that allowed the Jets to tie it. 

Credit Tagovailoa for putting that behind him and leading a game-winning drive that was capped by a touchdown pass to DeVante Parker. Tagovailoa didn't look great, but he came up big when he had to. It's hard to know which side of that to focus on. 

Tagovailoa will be a debated quarterback his entire career. Going ahead of Justin Herbert in the draft will cause that. But he's doing OK, and on Sunday at least he and the Dolphins escaped with a win. 

Jacksonville Jaguars, at least for the 2022 draft: The Jaguars are likely to pick No. 1 overall for a second straight season. A 30-16 loss to the Houston Texans, combined with the Lions' win, puts 2-12 Jacksonville in the top (bottom?) spot with three weeks to go

The Jaguars couldn't even be competitive against the Texans. Trevor Lawrence continued to look like less than a superstar in the making, though that top overall 2022 pick might be able to help him some. The Jaguars got rid of Urban Meyer this past week, and that's good for the franchise. But there's still a lot more work to do. Jacksonville can start thinking about that first overall pick soon. 

LOSERS

John Harbaugh’s two-point results (the decisions are fine): Harbaugh has made a lot of smart decisions that haven’t worked out this season.

For the second time this season he went for two and the win, and for the second time it didn’t work. Tyler Huntley’s pass on the two-point conversion, after he ran for a score to cut Green Bay’s lead to 31-30, was batted away with 42 seconds left. The Packers held on to the 31-30 win. Harbaugh also went for two late against the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this season, and the Ravens lost when a Lamar Jackson pass was incomplete. 

Harbaugh will get more heat for going for two again, but it made sense. The Ravens had a better shot to win on one play than holding down Aaron Rodgers in overtime. Harbaugh took his chances, the Packers just stopped the play. It was a damaging loss for the Ravens. But Harbaugh shouldn’t worry too much about his decision-making process. It just didn’t have the desired result.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans aren't going to blow the AFC South. Right? 

Tennessee's offense again struggled, this time in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers defense carried the team to a much-needed 19-13 win that keeps their playoff hopes alive. 

The Titans should still win the AFC South, but they had a shot to tie the Kansas City Chiefs for the best record in the AFC and lost. Maybe the Titans could make a run if A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry get healthy, but it's tough to depend on that. What's left now is a team without many playmakers, and a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who isn't carrying a bad supporting cast. 

The Titans have a soft schedule the rest of the way so they should hold off the hard-charging Colts. But it's not as much of a guarantee as it should be. 

Soda-drinking Giants fans: A big deal was made out of the New York Giants offering season-ticket holders a free Pepsi for fan appreciation day. Giants fans need something stronger to drink after watching their team. 

The Giants' season is somehow getting worse. They lost their third in a row on Sunday, falling 21-6 to the Dallas Cowboys. The most ridiculous sequence came in the fourth quarter. The Giants had fourth-and-1 trailing 21-6. There was no decision; they had to go for it. But head coach Joe Judge was slow to make the call, the Giants had personnel shuttling in and off the field late, and in the rush to get the ball snapped before a delay of game there was a false start. Saquon Barkley jumped around in frustration. The Giants punted. Then Dak Prescott threw an interception ... and Mike Glennon threw a pick right back to the Cowboys two plays later. Jake Fromm replaced Glennon after that. 

The Giants are in a free fall. It's not like you'll get the fans fired up to watch Fromm the rest of the way. In fact, what is there to get excited about if you're a Giants fan? 

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