Here's what we learned from Saturday's Week 16 games:
- If nothing else, these 49ers are battle-tested. Thanks to a well-constructed game plan and hot start by the Rams, the Niners dug themselves an early hole. But in typical fashion, a defender was in the right place at the right time to make a crucial play. That man this week was linebacker Fred Warner, whose pick-six erased Los Angeles' first-half lead and provided the Niners with a ton of momentum entering the break.
They're still fairly young, though, and it was one of those youngsters who almost made a devastating error late. Second-year safety Marcell Harris had an interception in his hands but dropped the wounded duck sent his way by Jared Goff, and the Rams were able to get a game-tying field goal at the end of the possession. It was a veteran -- the veteran -- who changed the game for good. Emmanuel Sanders has been a tremendous addition for these Niners, who lacked a seasoned presence in their passing game prior to his arrival, and that paid off when he found himself wide open down the middle of the field in the final minute, catching a 46-yard pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to set up the game-winning field goal.
And it was a youngster for the Rams who made the biggest mistake of the night, mainly because it was the last big mistake made by either side. Jalen Ramsey told reporters afterward it was rookie safety Taylor Rapp who blew coverage on the connection with Sanders. A look at the Next-Gen Stats tracking data confirms it, with Ramsey failing to help over the top of what Ramsey said was a Cover 2 man defense (Rapp looked more like he thought the Rams were in Cover 3 or misunderstood their pre-snap adjustment check).
This was a significant win for the Niners, but the most significant could come next week if they're able to knock off the Seahawks in a much less friendly environment.
- The Rams devised perhaps the best blueprint yet to counter San Francisco's (beaten up) pass rush: run away from it. There was plenty of play action from L.A.'s offense from the outset, helping Jared Goff lead an opening scoring drive capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks. The Rams ran Todd Gurley intermittently, giving him 15 carries for 48 yards and two scores, but it still didn't feel like enough. Goff's 46 passes serve as an example of the lack of offensive balance. The quarterback was sharp for much of the night, racking up 323 yards and two touchdowns, breaking 100 yards with both Robert Woods and Tyler Higbee, and going blow for blow with San Francisco. Ultimately, though, it still just wasn't sufficient, which is a line that could summarize the Rams' entire season.
- So closes the book on the 2019 Rams, the latest Super Bowl loser to fail to make the playoffs in the following season. The hangover lives on, and while they seemingly rose from the dead with a renewed fight in the last few weeks, the cause of it was largely their season-long lack of a dedication to the ground game.
It's almost as if the 49ers and Rams reversed roles in the offseason. After rushing for nearly 140 yards per game in their run to Super Bowl LIII, the Rams fell sharply in 2019, averaging 93.9 yards per contest entering Saturday. The 49ers, on the other hand, went from averaging 118.9 rushing yards per game in 2018 to putting up 147 yards per tilt in 2019. Their defenses morphed similarly, with the 49ers becoming the menacing group and the Rams' unit too often getting thrashed by opponents (i.e., Baltimore, Dallas).
LaDainian Tomlinson said on NFL Network's postgame show he felt the Rams mismanaged Gurley, trying to possibly save his energy for the postseason that ultimately never came. Gurley showed flashes in recent weeks that made us wonder if it wasn't a health issue but a lack of opportunities. With one game left and postseason officially out of the question for the first time under Sean McVay, all the Rams will be left to do is reflect and regroup before attacking 2020.
-- Nick Shook
- These are the Patriots and this is how they will win. Forget hand-wringing over their subpar passing game, and forget talking about how Tom Brady's younger teammates are to blame for all of their problems. Cast it aside, because New England isn't about flair, flash or sexy football. It's winter, and it's time to pound the rock. The Patriots shortened their offense and built out of the run, handing it to Sony Michel 21 times for 96 yards, easily breaking the 60-yard requirement for Michel that has ensured victory for New England in the now 17 games in which he's topped the mark. The Patriots outgained the Bills on the ground 143-92, helping them dominate time of possession 38:52 to 21:08. It was fitting that Rex Burkhead had to bounce off two Bills defenders in order to score the go-ahead touchdown with 5:11 left to play. It was no surprise that the Patriots' defense stood tall to keep the Bills from scoring the game-tying touchdown late, but the team never finds itself in that situation if it doesn't commit to landing body blows on the ground.
- The Josh Allen Experience is exciting and also a tad disheartening. For every two excellent plays he makes, one and a half of his other throws are just too long or too wide. Allen missed Cole Beasley on a drag in a decent-sized throwing window and overshot Robert Foster and Dawson Knox later as part of a few overthrows. That's the bad part, but the positives -- Allen pushing past the pile for a key conversion on fourth-and-1, for example -- outweigh the negative by a whole lot. Allen dropped an absolute dime into the bucket to Knox just before the half, setting up a game-tying touchdown, found Brown open deep for another touchdown in the third quarter, and relied on Beasley throughout the game. In most misses, it was caused by pressure, not sheer inaccuracy. And you'll take a few misses for those big plays.
- The difference between the AFC East champion and the wild-card qualifier from the division boils down to one crucial stat: third-down conversion rate. Allen's misses mostly came on third down Saturday, which is what doomed these Bills in a game that could have signaled a potential changing of the guard. Buffalo finished just 2 of 11 on third down and couldn't hang onto the ball for more than 4:05 combined between two second-half possessions that followed its go-ahead touchdown, which gave the Patriots' slow-moving but efficient offense plenty of time to make up the deficit. When things got tight late, the Bills lacked offensive diversity. Devin Singletary logged a paltry 46 yards on 15 carries, and Allen nearly outrushed him (43 yards) on half as many attempts. It's undoubtedly the Josh Allen Show in Buffalo, but he needs help in key games like this. He didn't get enough to unseat the kings of the East.
-- Nick Shook
- Emerging from the AFC South with a fourth division crown in five seasons, the Texans' celebration carries on as the NFL's battle of attrition carries forward, as well. Deshaun Watson, the face of the franchise and one of the emerging faces of the league, limped through the second half of a win over the Buccaneers that clinched a division title but showcased concerns going forward with his health. In addition, field-stretching wideout Will Fuller, in what has unfortunately become a seemingly weekly occurrence, was lost to a groin injury during the game. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil limped to the sidelines near the end of the game and his status is uncertain. Following the game, Watson told NFL Network's Melissa Stark, "At the end of the day, we still won, we still clinched. ... I came out healthy." When asked about his visit to the medical tent and the limping, Watson grinned and said, "It's all good." Watson didn't have a touchdown on Saturday and had just 184 yards as he survived a five-sack onslaught. The win was one that was equally a Bucs loss, with the Texans taking advantage of five Tampa Bay turnovers, though they likely should've done more with them. Nonetheless, the AFC South belongs to Houston (10-5) once more. And the Texans limp forward, but just how far is likely to have plenty to do with just how healthy they are coming out of this title-clinching triumph.
- As Week 16 dawned, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported thatJameis Winston's future would play out in Tampa Bay. At the onset of Week 16's first game, Winston showcased all the reasons so many believe the Buccaneers going forward with him as the franchise signal-caller is a recipe for disaster. Unpredictable as the play of Winston is, it's nearly clockwork that he'll offer up a first-drive interception. He did it on Saturday for the sixth time this season and Bradley Roby promptly sprinted 27 yards the other way for an early Saturday afternoon lead, though it tied the record for pick-sixes in a season with six. Winston had the record all to himself it appeared, as he threw another pick on the second possession that was taken to the house by Justin Reid. The score was called back on a penalty. When the game ended, Winston had four interceptions (along with a touchdown and 335 yards passing) to bring his league-leading INT total to 28. With 31 touchdowns, Winston is flirting with a dubious 30-30 season (he would be the first ever). It's a telling stat as the Bucs now sit at 7-8, the one-man adventure that is Winston leading to triumph and tribulation quarter by quarter and week by week.
- At halftime, the game was tied at 17, but the Bucs had gained 281 yards to the Texans' 83. However, the four Tampa Bay turnovers had bestowed Houston an advantage it should have taken to another level. Instead, the Texans held on with their defense bending to the tune of 435 yards of Bucs offense, but ultimately breaking down a win with five takeaways. Justin Reid had a fumble recovery and a pick, Bradley Roby had a pick-six, Zach Cunningham had six tackles during an excellent but overlooked campaign and Whitney Mercilus had a pair of sacks. The outstanding plays of the day belonged the Texans' defense, but overall it was an ugly win that bestowed upon them the beauty of another division title. Winning ugly is often a necessity in any championship season, but for the Texans to make a deep playoff run, not only will they need to be healthy, but they'll need to get a little prettier -- execution-wise -- on both sides of the ball.
-- Grant Gordon