NFL Saturday: Playoff Hopefuls Collide, Bengals Win OT Thriller

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) catches a touchdown pass over Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) in Cincinnati's comeback win over Minnesota in overtime, 27-24, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bengals won 27-24 in overtime.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) catches a touchdown pass over Minnesota Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans (21) in Cincinnati's comeback win over Minnesota in overtime, 27-24, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bengals won 27-24 in overtime.

As hearts begin to expand in the season of giving, so too does the NFL schedule, as pro football paid its annual visit to everyone’s favorite day of the week. 


Each of the three games on tap had playoff overtones, as the standings coming into Week 15 are stocked full of 7-6 teams vying for division titles or wild-card spots. Five of the six teams teams playing Saturday were in that 7-6 knot, so the outcomes would shake up the playoff picture, if only for a few hours.


Let’s take a deeper look at the results of a meaningful Saturday of NFL action.



Cincinnati 27, Minnesota 24 (OT)


The Bengals scored touchdowns in their final three possessions in regulation, and Evan McPherson kicked a 29-yard field goal in overtime to give the Bengals a thrilling comeback win.


The Bengals defense came up clutch in overtime, but it was on Cincinnati’s game-tying drive at the end of regulation when athletic greatness fit the drama of the moment to a Tee. 


Trailing 27-20 with 45 seconds left, Bengals quarterback Jake Browning threw one up for grabs to the Minnesota goal line. Two Vikings defenders converged on the ball, with cornerback Akayleb Evans in position to intercept when Cincinnati wide receiver Tee Higgins came back for the pass and made a leaping catch, taking the ball away from Evans, just short of the goal line.


But Higgins' transcendant effort was only beginning.


Before being pushed out of bounds, the 6'4" Higgins spun back towards the end zone and extended the ball, breaking the plane of the goal line and managing to swing the ball inside the pylon. One could argue that, given the game circumstances, Higgins' circus catch and score was the most spectacular touchdown of this NFL season.  


In overtime, Minnesota drove to the Bengals' 42-yard line with a 3rd-and-1, needing only a field goal to win since Cincinnati received the extra period’s opening possession but failed to score. But twice the Bengals stuffed quarterback sneaks by Nick Mullens and forced a turnover on downs. Then a scrambling Browning converted a huge 3rd-and-6, finding Tyler Boyd across the middle. Boyd made the catch for the first down, then broke a tackle and went 44 yards to the Minnesota 11-yard line. McPherson came in two plays later to win it. 


Browning is now 3-0 as a starter since replacing the injured Joe Burrow. He was terrific again Saturday, throwing for 324 yards and two touchdowns. In rallying the Bengals from a 17-3 deficit, he directed three straight TD drives in the second half against a defense that, since Week 6, allowed the fewest points of any in the NFL. And Browning did some of this work without his best weapon, star wideout J’Marr Chase, who left the game early in the fourth with a shoulder injury. He did not return.


Thankfully for Cincinnati, Chase’s running mate, Higgins, stepped up big time. On the day, Higgins caught four passes for 61 yards. He was also on the receiving end of Browning’s other TD pass, a 13-yarder in the third quarter, which cut the Minnesota lead to 17-10.


Higgins’ game-tying catch and Chase’s injury overshadowed brilliant days by Minnesota’s Ty Chandler and Jordan Addison. The second-year back Chandler rushed 132 yards, and he ran for a touchdown for Minnesota’s first score. The rookie wideout Addison gained 111 yards on six catches and caught both of Mullens’ touchdown throws, including a 37-yard reception in the first half that put the Vikes up 14-3. It was Addison’s eighth and ninth TD receptions of the year, most among rookie receivers. Justin Jefferson, in his second game back from injury, caught seven passes for 84 yards. 


Browning’s counterpart, Mullens, starting in place of the benched Josh Dobbs, threw for 303 yards but was picked off twice.


Many of the close victories the Vikings pinned down last season are eluding them in 2023, and this loss damages Minnesota’s playoff hopes; the team falls to 7-7 and can not help but notice the two games against Detroit in the season’s final three weeks. 


The Bengals (8-6) are a great story, made so by Browning’s emergence as a leader and capable — at times dynamic — signal-caller. They travel to Pittsburgh next Saturday for a key divisional matchup against the faltering Steelers.



Indianapolis 30, Pittsburgh 13


The host Colts scored 30 unanswered points to turn a sluggish start into a commanding 30-13 win over the free-falling Steelers.


The first of Saturday’s triple-header started off well for Pittsburgh. After a missed Indianapolis field goal, Pittsburgh opened the scoring by droving 54 yards on 12 plays. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky finished off the march with a 4th-and-goal run, but the Steelers’ lead stayed 6-0 when PK Chris Boswell missed the extra point.


Pittsburgh’s next score came via its special teams when Connor Heyward laid out for a spectacular block of a Rigoberto Sanchez punt in Indy territory. Rookie Nick Herbig recovered near the Colts’ goal line. After a loss on first down, Trubisky threw a four-yard pass to Diontae Johnson for a 13-0 lead.


Then it was Indianapolis the rest of the way.


The Colts responded after the Johnson TD catch, moving into Steeler territory when QB Gardner Minshew hit Michael Pittman Jr. for a 42-yard gain. RB Zach Moss then turned a short Minshew pass into a 16-yard touchdown. The Colts took the lead when Minshew twice found little-used WR D.J. Montgomery for 34 yards and then on a 14-yard TD strike. (How little used? It was Montgomery’s first catches of the season. In fact, the WR was not targeted once before Saturday.). The 14-13 score stayed until halftime.


In the third, the Colts extended their lead when Minshew tossed his third TD pass of the day, an 18-yarder to tight end Mo-Alie Cox. The TD followed a critical mistake by the Steelers when RB Najee Harris fumbled at his own 12 on a hit by Colts linebacker E.J. Speed. Safety Julian Blackmon recovered the ball just before it went about of bounds to give the Colts the huge opportunity. 


The Steelers failed to generate much offense in the second half. Two straight punts then a Blackmon interception of the Trubisky ensured there would be no comeback for Pittsburgh. Indy’s Matt Gay added three field goals to help the Colts pull away for the win.




The Colts get a huge win and, at 8-6, separate themselves from the thicket of 7-6 teams that play this weekend. One of those teams, the Steelers, fall to .500 — almost unthinkable three weeks ago when their upcoming schedule looked as soft as Christmas pudding. 


The Colts travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons, another game rife with playoff implications. Pittsburgh hosts the hot Bengals in Week 16, but the way it handled its last short homestand can not have Steeler faithful optimistic.




Detroit 42, Denver 17


Quarterback Jared Goff threw five touchdown passes, three to impressive rookie tight end Sam LaPorta as the Lions mauled the Broncos at Ford Field in Detroit.


Helping out Goff and LaPorta were Lions running backs Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery, who combined for 185 yards rushing. Wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown chipped in with seven catches for 112 yards, plus a touchdown catch. 


Detroit’s offense scored touchdowns on five straight drives, looking very much like the well-balanced, physically imposing group that dominated opponents in the first half of the season. It was the second time in Goff’s career that he threw five touchdowns in a game, the first since he tossed that many against the Vikings in 2018, as a member of the Los Angeles Rams. (Goff led LA to the Super Bowl that season.)


Little at the start of the game foreshadowed the pyrotechnics the Lions’ offense would eventually set off. Detroit punted the first three times they had the ball. The problem for the Broncos? Russell Wilson and the offense could not take advantage, as Denver punted twice, and a strip-sack of Wilson killed a drive in Detroit territory. 


But once the Lions started to roll, there was little Denver did to slow them down. Detroit scored its first touchdown on an eight-play 80-yard driving spanning the first and second quarters, culminating on a 17-yard pass to LaPorta. Then came Goff TD passes to Gibbs and St. Brown, and Detroit took a 21-0 lead into the half. 


A Wilson seven-yard scoring pass to Lil’Jordan Humphrey cut the deficit to 14, but Detroit immediately retook control by driving 75 yards on eight plays, with LaPorta catching his second TD, a three-yard pass, to make it 28-7. Gibbs ran one in from 12 yards out, and the rout was on. LaPorta finished off the scoring with a 10-yard TD catch from Goff. 


Gibbs ran for an even 100 yards on just 11 carries — a sparkling 9.1 yards per attempt. Montgomery complemented him with 85 yards on 17 carries. LaPorta gained 57 yards receiving, in addition to his three TD grabs.


Denver’s Wilson threw for 228 yards and a touchdown, and other than the fumble, he committed no other turnovers. Receivers Jerry Jeudy (74 yards receiving) and Courtland Sutton (71) had solid games but neither reached the end zone. Denver’s running game did not help out Wilson and Sean Payton’s passing game, totaling 83 yards against a tough Lions run defense.


A disappointing performance for Denver, especially the Broncos’ defense. After a stout start to the game, Van Joseph’s unit — which over the weeks transformed from a doormat into one the NFL’s strongest — wilted against Detroit’s physical brand of offensive football. Still, at 7-7, Denver is still in the hunt for an AFC wild card, and they do not play a team with a winning record over the last three weeks of the season.


For the Lions (10-4), the performance was a tremendous rebound from the egg laid in Chicago last Sunday, and will surely have Lions fans thinking about landing the No. 1 seed in the NFC. However, Detroit’s schedule over the last three weeks is a tough one — traveling next week to play a desperate Minnesota team, then being paid a visit by the powerful Cowboys the following Saturday. 












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