Merry Christmas everyone! It’s our second year in a row with a Sunday Christmas Eve, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than with football. And we got our share of Christmas miracles! Miami finally beat a team with a winning record (Dallas) thanks to K Jason Sanders having a career-best day (5/5 FGs, 3 from 50+). The Packers held off the Panthers despite a botched coin toss because the refs ruled that time ran out on Carolina’s last drive (did it though?). Patriots K Chad Ryland knocked off Denver with a 56-yard FG after missing two prior kicks. Perhaps even more rare, Detroit won a division championship. Read on for my (hopefully festive?) week 16 takeaways!
TNF: Rams Beat Saints in Crucial Game for Playoff Chances
Both teams came into this game at 7-7. A win would spike their playoff hopes, while a loss would sink their odds below 25%. For three and a half quarters, it felt like only one team got that memo. LA never trailed, and New Orleans wasn’t competitive outside of a few select moments. Rams WR Cooper Kupp (6/52) still seemed like his shoulder was hurting, but it didn’t matter with Puca Nacua (9/164/1) and Demarcus Robinson (6/82/1 in the first half alone) showing out. QB Matthew Stafford (24/34, 328 yards, 2 TDs) is playing great. RB Kyren Williams shook off his 2 lost fumbles last week to run for 104 yards and a TD on 22 carries.
The only thing that went right for the Saints in the first half was a deep heave to WR Rasheed Shaheed that went for a 45-yard TD. QB Derek Carr had fine stats (27/40, 319 yards, 3 TDs, INT), but most of them came with the game 30-7. WR Chris Olave (9/123) dropped two critical 3rd-down passes. After the first, Carr threw incomplete on 4th and 5, and the Rams converted the turnover on downs into a TD before the half. That was a big turning point. The Saints’ run game (16/35) was a nonfactor, and the defense has seriously regressed. The poor NFC South is still winnable, but can NO even do that?
I still have a couple of complaints about the Rams. First, the kicking game is still a problem, as Lucas Havrisik badly missed on a 47-yard FG. It’s time to give someone else a shot. Second, a few too many drives are still stalling in the red zone. Finally and most importantly, this is the second straight week where they’ve let an inferior opponent scare them late. New Orleans scored 15 unanswered 4th-quarter points to make it a 30-22 game before the Rams ran out the clock. This happened against Washington last week as well. LA is good enough to make the playoffs, but these issues need fixing if they want to make a serious run.
8-6 AFC Wild Card Hopefuls Mostly Fall Flat
Five different AFC teams entered the week at 8-6: Houston, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Buffalo. Only the Bills came away with a victory. Starting on Saturday, the Bengals laid their biggest egg of the season in Pittsburgh. A team coming off a 3-game losing streak and starting Mason Rudolph at QB suddenly looked like an offensive juggernaut. Rudolph (17/27, 290 yards, 2 TDs) and WR George Pickens (4/195/2) led the offense to a season-high 34 points, while Cincy QB Jake Browning sabotaged his team with 3 INTs. The Bengals gifted the Steelers life while falling to 0-5 in divisional play. You can’t make the playoffs like that.
In the second game of Saturday’s double-header, Buffalo got that aforementioned win, but they BARELY squeaked by the Chargers, who just cleaned house. The Bolts did look significantly better with Giff Smith coaching instead of Brandon Staley, but that bar was super low. They really only had a chance because of K Cameron Dicker, who made all 5 of his field goal attempts. He has just 2 misses in his Chargers tenure, making him one of the most reliable kickers around. Bills QB Josh Allen threw an INT yet again, but he did lead a game-winning drive. Buffalo is still a mercurial team, but at 9-6, they’re in great shape.
Jacksonville went to Tampa to face a surging Bucs team and left with their 4th straight loss. I don’t know if Jags QB Trevor Lawrence was still feeling the effects of his concussion or not, but he had a rough game. He continues to be a turnover machine (he has the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2021), with 2 INTs and a fumble this time. That Christmas giving enabled Tampa to take a 30-0 lead before Lawrence left with a sprained shoulder. CJ Beathard helped get 12 points in garbage time, but Jacksonville is only atop the AFC South because the entire division lost this weekend (and they have tiebreakers).
The Colts had a great opportunity with Cincinnati and Jacksonville losing, but they couldn’t muster any offense. That started with the push up front (or lack thereof). RB Jonathan Taylor had no rushing lanes, earning just 2.4 yards per carry. QB Gardner Minshew faced heavy pressure, suffering 6 sacks. The ageless Calais Campbell had 1.5 of those. Atlanta’s plan to switch back to QB Taylor Heinicke (23/33, 229 yards, TD) also worked well. He wasn’t amazing, but he played clean game to earn a 29-10 victory. The Falcons remain alive in the NFC, while the Colts are staying afloat because almost everyone else around them lost too.
Houston definitely had the toughest task among our 8-6 teams. They had to beat the hot Browns without CJ Stroud (concussion). Expecting that wouldn’t have been very reasonable, but they still played a poor game. The Texans’ defense let WR Amari Cooper SHRED them. He had 11 catches for 265 yards, a new Browns single-game record, and 2 TDs. The man was uncoverable, and he and QB Joe Flacco (27/42, 368 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) helped put up 36 points on a day when the running game wasn’t much help. They did a lot of this work without even having a kicker!
While leading 14-0, the Browns let RB Dameon Pierce score a 98-yard KR TD. On the play, Browns K Dustin Hopkins was hurt, and he didn’t return. The team went for 2 after every score and kept trying to convert 4th downs because they couldn’t kick. Houston couldn’t stop them anyway, and QB Case Keenum (11/17, 62 yards, 2 INTs) was replaced by Davis Mills after an ineffective stretch. Mills made things interesting with two 4th-quarter TD drives, but he still completed less than 50% of his passes, and this was all garbage time scoring. Houston could’ve vaulted into a wild card spot, but they remain on the outside looking in.
Lions Win First Ever NFC North Title
For the first time in 30 years, i.e., when the legendary Barry Sanders was a rookie, the Lions have won a division title. Their last division crown came in the NFC Central before realignment took place, so this is their first NFC North win. Minnesota didn’t make it easy for them though. The teams traded TDs on their first two drives and then exchanged turnovers on the following pair of drives. While Detroit sandwiched 10 points around another Nick Mullens INT, the Vikings fought back. Mullens hit WR Justin Jefferson (6/141/1) on a 26-yard TD before the half and hit WR KJ Osborn for another to start the 3rd quarter.
Detroit impressively countered with a 7-minute, 13-play TD drive of their own. However, Michael Badgley‘s PAT was blocked, keeping the score at 23-21 Lions. Jared Goff threw a TD to WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (12/106/1) to extend the lead to 30-21, but then the offense stalled. Minnesota forced 2 punts and got a field goal, with one last shot to tie the game. Mullens was strip sacked by Romeo Okwara, and Jack Cominsky had a great chance to scoop it up. He couldn’t fall on it, and Jefferson recovered. Jefferson added more heroics, making an amazing catch on 3rd and 27 to extend the drive. Mullens then self-destructed again.
Lions S Ifeatu Melifonwu caught a wayward Mullens pass to seal the wind, supplementing his already strong game (2 sacks). This was another full Mullens experience, as despite throwing for 411 yards and 2 TDs, his 4 INTs ruined the Vikings. On the Detroit side, rookie RB Jahmyr Gibbs (100 scrimmage yards, 2 rushing TDs) powered the offense, while Goff (30/40, 257 yards, TD) definitely did his part. This was a jubilant occasion for the Lions, who celebrated afterward. Without Aaron Rodgers in the division, Detroit and Minnesota are likely the teams to be contending for the NFC North in the years to come.
Howell Benched Again as Commanders Nearly Complete Comeback
The Commanders have a full-blown QB quandary on their hands, and it’s entirely self-made. So far, I’ve liked what Sam Howell has shown us. He’s far from perfect and makes mistakes when trying to do too much, but he has talent and is a true competitor, even behind his horrible offensive line. The Jets’ defense has made many opposing QBs look awful this year (or “embarrassed” them to quote HC Robert Saleh), so it wasn’t too surprising to see Washington struggle in New York. The way in which the game unfolded is the issue here. NYJ took a 20-0 lead off of Commanders miscues, including a blocked punt, and it seemed over.
Washington got a bit of life when Jets QB Trevor Siemian, starting for the concussed Zach Wilson, lost the snap and fumbled. The Commanders scored one play later. That’s simply all they did right though for 2 and a half quarters. After Howell threw his second INT of the game and brought his line to a ghastly 6/22 for 56 yards and 2 INTs, he was pulled. As with the game against the Rams last week, Jacoby Brissett replaced him. Also akin to week 15, Brissett led multiple TD drives in relief and threatened the team with the lead. He went 10/13 for 100 yards and a TD, leading 3 straight TD drives to take a 28-27 lead.
The point here isn’t that the defense then blew their chance to spoil the Jets’ day by allowing Siemian to dink and dunk his way down the field. Nor is it that NYJ RB Breece Hall (20/95/2 on the ground, 12/96 through the air) had a stellar day. It’s not even that kicker Greg Zuerlein drilled a 54-yard FG to lift the Jets to a 30-28 win. Washington’s problem is what coach Ron Rivera has done to Howell. With two consecutive benchings, Howell’s confidence has to be reeling. Instead of building up his young QB, Rivera is ruining him. I hope someone trades for Howell before his career is destroyed. Rivera’s coaching stint should be over in 2 weeks.
Raiders, Ravens Earn Major Upsets Through Defense
Our Christmas Day triple-header featured two unlikely victories and one game that was more competitive than expected. First, Las Vegas suffocated Kansas City despite QB Aidan O’Connell failing to complete a pass after the first quarter. On a trick play, Chiefs RB Isiah Pacheco botched a direct snap, and DT Bilal Nichols returned the fumble for a TD. The very next play from scrimmage, QB Patrick Mahomes threw a receiver screen, but for the second week in a row, CB Jack Jones read it and took it to the house. That gave the Raiders a 17-7 lead with only a field goal from the offense.
A rare miss on a 33-yard FG by Chiefs K Harrison Butker maintained the Raiders’ 10-point advantage at halftime. And that was pretty much it. The Chiefs scored a late TD, and the Raiders added a field goal, but it never truly felt like KC could win. They turned the ball over on downs in the red zone twice, and LV RB Zamir White (22/145), starting for the injured Josh Jacobs, ran out the clock. Raiders DE Malcolm Koonce sacked Mahomes 3 times, continuing his streak of great play. KC’s offensive line was exposed again, and they can’t claim the 1-seed anymore. Las Vegas stays alive in the playoff race against all odds.
The nighttime game may have been even more stunning. San Francisco, easily the best team in the league to this point, self-destructed on national TV. QB Brock Purdy had the worst game of his career, throwing 4 INTs and 0 TDs. The first came on the opening drive, where he threw late toward the end zone. His second INT was bad luck, as a batted ball went straight to Baltimore CB Marlon Humphrey. The third INT was a misfire; the read to Christian McCaffrey was correct, but the throw was poor. Finally, Purdy was reckless on INT #4, getting another ball batted. This one was picked by S Kyle Hamilton, who also caught the first.
Baltimore, feeling “disrespected” for being (appropriate) underdogs, came into this game with intent. QB Lamar Jackson missed a host of throws but had a clean day. He also broke the SF defense with his runs, including a season-long 30-yard scamper. WR Zay Flowers (9/72/1) was also too quick for the Niners’ DBs to tackle. However, it was the defense that stole the show. SF got plenty of yards, but 4 turnovers will doom any team. Pressure up the middle from DT Justin Madubuike (a breakout star with 12 sacks) messed with Purdy’s head and ultimately sent him to the bench. The Ravens have put the league on notice.