Christmas and football, inextricably linked ...
Christmas has provided a backdrop, if not always presents, in NFL lore. The longest game in the history of the league was played on Christmas Day, in fact. It was a divisional playoff game hosted at Kansas City Municipal Stadium on Dec. 25, 1971, the Chiefs versus the upstart powers in the relatively new AFC, Don Shula's Dolphins. In the second season following the AFL-NFL merger, Miami and Kansas City delivered a classic, a gift to fans watching at home -- but not to Hank Stram's Chiefs. Despite 350 all-purpose yards from running back Ed Podolak (which is still an NFL playoff record), Kansas City could not survive three Jan Stenerud field-goal misses, losing the Christmas Day thriller 27-24. Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian knocked his game-winner in from 37, halfway through the second overtime period.
NFL Christmas lore also has its fair share of oddities. In 1995, when the Cowboys visited the Cardinals, Dallas blew them out to secure home-field advantage. Yet, also being staged were the football backdrops for "Jerry Maguire." Remember the game where Rod Tidwell caught his infamous touchdown? Yep, that was Dallas at Arizona, Christmas night, '95.
Jimmy Johnson is good at life. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone. ...
Let the dissension commence!
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The Saints did nothing to suppress the notion that they are top-shelf, once again taking an opponent's best punch and emerging with a win. So many huge plays contributed to what was an epic contest with the Steelers on Sunday. There was the third-and-20 completion to Ted Ginn Jr. and multiple penalties on Pittsburgh's secondary -- the last being a drive-extender that led to New Orleans points. Alvin Kamara procured two chunk plays in the passing game, the first on a humdinger of a swing pass -- an old-fashioned throw incredibly difficult to deliver in stride -- from Drew Brees. The defense? Not as fierce as it has been over the past month and a half, but wouldn't you know it, that unit won the day in the end. Sheldon Rankins, known for his patented spin move, spun JuJu Smith-Schuster around while ripping the ball out. For an NFL defensive tackle, it was the equivalent to an NBA center's 360 dunk (not that traditional centers make much difference in pro basketball anymore). The Saints jacked up their own three Sunday, as in jacking up the playoff hopes of an opponent for a third straight week.
The pundits (whoever they are) will no doubt question ranking the Bears this high, especially after they narrowly defeated the 49ers. That win revealed more about the strengths of this Chicago team than it did its weaknesses. Putting aside the fact that San Francisco has been playing everyone tough ( ask the Broncos, who will be home in mid-January, or the Seahawks), the Bears held off the 49ers' offense when it mattered most, and they did so without their best playmaker outside of Khalil Mack ... safety Eddie Jackson. They held the 49ers' offense to a paltry 279 total yards; Kyle Shanahan's attack had averaged 100 yards more than that during Nick Mullens' improbable six-game run as a starting QB (385.5) entering the matchup with Chicago. San Francisco's ground game ground to a halt versus the Bears' front seven, with a season-low 47 yards. Then there's Mitch TruBearsky, who played within himself, taking what the 49ers gave him while not making the mistakes that would force his All-World defense to defend short fields.
Following a Jared Goff fumble midway through the first quarter in Arizona, it looked as though it would be same-old Sally for the Rams and their quarterback. Goff slumped his way through December, but not against the Cardinals. The third-year quarterback fired up the September-November Goff machine, while Sean McVay's play-calling was on-point. Los Angeles did not eschew the run, even in the absence of superstar Todd Gurley, calling on C.J. Anderson time and again. The vet responded by bulldozing tacklers, and when he wasn't doing that, Goff took advantage of a run-weary defense to hit Robert Woods and a gaggle of other receivers with his patented intermediate deliveries.
**Side note:** Loved the use of wideouts and tight ends on sweeps to mitigate the loss of Gurley. The TD-happy RB got the fantasy world's underwear in a bunch when he was a late scratch. I tried signing Trung Canidate off the waiver wire. </content:power-ranking>
Even coming off two losses in a row, the Chiefs don't fall too much here, nor have they ceased to inspire confidence as a Super Bowl contender. The Chargers' loss to the Ravens means that a Chiefs win next week (against the Raiders) will still earn Kansas City home-field advantage through the playoffs. Secondly, many talented teams have gone to Seattle and flown home with an L, like Kansas City did Sunday. Patrick Mahomes did nothing to diminish the high esteem in which fans/opponents hold him, becoming the fastest player to 5,000 yards passing in NFL history (by three games) while making more of those weird-angle throws that make you wonder if he is the long-lost lovechild of Nolan Ryan and Gumby. (Of course, Mahomes' dad actually was a pro baseball player.) The defense remains a question mark and can ill-afford to have Dee Ford limping around.
Dominant showing for one of the NFL's hottest teams. The Ravens have now won five of six. This space took heat for keeping Baltimore parked around 11th in the rankings after the Ravens dropped three games in a row leading into their Week 10 bye. Nobody was paying attention to the competition -- John Harbaugh's guys played the Saints, the Panthers on the road (before Cam's arm devolved into mashed potatoes) and the Steelers. Since then, the Ravens' defense has asserted itself, which we all saw clearly Saturday night at the soccer field filled with Baltimore fans. A couple of weeks ago on "The Power Rankings Show" (Tuesdays at 6 p.m. ET on NFL Network), I said the Cowboys, Bears and Ravens were the top defenses in the league. Got that order wrong, I did. </content:power-ranking>
Sizable drop for the Chargers, who plummet for multiple reasons. Yes, the loss to the Ravens plays a role. Yet, it's how they lost that's most important. First, Anthony Lynn's offensive line was dominated at the point of attack. The running backs made up for it by absolutely whiffing in pass pro. Then there's the fact that this was a "home game" for the Chargers, yet there was plenty of purple Ravens gear in the stands, save for that one fan wearing an old San Diego-purple Natrone Means alternate jersey. The Bolts own no home-field advantage. More disconcerting, and the main reason for the drop here, is that the Chargers were absolutely dominated in a game in which they could have asserted themselves as the top seed in the AFC and potentially earned the right not to go on the road for the postseason (though their home games have certainly felt a bit like road games this year).
The Patriots slid into the second seed in the AFC by controlling the day against the Bills defensively, though their pass offense appeared out of sorts. They also clinched their 10th straight division title, a rare feat that, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one other team in the four major professional sports leagues has accomplished: the Atlanta Braves. The difference here -- not to take away from Atlanta's 14 straight division titles from 1991 to 2005 -- is that the Patriots have also won two Super Bowls during their stretch, and that's not counting the three Lombardi Trophies Tom Brady and Co. took home in the early 2000s before this streak even began. Those Braves won one World Series in the strike-abbreviated 1995 season. More importantly, a playoff bye is now the Patriots' to lose. Given that the offense has been off-kilter as of late ( Tom Brady was mum Monday about the specifics of a left knee injury that appears to be affecting his play), a week off to sort things out sure would help. They will need to beat a Jets team that has been a tough out the last couple of weeks first.
The Colts pulled off the win Sunday after sending a few shivers around Indiana. Indy started off poorly on both sides of the ball, falling behind to the Giants 14-zip. You can look at this game two ways: 1) The Colts are still the poster child of mediocrity, playing down to lesser teams like they did in their shutout loss to the Jags or in the first half versus the Giants on Sunday; 2) OR, you can revel in the fact that Andrew Luck is indeed clutch, and as long as he is upright (with an excellent offensive line), he gives Frank Reich's group a puncher's chance. Reich said in his postgame presser that he and some players got passionate in an extended halftime speech/discussion/please-can-we-play-better-than-we-did-in-the-first-half talk.
Nobody saw a nine-win season coming, much less a playoff berth for the Seahawks. With a win over the Chiefs on Sunday night, Seattle guaranteed itself a spot on Wild Card Weekend and proved it can beat anyone in the league -- at least in front of their crowd. The way things are shaking out in the NFC, Pete Carroll's boys will most likely be heading to Dallas as the fifth seed, which would make for a fascinating matchup. Seattle's defense gets all the love, but if their receivers can continue to make catches like this and this, they'll be the reason the Seahawks advance. Holy cow. Tip of the cap also goes to running back Chris Carson, who surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in the win over Kansas City. He's been one of 2018's mild surprises. Granted, not on a Mahomes-ian level, but Carson has similarly been integral to his team winning ... often.
Magnificent comeback by the Texans in the fourth quarter, launching two lengthy drives late -- complete with some dynamic Deshaun Watson product -- to take a one-point lead. Then the defense couldn't hold the fort against the Eagles. Texans are known for holding the fort. (Too soon?) Not this group. Nick Foles riddled the beaten-up Houston secondary all day, while the Texans' pass rush struggled to get to last year's Super Bowl MVP. Foles has played hot before, but 471 yards and four touchdown passes? Come on. Outside of Watson, the Texans manufactured not even a hint of a running game. That was the story. Will it be going forward?
The wild affair down in New Orleans on Sunday surely will go down as a Game of the Year candidate. Maybe not for Steelers fans, who have a right to be disappointed with a couple of close calls. The most questionable? The DPI on Joe Haden late in the first quarter, when Alvin Kamara clearly elevated at the wrong time, as opposed to being interfered with. Even Deuce McAllister on *the Saints' broadcast* mentioned that Kamara mistimed his jump. So many other sequences were part and parcel of a tough loss to swallow: the decision not to pressure Brees on third-and-20 with the game on the line, the fake punt call on fourth-and-5 on their own 42-yard line (didn't mind it), or JuJu Smith-Schuster's fumble with 41 seconds remaining. Bear this in mind: Pittsburgh gave the premier team in the league a helluva game and probably should've won. Now, if you are wondering where that effort was in Oakland two weeks ago, this space has prepared no retort. </content:power-ranking>
The Vikes inch closer to a playoff berth, their destiny squarely in their hands. With the Bears coming to town and their sights on a possible first-round bye, Minnesota will have a major league tussle in Week 17. It's no exaggeration to say that it could be the most important game of the Mike Zimmer era. Last year's NFC championship appearance felt like a gift. But the pressure to get back to the playoffs -- and make it to Atlanta in February -- has been mounting ever since Minnesota shelled out a truckload of money for Kirk Cousins this offseason, a move that was universally seen as an upgrade at the position. For his part, Cousins looked the part, throwing for three touchdowns in a near-perfect ( and lucky) performance Sunday after the Lions had charged out of the gate to a 9-0 lead.
The Cowboys wrapped up their first division title since 2016 on Sunday, with the defense revealing who they were, shaking off that one-game hiccup against the Marlon Mack Express. The division title marks the franchise's 20th since the merger and 24th since 1966. Which means that in nearly half the seasons since that time, the Cowboys have finished first in their division. They look to finish with double-digit wins at the Big Snoopy this week against a Giants team that showed up in Indy, unlike youknowwho. The Bucs "held" Ezekiel Elliott to 85 yards, which reminds me of a personal pet peeve. Ready for it? Elliott is underrated. He's rushed for 1,434 yards, yet all anyone hears about is Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and the Lev Bell saga. Meanwhile, defenses have loaded up to stop Elliott all season, yet the man has averaged 4.7 yards per carry while surpassing 2,000 yards from scrimmage. His speed to hit the corner on that 12-yard run in the fourth quarter (helping Dallas salt away the clock against the Buccaneers) showed how difficult he is to defend. Brent Grimes, who had contain on that play, must've said in his mind But ... but ... I had him. Nope.
**Historical note:** If the Cowboys finish 10-6, it will look wonderful in the standings. Unfortunately, every time Dallas has finished 10-6, it has been whipped in the playoffs. In 1985, the Cowboys finished 10-6 to earn Tom Landry his last division title, then allowed a record 248 yards to Eric Dickerson in the playoffs in a 20-0 shutout. In 1996, the Cowboys again finished 10-6, then saw their chance to win four Super Bowls in five years come crashing down against the free agency-built expansion Panthers. Bill Parcells' first Dallas team also posted the same record, only to lay an egg ... in Carolina, again. Yuck. </content:power-ranking>
The Titans held the line Saturday, and in the process, they held their place in the fight for the AFC's final wild-card spot (and, crazily enough, a shot at the AFC South title). Tennessee was hardly dominant for most of the game, only managing to take over in the fourth quarter. What impressed was that the Titans pulled off the win without Marcus Mariota (who left with a stinger) or Jurrell Casey (who was put on IR on Monday), two of their most important players. Derrick Henry looked mortal in the win, yet he still managed a solid 84 rushing yards and a touchdown. Kevin Byard came up big, per the usual, with nine tackles and a huge pick late. Everybody has been contributing in this four-game win streak. Let's hope it isn't too late and they can get healthy before Sunday.
Nick Foles owns a flair for the dramatic, unmatched by anyone in the NFL today. It's darned weird. Only Charlton Heston's role in " Wayne's World II" can challenge the Eagles QB in that realm. Foles is mostly a career backup -- who also won a Super Bowl versus the greatest team of his era in high-drama fashion. He's saved the Eagles' playoff hopes two weeks in a row, doing it Sunday by throwing for a mere *471 yards and four touchdowns.* Are you kidding? Not to mention being sidelined for a play on the final drive after absorbing a huge blow, before trotting back out there, a la Willis Reed. Philadelphia needs a win and a Vikings loss to get into the tournament. I wouldn't bet against the Eagles. </content:power-ranking>
*Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey ...* the Browns aren't going away. Baker Mayfield has infused energy into Cleveland's beloved football team, further injecting the city with enthusiasm by throwing three touchdown passes in the Browns' 26-18 win over the visiting Bengals. Don't sleep on Nick Chubb, the lesser known Cleveland rookie, who chipped in (again) with 115 scrimmage yards. Now these feisty Browns have a chance to play spoiler, for real, with the Ravens fighting for the AFC North crown in Week 17. The run defense will be the key, an area that wasn't particularly stout against Jeff Driskel and Joe Mixon on Sunday. Lamar Jackson is on a whole 'nother level compared to anyone Cincy was trotting out there.
**Historical note:** A Cleveland victory will give the Browns their first winning season since 2007, when Otto Graham was quarterbacking. </content:power-ranking>
Going 0-8 on the road would've really looked bad. Aaron Rodgers made sure that didn't happen. In a season that hasn't been the future Hall of Famer's favorite, irrespective of the numbers, Rodgers played Canton-bound football in the fourth quarter and OT against the Jets. Green Bay drove 94, 83 and 75 yards from the middle of the fourth quarter on, with Rodgers paying off the first two marches with touchdown runs and capping the final, game-winning drive with a 16-yard TD pass to Davante Adams. Don't forget his 23-yard scamper to set up the second score. Not to mention, but we'll mention, 442 passing yards.
**Heads up:** The always mediocre Green Bay defense stepped up in the final stanza of regulation, forcing three straight New York punts after getting their butts kicked earlier in the day. </content:power-ranking>
The Redskins gave more of a fight than most were expecting on Saturday. The game was there to be won before Josh Johnson tossed an interception Kevin Byard's way late in the fourth quarter. It might have helped if Josh Doctson hadn't stopped on his route (or at least the route Johnson expected him to run). With the loss, Washington was eliminated from postseason contention. But not all was bad from Saturday -- or the entire 2018 season. Johnson has certainly proved he belongs in the team's plans next year. As stated, Jay Gruden's outfit didn't pack it in, even after that 40-16 shellacking at the hands of the Giants in Week 14 that sent QB3 Mark Sanchez to the pine. Adrian Peterson surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier and now boasts the fifth-most rushing yards in a single season by a player 33 or older in NFL history, behind John Riggins and John Henry Johnson (each have two seasons with higher rushing yards than Peterson). This ballclub fought through much adversity and stayed relevant until the last two weeks of the season.
Two straight wins for the Falcons, who are trying to make their 2018 campaign respectable. Despite the cruddy record, and all of the injuries, Atlanta has only been outscored by 11 points this season, which indicates that Dan Quinn's outfit will be a leading candidate to rebound in 2019. What stuck out from Sunday's win was the balance the offense struck, passing for 233 yards while piling up 194 on the ground. The offensive line performed, allowing a lone sack of Matt Ryan, while the offense as a whole averaged a robust 8.9 yards per play. Three in a row? If they can win at Tampa.
The Bills' defense could only put up so much of a fight Sunday with an offense that couldn't generate any in New England. For a team that has played competitive football over the last month, the manner in which Buffalo faltered against the Pats was disappointing (though they move up here because of the Broncos' and Dolphins' dreadful performances). Sure, there are fans who couldn't care less, and who actually were hoping for another loss to improve the Bills' draft stock. The rundown ... 289 yards of offense, 12 points, 24:22 time of possession, three turnovers and a dreadful 2 of 12 on third-down conversions. This was a game in which Buffalo's defense made Tom Brady look more like Tom Hilfiger -- and still fell by two scores. Ugh.
Detroit is closing out the season going in the wrong direction, having lost four of five and seven of its last nine. Remember when the Lions beat the Patriots in Week 3 or ran the football all over the Dolphins to even their record at 3-3? Me neither. They went nowhere against the Vikings on Sunday, piecing together 223 yards and three field goals on a day that the offense stunk. Such output has become the norm in the A.G. era (After Golden). A.G. Point totals: 9, 22, 20, 16, 16, 17, 13, 9. Like the bookended nines there. Get excited.
Would've been nice to see that kind of effort versus the Titans. One week after Derrick Henry and Co. ran all over the Giants, Pat Shurmur's team played for its head coach and nearly surprised a playoff contender on the road. Before allowing Andrew Luck to do Andrew Luck things in bringing the Colts back, Shurmur's defense nearly sealed the upset with an Olivier Vernon strip-sack fumble late in the third (recovered by New York). The turnover would not only have preserved a 10-point lead, but swung momentum wildly in the Giants' direction. Holding, Janoris Jenkins. Beautiful defensive play negated. Not Big Blue's year on any level.
Much respect to the 49ers, although they don't want your respect. The Niners have been playing to win, not for draft position, rallying behind the unwavering Nick Mullens over the last seven games. The Niners QB3 doesn't get rattled, even against a brand of defense he might not see for a long time, if ever, in the 2018 Bears. Mullens has been taking it on the chin for a questionable late-game decision he made Sunday. ICYMI: He ignored a clear running lane to move the ball past the sticks on fourth down with just over one minute to go, opting instead to heave a low-percentage pass while on the move. Any criticism Mullens is hearing or reading is surely dwarfed by his own frustration over the play. Neither he nor his teammates should get down on themselves for the outcome, as they have proven they will be a force come next season ... regardless of who they select in the draft.
Don't look now, but the early season laughingstocks have put together three wins over their last six games. The Raiders also closed out their Oakland story ... we think ... with a win. That is deeply important to a faithful fan base that stretches from coast to coast. At one point in the 1980s, this proud franchise was the winningest team in professional sports, let alone the NFL. The stadium itself has seen many historic games, from the 1969 AFL title game (a classic battle with the Chiefs to become the last AFL representative to play in the Super Bowl) to the 1976 AFC Championship Game. That win propelled John Madden's Raiders to their first Super Bowl triumph. Jon Gruden's version won the 2002 AFC championship in Oakland, sending the Raiders to their fifth Super Bowl appearance. While not a fan of franchise musical chairs, here's hoping the Oakland/Las Vegas/Wherever Raiders build off their sterling performance Monday night. Old Man Willie.
Deep dive for the Broncos, despite what their record states. With the playoffs in sight three weeks ago, Denver fell to three losing teams in consecutive weeks. Only the loss to the Browns was close (17-16), and that was probably because it was in Denver. The startling part of this dreadful run is that the three opponents' combined record prior to beating the Broncos was 10-28-1. Now speculation swirls around Vance Joseph. Fine, but quarterback Case Keenum didn't do his coach many favors Monday night. Nor did a once-proud defense, which got Doug Martin'd in front of a national audience.
Who's old enough to remember when the return of Ryan Tannehill meant the return of, uh, offense? Sunday's scintillating 183 total yards makes three out of four games that the Dolphins have failed to even reach the 200-yard barrier. That was horrible in 1958, much less 2018, no offense. (Literally.) To put all the blame on Tannehill is misguided, even if some of his throws were. Adam Gase and staff have failed to develop a consistent run game, as one week after Kalen Ballage rumbled for more than 100 yards, Ballage gained just 10 yards against the Jags. Kenyan Drake and Brandon Bolden weren't any more effective. Last up: at Bills.
More of the same from the Panthers, who've now dropped seven contests in a row after a sterling 6-2 start. The Taylor Heinicke-led offense moved the football against the Falcons, totaling 436 yards ... with only 10 points to show for it. Three promising drives ended sans any points, as Carolina marched the length of the field, only to suffer through two interceptions and a turnover on downs. Heinicke competed, although he struggled to produce many big plays downfield. As for Christian McCaffrey, good grief, what a season this guy has put together. McCaffrey added 101 yards rushing and 12 catches to his 2018 catalogue, which should vault him into the Offensive Player of the Year discussion. The Panthers' season stinks too bad for Run-CMC to run away with the MVP, but his team wouldn't even have posted six wins without the star tailback.
The Bengals wouldn't go down without a fight Sunday, roaring back against the Browns to close to within one score (counting a two-point conversion) late. They couldn't get the stop, allowing Cleveland tight end David Njoku to rumble down the field for 60-some-odd yards with the football -- and Cincy's hopes for a comeback -- in his hands. Don't ignore the fight these Bengals have put up since Andy Dalton's season-ending injury prompted many to write them off at the end of November. Jeff Driskel turned a would-be blowout into a respectable loss against these same Browns in Week 12. They gave the Chargers all they could handle out west. They beat a Raiders team that had upset the Steelers the week prior, before mounting a late push in Cleveland. Next up: at Steelers, with a chance to play spoiler.
Not sure what was going through Jameis Winston's head in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys. How did he not notice the play clock expiring three times in the second half -- twice on the game-deciding fourth-quarter drive? Winston got away with one of the miscues on that crucial march when the refs called delay of game on the defense, due to DeMarcus Lawrence flailing his arms. The Bucs actually jumped on the play, Lawrence pointed it out emphatically, Winston ignored the clock ... aaand Tampa was awarded a first down despite two mental errors. It was this Bucs march that was the game decider, with Tampa down 27-13 midway through the final stanza. Despite the mistakes, Winston managed to get inside the Cowboys' 2-yard line, with a fourth-and-1 situation looming and the Bucs behind 27-13 ... yet took another delay-of-game that set his team back. The Cowboys defense then made a stand, pulling Winston down short of the marker to get the ball back. The whole stanza was miserable, and a microcosm for the season these not-so-opportunistic Bucs have had.
The Jaguars prevailed in the ugliest of football games Sunday. Yet, for a team that had otherwise dropped all but one of its last 10 contests, the win was beautiful. Unlike against the Redskins in Week 15, Jacksonville's defense made sure its efforts would not go for naught this week, stifling the Dolphins to the tune of seven points allowed, 183 total yards allowed and a pair of takeaways. How about former third overall pick Blake Bortles playing well in the second half, ensuring his team won't be able to draft a different QB that high in next year's draft? #theultimatefranchisekiller
Sunday's loss to the Packers might best be characterized as *Jetsy.* How New York blew that 35-20 fourth-quarter lead is anyone's guess. Well, here's one: Untimely stalls on offense, defensive penalties and a failure to get to Aaron Rodgers were all facets of a collapse Jets fans won't forget for awhile. There are those who would like to see New York finish with higher draft positioning, but does anyone really want to watch a collapse like that? Todd Bowles' defense did get after Rodgers early in the game, sacking him four times. That was before the Pack produced three sustained drives that paid off with trips to the end zone, including the game-ender to Davante Adams. Oy. </content:power-ranking>
Cardinals fans recommenced their season-long pain, watching Arizona get pummeled again at home by the Rams. The Cards have played terrible football in front of their friends in 2018, closing out their home schedule with a not-so-sturdy 1-7 record. Sunday's loss marked the second straight outing at University of Phoenix Stadium in which they've failed to reach double digits in points. Wait. Who wants to end this blurb -- and these Power Rankings -- on that kind of note? Nobody. So watch Larry Fitz making his own Fitzmagic for a fun postscript. </content:power-ranking>