Sunday of Week 15 is in the books but not without some wild finishes. A few teams punched their ticket to the playoffs today while some are still making their push. Here are some of our big takeaways from the games today:
» The dreaded fumble-through-the-end-zone touchback call.
» The Minnesota Vikings are in a great position to become the first team in NFL history to play a home game in the Super Bowl.
» Jacksonville is officially headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and a lot of it has to do with Blake Bortles.
» The nature of the underthrown passes in Aaron Rodgers' first three-interception performance since 2009 suggests his arm strength was not yet at full capacity.
- Joe Flacco's revival to respectability has staying power. While he missed a few of his customary routine throws and took some bad sacks, the Ravens quarterback also delivered a number of high-level connections that were missing early in the season. On a day where the Browns stuffed Ravens running back Alex Collins (19 yards on 11 carries), the Ravens leaned on Flacco to throw it 42 times for 288 yards and a score. He's set a season-high in yards three straight games.
- It wasn't all good news for Baltimore. Ravens receiver Jeremy Maclin left with a knee injury in the first quarter and did not return. Baltimore is already thin at wide receiver and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman was unable to step up in Maclin's absence. Now 8-6, the Ravens are in great position to make the playoffs by winning their final two games against the Colts and Bengals. But Maclin's injury could rob them of another sorely needed weapon come playoff time if the setback proves serious.
- Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer can't string together positive outings. He wasn't helped by coach Hue Jackson's consistently perplexing game management, but Kizer misfired too often and threw yet another head-scratching red zone interception. The Ravens' defense scored a touchdown on a strip sack of Kizer and the aggressive group held their opponent to 10 points or less for the fifth time this season.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- Jimmy Garoppolo is nothing short of raging magic. The 49ers quarterback shone bright in the fourth quarter, authoring a pair of go-ahead field goal marches in the game's final moments, with the second doubling as a thing of beauty that saw Garoppolo cover 45 yards with three completions to set up Robbie Gould's 45-yard game-winning kick as time expired. Garoppolo doesn't have much talent around him, but San Francisco's unquestioned hope under center has completely transformed this 49ers offense. Boasting an uncanny knack to extend and finish drives, Garoppolo (31-of-43 passing for 381 yards and a touchdown) generated points on his first four marches and looked fantastic before the half directing a 17-play, eight-plus-minute touchdown drive capped by Garoppolo's 5-yard scoring strike to Garrett Celek. The young passer's utter calm in the pocket is impressive for a quarterback making just his fifth start.
- Tennessee's offense dozed through the first half, but give Marcus Mariota credit for authoring three straight scoring drives that helped Tennessee wipe away a 16-3 deficit to take a 20-16 lead early in the fourth. Stuck inside a mostly weapons-free offense, Mariota played well in the second half, and nearly won the game with an 11-play, 43-yard field goal drive that put Tennessee ahead 23-22 with just over a minute to play. This remains a team that cannot impose its will on the ground in 2017, leaving Mariota to often play catchup with a less-than-stellar assortment of receivers. For all the good work by general manager Jon Robinson, Tennessee must address this side of the ball in the offseason.
- What to make of the Titans (8-6), who now sit two games behind the Jaguars (10-4) and tied in the AFC playoff picture with the Chiefs, Ravens and Bills? Set to face the Rams next Sunday before their regular-season finale against the Jaguars, the Titans still have a shot to win the AFC South if Jacksonville were to fall to the Niners next week and lose to Tennessee. Mariota's bunch would win the tie-breaker after waxing Jacksonville 37-16 in Week 2, but that result feels ancient today. The Titans are tough to take seriously as a world-beater. Tennessee fans don't want to hear that -- fair enough -- but the win-loss record belies a team with plenty of work to do in the offseason.
-- Marc Sessler
- Los Angeles' statement game heralds a changing of the guard atop the NFC West. Led by a dynamic Todd Gurley, an unblockable Aaron Donald and a dominant special teams unit, the Rams steamrolled the division end boss, roaring out to the largest halftime road margin in franchise history -- and the second-largest such deficit Seattle has ever faced at home. Gurley outgained the Seahawks 158-59 by himself in the first half, calling it a day in the middle of the third quarter with 180 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Barring a faceplant against the Titans and 49ers in the season's final two weeks, the Rams will take home the NFC West crown for the first time since 2003.
- The convincing nature of the Rams' victory will have an impact on the NFL Honors awards as well as All-Pro balloting. Overseeing one of the most dramatic transformations in NFL history, Sean McVay should be viewed as the leader in the clubhouse for Coach of the Year accolades. After Russell Wilson praised Donald as the best defensive force in football, the Defensive Player of the Year candidate wrecked Seattle's offensive line to the tune of three sacks, four QB hits, two more tackles for loss, a forced fumble and countless pressures. A Comeback Player of the Year favorite, NFL touchdown leader (17) Gurley might just enter the MVP discussion as Tom Brady's competition after watching Carson Wentz and Antonio Brown suffer injuries. On pace to break David Akers' single-season record for most points by a kicker (166), Greg Zuerlein is in for an All-Pro spot. The same can be said for game-breaking return specialist Pharoh Cooper, who bedeviled Seattle's return coverages for 180 all-purpose yards. As we've highlighted several times of late, John Fassel's special teams unit is a difference-maker entering January.
- The Seahawks were undone by the same issues that have haunted them all season long: penalties, shaky offensive line play and a slow start for Wilson's imbalanced offense. After tossing a trio of interceptions in last week's loss at Jacksonville, Wilson missed key third-down throws early in Sunday's game as the Rams pulled away. As impressive as his fourth-quarter wizardry has been this season, Wilson's subpar performances with the playoffs on the line will inevitably undermine his MVP case. To maintain realistic hopes at reaching the NFC tournament, Seattle desperately needs a Tampa Bay upset over Atlanta on Monday night.
-- Chris Wesseling
- It's a game of inches, Al Pacino once said in a fictionalized halftime speech. Try millimeters, Tony D'Amato. Two crazy close calls turned the tide of this wild prime-time thriller and effectively ended the Oakland Raiders' season.
First, the notecard. Tied at 17 with five minutes left, Dallas went for it on fourth-and-one from its own 39, only for Dak Prescott to apparently be stopped short of the line to gain. Upon further review, the ball was re-measured, but it was still to close to call by the naked eye. Referee Gene Steratore proceeded to break the tie by unleashing a folded index card to "reaffirm" that the ball reached the first-down marker. It did. Apparently. Three plays later, Dallas was in Oakland's red zone, and the Cowboys took the lead with a 19-yard Dan Bailey field goal.
On Oakland's ensuing drive, the Raiders found themselves inside Dallas' 10 with just 30 seconds to go. Gunning for six, on third down, Derek Carr rolled out to his right and dove for the pylon. Still in bounds, Carr was forced by Jeff Heath toward the sideline as he stretched out, but the ball dislodged, sailing inside the pylon and through the end zone. The ruling was the dreaded fumble-through-the-end-zone touchback. Ball and game, Cowboys.
The ending to Sunday Night Football called into question the arbitrary and illogical nature of parts of the NFL rule book. On a day when the inconsistent Catch Rule reared its ugly head once again, Sunday's finale proved that, along with questionable calls, the rule book should go under review this offseason.
- With the close win, Dallas remains very much alive in the NFC wild-card race. At 8-6, the Cowboys are one of four teams in the conference with eight wins. If the Atlanta Falcons (8-5) somehow lose Monday night to Tampa Bay, there will be a four-way tie at 8-6 for the sixth seed between Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Seattle. Of those four clubs, the Cowboys and Seahawks are the only two to play each other in a Week 16 do-or-die game at AT&T Stadium.
Adding to the intrigue of next week's bout will be the return of Ezekiel Elliott from his six-game suspension/vacation to a Cowboys offense that has kept things afloat in Big D. Alfred Morris (61 yards) and Rod Smith (34 total yards) looked to have tired out Sunday after shouldering the load in Zeke's stead for a third of the season, so Elliott's return will be a welcome one. Whether his essential left tackle Tyron Smith will be available, after exiting the win with an ankle injury, will be something to monitor this week.
- When Derek Carr tossed his first of two touchdown passes Sunday night and became only the fifth player ever to throw 100 TDs in his first four seasons, it was less a celebration of Carr's ascendancy and more a reminder of what could have been this season for the Raiders' franchise quarterback. Carr made few errors in Oakland's season-sealing loss, save for the unfortunate goal-line fumble, throwing two scores to Michael Crabtree and taking zero sacks, but he couldn't capitalize on any risks either. Carr averaged 4.5 yards per attempt against the Cowboys and saw most of his deep attempts to Crabtree and Co. snuffed out by Dallas' rookie cornerbacks. Oakland's largest gain on the night came when Carr heaved a fourth-and-10 prayer to Crabtree on the final march, who drew a 55-yard pass-interference penalty. Sure, Carr hasn't had all of his weapons this season -- Amari Cooper was inactive yet again on Sunday -- but the QB's regression to the mean following his MVP campaign and devastating leg injury in 2016 can't be blamed on his surrounding talent alone.
-- Jeremy Bergman
- We saw the two best teams in the AFC at this point go toe-to-toe for a full 60 minutes, and for a while, it looked like Pittsburgh would simply be the better team. We forgot, of course, that Tom Brady still quarterbacks for the Patriots, leading New England on a 77-yard drive in just 1:10 with multiple completions to Rob Gronkowski. Not to be outdone, Ben Roethlisberger's completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a simple drag route ended up going for 69 yards and had the Steelers on the doorstep of a win. They never crossed it -- well, they did, but it was overturned -- and melted down in the final 15 seconds, with Roethlisberger faking a spike, looking for the back-corner fade and forcing a pass into the middle of the field, which was deflected and intercepted by Duron Harmon. It was a thrilling, unbelievable finish in a battle between the two heavyweights of the conference. Should they meet again in Foxborough in the postseason, we see no reason to not expect a similar performance.
- The Steelers lost Antonio Brown in the first half to what NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported is a partially torn calf. The injury will end his regular season, but with surgery not required, there's hope Brown returns for the postseason, Rapoport added. In the meantime, Roethlisberger didn't flinch without his star receiver, completing his next five passes for 45 yards and a touchdown on a 15-play drive that covered 78 yards and burned 8:39. Martavis Bryant stepped up to the challenge, catching two passes for 14 yards and a touchdown on the ensuing drive. He seemed to have his way with Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore on multiple occasions, both before and after the Brown injury. Any franchise would miss its all-world receiver -- Pittsburgh sure did later, and will if he can't return for the postseason -- but the Steelers are also fortunate to have talent below Brown in Bryant and Smith-Schuster.
Pittsburgh could have used Brown plenty on a drive that should have been a game-clincher, and again when a victory was just a few yards away. On third-and-4 from Pittsburgh's 25, Roethlisberger threw short to JuJu Smith-Schuster instead of having the option to toss it up to Brown for a first down that would have sealed the win. New England scored on the ensuing possession. When Pittsburgh had the ball on New England's 7 with nine seconds left, a fade to Brown should have been Pittsburgh's call. But without Brown available, that play too ended in failure.
"(The gameplan) changes," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "A.B. is significant. But I thought the guys did a nice job of adjusting and making plays largely. You lose somebody like A.B. and there's an adjustment."
- Gronkowski's value was on display throughout this contest. The tight end finished with nine catches (on 13 targets) for 168 yards and a successful two-point conversion. But beyond the stats, Gronkowski's best impact is in the variety of ways New England can utilize him to beat defenses: down the seam against linebackers or smaller safeties, on fades along the boundary (especially in the end zone) and in the most crucial situations, when Brady can assuredly fire a dart into the belly of Gronkowski for a first down. New England is simply a significantly better offense with him on the field. He was key in their comeback on Sunday.
-- Nick Shook
- The Minnesota Vikings clinched the NFC North crown in resounding fashion. Mike Zimmer's squad dominated every phase of the game against the coach's former team. Minnesota earned their second division title in Zimmer's four-year tenure. Behind a devouring defense, chain-moving offense, and play-making special teams, Sunday's victory was essentially settled before the end of the first quarter. Moving to 11-3, the win keeps the Vikings in line for a potential first-round bye and possibly leapfrog the Carson Wentz-less Eagles for the top spot in the NFC. With games against the Packers and Bears left, Zimmer's well-oiled machine is in a great position to become the first team in NFL history to play a home game in the Super Bowl.
- Case Keenum took a soft sack by Geno Atkins to open the game. The Vikings breezed from there, taking the opening drive 75 yards in nine plays for a Latavius Murray TD plunge. Minnesota needed little more to pummel the Bengals (5-9). Keenum peppered a banged-up Cincinnati defense for big plays, including five of 20-plus yards in the first half alone (one rushing). The Bengals decimated linebacking corps had no answer for Jerick McKinnon in space. The shifty back earned receptions of 41, 31, and 29 yards en route to a 7-catch, 114-yard day (the Vikes' first 100-yard receiving game from a RB since 2004). The blowout allowed Teddy Bridgewater to make his first regular-season appearance in 714 days.
- Marvin Lewis and the Bengals mutually agreed to end his 15-year coaching run after the 2017 season, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday morning. The Lewis-era is limping to the finish. The injury-ravaged Bengals no-showed from the start in a whitewash in Minnesota. Andy Dalton continued his atrocious close to the year, tossing a brutal pick-six to Eric Kendricks and another INT to Terence Newman. Both were forced into heavy coverage. The Vikings smothering D allowed Cincy to convert just one first down in the first half. With Xavier Rhodes blanketing A.J. Green (2/30), Dalton had zero answers and was benched in a blowout for the second consecutive week. It's possible AJ McCarron could take over the final two weeks of the season, but during a post-game presser Lewis told reports that he won't consider it. Sunday's flop included a bevy of Bengals penalties, botched plays, missed tackles, busted coverages, and pathetic efforts. For a coach with one foot out the door, it was one of the most poorly prepared performances by any team this season.
-- Kevin Patra
- The Giants (2-12) had a chance to win the game on fourth-and-goal from Philly's 11-yard line with 48 ticks on the clock. It was not to be, though, as Eli Manning's pass sailed over the head of rookie tight end Evan Engram. Another ugly result for a Giants team that dialed up their finest performance on offense all year, piling up more points than in any game over the past two seasons under fired coach Ben McAdoo. Manning threw for a career-high 252 yards in the first half and finished with 434 yards on the day, his most in two years. Early scoring drives of 75, 75 and 80 yards were highlighted by a 67-yard catch-and-run to pay dirt by Sterling Shepard (11/139/1), who made a huge impact in the passing game along with wideout Tavarres King (2/70/1) and Engram (8/87). Eli tossed a bad pick before the half that led to an Eagles score, but would arguably have earned the win if kicker Aldrick Rosas didn't have a field and an extra point blocked.
- Nick Foles wasn't the reason Philly's defense doubled as an open barn door for much of the showdown. In his first start, the experienced Wentz understudy finished 24-of-38 passing for 237 yards, wiping away a 20-7 deficit and throwing for four scoring strikes, his most since a wild, seven-touchdown outing against the Raiders in 2013. Foles came out winging the ball, going four of four on Philly's opening touchdown drive and showing chemistry with Alshon Jeffery (4/49/1) and Nelson Agholor (7/59/1). The Eagles were helped by a pair of killer Giants mistakes -- Eli's pick and a blocked punt -- that triggered two quick touchdowns and a 21-20 lead before the break. The turnovers helped, but Foles played a clean game from start to finish.
- What did we learn about Philly's long-term chances in the playoffs, minus Wentz? I saw a coaching staff that refused to play around Foles, allowing him to throw the ball and gain comfort with his wideouts against a division opponent. You can't duplicate what Wentz does pre-snap, his remarkable footwork, the eyes in the back of his head or his knack for dialing up big-time throws that rip the heart out of opponents. Foles, though, committed no turnovers and generated six scoring drives. What more can you ask from a No. 2? If the defense can hold up its side of the bargain, Philly remains a genuine Super Bowl threat in the NFC.
-- Marc Sessler
- Facing a 31-17 deficit and the season's demise with his No. 1 receiver sidelined, three interceptions in his pocket and less than four minutes on the game clock, Aaron Rodgers rallied the troops for a chance at the tying score when Geronimo Allison fumbled away the comeback bid inside Carolina's 30-yard line. Although Rodgers flashed trademark sensational sandlot form on several scrambles and a 33-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb, his long-awaited return was ultimately anti-climactic. The two-time MVP missed opportunities for big plays on each of his turnovers. The nature of the underthrown passes in Rodgers' first three-interception performance since 2009 suggests his arm strength was not yet at full capacity -- and his touch a bit rusty -- in his first appearance since October surgery. That should come as little surprise considering NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport's pregame report that the collarbone is "not 100 percent healed." If the Falcons beat the Buccaneers Monday night, the Packers face postseason elimination and the likelihood that Rodgers will pack it in to avoid re-injury.
- As detrimental as Rodgers' turnovers were to Green Bay's cause, the disappointing defense earned a share of the blame. Coordinator Dom Capers had no answer for Christian McCaffrey early on, as the rookie mismatch became the first NFL player since 2000 with at least nine touches, 60 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on a team's opening drive, per NFL Research. Taking advantage of a coverage bust on a walk-in 30-yard score of his own, Greg Olsen routinely found soft spots against a defense that couldn't protect the end zone or get Cam Newton off the field in crucial third-down situations. Credit Newton and play-caller Mike Shula for keeping Capers' clan off balance throughout the afternoon.
- The NFL's nebulous catch rule reared its ugly head on a crucial third-quarter play in a back-and-forth 17-14 contest. Panthers wide receiver Damiere Byrd bobbled a Cam Newton pass and gained possession just as his tuchus touched down at the back of the end zone. Originally ruled incomplete, the call was overturned despite a replay review that failed to show conclusive evidence that Byrd came down fully inbounds. At this point, we are reduced to begging the competition committee to clarify the most confusing and unpredictable rule in football.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Jacksonville is officially headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and a lot of it has to do with Blake Bortles. I'm convinced we've been watching a body double playing in place of Bortles for most of his career until this last month. The difference is stunning. Bortles has been a walking human torch in the last three weeks, posting passer ratings of 119.8, 123.7 and 143.7. His 21 of 29 passing line for 326 yards and three touchdowns -- an excellent box score entry -- almost lowballs how well he played on Sunday. Bortles dropped dime after dime, establishing a rapport with former practice squad man Jaydon Mickens (four catches, 61 yards, two touchdowns) and Keelan Cole (seven catches, 186 yards, one touchdown) and making throws we haven't seen from him since his days at UCF. A team that was considered strong at every position except quarterback suddenly has one who is playing at a high level.
Is December Bortles' month? We've never really known, since the Jags usually have found themselves well out of the race at that point. He posted a 103.5 rating on Christmas Eve last season in a win over the Titans and was surprisingly effective in December 2015 (posting ratings of 134.5, 114.6 and 124.5 in three of his final five games). This, with a playoff-bound team, is remarkable and a great reason for Jags fans to be feeling great about their team as we hurtle toward the new year.
- We saw more of the same from Jacksonville's defense, which should be incredibly encouraging for the Jaguars' fan base. They again harassed Houston's quarterback -- this time, T.J. Yates -- sacking him four times. Jacksonville successfully avoided facing a Deshaun Watson start in 2017 and made those who played in his place remember how ferocious its defense can be. The unit has also been especially clutch when running back Leonard Fournette is unavailable, as our own Jeremy Bergman pointed out via Twitter: Jacksonville has allowed just 14 points in three games played without Fournette, all three of which have ended in victories. By land, by air, or by suffocating D, Jacksonville can win in a variety of ways.
- There isn't much to say about the Texans at this point, but Sunday might have been a new low. After a first quarter filled with stiff defense and ineffective offense, Houston showed the first sign of weakness, and it snowballed from there. Before you could blink, Bortles had three touchdown apsses, fullback Tommy Bohanon had two rushing touchdowns (bringing his career total to two) and the party was on at EverBank Field. Hope rests in next year, when Deshaun Watson can return and Houston can use the offseason to improve its offensive line, a weakness that becomes glaring against defenses like Jacksonville's.
-- Nick Shook
- Nevermind the final score, this win was a grind for the Saints. New Orleans had several opportunities to blow this game open, but committed three turnovers -- including a pair deep in Jets territory -- to keep things competitive until the final minute. Michael Thomas personified this game for the Saints. He had two touchdown receptions overturned by inches on replay before finally breaking through with an uncontested score in the final quarter. Mark Ingram put the exclamation point on the victory with a 50-yard touchdown after the matter had already been decided. The jaunt put him over 1,000 yards for the second straight year.
- Yes, it's another loss for the Jets, but Todd Bowles continues to show New York brass that his team plays hard for him on a weekly basis. Will that be enough? The Jets have unquestionably overachieved this season, but they are headed toward another double-digit loss season and Bowles has not reached the playoffs in three years. Right now we'd put it at 60/40 that Bowles survives; it'd help him quite a bit if Jets can secure a win against the Chargers or Patriots in the season's final two weeks.
- While we're on the subject of the Jets and their murky future, it makes plenty of sense for Christian Hackenberg to get a start before the end of the month. Bryce Petty's 2017 debut in place of the injured Josh McCown was an expectedly muted affair, lacking little of the gunslinging flair we've seen in Petty's preseason work. If Hackenberg doesn't find his way into a game in the next two weeks, you have to wonder if he'll ever play in an NFL game, period.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Tyrod Taylor's performance in this one makes you wonder if the enigmatic quarterback and the Buffalo Bills (8-6) can't work out a long-term relationship. Taylor showed off shades of Russell Wilson in this one, making smart, split-second decisions on when to throw or run while under pressure from the Dolphins' front seven. The knee injury that kept him out of the Blizzard Bowl looked completely healthy, especially when he was making those long celebratory strides in the end zone. Taylor completed 17 of 29 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown. He added 42 yards on the ground and a touchdown. The win was reminiscent of Buffalo's early-season victories that put them in the playoff conversation. It also keeps them there for another week.
- LeSean McCoy once again provided the Bills with a great offensive accent to Taylor. The veteran running back finished with 20 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown in addition to picking up 46 yards and a touchdown on four catches. In the process, McCoy became the 30th player in NFL history to surpass 10,000 rushing yards for his career.
- Six days after making the New England Patriots look downright pedestrian, the Dolphins (6-8) reverted back to the inconsistencies that have plagued them all season. There was no Kenyan Drake reprise and Jay Cutler looked more like a guy on the cusp of playing himself out of the league after last week's better-than-Brady performance. Miami's offense found a little more rhythm in the fourth quarter via the Cutler-Jarvis Landry dynamic, but it was simply too little, too late. Cutler completed 28 of 49 passes for 274 yards and tossed three interceptions. He also had four drive-damaging fumbles he barely managed to recover. The win all but decimates the Dolphins' already slim playoff hopes and makes you wonder exactly what this team could have accomplished with Ryan Tannehill on the field and Cutler in the broadcast booth.
-- Austin Knoblauch
- After back-to-back losses, the Washington Redskins righted the ship and defeated the Arizona Cardinals 20-15. The Redskins' win wasn't free of offensive gaffes, however. To open the second half, Washington neglected to field the kickoff, leading to a Cardinals' fumble recovery. It was the Redskins' pass rush that kept the squad in the contest. Preston Smith recovered a fumble and picked off a Gabbert pass in just the first half.
- The Blaine Gabbert experiment has appeared to run its course. Of course, the Cardinals offensive line didn't do their quarterback any favors Sunday. Though, Gabbert appears to hold onto the ball a tad long considering he has arguably one of the best receivers in the league, Larry Fitzgerald, at his disposal. Gabbert was sacked four times and only completed 16 of his 41 passes. With Adrian Peterson lost for the year due to a neck injury, Kerwynn Williams and Elijhaa Penny shouldered the carries against the tough Redskins' defense.
- Thank goodness for kickers. The Cardinals relied solely on kicker Phil Dawson to put points on the board. Dawson appears to be one of the few consistent pieces on the Cardinals' roster.