A Christmas Day scoring flurry in New Orleans, some holiday weekend ‘Fitzmagic’ for Miami, and Seattle as the division-clinching wild cards. Here are the NFL Week 16 Divisional Takeaways.
AFC East: Oh, Ho, Ho, ‘Fitzmagic’
Division Leader*: Buffalo Bills (12-3)
In the 4th quarter of a Week 16 game with major playoff implications, Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins had just 94 passing yards with under 10 minutes to play in the game. Luckily for them, the Dolphins only trailed the Raiders by three as they neared the midway point of the final quarter. Still, head coach Brian Flores had seen enough to know it was time to make a change. It was time, as they say, for some magic.
On the Dolphins’ 10th drive of the day, in their biggest moment, it wasn’t their rookie starting quarterback coming out to lead the offense. Instead, it was old faithful. It was Ryan Fitzpatrick.
On his first drive, Fitzpatrick led the team to a field goal to tie the game at 16. On his second drive, it took just three plays for Fitzpatrick to connect with Myles Gaskin for a 59-yard touchdown, making the score 23-22. In two drives and a matter of minutes, Fitzpatrick had racked up 148 passing yards, nearly doubling Tagovailoa’s total for the day. The best, though, was yet to come.
Following the touchdown to Gaskin, the Raiders got the ball back and drove into scoring range with less than a minute to play. With their chip-shot field goal, Las Vegas had a two-point lead when they kicked the ball back to the Dolphins with only 19 seconds remaining. Game over, right?
Then this happened.
Just to clarify in case your video player isn’t working properly, this…
Was a completed pass.
He set them up for the game-winning field goal. They converted it. The Dolphins won. He’s not a starting quarterback in the NFL, but Mitch Trubisky is.
Nothing means anything.
AFC North: The Cleveland F****** Browns
Division Leader*: Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3)
Just what exactly did we expect?
The Browns haven’t made the playoffs in 18 years. They haven’t won a playoff game in 26. They’re just 4 seasons removed from going 1-15, which they followed the next year by going 0-16. This will be the first season they’ve had a winning record since 2007, and only their third winning campaign this century. The gravitational pull to failure is strong with this bunch.
On Sunday, the newest chapter of shame for the franchise came when they fell 23-16 to the 1-14 Jets, putting their playoff chances in serious jeopardy. In fairness to Cleveland, they were without almost the entirety of their receiving corps who were in Covid-19 protocol, and they were also playing a Jets team wholly incapable of acting in their own self-interest. Still, the Browns have one of the most efficient rushing attacks in the league, but for some reason only ran the ball 18 times. Baker Mayfield, drafted number one overall three seasons ago, completed just 28 of 53 passing attempts. This was a failure in coaching. It was a failure in execution.
It was, once again, the Cleveland Browns.
You can change the carpets, replace the drapes, and re-upholster the furniture but at some point, you have to acknowledge that several decades of mold aren’t getting covered with a few aesthetic upgrades and a fancy candle.
The rot runs deep in Cleveland.
AFC South: Come on, Indianapolis.
Division Leader: Tennessee Titans (10-5)
Things were great, and then they weren’t.
Up 24-7 in the third quarter, the Colts looked poised to win their matchup with the reeling Steelers. Even after a 10-play Pittsburgh drive brought them to the Indianapolis two yard-line, the Colts stood firm, forcing a turnover on downs with five minutes remaining in the quarter. Tough defense and efficient offense got them to this point, and if they could sustain this level of play for 17 more minutes, they would be one step closer to clinching the division title.
Alas, it worked out differently.
Following that turnover on downs, Indianapolis’ offense didn’t score a single point. During their five subsequent possessions, they punted three times and turned the ball over twice, once on a Philip Rivers interception and once with a turnover on downs to seal the game in Pittsburgh’s favor. The Steelers, conversely, scored touchdowns on three of their final four drives en route to a 21 point unanswered run.
For Pittsburgh, their win, paired with Cleveland’s loss, clinched the division in their favor. For Indianapolis, the path to the playoffs became all the murkier. No games are safe bets this season, but you’d expect they’ll show up prepared against a one-win Jacksonville team in Week 17. They need to win that matchup. They also need at least one of Tennessee, Baltimore, and Miami to lose their games.
All the remaining AFC teams in the playoff picture have had good seasons. The fact that one of them will be eliminated from contention while an NFC East team stinks their way in? It seems like an affront to logic.
Indianapolis may well be the toughest absence to stomach.
AFC West: Crazy Eights
Division Leader*: Kansas City Chiefs (14-1)
Following Atlanta’s “how else can we blow it” loss to Kansas City on Sunday, that makes 8 games this season the Falcons have lost by a single possession. It’s unbelievable, really, that one team could not just have so many close games, but that they could all somehow follow such a similar same script.
Following Kansas City’s “you really thought we were going to lose to the Falcons?” win this week, that makes eight games this season the Chiefs have won by a single possession. Sticking with our theme, this was actually the seventh consecutive such win for Kansas City, meaning they haven’t won by more than a single possession since Week 8.
This may have been one of the worst games of Patrick Mahomes‘ young career. He was 24-44 with under 300 yards passing and a QBR of 79.5. He threw two touchdowns and one interception, but had it not been for an AJ Terrell dropped interception late in the fourth quarter, those touchdown and interception numbers would have been flipped and the game would have likely been a loss for Kansas City. I’m fully aware Atlanta would have found a way to blow the game in an even more embarrassing fashion, just give them this.
We’re going to find out in short order whether Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are simply bored in anticipation of a playoff run, or if these close games versus inferior opponents are a sign of a more vulnerable team than we’re accustomed to. With the conference’s top seed clinched, the Chiefs will have the luxury of a first-round playoff bye to get healthy.
The age-old question of rest versus rust will certainly be discussed, but this team’s question marks extend far beyond the standard playoff platitudes.
NFC East: Welcome to Hell
Division Leader: Dallas Cowboys (6-9)
To the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”:
“Oh please God no, Jalen Hurts, Andy Dalton, Go away, We’re so stupid, I so hate this, Please just make it stop. Dallas Cowboys, And the Eagles, Please no more God, I don’t want this, Just one more week, Please just one week, This simply must end.”
“SET THIS DIVISION ON FIRE!”
Just a quick recap of how in the NFC East, nothing that glitters has been gold. First, it was the Cowboys. With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, they were bound to be a potential playoff contender. Then Prescott got injured for the season and Elliot took his money and decided not to run. Next, it was the Giants. Despite losing Saquon Barkley for the season, Joe Judge managed to light a fire under the team. They upset the Seahawks in Seattle with their backup quarterback, and people wondered whether they could be the ones to win the division. That Week 13 matchup in Seattle was their last win.
Then there was Washington and the feel-good story of the year with Alex Smith’s comeback. That, paired with a stifling defense, made this team seem dangerous. Then Smith went down with a leg injury, and Dwayne Haskins got caught in a strip club before being released altogether. Finally, it was Jalen Hurts and the Eagles. The emergence of Hurts made this team seem poised to steal the division. Potentially even dangerous enough to worry some teams in the NFC. Up 14-3 over the Cowboys on Sunday, everything was humming. The Cowboys then went on a 34-3 run, winning 37-17 and eliminating the Eagles from postseason contention.
Washington, New York, and Dallas all have plausible shots at the division title. One, with no more than seven wins, will host a home playoff game versus the either 10 or 11 win Buccaneers.
Deep within my heart I know this division had something to do with why 2020 was so awful.
NFC North: The Poor Bears
Division Leader*: Green Bay Packers (12-3)
It’s not often you feel truly bad for a team coming off of a win.
The Bears 41-17 win over the Jaguars on Sunday was their third straight victory. Most importantly, it positions them a game away from their first playoff birth since 2018. If they beat Green Bay in Week 17, they’re in. Even if they lose, but Arizona also loses, they’re in.
That’s why this is so, so sad.
The Packers currently look like the best team in the NFL. Despite having the division tied up, a win against Chicago on Sunday would guarantee them the NFC’s top seed and the first-round bye that comes with it. You’re not going to see Aaron Rodgers or any Green Bay starters sitting out this week for maintenance. For Arizona, they travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams. While this would usually be a tough matchup (the Cardinals have already lost to the Rams once this season), Los Angeles is coming off two straight losses and will be without Jared Goff, and potentially Cooper Kupp as well.
I like the Bears. I appreciate Chicago. The pizza is trash, but their fans are some of the best. That’s why it’s so hard to watch a loyal fanbase ignore everything they’ve come to learn about their team through painstaking lived experience get their hopes up for what will likely be another in a long line of disappointments.
Maybe this will be the Bulls’ year?
NFC South: The Kamara Who Stole Christmas
Division Leader*: New Orleans Saints (11-4)
Christmas is supposed to be a day of giving.
Whether it’s giving love to your family and friends or presents to one another, what is the Christmas spirit if not searching for ways to make the ones around you happy? This isn’t a day of gluttony, but rather a day to reflect on the blessings we enjoy.
Alvin Kamara didn’t get the memo.
Depending on whether or not you participate in Fantasy Football, Kamara’s six-touchdown Christmas Day performance was either a Christmas miracle or a Holy disaster for many in their league’s championship week. For the Minnesota Vikings, however, there was no ambiguity. He was a scrooge. A spoiler. The grinch who stole 30 points and who by himself nearly outscored the entire Vikings team.
A week removed from the Saints’ loss to the Chiefs in Drew Brees‘ return from injury, this was a New Orleans team eager to get back on track. In their 52-33 win, Brees had two interceptions but also threw for over 300 yards and seemed to be regaining confidence in his throwing motion. The team ran for over 250 yards, and the defense held firm in several situations during a game that, until the fourth quarter, was much closer than the final score indicates.
New Orleans won’t get six touchdowns a game from Kamara, that was a career day for the star back. If, though, they can get their rushing attack to churn out yards like they did Saturday and allow Drew Brees to pick his spots? This could be a team that’s getting hot at the exact right time.
NFC West: Division Winners and Wild Cards
Division Leader*: Seattle Seahawks (11-4)
With their 20-9 win over the Rams on Sunday, the Seahawks officially clinched the division and stamped their ticket to the playoffs.
Believe it or not, for a team who entered last week with a plausible road to missing the playoffs entirely, Seattle looks to Week 17 and an opportunity to leapfrog Green Bay and New Orleans for the top seed in the NFC. More likely for Seattle, though, is that they will remain the third seed in the conference with a matchup against one of the conference’s bottom teams. Maybe the Bears will sneak in. Maybe it will be the Rams. It could easily be the Cardinals. What I want to see is how Seattle performs against the teams that aren’t merely on the playoff bubble, should they advance.
Has Seattle had any impressive wins this year? If we assume for the moment that Miami, Arizona, Los Angeles, and one of either Washington or Dallas makes the playoffs, those would be the only four playoff teams Seattle has beaten this season. Of those four, they’ve lost to both the Cardinals and the Rams once apiece. The reality is that as few as two of these teams may end up advancing to the playoffs.
Does Seattle’s front seven have the playmakers to put pressure on Brady and the Buccaneers? Is their defense capable of doing what hardly anyone else has, and contain the Green Bay offense? How would their offensive line stack up against the defensive front of New Orleans and their stout defense? All these and more remain unanswered questions.
Seattle won a big game in Week 16. They’re going to the postseason. They’re division champions. Still, when it comes to the playoffs, they’re wild cards with question marks.