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Andy Richardson

Thursday Night Recap

Pats continue Steelers slide

If you bet the near historic under of 30.5 in this game, you probably realized early on that you were in trouble, with the Patriots shockingly, surgically marching down the field for an opening drive touchdown. The game still finished under 40, of course, highlighting two bad offenses. But at least there was some entertainment.

QUARTERBACKS

A week ago I picked up Bailey Zappe in my dynasty league. I dropped him on Tuesday, convinced the guy could not play. Last night was a tale of two halves, with Zappe throwing for 196 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first half and then largely handing it off after that. Which leaves us where? I think Zappe is a good candidate to start New England's final four games. I do not think he'll put up good numbers in any of them, nor do I think he'll be a realistic option to start in 2024. He was helped last night by Steeler defender Alex Highsmith getting hurt early on. Made some nice throws, though, too, like a beauty to JuJu Smith-Schuster on the opening drive and the touchdowns to Hunter Henry. But with the remaining games against Kansas City, Denver, Buffalo and the Jets, I think we've seen the best of Zappe.

I legitimately felt bad for Mitchell Trubisky as boos were raining down on him in the first half. Has it been mentioned recently that he was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes? There has been a lot of bad quarterbacking in the NFL this year, with fifth-round picks and third-string quarterbacks starting games each week, but Trubisky's first half last night might have been the worst performance I've seen all season. He threw for 61 yards and an interception and had another easy pick dropped. He made one good throw just before halftime, the touchdown to Diontae Johnson, but otherwise drives ended in punts, interceptions or near interceptions. Anyone wondering why Kenny Pickett is still in the lineup after a mostly ugly season need only watch a handful of snaps of Trubisky. Imagine how bad Mason Rudolph must be to be the No. 3.

After Pittsburgh pulled within 21-18, inevitable with the Patriots offense going into a shell, Pittsburgh had some chances. But Trubisky repeatedly settled for passes the defense wanted him to throw; short outs to a receiver with two defenders there to drop him in his tracks. He ran some, but remained flustered in the pocket, throwing balls away on 3rd and 3. On 3rd and 2 and 4th and 2 with 2 minutes left there was no thought of scrambling for a first down. He sailed one ball downfield with no receiver in the area and then another to a well-covered Diontae Johnson where the only hope was a flag that didn't come. Somewhere Matt Canada is smiling, I imagine.

The game ended with Trubisky taking a snap with 7 seconds left and no timeouts, completing a pass in the exact middle of the field -- field goal range! -- but with zero hope of getting another play off. Fittingly poor decision.

RUNNING BACKS

Congratulation to all who started Ezekiel Elliott. It no doubt looked surprising to see him ranked in the top 10 (7th in PPR) in the Weekly, but the Patriots have been running the ball well for the last month, and the offense revolving around him rather than the passing game was not surprising. Was a little nervous he wouldn't hit the over on his 60 rushing yards (he averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt), but he did so on his final carry of the night, and over bettors slept easy. Also those of us who bet him on anytime or even first touchdowns (+890 odds on FanDuel, let's go). His passing game role was particularly fruitful. Look, Elliott doesn't have a ton of juice left. But I've said it before and will again: Dallas should have brought him back as their No. 2 and inside runner. He's better than Rico Dowdle on his worst day. I realize the Dallas offense is doing well.

Zeke also had the hustle play of the game, coming from nowhere after a Zappe interception to tackle the defender, with Pittsburgh ultimately getting stopped on fourth down near the goal line. Steelers might have won if Elliott doesn't make that heady play; it looked like he anticipated the interception. How many running backs would have watched the defender score rather than reacting that quickly? A lot.

Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren...ugh. Not surprising it was an even committee, and not surprising they struggled against a New England defense that was content to stack the line, and has played the run well almost all season anyway. Harris is slow and unexplosive. Warren has some quickness but doesn't run with a lot of power. Get them in the right matchup and a passing game taking pressure off them, they'll have some good games. Last night neither had much chance. And Pittsburgh even let Trubisky sneak in a late touchdown rather than rewarding the fantasy owners who had to start one of these backs.

WIDE RECEIVERS

The legend of the payback game continues with JuJu Smith-Schuster pulling a 4-for-90 game out of nowhere. I don't imagine anyone actually started JSS, with it never really being apparent which wide receivers will be active or involved for the Patriots, and it's not like he had a huge fantasy day. But he made the most important catch early on to help set up the touchdown that set the tone for the night, and leaves Heinz Field...sorry, Acrisure Stadium, whatever that is...a winner. Tyquan Thornton caught 3 passes for 17 yards. I'm not going to look it up but that's probably the first (and last?) 3-catch game of his career. OK, I looked it up, it's not. But a forgettable player who won't be a part of New England's future receiving corps.

George Pickens, well, the disgust is apparent on his face after every route. He's a big-play racecar finishing with a stat line of 5 catches for 19 yards. Not only should he not be started right now, he should be dropped in hopes your opponent picks him up and starts him. Diontae Johnson made a nice move to beat his defender for a touchdown but caught 2 other passes all night, one of which was a final seconds gift where nobody cared if he caught it, the goal was just to keep him in bounds. That was also the case with Allen Robinson catching a meaningless pass on the final play as the clock expired. Those of us who remember Robinson looking dominant way back when in Jacksonville (he even had a couple of good years in Chicago) don't see any of that player any more.

TIGHT ENDS

Not so long ago Pat Freiermuth and Hunter Henry looked like viable tight ends. Pretty sure no one started Henry last night, and Freiermuth's good game after Matt Canada was fired looks like a mirage now. Both players are getting red-zone looks, which is nice, but there were 4 touchdown passes by these two teams last night and I'm not sure either team will throw 4 touchdowns the rest of the season. But good game for Henry, maybe he'll show up again with a score in some matchup.

MISCELLANEOUS

Good friend of mine is a big Steelers fan, but even when they were 7-4 it was clear to him that they were not that great. I think I speak for most NFL fans when I say it would be nice if this team continued its slide out of the playoff picture, which home losses to the Cardinals and Patriots in back-to-back weeks certainly foreshadows. I think they're going to have to be in the quarterback market in the offseason, if for no other reason than to find someone that can unlock the potential of guys like Pickens.

With the Patriots, well, last night disputes the idea that they're trying to lose for a higher draft pick. I think they might beat the Jets in one of their final four games, too, ensuring they pick 3rd or 4th in the draft. Presumably a quarterback will also be in the mix for whoever make that pick.

For those who watched last night, maybe you can find a nice replay of last week's Dallas-Seattle game somewhere to cleanse the palate. Or a nice Christmas special.

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