1) FITZMAGIC IS BACK, BABY! Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Tua Tagovailoa with just under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter Saturday night. Coach Brian Flores' move jumpstarted a limp offense that had gone three-and-out on three straight possessions in a close contest. As he has so often in his magical career, Fitzpatrick came out slinging, leading three straight scoring drives in a wild end-of-game sequence.
After the Raiders retook the lead with 19 seconds remaining, the signal-caller fabricated a spell only FitzMagic could concoct. On the first play of the desperation drive, the QB hit wideout Mack Hollins near the sideline as the Raiders blew their Cover-2 defense. Because nothing with Fitzpatrick ever comes simply, the QB completed the pass as his facemask was being twisted around his head by Arden Key. The 34-yard blind completion, plus the 15-yard penalty, put the Dolphins in position for Jason Sanders' game-winning field goal.
It's the second time Flores has benched Tua in the fourth quarter in favor of Fitzpatrick. It was obvious the offense runs better with the veteran at the helm. The field is stretched. Passes come out on time. There is more fluidity. OC Chan Gailey clearly trusts Fitzpatrick more. If FitzMagic had played the entire game, it probably wouldn't have been close. Even so, Flores continues to stand by Tua. The coach told reporters after the win that the rookie will start next week against the Bills. In a win-and-in playoff scenario, it will be interesting to see how long Flores sticks with Tagovailoa if he struggles again.
2) The Raiders (7-8) only have themselves to blame for a loss that officially eliminated them from playoff contention. Game management was poor to end both halves. Derek Carr and the offense didn't convert a single third down all game (0/10). The red-zone offense was absolutely putrid (one TD on four trips). The defense couldn't stop an actual competent QB when it counted. And kicker Daniel Carlson missed a PAT to leave the door open for a Dolphins win, and it ultimately came back to haunt the Raiders.
After a questionable non-push-off led to a Nelson Agholor 85-yard TD that gave Vegas a brief fourth-quarter lead, the receiver got another favorable call to go his way on a 49-yard pass interference to set up the Raiders in field goal range to win the game. Jon Gruden elected not to score the TD even though he couldn't run the clock to zeros before kicking the go-ahead field goal. The 19 seconds left was enough time for his defense to blow a coverage, commit a penalty and lose the game. If the offense could have converted a single third down or had the red-zone play-calling not been horrific, the game likely would've been decided before FitzMagic could cast his final spell.
3) In fewer than three minutes, from the moment of the DPI on Byron Jones to Sanders' field goal, the Dolphins' postseason hopes went on a wild roller-coaster ride. A loss would have basically left them dead in the water, a fate that looked likely. Then Fitzpatrick threw his helmet-twisted, no-look invocation, and the Dolphins (10-5) were back in charge of the race for the final wild-card spot. The Dolphins' outlook is simple: Win next week over Buffalo -- which could have nothing to play for in Week 17 -- and they're in the playoffs.
-- Kevin Patra
1) In the most difficult of seasons for so many and especially the 49ers (6-9), Kyle Shanahan continues to prove why he's worth every penny deposited into his bank account. San Francisco -- a team that hasn't had a legitimate home this month due to COVID-19 restrictions booting them from Santa Clara County, Calif. -- trotted out an offense that featured third-stringer C.J. Beathard at quarterback and backup Jeff Wilson as its feature back and promptly racked up nearly 400 yards of offense, riding Wilson's career day (22 carries, 183 yards, one receiving TD) to an impressive offensive performance that should have included seven more points if Robbie Gould converted his kicks (two missed field goals, one missed point-after attempt). The names didn't matter in Shanahan's unshakeable offensive scheme, which opened running lanes for the speedy Wilson to sprint through, but the return of one key player sure did. George Kittle simply makes San Francisco better when it has the ball, and his four catches for 92 yards powered the 49ers' passing attack, which saw Beathard finish with a line of 13-of-22 passing for 182 yards, three touchdowns and a pristine passer rating of 125.4. All of this comes back to Shanahan, the consistent, calm voice of the 49ers and leader of a team that should be better than its record if not for many significant injuries, starting with its franchise quarterback. While we won't look back on 2020 with fondness for these 49ers, Shanahan deserves recognition for keeping his team competitive amid incredible adversity.
2) Add this game tape to Robert Saleh's prolific head-coaching interview file. Despite the many personnel losses on the defensive side, San Francisco was again stifling when defending the Cardinals (8-7), holding Arizona to 4-of-16 on third down, sacking Kyler Murray three times and forcing two turnovers. While the 49ers enjoyed surprising offensive success, Saleh's group contained the Cardinals, allowing just 4.4 yards per play and keeping Murray under 250 passing yards, rendering Arizona's time-of-possession advantage (32:16 to 27:44) moot. And when the game was on the line, San Francisco delivered on three straight Arizona possessions, forcing two turnovers on downs and coming up with a clutch interception in the end zone to end the Cardinals' best chance of tying the game. Saleh will be included as a head-coaching candidate when this disappointing season comes to an end, and we shouldn't be surprised if he lands a job. Games like Saturday's are perfect examples of why.
3) This game, unfortunately, explained the 2020 Cardinals, a team with a rather lofty ceiling and disheartening, throw-your-remote-at-the-TV floor. San Francisco gave Arizona multiple chances to come back and win this game, thanks to the kicking struggles of the usually dependable Gould, but the Cardinals couldn't fight through Saleh's masterful game plan to pull this one out, instead limping to the end of a contest that could be best captured in a headline: Disaster in the Desert. Arizona is talented enough to make the playoffs, and a surge earlier in the season had plenty of folks picking it to reach the postseason, but the Cardinals have too often tripped up over their own actions. They boast one of the league's best receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, who set the franchise's single-season receptions record Saturday evening with 110, but primarily deploy him from the left side of the field, limiting his potential to make game-changing plays. When it came to fourth down with the game on the line, Hopkins again lined up wide to the left, alone on the short side of the field in single coverage. Murray dropped to throw, was pressured and released the ball while being hit to give Hopkins a chance, but Jason Verrett was there to close on Hopkins at the sticks and force an incompletion, turning the ball over on downs and capturing Saturday's struggles in a single play. The Cardinals are a tough matchup because of Murray's ability to improvise and flip the field with scrambles that are nearly impossible to defend, and long strikes down the middle of the field like his 45-yard completion to KeeSean Johnson. But a lack of flexibility in personnel movement handcuffs the offense's potential, and against a top-tier coordinator like Saleh, it makes for a rough outing like the one we saw Saturday. Arizona will need Murray to bounce back from a leg injury suffered on the final fourth down -- an issue that does not seem severe by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport -- and get some help from Chicago's opponents in order to salvage this once-promising season.
-- Nick Shook
1) This score line could say "Buccaneers a bunch, Lions much less" and would have about the same impact on our opinion of Tampa Bay, which found itself cruising calm waters almost from the beginning of the game and coasted to a blowout win. Tampa Bay's first seven possessions went as follows: touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. You know how if you stare at a word too long, it starts to look less like a comprehensible word and more like a jumble of letters? That's what "touchdown" had to become for the Buccaneers on Saturday. The worst part about that sequence of scoring drives (and a lonely punt!) was only one came off a turnover; the rest were just a product of Detroit's ineptitude.
That's the overarching point here to kick things off. Detroit looked and played like a team disinterested in being at Ford Field on Saturday. The ultra-talented Bucs recognized this and decided to use it as live practice, stuffing the stat sheet and securing a playoff berth in the process.
2) It's tough to blame the Lions for appearing like they were thinking more about winter vacation destinations than defending against seafaring footballers. Detroit began the afternoon with its second-string coaching staff because of COVID-19 protocols, and after losing captain Matthew Stafford to an ankle injury early in the first quarter, the Lions found themselves rapidly sinking in a sea of points scored by the Buccaneers. As Detroit's ship took on water, its efforts amounted to very little, with its defense allowing any and every Buccaneers skill-position player -- Leonard Fournette, Chris Godwin, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Rob Gronkowski -- to rip up yards and score touchdowns. Speaking of touchdowns, Mike Evans reset his own franchise record for most receiving touchdowns in a single season with 13. Tom Brady broke Jameis Winston's single-season passing touchdown record of 33 early, and will enter Week 17 at 36 for the year.
Brady was lights out in the first half and might have flirted with plenty of single-game passing records if he'd played in the second half, but it would've been deserving of an asterisk because of how little resistance Detroit was providing. These Lions look lost, likely because they didn't have even their interim head coach (Darrell Bevell), and also because there's little football left in a now-pointless season. After Saturday, they'll have just four quarters between them, the offseason and a new regime. Best of luck to those who take over this team.
3) The Buccaneers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, which is exactly what we expected out of Brady's new team in his first season down south. This game didn't tell us much, other than that the Buccaneers can take care of business against teams they're supposed to beat. Those teams won't be around in the postseason, but hey, it got the job done in Week 16.
What's more interesting is the comfort level between Brady and Gronkowski, his longtime pal who took some time to get his legs under him in his first season following his return from retirement. Brady dropped a perfect pass into Gronkowski's bucket on Tampa Bay's first scoring drive of the day for a 33-yard score, and while it was their only connection of the day (Blaine Gabbert hit Gronkowski for a score in the third quarter), it was encouraging because it was vintage Brady-to-Gronk. That type of connection can produce a key touchdown in a postseason game -- something with which both Brady and Gronkowski are very familiar.
Also exciting: Brady's perfectly placed dart to Antonio Brown in the back of the end zone. Brown is another who's had to use game action to get comfortable again, which is an ongoing process, but having a receiver who was seen as the league's best just two years ago as your No. 3 guy -- one who is starting to fit in and rediscover his form -- is tantalizing.
Concerning: Ryan Succop's ugly day. He missed three kicks (two point-after attempts and a 42-yard field goal), which the Bucs will hope was just a bad but harmless day at the office.
-- Nick Shook