Week 16 of the NFL season decided the six teams that will compete for the AFC title come playoff time. The Miami Dolphins clinched one of the two wild card spots in the conference with a thrilling overtime win over Buffalo. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers clinched the AFC North title and a top-three seed in the conference.
Unfortunately, the AFC race was also defined by two major injuries to top-end young quarterbacks. In the midst of his team blowing a golden opportunity to remain in the AFC South race, Tennessee Titans signal caller Marcus Mariota suffered a broken right fibula.
It’s the same injury Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr suffered in his team’s win over the Indianapolis Colts. That injury in and of itself shakes up the AFC Playoffs completely.
Over in the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys officially clinched the No. 1 seed by virtue of Philadelphia’s upset win over the Giants, who themselves clinched a playoff spot after Tampa Bay blew a golden opportunity in a loss to the New Orleans Saints.
These are among the top-10 takeaways from NFL Week 16.
1. Raiders’ Super Bowl hopes go down in flames
After throwing three touchdowns and having himself a heck of a game against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, it sure looked like Derek Carr was on the verge of leading his team to a 12th win. Up by 19 with less than 11 minutes remaining, the game was all but over.
That’s when Carr went down in a heap on the turf a Oakland Coliseum, leading fans of the Raiders shushed with worry. Was Carr simply dealing with some sort of a cramp was something more sinister in play here?
Unfortunately, Carr could bee see on the field mouthing that it was broken. “It,” as we’d learn from Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio later, would be his fibula. Carr is set to undergo surgery to repair the broken fibula, and he is now lost for the next six-to-eight weeks (more on that here).
This is a huge blow for a Raiders squad that’s now 12-3 on the season and in control of its own destiny in the AFC West. In fact, Oakland still has an opportunity to earn a top-two seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. With Matt McGloin now slated to take over for Carr, none of that is likely to matter.
The Raiders simply can’t be considered Super Bowl contenders without their MVP candidate. Such is the nature of the beast for a franchise that wouldn’t have any luck at all if it weren’t bad luck.
2. Antonio Brown pushes Steelers to division title
With the injury to Carr in Oakland, one could come to the conclusion that the Pittsburgh Steelers are now New England’s top competitor in the AFC. Though, that would not have been the case if Pittsburgh didn’t take out the division-rival Baltimore Ravens on Christmas. And in reality, it sure looked like Pittsburgh was about to blow its opportunity until the game was nearly over.
Down 27-24 with just over a minute left, Pittsburgh took control of the ball at its own 25 boasting a single timeout. But big plays from Eli Rogers and Jesse James in the passing game made it look like Mike Tomlin’s squad was destined to put up the game-tying field goal to send this one to overtime.
That’s when Pittsburgh gambled on Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. With the ball at Baltimore’s four and no timeouts remaining, Big Ben threw a slant to Brown short of the end zone. If Brown had failed to reach over the goal line, the game would have ended with a Ravens win and Baltimore controlling its own destiny in the AFC North. Instead, Brown did this.
FOR THE DIVISION…
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2016
Yes, that one play. That one brilliant football play. All it did was send Pittsburgh to the division title while eliminating Baltimore from playoff contention. Just one play. And the entire season for each of these two teams was turned upside down.
Now at 10-5 on the season, Pittsburgh is locked into the third seed. My, how one play can change the entire dynamic of the playoff race. That was never more evident in Pittsburgh’s thrilling 31-27 win over Baltimore on Christmas.
3. The Dolphins’ amazing season
After starting the season with a 1-4 record, the Miami Dolphins have now officially clinched a playoff spot. It came by virtue of their 34-31 overtime win against Buffalo combined with the Broncos’ loss to Kansas City. Now with wins in nine of their past 10 games, the Dolphins are going to play meaningful January football for the first time since 2009.
Saturday’s win over Buffalo wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination. Miami’s defense allowed Tyrod Taylor to put up a career-best performance, as he completed 26-of-39 passes for 329 yards with three touchdowns and zero picks. All said, Buffalo gained a ridiculous 589 yards of offense and 30 first downs.
It wasn’t until Jay Ajayi broke through with a 57-yard run in overtime (a play that saw Buffalo have 10 men on the field) that the Dolphins were able to put the Bills away in overtime.
While we’re not going to come close to mentioning Miami as a legit conference title contender, especially with Ryan Tannehill out, it’s been an amazing turnaround for this squad in Adam Gase’s first season as its head coach. Ugly win or not, the Dolphins are now going to play postseason football. That’s a minor miracle after how they started the season.
4. Chargers hit new low in loss to the Browns
We knew the Cleveland Browns were going to get up for this game. There was no real reason not to. Attempting to avoid becoming just the second team in NFL history to go 0-16 was reason enough. In fact, it led to multiple Browns players deciding to put off surgery until the end of the season.
True to form, Cleveland came out and played its best game of the season. Robert Griffin III played a mistake-free game under center, completing 17-of-25 passes for 164 yards before exiting late with a concussion. Meanwhile, the Browns added 124 yards on the ground, including two Isaiah Crowell scores.
It might not have been an awe-inspiring victory for the Browns, but at least the team showed up and did what it needed to do. The same can’t be said for a San Diego Chargers squad that’s now hit a new low. One week after losing a home game in front of mostly Oakland Raiders fans, it seems like Philip Rivers and Co. had no real intention of playing out the string Saturday.
Rivers did throw for over 300 yards, but a costly interception on Cleveland’s side of the field thwarted a scoring drive. Rivers also led an offense that simply couldn’t get out of its own way against one of the worst defenses in the league. All said, San Diego converted just 5-of-15 third-down opportunities in the 20-17 loss.
Now with one more “home game” remaining in San Diego before an expected move to Los Angeles, one has to wonder whether the Chargers should in fact rebrand themselves. Giving the Browns their first win in more than a calendar year will definitely bring a franchise to an all-time low.
5. Buccaneers blow golden opportunity
Tampa Bay had an opportunity to remain in the sixth spot in the NFC. All it had to do was win out, and this up-and-coming team would be playing postseason football in January. Instead, Jameis Winston and Co. laid a complete egg against the New Orleans Saints.
Winston threw two second-half interceptions, the first of which led directly to a Saints touchdown in what would end up being a 31-24 loss to Drew Brees and Co. This is uncharacteristic of Winston, who had thrown a grand total of three interceptions in his past nine games prior to Week 14’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys. And in reality, that’s the common theme here
Tampa Bay boasts an 8-3 record when Winston throws one interception or goes without a turnover. It is 0-4 when the young quarterback turns the ball over two-plus times. That’s been the issue over the past two games, with Winston tossing five picks.
On the other end of the spectrum, Tampa Bay’s defense failed to force a single turnover after creating three turnovers in their Week 13 win over New Orleans.
Turnovers themselves impact pretty much every team around the NFL. But when you’re a young squad attempting to take that next step, they are magnified even further. Unfortunately, the past two weeks have proven that the Buccaneers just aren’t ready for prime time.
Now eliminated from playoff contention, the Buccaneers will spend the offseason figuring out how to improve a roster that was still among the most surprising in the NFL this season.
6. Unfortunate injury to Marcus Mariota
Tennessee needed a win Saturday against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars to remain in the AFC South race. From the get go, it became apparent this wouldn’t happen.
Jacksonville opened up a 19-7 lead at the half and pushed it to 25-10 late in the third quarter before defensive tackle Sheldon Day sacked Mariota, forcing the quarterback to be carted off the field with what ended up being a fractured fibula.
While Mariota’s injury didn’t cost the Titans the game, it sure did put a damper on what was a surprisingly good season for the sophomore signal caller and his young team. It also eventually led to a 38-17 blowout loss against the hapless Jags, eliminating Tennessee from playoff contention.
Much like Tampa Bay, Tennessee didn’t expect to contend for a playoff spot this season. Though, as the year progressed, it seemed the team was very much in contention for the division title. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, Mariota’s gruesome injury mars all the good we’ve seen from the Titans on the season.
7. Patriots now the odds-on favorites in the AFC
With the injury to Derek Carr, it’s now readily apparent that the Patrots are the favorites to come out of the AFC. That was likely the case prior to Carr’s injury, it’s almost a near guarantee at this point.
Not only did the Raiders suffer a major setback, the Patriots looked absolutely dominant in a 41-3 win over the hapless New York Jets. Not having to do a whole lot himself, Tom Brady completed 17-of-27 passes for 214 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. That brings his total to 28 touchdowns and just two picks on the season.
Though, it was the Patriots’ defense that stepped up against a horrible Jets offense. This unit held Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty to 8-of-24 passes with three interceptions. All said, the Jets’ offense converted 1-of-11 third downs while turning the ball over a whopping four times. Those turnovers led to 24 Patriots points. That was pretty much it for Todd Bowles and Co.
New England hasn’t officially clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That will come next week should it win in Miami against the Dolphins or if the Raiders lose to the Broncos. Still, one has to come to the conclusion that Bill Belichick and Co. are now the favorites to come out of the AFC. That much is clear.
8. Vikings’ freefall culminates in blowout loss
The Minnesota Vikings are now officially eliminated from playoff contention after losing for the eighth time in 10 games. It also came among defensive turmoil and an inept performance from that side of the ball against the Green Bay Packers.
Minnesota’s previously touted defense yielded an absurd 38 points, including four touchdown passes from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It really was an abysmal performance in every sense of the term.
This also came within the confines of the same game that saw Sam Bradford put up his best performance as a member of the Vikings, completing 34-of-50 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns.
This just goes to show us how much Minnesota’s defense let its team down during the stretch run. After all, Saturday’s loss came just one week after the Vikings yielded 34 points and 411 yards to the Indianapolis Colts.
The broader questions here are real. What happens with Adrian Peterson after he saw his 2016 season pretty much lost to injury? Is Teddy Bridgewater going to be able to return next season? If so, how will that dynamic play out? Is there really some internal strife between the team and head coach Mike Zimmer? These are the serious questions Minnesota faces after completely bombing out during the final three months of the season.
9. 49ers can’t even tank correctly
After watching the Cleveland Browns win their first game of the season, all San Francisco had to do was lose its 14th consecutive game to find itself in positions or the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
This looked to be coming to fruition when the Los Angeles Rams took a 21-7 lead over Chip Kelly’s squad with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. At that point, the 49ers seemed destined for a 1-14 record and that top pick.
This is when Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ offense lost their collective minds. Kaepernick would go on to lead his team to two consecutive 70-plus yard touchdown-scoring drives, the last one culminating in a two-point conversion from Kap himself to give San Francisco a 22-21 win.
Sure, teams want to compete every time they take to the field. Sure, Kaepernick put up one of the most impressive performances of his career, completing 14-of-18 passes in those final two drives. That’s all fine and dandy. But a win against an equally bad Rams team in December matters very little on the field.
What it did, however, was pretty much give Cleveland the No. 1 pick in the draft. That in and of itself will have more wide-ranging ramifications over the long term than a simple win over Lthe Rams.
10. Road to Super Bowl 51 now runs through Dallas
The Dallas Cowboys didn’t even need to play a snap this week before they clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC. It came after the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles did the team a solid Thursday night by defeating the New York Giants.
With home-field advantage already in the bag, some coaches might have been inclined to rest key players, but the Cowboys wanted nothing to do with that. Instead, Jason Garrett let his starters continue to develop the chemistry they’ve been cultivating all year long, and they put on a show.
Especially on offense, Dallas was impressive going up against a Lions defense that hadn’t allowed more than 20 points in its last eight games and had 16.5 points allowed per game during this stretch. Scoring 42 points, racking up 375 yards and 23 first downs, the ‘Boys were on fire.
Ezekiel Elliott once again broke off a huge touchdown run, going 55 yards untouched in the first quarter. That got things moving in high gear. Then in the third quarter, Dez Bryant, who hauled in a touchdown earlier in the game on a ridiculous one-handed catch, actually threw a touchdown to Jason Witten on a trick play (watch here) before catching another touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Defensively, Dallas made life miserable for Matthew Stafford in the passing game, though the inability to shut down Zach Zenner on the ground was somewhat troubling. Still, the Cowboys finished with four sacks, nine quarterback hits, an interception and a ridiculous eight passes defended — a tremendous effort all around.
That the Cowboys had their best game of the year scoring on offense in a game that meant absolutely nothing in the standings is pretty remarkable. At this point, the only thing they might be stressing is another matchup against the Giants, the only team that has won against them this year.