Option 1, Week 16’s Burning Question: Who clinches a trip to the playoffs?
The penultimate week of the season presented a couple teams the opportunity to punch their ticket to the playoffs. The Browns and Bucs looked to end playoff droughts of over a decade, while a couple of division leaders, including Washington and Pittsburgh, looked to finish the job. Or for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a chance to seal the number one overall pick and presumably draft Trevor Lawrence.
The early weekend games provided some clarity to the playoff picture before the big action. Tampa Bay clinched a Wild Card for the first time since 2007, the year I first started watching football, in a 47-7 win against Detroit. In the primetime slot, Miami kept its playoff hopes alive in miraculous fashion, while dealing the Raiders the fatal blow to their once-promising season.
Fast forward to the 1 pm ET time slot and things got interesting. With four teams alive in the chance for the three AFC Wild Card spots (and Miami inactive on Sunday after their Saturday night win), the three contestants battled, to varying results. Baltimore, needing to win out and help from their contestants’ opponents, crushed the New York Giants on its home turf, 27-13. They got that help, too – division rival Pittsburgh rallied from down 24-7 to knock off prospective Wild Card Indianapolis, while the 1-14 New York Jets took it to the Browns and landed the upset of the weekend.
The NFC had its fun in the afternoon. Needing only a win to clinch the mediocre NFC East, Washington fumbled its opportunity in a 20-13 loss to coach Ron Rivera’s old team, the Carolina Panthers. The Cowboys stayed alive in the hunt by blowing by the Philadelphia Eagles (eliminating the Eagles in the process) and setting up a furious Week 17 finish to a division guaranteed to produce a champion with a losing record. On the other coast, the Seahawks took care of business against Los Angeles to clinch the NFC West, while pushing the Rams down in the Wild Card race.
So where do we stand? Seven teams — Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Green Bay, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Seattle — have clinched their spots to the playoffs, while 11 teams are in the hunt for the last seven spots. With the exception of the Chiefs in the one seed in the AFC, there’s plenty up for grabs for seeding as well. Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles (Rams) and Miami can win and be in, while a couple teams need a win plus help.
As Week 16 showed, the playoff picture is madness. Despite the addition of a wild card spot this offseason, the AFC is guaranteed to have a team with 10 wins miss out on the playoffs. Even teams out of the hunt are playing spoilers — the 2-13 Jets could knock the Rams and Browns out of the playoffs. The frenzied finish is plenty of fun itself, but it is setting up a fascinating playoff bracket.
Option 2, Week 16’s Huge Performance: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara had perhaps the performance of the season on Christmas, tying the NFL record with six rushing touchdowns and double-leggedly rushing the Saints to a 52-33 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Kamara is hardly a breakout star — who else has 81 receptions through each of their first four seasons while playing running back — but his 2020 season had been somewhat quiet. Entering Week 16, the Tennessee Vol had yet to reach the 100 yard rushing mark on the season and had hit 100 yards through the air just once, instead inflicting most of his damage in the red zone (15 all-around touchdowns). Any questions were swept away in a historic holiday rushing performance.
After the dust had cleared, Kamara had accomplished one of the greatest games by a running back in modern NFL history. The final stat line — 22 carries, 155 rushing yards, six touchdowns. I don’t play fantasy football, but I have to imagine that’s the greatest fantasy football championship stat line ever (just imagining being on the opposite side of that as a fantasy owner makes me cringe).
Kamara made his mark from the first drive. Fittingly, the first play from scrimmage was an 11-yard dash. Five plays later, Kamara broke loose for a 40-yard touchdown rumble, his longest rush on the day. When Minnesota answered back with a touchdown, the Saints drove down the field before Kamara punched it in for the go-ahead score. Kamara made it a trifecta at the end of the half with another goal-line burst to bust the game open, 24-14.
In the second half, it was clear something special was going on. After a Brees interception on the first drive of the half, New Orleans embarked on four straight touchdown drives, each punctuated by a goal line rushing touchdown. Brees consistently worked the ball downfield and let Kamara capitalize on goal line carries. If not for Taysom Hill finding paydirt on a one-yard push (a decision that set social media ablaze), Kamara could have set the record. But the box score and stat sheet should have Kamara very content as the Saints prepare for another NFC playoff gauntlet.
Finding New Orleans’ offensive identity has been a tricky task this season. Of course, it definitely shakes things up when three different quarterbacks play significant snaps and the top weapon, Michael Thomas, misses time. There’s plenty to doubt — Kamara’s occasional absences, Brees’ injuries and weakened arm, Taysom Hill’s gimmicks — but when one player scores six touchdowns, it’s a clear signal that this is an offensive attack to be reckoned with.
Option 3, Week 16’s Crucial Decision: Josh Jacobs takes a knee, Raiders lose
Vegas and Miami went back-and-forth in one of the top three games of the season, each team with their playoff hopes on the line. The teams combined for 22 points in the final four minutes and five lead changes. Thanks to heroics from a face-masked Ryan Fitzpatrick and Rockville’s own Mack Hollins, the Dolphins ended up with the win. What fascinates me most happened a couple plays earlier.
Myles Gaskin’s 59-yard touchdown rumble with 2:55 left seemingly put Miami in the driver’s seat until a controversial 49-yard pass interference set the Raiders up in field goal territory. Vegas made sure to bleed time off the clock, rushing on four straight plays before a Derek Carr kneel down to set up the Jason Saunders field goal. Vegas took a 25-23 lead with just 19 seconds, evidently enough for Miami to run down and score.
But that lead could have been bigger. Vegas rusher Josh Jacobs slid at the one yard line instead of running in a touchdown that would have stretched the lead to 28-23 and required Miami to score six to take the lead. Even the Miami defender tried to sweep Jacobs in the end zone so his team could take possession with some time (probably around 1:50). Which was better, a 29-23 lead with 1:50 left and no Miami timeouts or a 25-23 lead with 19 seconds left?
I understand the numbers, but it would be hard to fault Jacobs for taking it in for the touchdown. If Vegas gets the two-point conversion, it’s a seven point game and Ryan Fitzpatrick has to prove himself in a two-minute drill. Fitzpatrick’s desperation heave to Hollins was a defensive lapse and could be considered a fluke play, but all the Dolphins needed was a field goal — one miracle, rather than two. And it stings extra to leave a go-ahead touchdown on the board. Now out of the playoff mix, Vegas will have a whole offseason to contemplate their late-season collapse, from their horrendous defensive play to debatable play calling decisions.
Checkdown: My Uniform Tiers, 2020 Edition
A huge part of my experience watching NFL games is the laundry. Some games, like Vegas-Miami, felt like must-watch games on jersey quality alone. I picked the Cowboys as one of my favorite teams in first grade just because I liked the Cowboys’ star and silver, glittering stripe. And I just found out that the Ravens’ influence for their distinctive purple is my own school, Northwestern. Visually appealing jerseys makes the art of football truly feel like art.
I’ve dedicated a bit of this column to my top five uniform matchups each week, and as the regular season nears its close, I want to look back on a beautiful season of NFL matchups with my new favorite toy, the tier list. Below, I’ve separated NFL teams into tiers based on their overall visual identity, comprising home, away, alternate, and Color Rush jerseys as well as logo and field aesthetics. These are subjective, but, like, how can you not enjoy the Chargers and Dolphins jerseys?
S Tier: I watch games because of these jerseys.
A Tier: Fantastic uniforms that I have considered buying at least once.
B Tier: I don’t have a problem with future use of this jersey.
C Tier: Underwhelming uniforms that should have a change soon.
D Tier: How are these uniforms allowed? (No offense intended, Bills fans)
Game Notes: It’s Week 17 and the Cowboys, a team that started 3-9 and is without its starting quarterback, starting offensive line and tight end and an NFL-caliber defense, can still make the playoffs. The Vikes, 49ers and Eagles are hardly powerhouses, but credit Mike McCarthy with righting the ship and making the Cowboys’ makeshift lineups produce results and play inspired football. Dallas needs Philly, the team it just soundly beat, to defeat Washington and a second win over the New York Football Giants to win the NFC East crown. If they pull it off, it will be the absolute most shocked I’ve ever been at the Cowboys’ success, and I’m as optimistic as they come. Check my past Read Options for evidence — I gave this team up for dead after both Washington games, and they’ve somehow turned the ship around to provide some holiday cheer…San Francisco’s quarterback position is the most interesting offseason note this season aside from the head coaching prospects of Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. Jimmy Garoppolo has been neither healthy nor effective and San Francisco has the flexibility to move on. They should, because this defense, still ranked in the top five, is elite and the roster should be able to compete for the NFC West title and more next year…The Bears have pulled it together after a mid-season skid, actually making my prediction of a 9-7 record look reasonable. I need the Bears to make the playoffs, if only so that Fitzgerald doesn’t head to the pros…Even I, the frequent proclaimer of “Browns gonna Browns,” did not see this collapse coming. It is glorious to behold…J.J. Watt’s rant about effort on losing teams is my favorite press conference clip of the season. This guy knows what he’s talking about and what it means to be a competitor in the arena of sports. In a lost season, Houston fans should at least take solace in knowing that some of these guys care…I must say my thank-yous in a week that felt like waiting for a Uncut Gems-esque parlay to hit. Thank you, Baltimore. Thank you, Dallas. Thank you, New York Jets. Thank you, Carolina. Thank you, Pittsburgh. Okay, that last one felt icky…The Chargers are the most interesting bad team, and the Rams are the least interesting playoff contender. They really have it all in Los Angeles.
Five Best Jersey Matchups (In Order): Dolphins-Raiders, Chargers-Broncos, Saints-Vikings, Cowboys-Eagles, Ravens-Giants
Best Sunday: Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins kept their playoff hopes alive and well in a back-and-forth classic.
Worst Sunday: Cleveland Browns- The Browns are floundering at the worst time and to the worst opponent — one we thought was more inept than them.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 17-26, 183 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 111.5 passer rating, 80 rushing yards, 27-13 win over New York Giants
The Skinny: By both the eye test and the stat sheet, the Ravens dominated the New York Giants. Three Baltimore players rushed for over 75 yards, Baltimore completed 8 of 11 third-down conversions and a Giants team that looked in position to take the NFC East crown was throttled.
Ravens fans couldn’t ask much more from Jackson, who rushed for 80 yards and hit Marquise Brown and Dez Bryant for touchdowns. 183 yards certainly won’t top any lists, but Jackson has remarkable chemistry with tight end Mark Andrews and, even after his MVP campaign, defenses haven’t found an answer for him. The Giants’ defense, ranked 10th in the league in points allowed per game, is no slouch, either. By halftime, Jackson had the Ravens up 20-3 and in prime position to win a crucial home game.
When the Ravens look back on the 2020 season, the season will have to be split in half — pre-Pittsburgh and post-Pittsburgh. Pre-Pittsburgh, this was a Ravens team with the weight of the world and a 14-2 record on their shoulders, and it showed. The offense was anemic at points (failing to score in the first half at Indianapolis), while Baltimore failed to put up fights against Kansas City and New England. Post-Pittsburgh, this team has pulled together three straight wins (Cleveland, Jacksonville, New York) and the offense has looked every bit as dynamic as last season.
The Pittsburgh game, a loss, is the turning point. The Ravens had Robert Griffin III in and multiple new offensive starters after Baltimore suffered heavy losses with COVID positive tests. Though the Steelers won late, the Ravens were not favored or blessed with personnel advantages, instead putting their heels in the ground and gritting it out. The game was closer than anticipated and Baltimore fought to the end, showing resolve that had been lacking against Tennessee and New England. The Cleveland-Baltimore MNF classic could very well have gone the other way and flipped the narrative, but the Pittsburgh loss gave the Ravens an identity as a team that makes them a dangerous opponent going into the playoffs.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 22-27, 348 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 158.3 passer rating, 47-7 win over Detroit
The Skinny: Tom Brady is the best Buccaneers quarterback ever. If that seems like a brash statement, consider this — Brady has 36 touchdown passes this year (3rd in the NFL) and has six 3+ touchdown performances to his name. Also, remember that the Bucs have never had a true franchise quarterback in their history and won their lone Super Bowl with Brad Johnson at the helm.
Saturday’s shellacking of Detroit clinched the Bucs’ first playoff trip since ‘07, the year Brady was 16-0. Brady sure looked like that guy against the Lions. Brady finished the day with a perfect 158.3 passer rating with four first-half touchdown passes and led Tampa Bay to its most prolific offensive performance of the season.
I don’t read into the performance too much, considering Detroit is on their third coach of the season and has the NFC’s worst defense. But you can’t not be impressed by four first-half touchdown passes. The fact that those passes were caught by Rob Gronkowski (33 yards on the touchdown), Mike Evans (27 yards), Chris Godwin (7 yards) and Antonio Brown (12 yards) gives a who’s who of Bucs weapons that should leave every NFC defense begging for mercy. Brady also looked willing to challenge defenses down the field, a welcome development in the contested Brady-Bruce Arians dynamic.
I picked the Buccaneers to make the Super Bowl in their home stadium, and guess what? I’m sticking with it! Tampa’s defense hasn’t entirely eroded, Brady hasn’t withered away and the Bucs are still alive. Don’t forget, the team I would switch my pick to, the Packers, lost to the Bucs 38-10. With a game against the NFC East likely to be the Wild card Matchup, the Bucs have a near-automatic dub. Beat Green Bay again and either the Saints or Seattle and Tom Brady’s right back in the Big Game. Likely? Maybe not. But I’m obsessed with this Brady-led offense and if the Bucs’ explode, I’m going down with the Raymond James pirate ship.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 31-50, 247 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 66 passer rating, 8 carries, 75 rushing yards, 12-20 loss to San Francisco
The Skinny: Saturday marked the first time all season that Kyler Murray had at least 50 passing attempts. Saturday marked the second time all season that Murray failed to throw a touchdown pass. Those two together help explain how a Cardinals team with playoff aspirations lost to C.J. Beathard and the depleted Niners.
After a dream start that sent Murray to the top of the MVP watch, the Cardinals have lost four out of their last six and are in danger of sliding out of the playoffs entirely. Murray’s 75 rushing yards on eight carries were a positive sign and needed spark in the rushing attack (the rest of the team combined for 45 rushing yards), but Murray could not solve the San Francisco defense when they made him pass. Murray completed just two of 10 passes beyond 15 yards and padded his stats with inconsequential passes in the short game. DeAndre Hopkins, arguably the best receiver in football, averaged 6.0 yards per catch. The win was Arizona’s for the taking and never extended past a one-score game, but three turnovers on the last three drives won’t get it done in the playoffs.
The Cardinals’ turnaround season will come down to a climactic Week 17 battle against the Los Angeles Rams, who are also floundering but in the mix for an NFC wild card. Both quarterbacks seem to be nursing injuries and will be monitored throughout the week, but the Cardinals will need an offensive explosion to avoid the season sweep and an 8-8 record. There’s still a chance to salvage Arizona’s fantasy season, but Murray might need to be the MVP guy to add another week to the Cardinals’ schedule.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: Will play Monday against New England.
The Skinny: See above.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 17-22, 94 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 99.4 passer rating, 26-25 win over Las Vegas
The Skinny: The Dolphins won a thriller in Vegas to keep their playoff hopes alive, but star rookie Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t the reason for the victory. In fact, he seemed to be the reason they wouldn’t win, and it was only after Tagovailoa’s benching in the fourth quarter that the Dolphins offense found life and actually scored points.
Tagovailoa’s start wasn’t *awful*. The lefty passer completed 17 of his 22 passes and did not turn the ball over once. But the offense never got going with Tua at the helm, and a 4.3 yards per attempt average is evidence of the Dolphins’ ineffectiveness. Then, with the exact same personnel deficiencies, Ryan Fitzpatrick doubled Tagovailoa’s yardage output and answered two late Vegas scores with drives. Of course, the golden moment will be Fitzpatrick’s blind throw to Hollins on the sideline, which could very well be in a Miami art museum or on the wall of former Marlins owner Jeffrey Lurie if the Dolphins finish the season in the playoffs.
Tagovailoa’s pass chart followed his 2020 trend — lots of close passes that found their receiver, but almost no downfield threats (in sharp contrast to fellow rookie Justin Herbert). That’s fine when the offense is trying to ease in a rookie under center, but with Miami’s playoff hopes fading, they had to make a change and it miraculously worked.
Where does Miami go from here? For next week’s win-and-in game against division leader Buffalo, coach Brian Flores said he’s going back to Tagovailoa. The offensive strategy should be interesting to watch, though Flores’ patience will almost definitely be short.