Football fans got an early present Saturday, as an NFL on Christmas Eve celebration kicked off the holiday festivities early around the nation.
There were only two weeks of football left to be played before Week 16 and plenty of playoff positioning left to be sorted out. With this in mind, you can imagine how this pressure-cooked environment produced some clear winners and losers.
Aaron Rodgers had a magnificent game at home leading the Green Bay Packers to a blowout win over NFC North rival, the Minnesota Vikings. On the other end of the spectrum, the New York Jets put together as dismal a performance as we’ve seen all year trying to compete with the New England Patriots.
Oh, and the Browns finally have reason to celebrate after a season of misery.
These were just a few of the biggest winners and losers from the NFL on Christmas Eve.
Winner: Browns get off the schneid
Well, it finally happened, folks. The Cleveland Browns won a game — something we didn’t think would be a possibility this year.
The one thing we didn’t factor into our equation was just how truly cursed the San Diego Chargers are in late-game situations.
San Diego had two chances to tie the game up in the final minutes of the game and failed on both counts — the first being a blocked field goal and the second a straight-up miss by kicker Josh Lambo. It’s a continuation of what we’ve seen the past couple of years under head coach Mike McCoy. The Chargers simply fail to execute when it matters most, something that is likely going to cost McCoy his job.
Back to the Browns. We’d be remiss if we didn’t give then plenty of credit for gutting out their first win of the year. It was far from pretty, but they got the job done with a heavy dose of tenacity and grit, not to mention some excellent early-game running by Isaiah Crowell, who finished with 54 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Cleveland’s defense deserves plenty of praise as well. It held the Chargers (without Melvin Gordon) to just 35 yards on the ground and forced an interception that turned into three points for the offense. This was the difference in the game, as the Browns won 20-17.
After sealing the win, the Browns and their fans (who once again treated us to some interesting signage this week) celebrated as if they had just won a playoff game.
— News 5 Cleveland (@WEWS) December 24, 2016
The butt of many an Internet meme, they avoided joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history with 0-16 records. With the win, the Browns briefly gave up the No. 1 overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. They got it back a few hours later, however, when the San Francisco 49ers took the Los Angeles Rams down to register their second win of the season.
Loser: Major quarterback injuries at worst possible time
Teams that win in the playoffs and go on to win championships aren’t necessarily the “best” teams in the league in any given year. It takes good health and a hot streak to get the job done. Unfortunately for two of the AFC’s contenders, good health isn’t something that is working in their favor at the most important single position on the field heading into the final weekend of regular-season play.
During Saturday’s early schedule, the Tennessee Titans lost quarterback Marcus Mariota for the rest of the season with a fractured fibula. He went down awkwardly on a sack from behind, with his leg twisting underneath Jacksonville Jaguars defender Sheldon Day. The Titans will now have to roll with Matt Cassel for the final game of the season.
Then in the afternoon, Derek Carr went down.
Carr had the Oakland Raiders comfortably ahead of the Indianapolis Colts Saturday afternoon. They were cruising to their 12th win on the season. It was all good. Then the unimaginable happened. He was sacked in the fourth quarter and immediately knew he was in trouble. Grabbing at the back of his leg, Carr clearly said, “It’s broke.”
He was carried off the field, then carted away from the sideline and taken directly to the X-ray room. Further testing showed he had broken his fibula, necessitating surgery. That Carr was a legitimate NFL MVP candidate is a point that cannot be argued. He guided the Raiders to a 12-3 record, leading seven game-winning, fourth-quarter drives this year.
Matt McGloin is the backup in Oakland. With him behind center the team’s defense and running game has a lot of slack to pick up if the Raiders have any hope of competing against the likes of Tom Brady and the Patriots to earn a trip to Super Bowl LI.
It was just a brutal weekend for these two quarterbacks and their teams, and it sets up an AFC Playoffs that won’t be nearly as interesting as it could have been.
Winner: Falcons fly into playoffs as NFC South champs
Julio Jones came back just in time for the party. While Jones wasn’t exactly dominant Saturday against the Carolina Panthers, the Atlanta Falcons’ star receiver did get back just in time to tune up for a playoff run.
Speaking of which, Atlanta clinched the NFC South title by beating the Panthers and then watching as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the New Orleans Saints. This series of events put the Falcons up by two games over Tampa Bay with one left to play.
With 10 wins on the season, Atlanta has now improved every season since dropping off the face of the map following their 13-win 2012 season. Dan Quinn appears to have this team poised to make a strong run at postseason glory.
The offense is undeniably capable of challenging even the toughest defenses in the NFC. Matt Ryan is quietly having an MVP season, with 4,613 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. On top of that, Atlanta can run the ball almost at will. The Tevin Coleman/Devonta Freeman combo is among the league’s best, and the Falcons’ offensive line is extremely underrated.
All this was on display Saturday as the Falcons dismantled the Panthers, winning with ease, 33-16.
On top of all that, Quinn’s influence on the defense has been evident this year. Atlanta can bring pressure up front and is competent against the run. The potent combo of the dynamic offense and defense that plays well as a front-runner makes the Falcons an extremely dangerous team this January.
Loser: Seahawks in bad shape for playoff run
The Seattle Seahawks are in the playoffs. They clinched last weekend, thanks to the fact they play in the NFC West, where they are the only team with a winning record. That’s the positive for this club.
The negatives are overwhelming, however. And they all showed up Saturday at home in the team’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Health is first and foremost the biggest concern for the Seahawks. After already watching Earl Thomas suffer a season-ending injury, Seattle watched as primary return man and big-play receiver Tyler Lockett suffered a gruesome broken leg.
Making matters worse, safety Kam Chancellor had to leave the game with an ankle injury. He did return to action with a heavy wrap of tape, but he’s not 100-percent healthy. As soon as Chancellor left the game, the Cardinals immediately targeted the deep middle. The result was an 80-yard bomb from Carson Palmer to speedster J.J. Nelson.
Another thing that has been a glaring weakness for much of the season is Seattle’s inability to run the ball consistently. That showed up again against Arizona, which held the Seahawks to 78 yards on 2.9 yards per carry.
Russell Wilson was brilliant passing the ball, finishing with 350 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He and Doug Baldwin are really something to watch. But as we’ve seen throughout the past two seasons, Seattle really struggles to protect Wilson. Heading into the game, he had already been taken down 34 times. Now we can add six more to that total. The Cardinals were able to consistently bring pressure that got to Wilson, who endured 14 hits.
And just to add insult to injury, kicker Steven Hauschka missed an extra point near the end of the fourth quarter that would have given Seattle a one-point lead. Instead, he shanked the effort, which allowed the Cardinals to take over and win with a field goal (watch here).
Hauschka is normally extremely reliable, but the offensive issues have been prevalent all year long. Add in the recent injuries and we’re looking at a Seahawks team that is limping into the playoffs.
Winner: Rodgers and Nelson destroy Minnesota’s vaunted pass defense
Winners of four in a row heading into Saturday’s home game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Green Bay Packers put on a passing clinic in a 38-25 win.
Aaron Rodgers, fully healthy after his calf injury slowed him down last weekend, was magnificent (watch here). So was his favorite target, Jordy Nelson. The two of them connected nine times for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Rodgers ended up passing for 347 yards with four touchdowns while rushing for another score to make it a handful.
The Vikings totally shut down Green Bay’s running game, but it mattered not. Rodgers’ performance was even more impressive considering Minnesota entered the game with the NFL’s third-ranked pass defense — a unit that had allowed 205.6 yards per game and 17 touchdowns all year.
It was pretty much nothing but smooth sailing but for one scary moment when Rodgers was sandwiched between two Vikings defenders and stayed down for a spell (watch here). Thankfully he got back up and finished off his brilliant performance.
The big win puts Green Bay in the driver’s seat for a playoff berth with a win next weekend against the Detroit Lions.
Loser: Panthers embarrass themselves in front of home crowd
With the thinnest of playoff hopes, yet a hope nonetheless entering Week 16, the Carolina Panthers put on an embarrassing show for their home fans against the Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta’s high-powered offense was able to impose its will on an overmatched Carolina defense from the game’s opening snaps. Missed tackles were the order of the day, as the Falcons penetrated through the Panthers like a hot knife runs through room-temperature butter.
There wasn’t anything the Falcons struggled with as they controlled the clock, gained 408 yards and converted 21 first downs.
Cam Newton, down by a touchdown after his defense allowed a score on the game’s opening drive — the first of the year for tight end Joshua Perkins (watch here) — threw an interception on his first drive. This was the first of two turnovers by Newton in this game, and it led to a quick three points that put Carolina in an early 10-0 hole.
It was 13-0 before the Panthers finally got on the board with a field goal. It was 20-3 at halftime, paving the way for an easy 33-16 win on the road for the NFC South champ Falcons.
Newton had a particularly poor outing. He went 19-of-43 passing for 198 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He overthrew his receivers all game long, and one has to wonder if he’s not more banged up that he lets on.
The loss officially eliminated the Panthers from playoff contention, and it’s remarkable just how poorly they played in such a critical game.
Winner: Jags have some fun in first game without Gus Bradley
The 2016 season has been pretty darn miserable for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who just watched this past week as head coach Gus Bradley was shown the door. With just two wins on the season before taking on the Tennessee Titans, they hadn’t had any reason to celebrate since beating the Chicago Bears by one point in mid-October.
That all changed Saturday, as the Jaguars finally had some fun in a convincing 38-17 win over their AFC South rival.
Blake Bortles, a player whose future is by no means secure in Jacksonville, had one of his best games of the season. Though he threw for just one touchdown, Bortles was efficient. He went 26-of-38 for 325 yards with a touchdown and, most importantly, no turnovers. He was also the recipient of a terrific trick play in which receiver Marqise Lee threw him a touchdown pass (watch here).
Interim head coach Doug Marrone had his team playing loose, and the result was the most complete game we’ve seen from the Jags in a long time.
This game was pretty much already over when Marcus Mariota was forced out, the score being 25-10. That injury will be a hard one for Tennessee to swallow, but it didn’t have an impact on the game, which was Jacksonville’s from start to finish.
Loser: Matt Barkley’s five picks doom Bears
The Chicago Bears have been eliminated from playoff contention for a while now, sporting just three wins all year. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to play for, especially for the likes of young quarterback Matt Barkley.
The USC product is auditioning right now for the potential starting job in future years with the Bears. Sunday’s performance was exactly what a young passer can’t do when trying to convince an NFL team he’s the future of the franchise.
Barkley threw five interceptions against the Washington Redskins in a 41-21 loss, and a few of them were about as awful as you’ll see in this league.
— NFL (@NFL) December 24, 2016
Even worse, four of the five occurred in the second half…on four consecutive offensive possessions.
Barkley’s horrific performance was a gift to Washington, which is fighting to stay alive in the NFC Playoff race. It was a headache for the Bears, who must realize the young quarterback is never going to be the long-term answer. That means it’s time to go back to the drawing board in a year in which the talent coming out of college isn’t all that inspiring.
Winner: Jay Ajayi carries Dolphins closer to playoffs
The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins both needed a win to remain in playoff contention, with Buffalo being in a more desperate position at 7-7. The Dolphins played like they wanted it more, however, especially running back Jay Ajayi, who was an unstoppable force for Miami down the stretch.
It had been quite some time since Ajayi had filled up the stat sheet like he did Saturday. After rattling off three games in which he rushed for 204, 214 and 111 yards back in late October and early November, the running back went cold. Heading into the game against Buffalo, Ajayi hadn’t rushed for more than 79 yards in the team’s last six games.
That all changed this weekend, as the former Boise State star rushed for 206 yards and one touchdown on 32 hard-fought carries. Eighty-seven of those yards came in overtime, with 75 coming on the game-winning drive.
Without Ajayi tearing up Buffalo’s defense on the ground, there is no way the Dolphins would have won their 10th game of the season. Matt Moore wasn’t nearly as effective in this game as he was against New York last weekend, and Miami’s defense was abused by Tyrod Taylor, who had himself a whale of a game.
Now the Dolphins can get into the playoffs for the first time since 2008 if the Denver Broncos lose to the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night. They can also get in a couple of other ways, but it would be awfully nice to know heading into Week 16 that the playoffs were in the bag.
Loser: Jets fall further down the rabbit hole
The New York Jets have a lot to be embarrassed about this year, but laying an egg Saturday is right up there with the worst of it. Especially considering they were facing hated AFC East rival, the New England Patriots, and in light of the fact that head coach Todd Bowles was coaching one day after being sent to the hospital with what he later told reporters was kidney stones.
You’d think the Jets might actually show up and play hard for their coach after his ordeal, but that wasn’t the case. Not hardly. The Pats blanked the Jets 41-0 until a field goal broke the scoring drought midway through the fourth quarter.
Bryce Petty was forced out of his second game in a row after his offensive line failed to protect him yet again. This paved the way for Ryan Fitzpatrick — a veritable feline for all the lives he’s been given this year — to get back into action. Neither Petty nor Fitzpatrick had any success at all. They combined on 8-of-24 passing for 136 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.
Defensively, New York was blown out of the building as we’ve seen pretty much all year long, allowing five touchdowns while failing to force a single turnover.
As if the on-field performance wasn’t bad enough, Sheldon Richardson (the same guy who got into trouble last week for his Snapchat snafu) made some comments to the press that show the locker room is a fractured mess. After team leader Brandon Marshall said the team should be embarrassed by its play, Richardson said Marshall should be embarrassed but wouldn’t get into any specifics, per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.
Realistically, none of this should come as a surprise. The Jets are a dysfunctional mess. Their Christmas Eve effort was simply more proof.