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NFL Week 16: Thirty-six takeaways from Sunday

Sunday of Week 16 has ended with several teams punching their ticket to the playoffs and a few eliminations. Here are some of our big takeaways from the games today:

» Sitting at 1-10 a month ago, the 49ers march into next season as a viable, raging playoff contender.

» The Chargers are still alive in the AFC playoff race.

» For the second year in a row, the huddled-in-darkness Browns will control the first round of the NFL draft.

» If Sunday was Marvin Lewis' final home game as head coach of the Bengals after 15 years, his players fought for him.

  1. The Jaguarsclinched the AFC South minutes after kickoff thanks to Tennessee's loss to the Rams. Jacksonville (10-5) celebrated by getting utterly fried by ultra-sensation Jimmy Garoppolo, who picked up where he left off by ripping through the Jaguars on a 10-play, 79-yard march capped by the San Francisco quarterback's 1-yard scoring run. It marked the first time the Jaguars and their top-ranked pass defense allowed an opening-drive touchdown all year. Garoppolo threw for 242 yards with two touchdowns and one pick while lashing Jacksonville for their most points allowed in 2017. Magically and repeatedly evading pressure with eyes in the back of his head, Garoppolo tossed a beautiful 5-yard scoring strike through a super-tight window to rookie tight end George Kittle and shot a pristine fourth-quarter dart on the run to Trent Taylor to give San Francisco a 30-19 lead. Successfully leaning on dudes like Kyle Juszczyk, Taylor and Marquise Goodwin, Garoppolo will go down as the greatest early Christmas gift the 49ers (5-10) will ever receive. Everything is new. Sitting at 1-10 a month ago, this franchise marches into next season as a viable, raging playoff contender.
  1. This Jaguars team simply wasn't itself on Sunday. Trailing 10-0 minutes into the game, Jacksonville's roster became unglued as defensive lineman Malik Jackson and cornerback Aaron Colvin nearly came to blows on the sideline. On the field, Blake Bortles capped an awful start by unfurling an ugly interception that Niners cornerback Dontae Johnson took 50 yards to the house to put San Francisco up 16-0. Bortles fought back to tie the game 16-16 before the half, but capsized the offense with a pair of second-half picks that led to 14 points for San Francisco (5-10). The Jaguars rallied late to recover an onside kick and score a touchdown inside the two-minute warning, but a missed extra point by Josh Lambo left the Jaguars trailing 37-33 with 1:50 left. The Jaguars lost their cool on San Francisco's next possession, though, as Jackson was flagged 15 yards for a ridiculous head-butt. Four snaps later, Matt Breida darted 30 yards to pay dirt to bury Jacksonville for good.
  1. The Jaguars can take enormous pride in winning their first division crown since nabbing the AFC Central way back in 1999, when Tom Coughlin was the coach and Mark Brunell was under center. They ran into a late-season, team-in-bloom buzz saw on Sunday, though, essentially removing them from any shot of an AFC bye barring a win over the Titans in Week 17 and Pittsburgh losing out to Houston and the Browns. Not happening.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. Early afternoon losses by the Falcons and Lions created a prime opportunity for the winner of this contest. Five minutes into the festivities, Dallas (8-7) lost All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith to an aggravated knee injury while Seattle (9-6) received a boost when Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bobby Wagner began channeling pre-injury form. While the Cowboys defense did its part in harassing Russell Wilson and shutting down the Seahawks' rushing attack, Dez Bryant's fumble and a pair of Dak Prescott interceptions turned out to be the difference on a day when scoring drives were elusive.
  1. Due to a Week 11 loss to Atlanta, the Seahawks need a win versus the Cardinals as well as a Panthers victory over the Falcons next week to secure the No. 6 seed. Even if Seattle manages to sneak into the tournament, it's fair to wonder if the offense is broken. On the heels of disastrous first halves versus the Jaguars and Rams the past two weeks, Wilson's aerial attack entered Sunday's halftime with a paltry two passing yards. An organization that has invested heavily in the offensive line can't keep Wilson in the pocket. To be fair to the blockers, the recent struggles are the result of a complex confluence of factors, including the quarterback's improvisational-but-random style and a penchant for holding the ball and inviting pressure. This is a passing game sorely lacking in timing and rhythm throws.
  1. Ezekiel Elliott's long-awaited return was ultimately anti-climactic, through little fault of his own. Taking advantage of the featured back's chain-moving rushing style, the Cowboys dominated yardage and time of possession early on while Elliott entered halftime on pace for more than 150 yards. Between the turnovers and questionable play-calling, though, Elliott was an afterthought in the final two quarters. Head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will enter the spotlight this week after failing to put the ball in Elliott's hands on back-to-back plays inside the 3-yard line at a crucial point in the fourth quarter. Owner Jerry Jones rightly called his team's performance "an extreme, extreme disappointment."

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. As a fan of the game, I really hope Larry Fitzgerald doesn't retire after this season. He was the lone true bright spot for the Cardinals (7-8) in the first half, making a stunning catch on an underthrown flea-flicker. He also accounted for Arizona's first touchdown of the day and even completed a 21-yard pass to Jaron Brown. Larry can do it all, folks, and he was the sparkplug for the otherwise unexciting Cardinals offense (save for John Brown's touchdown reception) in what ended up being a blowout. Fitzgerald, at 34 years old and in perhaps his last home game ever, caught nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown.
  1. The season can't end fast enough for the Giants (2-13), who as an organization are headed toward wholesale changes with the arrival of a new regime. New York looked much like the injury-riddled and goal-void team it's been for most of the second half of the season, rushing for a paltry 43 yards and relying on Eli Manning to throw 45 times (he completed 27 of them for 263 yards and two interceptions) behind a shoddy offensive line. Manning was strip-sacked by a free-rushing Deonne Bucannon, who took advantage of an unaware lineman in Giants center Brett Jones, and Robert Nkemdiche scooped and scored to cap off the shutout win. It was an ugly day at the office in a season full of them.
  1. A pat on the back is due to Drew Stanton, who stepped in to start this week in a switch from Blaine Gabbert, and performed admirably. The former Michigan State Spartan completed 20 of 34 passes for 209 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions and showed he was not afraid to rely on his best target (Fitzgerald) early and often. Also credit Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin for getting a little more creative than usual and not handcuffing Stanton, even tossing in the aforementioned flea flicker and Fitzgerald pass. When there's not much else to play for, why not throw the playbook at the opponent? Sunday was fun for a Cardinals team that has spent the year rising and falling with each week.

--Nick Shook

  1. On a snowy Christmas Eve in the Windy City, the low-wattage Bears (5-10) handled their business against the worst team in the NFL. A rash of injuries along the offensive line hindered Mitchell Trubisky out of the gate, with the rookie passer taking three sacks in the first half and struggling to diagnose pressure dialed up by Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Trubisky kicked off the second half with an ugly pick six to Cleveland rookie pass-rusher Myles Garrett, but the play was nullified by a flag, which arguably flipped the fate of this game. On the following play, Benny Cunningham took a screen pass 40 yards before Jordan Howard rolled into the end zone on a 16-yard scamper that put the Bears up 13-3. On Chicago's following drive, Trubisky sliced up the Browns (0-15) with a flurry of high-percentage throws during a 12-play touchdown march that put this game away for good. The rookie is held back by a dangerously vanilla scheme and very little to speak of in terms of weapons, but Trubisky (14-of-23 passing for 193 yards) can chalk Sunday up as another sign of progress.
  1. What argument is there to enter next season with Hue Jackson coaching the Browns? Cleveland's identity-free offense managed 85 yards passing during a first half that saw rookie DeShone Kizer unfurl his league-leading 20th interception. He threw his 21st in this game's final minutes. A turnover machine doubling as a nightmare in the red zone, Kizer would be a different player if he possessed Trubisky's accuracy. The presence of wideout Josh Gordon hasn't done a thing to lift a disorganized passing game that relies almost exclusively on dangerous shots downfield. Cleveland's offense has theoretical potential with names like Duke Johnson, Gordon and David Njoku, but the pieces rarely -- if ever -- operate in concert. It's easy to blame Kizer for the mess, but few rookie passers have been thrown to the wolves with less around them -- and with less help from his coaching staff.
  1. For the second year in a row, the huddled-in-darkness Browns will control the first round of the NFL draft. Sunday's loss makes Cleveland the first team to pick No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts since -- sigh -- the Browns did the same in 1999 and 2000. The loss also drops Hue Jackson to 1-30 since taking over in 2016, marking the worst start through the first 31 games of head-coaching tenure since 1970. With the Steelers up next, 0-16 is a highly realistic possibility for a team tasked with finally landing their franchise quarterback this spring. Anything less is asking for pure revolt in the streets of Cleveland.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. The Detroit Lions' postseason dream is dead. Jim Caldwell's team sleepwalked through Sunday's must-win tilt looking unprepared to face an injury-ravaged Bengals team (6-9) that had been outscored 67-14 the past two weeks. Matthew Stafford was off target, and the offense couldn't find a groove through the air. The quarterback entered with three straight games completing 75-plus percent of his passes. Sunday, he converted 54 percent. Detroit's defense didn't slow a previously putrid Bengals offense, giving up 364 yards, and allowed Cincinnati to score on its final five possessions. The Lions missed a host of tackles, committed crippling penalties, and dropped key passes. To make matters worse for Detroit, Atlanta's loss could have put the Lions (8-7) in position to sneak into the playoffs next week. Sunday's stink-bomb showed the Lions didn't deserve to make the tournament.
  1. If Sunday was Marvin Lewis' final home game as head coach of the Bengals after 15 years, his players fought for him. Cincy's defense overcame more injuries -- including Vontaze Burfict leaving early again -- to frustrate Stafford. The offense finally found life behind Giovani Bernard. The jitterbug running back carried the load after Joe Mixon exited with an ankle injury in the first half. Bernard powered through Lions defenders for 116 yards on 23 carries and added 52 yards on seven receptions. His touchdown dash to the edge in the closing minutes sealed the victory. With Bernard churning out yards, the offense opened up for the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green connection to finally find some life. Mixon and Bernard in the backfield sets a solid foundation for whoever is coaching the Bengals in 2018.
  1. Sunday's effort could spell doom for Jim Caldwell in Detroit. His team had everything on the line and no-showed against a club that had been whitewashed in recent weeks. It's the second straight season the Lions have cratered down the stretch -- losing the division title in 2016 and falling out of the playoffs in 2017. Caldwell will be criticized this week for not challenging what looked like a possible big catch from Golden Tate on 3rd-and-28 that could have extended a drive late in the 4th quarter. Tate might have secured the ball long enough on the ground for the incompletion to be overturned upon review. Given the replay office's propensity to change rulings this season, Caldwell's decision not to gamble looks like a mistake in hindsight. The lack of aggressiveness and failure to show up in big games has plagued Caldwell's team throughout his tenure in Detroit. Next week's meaningless season-ending tilt versus the Packers at Ford Field could be the last game for the coach in the Motor City.

-- Kevin Patra

  1. The Chargers (8-7) are still alive in the AFC playoff race -- here's how they get in: A win next week against the Raiders, paired with wins by the Jaguars (on the road against Tennessee) and Ravens (home against Bengals). They need a hat trick, so to speak, but you're not exactly praying for miracles. Frankly, the Chargers need to keep the focus on themselves, because this was another flat performance. Jets running back Bilal Powell is the latest rusher to have his way with L.A.'s suspect run defense and the Jets would have put more points on the board with a more efficient passer behind center. The Chargers are vulnerable in their current state.
  1. For the second straight week, Bryce Petty showed why it's highly unlikely he'll be in the Jets' plans after next week. The fourth-year passer missed throws all afternoon and rarely gave the diehards in attendance at the Meadowlands something worth cheering for. Banished backup Christian Hackenberg actually put on a helmet and started throwing on the sideline after Petty whacked his throwing hand on the helmet of a Chargers pass rusher late in the first half, but that was the closest Hack got to the action. After the game, Jets coach Todd Bowles indicated the team will stay with Petty in the season finale against the Patriots. What else do you need to know about Hackenberg, a second-round pick who may never end up throwing a pass for the Jets (5-10)? Unbelievable.
  1. The Chargers offense took a hit when underrated tight end Hunter Henry was sent to injured reserve with a lacerated spleen last week. Enter Antonio Gates, who stepped up to the tune of six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in a turn-back-the-clock performance. Well, not quite. Gates can't really move anymore, but his wily veteran skills were enough to get him leverage against hotshot rookie Jamal Adams on a couple occasions, including Los Angeles' first touchdown of the game. It would be fun to watch Gates making big plays in January. We'll see ...

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. Losing 16-13 early in the third quarter, New England (12-3) reeled off 24 unanswered points to put Buffalo's postseason livelihood in jeopardy. Tyrod Taylor absorbed five sacks, failing to lead a touchdown drive against the Patriots for the second time this season. The Bills (8-7) will need to win at Miami and hope for an improbable confluence of upsets to befall the Ravens, Chargers and Titans in the regular-season finale.
  1. One of the reasons Taylor failed to lead a touchdown drive? The NFL's labyrinthine "process of the catch" rule reared its ugly head once again, this time in a two-play sequence that cost Buffalo a crucial touchdown to close out the first half. In a play eerily similar to Jesse James' controversial non-catch in Week 15, tight end Charles Clay corralled the ball in the end zone only to lose control as he made contact with the ground. One play later, Kelvin Benjamin's spectacular catch was overturned on a protracted replay-review session that failed to show incontrovertible evidence in either direction. We shall commence our annual plea for the Competition Committee to head back to the drawing board in determined search of a fix to the convoluted catch rule that leaves coaches, players, analysts and fans scratching their heads on a weekly basis.
  1. With both Rex Burkhead and James White sidelined, offseason acquisition Mike Gillislee resurfaced for his first reception of the season as well as his first touchdown since Week 2. The former Bills back touched the ball just seven times, though, while Dion Lewis and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski carried a Patriots attack that hasn't come close to clicking on all cylinders in over a month. Gronkowski had a bigger impact than the boxscore might suggest, pulling off a spectacular one-handed touchdown over Micah Hyde and drawing a 29-yard pass interference penalty to set up Gillislee's 1-yard score. If not for the penalty and a trio of first-half Tom Brady misfires in his direction, Gronkowski would have cleared the century mark for his third consecutive game.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. The New Orleans Saints (11-4) are headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 in the sweetest way possible: A thorough destruction of their biggest rival. The Saints' combination of ball-control offense (33:48 time of possession), Drew Brees' timely big throws and a rugged defensive effort helped them beat the Falcons (9-6) without a lot of drama.
  1. New Orleans' defense was missing a handful of starters, but the Saints continually won the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Saints forced a Devonta Freeman fumble at the goal line in the second half, then stuffed the Falcons on a separate goal-line stand. The Saints held Freeman and Tevin Coleman to 48 rush yards combined, while Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan continued his sensational season with four QB hits, two sacks and two drive-killing sacks.
  1. This game typified Matt Ryan's season so well. One of his key third-down passes was dropped by Falcons receiver Marvin Hall, a pass that was then picked off in what turned out to be a game-turning interception. Hall was bizarrely chosen to be in the game on third-and-long over Julio Jones in what was a rough performance for the Falcons' offensive coaching staff. Another key third down included Ryan missing a wide-open Taylor Gabriel on a play that could have turned into a touchdown. Ryan has been just off all season and now only has one game to turn that around.

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. Superman Cam made a late-game cameo Sunday to rescue the Carolina Panthers from another week of playoff-berth uncertainty. Cam Newton scored on a 2-yard run in the final minute to carry the Panthers to victory and a return to the NFC playoffs. The Panthers (11-4) trailed for most of the second half before Newton pieced together a 59-yard drive on the final possession, connecting on 4 of 7 passes for 52 yards. Newton, however, nearly blew it. He fumbled out of the shotgun before picking up the ball and finding his way through a bevy of Bucs defenders doing everything they could to preserve the would-be upset. Newton owes his O-line a steak dinner for that one. Overcoming a slow start, Newton connected on 16 of 25 passes for 160 yards. He also had 52 rushing yards. The Panthers can clinch the NFC South next week with a win over the Atlanta Falcons and a Buccaneers upset over the New Orleans Saints.
  1. Jameis Winston really lost his cool at the end of this one. After being sacked by Kawann Short on a last-gasp drive, Winston lost the ball on fumble to Julius Peppers to that put the game away. Winston was livid with the call, yelling at officials as he was held back by teammates. He continued to yell on the sideline and had to be restrained by coaches and players from running onto the field. After the game, TV cameras showed him apologizing to referee Jerome Boger. It remains to be seen if he'll face any discipline for his outburst, which resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Up until letting his emotions get the better of him, Winston was the primary reason why the Buccaneers (4-11) nearly pulled off the upset. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 367 yards and a touchdown. It's too bad he was sacked six times and the Buccaneers lost three fumbles against Carolina -- otherwise they might have won.
  1. Damiere Byrd played a significant role in this one. His 103-yard touchdown return in the first half was exactly what the Panthers needed to offset a strong early-game performance by the Buccaneers. It gave the Panthers a temporary lead, and allowed them to stay neck and neck with Tampa going into halftime.

-- Austin Knoblauch

  1. In a game that carried no implications other than draft positioning, Washington outplayed Denver, especially in the final quarter in which the Redskins (7-8) closed strong with 14 points. Kirk Cousins has been better, but his 19-of-37 passing line, which included 299 yards, three touchdowns and one interception were plenty for Washington to come away with the win. Cousins spread the ball among nine targets, connecting with a different one (Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder and Vernon Davis) on each score. This season has been and will be lamented for the damage injuries did to the Redskins' chances, but this group isn't quitting on its coach. There's plenty of reason for optimism for the Redskins entering 2018 -- especially if they retain Cousins.
  1. We're back to the Broncos (5-10) we got to know in November. After reeling off consecutive wins earlier in December, Denver barely mounted so much as a whimper, totaling 330 yards (credit to C.J. Anderson's 5.5 yards per carry) but converting just 5 of 17 third-down attempts and repeatedly failing to capitalize on promising drives. Brock Osweiler came back to earth after his sparkling performance against Indianapolis, falling out of the sky from a 147.7 passer rating back to a 60.5. The quarterback turned the ball over twice in the first half and was shown trying to fire up his teammates on the sideline while most of them ignored his pleas. Osweiler finished 22-of-38 passing for 193 yards and the one interception for a miserable rating of 60.5.

Considering this performance, it's safe to say Denver needs to get one last look at Paxton Lynch before entering the offseason with quarterback atop its wish list. The Osweiler experiment is over. Related funny thing: A Broncos fan attended the game with a sign that read "KIRK COUSINS SCOUTING TRIP." We all know where our eyes will be trained in the offseason.

  1. Sunday was an exciting day for Washington's receiving corps, which seemed to be splintered and lost at sea for much of the season, but came together nicely in the Week 16 win. Cousins connected with Crowder four times for 47 yards and a score, Ryan Grant four times for 85 yards, and Josh Doctson twice for 61 yards, including a long of 48 that went for a touchdown, Doctson's team-leading sixth of the season. After the disappointment that was Terrelle Pryor, this group seems poised to make it through the fire and into 2018 with plenty of promise.

-- Nick Shook

  1. The Chiefs (9-6) continued their momentum from Week 15 into Week 16. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith impressed early, consistently marching the Chiefs down field and completing tight throws to covered targets, including a 52-yard reception to wide receiver Tyreek Hill and a 9-yard pass to tight end Travis Kelce. Smith ended the day connecting on 25 of 39 passes for 304 yards. The performance elevated the quarterback to 4,000 yards passing this season -- a first for the signal-caller.
  1. Like Smith, cornerback Marcus Peters was trouble for the Dolphins' offense. Peters forced turnovers, including a Jarvis Landry fumble that put the Chiefs on the board early in the first quarter. Though the Chiefs survived without Peters during his one-game suspension, the past two weeks proved the tenacious Chiefs' defense is better with Peters in the lineup.
  1. The cold and stifling Chiefs defense proved to be too much for Miami. The Dolphins (6-9) struggled to hold on to the ball and fumbled three times (Cutler recovering one), something that has plagued the Dolphins' offense this year. Miami was equally as unimpressive on the ground totaling a mere 59 rushing yards, and was unable to convert consistently on third downs.

-- Andie Hagemann

  1. The Rams' long playoff drought, which stretches back to St. Louis, Marc Bulger and Mike Martz, is finally over. Los Angeles clinched the NFC West in wunderkind coach Sean McVay's first season with a win over Tennessee in a game that required all 60 minutes. A Titans team even more desperate for a win didn't go down easy, scratching and clawing to multiple slim leads before a touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp gave the Rams a lead they wouldn't relinquish. For the Rams (11-4), it's a sweet T-shirt-and-hat week, Victory Monday on Christmas and the cap to an incredible one-year turnaround. For the Titans (8-7), it's another frustrating loss in a season that's suddenly slipping away.
  1. We can officially get on the Todd Gurley for League MVP train. Find me at the front car. Gurley again powered the Rams' offense, toting 22 times for 118 yards and catching an eye-popping 10 passes for 158 yards and two scores, including an 80-yard screen pass that served as a great example of how Gurley seems to only be getting better as the season progresses. Every Gurley carry and reception is must-see TV, whether it's for the game-breaking potential or the possibility of another defender hurdled. A back like Gurley changes a franchise and serves as the difference in close games such as the one we saw Sunday.
  1. The Titans are, again, a maddening tease. Tennessee shows plenty of capability to move the football and produce points when it's between the 20s, but once inside them, struggles mightily. It happened once early, and set the tone for an offense that finished the day 1 for 4 in the red zone. When equipped with a mobile quarterback like Marcus Mariota (22 of 39, 275 yards, one interception, 67.8 passer rating), that's simply unacceptable. For a team hoping to squeeze its way into the playoffs despite recent struggles, that's not encouraging, to put it lightly.

-- Nick Shook

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