Merry Christmas, everybody ... Merry Week 17 ... Merry no more dud games in a week ...
As you look at the wrapping paper, which was so meticulously folded a day ago, now resting in shambles next to the periwinkle mock turtleneck you got (or a brand new "Settlers of Catan" travel game), the holiday memories probably come flooding back of Tyco Racing Sets, Z Cavariccis and Enya CDs. Of course, there are football memories, too. The longest game ever played came on Christmas in 1971, when Don Shula's Dolphins outlasted Hank Stram's Chiefs. Kansas City's Ed Podolak had 350 total yards in that game. Don't ask me to tally up the fantasy points.
In a football sense, my most vivid Christmas memory came Dec. 25, 1995, when Dallas played at Arizona on "Monday Night Football." That year, it looked like the Cowboys and 49ers were headed for a fourth straight NFC Championship bout in San Francisco. The 'Boys did not want to have to play again at Candlestick, a place they had frankly beaten themselves in the year before with three early turnovers. As they boarded the plane for Phoenix, they found out that the pesky Falcons had just upset the Niners. Thus, a win in Arizona now meant home-field advantage. The city of Dallas would be electric that Christmas night, after watching the Cowboys trounce the Cards, 37-13. Kevin Williams, of all people (remember him?), caught nine balls for 203 yards and two touchdowns! Weird. Cool: That was also the night they filmed the famous Rod Tidwell touchdown scene for "Jerry Maguire." Go back and watch it. You'll see Troy Aikman, Dave Krieg and the great Larry Centers running all over the place.
It's show me the Santa time for so many fan bases whose teams are vying for playoff positioning. All we can offer here is a favorable ranking, if they were good this year. Take a gander below, send along your holiday football cheer ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Let the dissension commence!
PROGRAMMING NOTE: For more in-depth analysis on the updated league pecking order, tune in to NFL Network every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET for the "NFL Power Rankings" show. Want to add YOUR voice? Provide your thoughts at the bottom of this page or tweet @HarrisonNFL, and your comments could be featured on air.
The Patriots lurched a step closer to defending their Super Bowl crown with the win in Foxborough on Sunday. Taking that step meant pulling away in the second half, even if New England got a little help from replay ... for the second straight week ... which makes non- Patriots fans hate the Patriots even more, which in turn fuels New England fans' desire to rub their team's success in the haters' faces. Once again, the offense did just fine with a different RB rotation, including Dion Lewis adding 153 yards and two touchdowns. No James White? No problem. No Rex Burkhead? No problem. Well, unless you'd been leaning on Burkhead in fantasy and that was your championship week, with a speedpass to Wet'n'Wild on the line. Then you couldn't have cared less about
Dion Lewis' prolific day.
The offense wasn't there Saturday night ... in fact, Lambeau was devoid of it. Thankfully for Minnesota -- and appropriately, for the purposes of the No. 2 team's blurb -- the Vikings' defense > the Packers' defense. For that matter, Minnesota's defense > the preponderance of the league. The interesting factoid to come out of the Vikes' win in Green Bay was that it was the first shutout Minnesota has pitched since Week 14, 1993 against the Lions. Because I am such a nerd, I looked the game up. Vikings linebacker Jack Del Rio -- yes, that Jack Del Rio -- picked off Rodney Peete twice and Andre Ware once.
Trivia: Who was Minnesota's starting quarterback in '93? (@HarrisonNFL) No cheating. Hint: He was there one year and took the Vikes to the playoffs.
The Steelers surprised on Christmas -- not by winning, but rather by not playing down to a weaker opponent. Pittsburgh did what Super Bowl contenders are supposed to do against a depleted foe: win big. Consequently, Le'Veon Bell was not forced to run until the wheels fall off. The AFC's top running back received fewer than 20 touches for the first time since Week 1. He now has 406 on the year, easily the most in the NFL. With Antonio Brown's status up in the air, Pittsburgh needs its star back at full throttle. Healthy Bell >>> home-field advantage.
The Rams earned a quality road win Sunday, even if it was a bit closer than most pundits anticipated. Todd Gurley continued to stake his claim -- and, by extension, the claim of every overlooked running back over the years -- to the league MVP award. Ezekiel Elliott should have received serious consideration last year. Hopefully, Gurley, who racked up 276 (276!!!!!) yards from scrimmage Sunday, will do better with the voters this year. The effort of the day, though, must go to Connor Barwin, who was all motor on that final Titans play to corral ... or upend ... or discombobulate Marcus Mariota. Heck, I don't know what to call that final sack/tumble/Vlade flop.
The Saints handled their business Sunday, disposing of the Falcons at the homefront in defensive fashion. Put another way: Atlanta couldn't buy chunk yards on third down. New Orleans' new-look defense is starting to become old hat, adorned with an aggressive fleur-de-lis. OK, well, maybe not. But Dennis Allen has turned in as solid a job as any coordinator in football. His unit held Matt Ryan and the once powerful Falcons' offense to 2-for-13 on third down in a game Allen's team had to have. Allen deserves a Christmas bonus worth far more than membership in a jelly-of-the-month-club, even if it is the gift that keeps on giving the whollllle year.
Home-field secure, worry for sure. The Eagles won Monday night on the strength of an opportunistic defense. Jake Elliott's clutch quadricep helped, too. Not sure anyone -- and especially fans in Philadelphia -- knows what to think of Nick Foles at this stage. How much of his abysmal play was due to the conditions? How much was due to his receivers' inability to get open? A week after the Eagles procured four scores through the air, they couldn't muster 40 passing yards in the second half against the Raiders. Foles' errant toss to Zach Ertz that fluttered into Reggie Nelson's mitts darn near lost the game. Soo, ???
Scary win for the Panthers, who almost sleepwalked their way into losing to the Bucs -- and letting an opportunity to win the NFC South slip away -- on their home field. Case in point: With the Panthers down four points, a furious Julius Peppers pass rush induced a holding call on Tampa Bay in the Bucs' end zone, which would have meant two points and possession to Carolina. But, but, Star Lotulelei shoved a guy as the play was ending, so offsetting penalties meant the safety didn't count. Oy. Then Jameis Winston converted on third-and-a-mile. Just when you thought it wasn't the Panthers' day, Tampa kicker Patrick Murray missed another long-range kick (like last week). Cam Newton and the other 10 guys on Carolina's offense put together a drive to win the game, fumble and all. That's football.
We waited for weeks with breathless anticipation ... What would happen? When would it happen? How would the saga continue following a "Rogue One"-like detour? Wait, no, I'm not talking about the new Star Wars movie. I'm talking about the Blake Bortles Odyssey. We finally got the answer to the question of when he would reprise his role as the turns-it-over-at-the-worst-time guy. The sad part is, this came after Bortles talked a little sh#% back to Jadeveon Clowney about playing like trash. Nooooooooooooo! Don't get cocky -- that's the most sure-fire way to ensure you'll lay an egg on the field. Few passes the Jags quarterback fired on Sunday were sure, at least, until it was too little, too late. More surprising: seeing Jacksonville's secondary get Jimmy G'd.
Guess who's won three in a row after being written off? The Chiefs, who climb back into the top 10 for the first time in two months after handling the Dolphins on Sunday. Kansas City took the AFC West title in the process, rendering the Week 17 matchup with the Broncos rather meaningless. Although, given the run Andy Reid's group is on, having taken down three playoff hopefuls in successive weeks, I'm not sure I'd want to sit my starters in preparation for the postseason.
Very quietly -- oh so quietly, in fact, so quietly that we should probably whisper it before we get let down -- Joe. Flacco. Is. Playing. Good. Football. Right. Now. The people of football have complained about Baltimore's quarterback for the last three years. Ever since he enjoyed another stellar postseason following the 2014 season, it seems as though just a cup of Joe was all anyone could tolerate, hoping the defense would win as many games for the Ravens as their QB. But here are Flacco's passer ratings over his last four games: 105.0, 88.9, 90.2 and 109.2.
That was not a day Falcons fans particularly want to remember. For all the Steve Sarkisian criticism this season -- and the offense did deliver another blah performance -- Matt Ryan doesn't look close to the quarterback he was in 2016. Even on completions, shallow crossers and out routes, he's throwing behind his intended targets or uncorking highballs. You simply can't place all the blame on the OC. Put the 2-for-13 mark on third downs on the whole offense. The 10 penalties didn't help, either, although there was complaining about the officiating in this game. Shocking.
Football ain't pretty. Eight penalties, 14 points and 18 Philip Rivers incompletions didn't add up to an outing Don Coryell would've put in his scrapbook. Then again, Coryell often couldn't get his defense to hold the other guys to 37 points, much less seven. If the Bolts are to charge their way into the postseason, it will be on the strength of coordinator Gus Bradley's defense, which rebounded from a tough loss in Kansas City to throttle the Jets. Save for a lone Charger breakdown on Bilal Powell's house call from 57 yards out, Bryce Petty and the rest of the offense were stonewalled. Spoke to safety Tre Boston this week, and he felt his unit could fare better than it did at Arrowhead. The Chargers made Bryce Petty look so bad that folks were wondering why Christian Hackenberg wasn't called upon. Enter the line you're thinking in your head here: ____.
The Seahawks are like gum on the bottom of your shoe: They won't go away. That's partially because Russell Wilson won't let them, and partially because Pete Carroll has instilled a culture of pride in his football team, one that can foster both locker-room battles and extreme resilience at the same time. On Sunday in Dallas, however, the defense -- specially the secondary -- was the reason the Seahawks were able to maintain playoff relevance. That group made Dak and Dez look pedestrian, and ended up walking into the tunnel having held the Cowboys to three points in the second half -- with Ezekiel Elliott, mind you. Earl Thomas was so stressed that he gleefully strolled over to the Dallas locker room to tell Jason Garrett and Dez Bryant to come holler at him. #Swag
First-and-goal from the 3: no Zeke. Second-and-goal from the 2: no Zeke. Third-and-goal ... you get the picture. Much blame is being directed Jason Garrett's way this week after the loss to Seattle. It's headed toward Scott Linehan, who calls the plays, as well. Perhaps it's earned. Dan Bailey was awful. Dez Bryant was worse, although the ball he dropped that led to a K.J. Wright interception was thrown way too far behind him. And when you have a quarterback who sees the field and the defensive alignment and who audibles to the right play, a guy like Ezekiel Elliott can get the ball in a goal-to-go situation. Sure hope those millions of people who wanted to get rid of the old QB enjoyed the game.
Jimmy Garoppolo can do no wrong right now. Win out and extend your undefeated record as an NFL starter into 2018? Sure, why not? Chuck touchdown passes sidearm? Sure, why not? Dissect the top pass defense in the league? Sure, why not? Throw in a rushing touchdown for all the chicks? Sure, why not? Stare 10,000 bands and their songs into an iPod? Sure, why ... wait, that was a Chuck Norris joke. Have your agent ask for $25 million a year this offseason? Sure, why not?
Wonder if the Lions will challenge this blurb. To lose to the Bengals with the playoffs on the line, as the Falcons were going down, after division-mates in the Bears and Vikings had destroyed Cincy the previous two weeks, was more Lions-y than Ameer Abdullah stumbling into his own lineman. Holy cow, who saw that coming? Unfortunately, too many fans who've seen this team blow opportunities, even when provided with prime circumstances, could raise their hands in response to that question. Worse is that Detroit's season came down to two Golden Tate plays. The dude's butt was on the ground with the ball, and he got touched. What the ... never mind. The Lions should be going 10-6 this year. Instead, they're going home next Monday.
Rage all around on the Kelvin Benjamin catch/no-catch Sunday. A week after the worst rule (sports division) decided Patriots-Steelers and, thus, possibly home-field advantage in the AFC, it greatly hampered the Bills' and Lions' hopes of going to the playoffs. What irks so many on plays like the Benjamin play is that the blather we keep hearing about how only incontrovertible evidence matters in replays never seems to apply. Now the tiniest of minutiae that nobody cares about -- the equivalent of knowing that Captain Kirk is from Iowa -- carries enough weight to overturn an important touchdown. Did it beat Buffalo? No. Was it supremely relevant to the flow of the eventual loss to New England? You bet. The 8-7 Bills are going to win in Miami this week. So will the 8-7 Chargers against Oakland. Which means Peterman-gate -- a debacle that led to Buffalo losing the head-to-head tiebreaker to Los Angeles -- will keep this group from the postseason. Sigh.
Few people around the country paid much mind to Broncos-Redskins, and for understandable reasons. Each team is headed to nowheresville as the year closes out. That said, Washington is wrapping the season up right. Jay Gruden said he had no plans to sit people, and the members of his 7-8 team seem to be legit focused on not seeing a losing record next to their names all offseason. For the second week in a row, DC Greg Manusky's pass rush got after the quarterback, making life rough for Brock Osweiler. (Even rougher than his being in Cleveland for a cup of coffee.) Preston Smith and Ryan Kerrigan secured a pair of sacks apiece, and when they weren't getting home, the secondary was holding the fort. Next up: at Giants. So 8-8 is uh, possible, er, probable.
Say what you want about the Cardinals. Maybe nobody cared about their afternoon meet-and-greet with the Giants, especially with the Seahawks and Cowboys battling for their playoff lives and the Jimmy G experience in full tilt. Well, meet-and-greet was all this NFC matchup was. Arizona's defense dominated, not only pitching a shutout but pushing the 7-8 Cards toward a possible .500 record. Considering Bruce Arians' squad lost Carson Palmer, David Johnson, Markus Golden and others this season, Arizona nobly stayed the course. No whining -- simply competing their a%*%s off. Next up: at Seattle, where Arians is 3-1. Fun game.
The Titans showed up this past weekend (which was nice to see) after playing subpar football for weeks, but they couldn't close the deal against a top-tier team. Sometimes, even if it's not in an organization's DNA, a team must be able to move the ball quickly through the air. Generally, defenses will give away the short stuff in hopes of salting away the clock. That's essentially the two-minute offense as we know it. Tennessee simply doesn't have the horses to sing in those situations, and unfortunately, the performance of the much-ballyhooed run game could be characterized as middling at best. Still, this resilient bunch had the ball with time to go down the field and earn the win. No can do, with an ugly Marcus Mariota flop/heave to button up the loss. With Jacksonville struggling even more than the Titans on Sunday, don't anticipate the Jags resting their starters for their Week 17 game at Tennessee. Thus, this should feel like a playoff game.
Santa gave the Raiders a Christmas stocking full of bricks and JaMarcus Russell bobbleheads. It's not been their year. It's not been Derek Carr's year. Mind-boggling, really. Oakland's promising quarterback was often discussed as a dark-horse MVP candidate last season, a player whom Vader's team could ill afford to lose. That viewpoint morphed from opinion to axiom when Oakland was throttled in the playoffs sans Carr. This season? Carr's been off, his protection's been off and his receivers have been off the reservation. Both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree recorded 1,000-yard campaigns last year. They've managed 1,166 yards combined this year. The Christmas night defeat makes two straight losses snatched from the jaws of victory.
Not the best day for the Packers, if you watched. It was hard to get into the game this week, as the word was guys were already packing up for the season once the team was eliminated from playoff contention and the decision was made to sit Aaron Rodgers. Unlike the Colts, who gave the Ravens a contest earlier on Saturday, Green Bay could generate nothing on offense. Not just in terms of points, either, as Brett Hundley and Co. produced just 239 yards and two turnovers. The ACME Packing Company Packers manufactured more output in 1921.
Classic Bears football on Sunday: The field looked like the top of a cinnamon roll, while the defense dominated against an old NFL opponent. Even the score felt 1965-ish. That was the year Chicago introduced two new dynamic rookies to the football world: Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, both of whom became Hall of Famers. Mitch Trubisky might have a long way to go. There are those who would like every rookie quarterback to be Deshaun Watson. But look no further than the team on the other sideline at Soldier Field wearing orange helmets and white jerseys with brown trim to see the struggle of a rookie starter. Trubisky is holding his own -- and he's doing far more than that when he takes off out of the pocket.