The Debrief, Week 15: Winners and losers as playoff picture sets

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The dissolution of Marvin Lewis' complicated 15-year run in Cincinnati would have been the biggest story on most football Sundays. This week, it was an afterthought, buried in an avalanche of news featuring a folded index card, another greatest hit of catch-rule confusion, a changing of the guard in the NFC West and an imminent change of ownership in Carolina.

Playoff races and award races were transformed. Cold water was dumped on fiery storylines, like Aaron Rodgers' return and the Chargers' revival. There is so much to go over that I'll jump right into the biggest winners and losers of the week below.

Going up

Rob Gronkowski and his everlasting dominance: The Steelers' coaching staff was determined not to let Tom Brady carve up its zone defense again in Sunday's showdown between Pittsburgh and New England, so Pittsburgh played far more man coverage. It mostly worked, until the best man-to-man-destroying tight end in NFL history took over both the game and Steelers safety Sean Davis' soul.

Brady threw all four of his targets on his brisk game-winning drive to Gronkowski, who piled up 69 yards on tough grabs in tight coverage. On the crucial two-point conversion that helped shape the drama to follow, Gronk's excellent footwork showed up when he beat his man off the line of scrimmage. The performance was reminiscent of his late heroics in the loss to the Broncos in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, when "throw it up to Gronk" was the only play left working in the Patriots' playbook. After piling up 315 yards in his last two contests, Gronk boasts a yards-per-game mark of 84.8 for this season, a career high. The Patriots will need him to keep it up in an increasingly cloudy conference ...

The rest of the AFC field: The Steelers-Patriots game wound up being as controversial as it was entertaining. It should also have been heartening to the rest of the potential AFC field. Pittsburgh and New England are two very good teams with defined flaws. They aren't unbeatable. The progress Pittsburgh's defense showed in the first half of the season started to erode even before linebacker Ryan Shazier's devastating spinal injury on Dec. 4 accelerated the trend. Pittsburgh's secondary gives up too many big plays, and the team doesn't look nearly as fast without Shazier on the field. The Patriots' defensive front seven and pass protection are both clearly inferior to what they were a year ago. Brady and Bill Belichick have dragged flawed teams deep into the playoffs before (think 2011), and they should be considered conference favorites, but this group is not as complete as the previous two championship teams.

In short: Fans in Jacksonville and Baltimore should not be embarrassed to dream of the Super Bowl. The December surges from Blake Bortles and Joe Flacco continued in Week 15. More importantly, the Jags and Ravens have the two best defenses in the AFC, if not the NFL. Baltimore's special teams unit ranks with the Rams as the league's best, and the Jaguars have the pass rush and cornerback tandem to slow down Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metrics, the Ravens, Jaguars, Steelers and Patriots are all grouped tightly together as the AFC's best. Sunday's results only highlighted that ...

Joe Flacco and his December staying power: The first three months of the season were so ugly for the Ravens' passing game that it's taken time to buy into Flacco's return to respectability. But three straight games in which he set or matched a season high in yardage constitutes a trend. While Flacco still had his share of misses and late reads in Cleveland, at least he's mixing in a handful of impressive Flacconian throws each game. Against the Browns on Sunday, the Ravens asked Flacco to pass 42 times because the underrated Cleveland run defense slowed Ravens running back Alex Collins (19 yards on 12 carries). Flacco responded with a solid if unspectacular performance. That's all the Ravens, who have gone 4-1 since their Week 10 bye, need to beat the Colts and Bengals the next two weeks and hit the playoffs as the proverbial "team no one wants to face" in January.

Aaron Donald and his Defensive Player of the Year chances: I've been stumping for Donald as my frontrunner for the award for a few weeks now. His drive-by-drive destruction of the Seahawks on Sunday, lovingly detailed by The Ringer's Danny Kelly, goes beyond just the three sacks and two tackles for loss Donald recorded before sitting out the fourth quarter. Before the game, Russell Wilson said Donald was the best defensive player he's ever faced. After the game, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll noted how Seattle regularly double-teamed Donald, but he split the double teams anyway. With all apologies to Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell, Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Donald deserves this award.

Matt Nagy: The Chiefs offensive coordinator and play caller probably didn't need a huge boost to his chances to be a head coach. Nagy has two former colleagues in hiring positions (Colts GM Chris Ballard and Browns GM John Dorsey) and Chiefs coach Andy Reid called Nagy the best head-coaching prospect that's worked for him in 19 years.

With that said, Nagy and the Chiefs staff coached circles around the Raiders and Chargers over the last two weeks. Kansas City's offensive linemen, especially right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, did a fantastic job limiting the impact of Chargers pass rusher Joey Bosa, helped out by a quick passing attack that had receivers open early and created holes for running back Kareem Hunt. In a flawed AFC West, the Chiefs' edge in coaching has made the difference and should lead to a fourth playoff trip in five seasons. (Before Reid arrived in 2013, the Chiefs had four playoff trips in the previous 16 seasons.)

The Cowboys -- for now: There is a sense that the return of running back Ezekiel Elliott from suspension next week will return the Cowboys to championship-contender status after three straight wins in his absence.

"They (the rest of the league) in trouble!" Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams kept yelling to teammate Dez Bryant at his locker after the Cowboys' win in Oakland Sunday night, according to NFL Network's James Palmer.

Forget for a moment that the Cowboys only have a 39 percent chance of making the playoffs even if they win out, according to FiveThirtyEight, and examine what's really happened in Elliott's absence. The struggles of Dak Prescott and the Cowboys passing game never truly turned around. The defense is middle-of-the-road on a good day. Dallas required the help of an index card and a fumble at the goal line just to squeak by a lifeless Raiders team.

I'm grateful that Seahawks-Cowboys on Christmas Eve has the feel of a knockout game for the purpose of drama, but it's not like either of these teams has the makings of a championship contender. That was last season ...

The fresh blood in the NFC: The current top five seeds in the NFC playoffs didn't make the tournament last year. The sixth seed could come down to a battle royale between some of last year's headliners, including the Falcons. The Lions have a better chance of sneaking in the back door than many realize, especially if the Packers decide to sit Aaron Rodgers in Week 17. (UPDATE: The Packers announced Tuesday that Rodgers has been placed on injured reserve.) If this scenario holds, that would mean the entire NFC Divisional Round lineup from a year ago (Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle) wouldn't even make it back to the playoffs, a testament to the league's unpredictability and the uncertainty of what's to come in the postseason.

The strangely underrated LeSean McCoy: Only four running backs in history have reached 10,000 yards on fewer carries than McCoy: Jim Brown, Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson. McCoy is once again a top-five running back, the MVP of an overachieving Bills team that has quietly won three out of its last four games.

Cameron Jordan and his pursuit of an NFL triple-double: Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan knocked down four passes on Sunday against the Jets, giving him 11 passes defensed for the season. It also gives Jordan his much-desired "triple-double" for the season -- he has 10 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed. ESPN noted that J.J. Watt was the only other player to record the feat in the last 10 years, accomplishing it during his 2012 campaign. Like Watt, Jordan is a great shot-blocker even when he doesn't get to the quarterback.

"Give me a couple more, though, and I'll start talking like [NBA star] Joel Embiid," Jordan said after the game.

The growing Jimmy Garoppolo fan club: Jimmy G has made a team that is headed for a top-five draft slot into weekly appointment viewing during a lost season. And every week, he delivers the goods. Garoppolo has awoken a sleepy fan base and should single-handedly sell season tickets in Santa Clara next season, presuming he re-signs with the team or is tagged, fueling offseason optimism for an organization that hasn't had any since Jim Harbaugh left town. This is what a franchise quarterback can do -- all for the initial cost of a second-round pick.

Going down

Antonio Brown, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and their MVP chances: Tom Brady had his MVP moment -- if he needed one -- to cement his remarkable age-40 season. Meanwhile, Brady's best competition for the award, Carson Wentz (torn ACL) and Antonio Brown (partially torn calf muscle), have been injured in successive weeks. Brown's calf setback was a downer, but the exhaustive search for an MVP choice other than Brady has mostly been an exercise in needing to fill time on endless studio shows. (And, well, everyone is sick of the Patriots. I get it.)

Rivers' six interceptions in two games against the Chiefs disqualified him from any late push for the award. Russell Wilson's incredible season slowed to a crawl against quality opposition the last two weeks. Brady has been at the top of his game since September with a Week 14 hiccup against the Dolphins that looks like an anomaly. It's unfair to discount his efforts throughout the first half of the year, which helped him more than double any other quarterback's grade on Pro Football Focus. Just because we've seen Brady do things like score 11 points in the final four minutes to win a titanic road game before doesn't make it any less valuable.

The Seahawks' defense as we know it: It was worth a shot to bring back the best defense of the decade for one final run, and the effort could have turned out much different than it did, if not for bad injury luck. But Seattle's 42-7 loss to Los Angeles figures to cause reverberations in the offseason, even if many of the highest-paid players on the team weren't on the field.

NFL.com's Michael Silver wrote that he doesn't expect safety Kam Chancellor, cornerback Richard Sherman or defensive end Cliff Avril to be with the team next season. Safety Earl Thomas is expected to ask for a raise and could potentially be traded, while defensive end Michael Bennett may be let go. Linebacker Bobby Wagner isn't going anywhere, but his since-deleted tweet accusing Thomas of jealousy is the type of story you see when a team's run is ending.

The Seahawks still have a chance to make the playoffs if they win their final two games, a possibility that shouldn't be totally discounted because of their schedule and Wilson's heroics. But the incredible defensive nucleus that started to form in 2010 when Thomas and Chancellor were drafted was all but detonated Sunday by a younger, faster NFC West upstart.

Jay Cutler: He should have retired after his "Monday Night Football" win against the Patriots. Surely, coach Adam Gase and his Dolphins teammates would have just shaken their heads and attributed it to "Jay being Jay."

Instead of going out on top, Cutler threw the ball to no one in particular for his third interception against the Bills on a frigid day that also included four Cutler fumbles, essentially ending this wayward Dolphins season.

Christian McCaffrey's critics: It's just fine that the Panthers rookie running back is not Alvin Kamara. McCaffrey is increasingly the engine of a Carolina offense that is increasingly staying on the field for long drives. The Stanford product's nine touches for 60 yards on the team's opening drive against the Packers keyed McCaffrey's most productive day (136 yards from scrimmage) as a pro. The Panthers are second in the league in time of possession in part because McCaffrey is helping to move the chains more often as a receiver on third down. He and Jonathan Stewart have also avoided the negative runs that plagued the team early in the season, setting up Cam Newton for fewer third-and-long situations.

The Raiders: It says a lot about this lost Raiders season that there were Silver and Black linings after the team's 20-17 loss against the Cowboys, a game that all but ended Oakland's season.

"You know, the fight our team played with today -- that was familiar, that looked like us," quarterback Derek Carr said after the game.

"It reminded me of what we saw a lot of last year," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. "Derek played with a lot of zest."

Oakland's second-half performance was a welcome sight after a scoreless first half, but the end result was 17 points and 293 yards against a defense that doesn't rank in the top 20 in points allowed per drive or yards allowed per drive.

Just as the catch-rule debate distracted everyone from a terrible decision by Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers' loss, the index card's star turn in Oakland helped divert attention away from an offense that has been less than the sum of its parts all season.

The Titans: After losing back-to-back games in Arizona and San Francisco, the Titans face the very real possibility of losing four straight games to miss the playoffs entirely at 8-8. Wide receiver Rishard Matthews suggested that it's time for Marcus Mariota to call the plays in a no-huddle attack more often, because that's when the Titans are at their best. Unspoken in that suggestion: Coach Mike Mularkey's confounding play-calling and overall offensive attack isn't cutting it.

The Ravens are suddenly the safest pick to earn a wild-card spot in the AFC, and the Titans' collapse could open up another spot. Tennessee faces the Rams and Jaguars the next two weeks, and it hasn't shown the form necessary to beat a quality opponent. An 8-8 Titans team would open the door for the Chargers, who close out the season with two winnable games (at the Jets and home for the Raiders), to slide into the playoffs at 9-7.

'Tis the season for playoff scenarios and midweek hope -- until the NFL computers officially eliminate your team.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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