In the defining, final regular-season game of professional football's 100th season, the NFL somehow lost. Again.
There are so many fascinating components to the 49ers' heart-stopping win in Seattle and the league's loaded 12-team tournament that I'd rather write about, but it's impossible to ignore the deja vu which occurred in the season's 256th game.
Down five points with 15 seconds left on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Russell Wilson threw an incompletion to Jacob Hollister in which Hollister's arm was held down by 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, preventing Hollister from reaching the ball. Don't believe me? Here's what NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay said on the broadcast:
"He's clearly got him grabbed, significantly hindering the receiver. This should be a booth review. I'm surprised they have not stopped the game," McAulay opined after seeing one replay.
Narrator: They did not stop the game. Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron said after the game to pool reporter Tim Booth that the league office did actually "perform a review, but based on what we saw, we didn't see enough to stop the game."
The NFL's new pass interference rule was put in place for exactly this play, in this spot, and it failed.
Riveron was accurate in also telling Booth that NBC gave a "great look" at the play. The best angle on Warner's obvious infraction didn't air until there were roughly 15 seconds left on the play clock, with the broadcast then showing Wilson lining up for the next snap. It showed that angle once and one other angle. It all happened very fast -- the Seahawks proved repeatedly how easy it is to lose composure in a moment of that magnitude -- and then Seattle's regular season was over seconds later after Dre Greenlaw's sensational tackle.
But it didn't all need to be so rushed.
If the NFL is going to take the challenge flag out of the coaches' hands in the final two minutes of the game, it needs to make sure it takes the appropriate time to review such a game-altering play. If someone as experienced as McAulay saw the defender "significantly hindering" the play, it deserves a longer look -- at the very least. While Hollister initiated the contact, Warner is literally holding Hollister's arms down when the ball flies by.
Taking more time to review the play and then letting it stand would have been curious, but a lot more understandable. There should have been more angles to see and Riveron could have broken the play down in slow motion. If the league office wanted to still stick with the call on the field, it would have looked like a questionable bit of execution by the replay officials rather than the failure in process we got. If this play wasn't worth examining outside the 20-second frenzy of a running play clock, it makes me wonder why exactly the rule was ever put in place.
It was painful and ironic that the Seahawks, the beneficiary of countless good fortune all year, ran out of luck at the very end of the regular season. While the 49ers convincingly beat teams throughout 2019, the Seahawks notched 10 of their 11 wins by one score. The Bengals, picking No. 1 overall in April, won more games by double-digits (two) this season than the Seahawks. Taking the long view, the 49ers deserved to win the NFC West because of their body of work. It was a strong Week 17 for deserved in general.
The Chiefs won in Foxborough earlier this month and are undoubtedly playing better than the Patriots. Andy Reid's crew got a rare stroke of good fortune when New England fell to the Dolphins, gifting the Chiefs the No. 2 seed. Philadelphia's toughness showed up in Week 16 against Dallas and throughout the Eagles' four-game winning streak to end the season. They got in. After everyone spent the past week exploring all the wild scenarios involving the Steelers and Raiders nabbing the No. 6 seed, it was the Titans who stamped their postseason ticket.
While Cowboys fans surely would disagree, the right 12 teams -- the best 12 teams -- made the playoffs. There isn't a single one of the 20 teams done for the season that needs to be playing any longer. If there's one team that got the short end of the stick on Sunday, it was the Saints. They are a 13-3 No. 3 seed, forced to play this coming Sunday because the Packers came from behind to beat the Lions and the Seahawks fell inches short on Sunday night.
That's right: A missed pass interference prevented the Saints from advancing a round in the playoffs. If only there were some sort of rule that could prevent something like that from happening.
Early look at Wild Card Weekend: One burning question for each game
Before getting to my final MVP Watch of the season, let's examine one big question about each of the four Wild Card Weekend matchups.
SATURDAY, JAN. 4
Head coach Sean McDermott has carefully constructed this Bills defense for three years just for this moment. After giving up more than 400 yards in Foxborough in Week 16, however, it's worth wondering if McDermott's defense is enough. While Josh Allen took a step forward this season, this matchup features one explosive offense (Houston's) against a Bills team that plays to its efficient defense. I generally trust offense in the playoffs, and Deshaun Watson will be looking to erase memories of Houston's 21-7 loss to Indianapolis in this very time slot a year ago.
Tennessee has been the best big-play team in football since Ryan Tannehill took over the starting QB job. The Titans' athleticism -- from A.J. Brown to Derrick Henry to Jonnu Smith -- makes them a very difficult matchup for an aging Patriots defense that has looked slower as the season has worn on, with New England's exotic Cover 0 looks causing fewer problems for opponents. The Pats relied on turnover differential all season and will likely need to win that way again Saturday night. Even when New England scores, it usually doesn't happen very quickly. The biggest saving grace for Tom Brady is that his running game and offensive line have played better in recent weeks and the Titans' defense has the potential to give up as many big plays as the offense makes.
SUNDAY, JAN. 5
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport threw out Zimmer's name as a possible trade candidate to the Cowboys before Sunday's games. That seemed odd, and then NBC's Mike Florio did the same on Sunday night. These reports don't come out of thin air.
The Vikings brought Kirk Cousins to Minnesota to put them over the top in games like the Week 16 matchup against the Packers and they fell short. If the season ends with three losses in row, perhaps the Vikings will make an emotional decision to say goodbye to Zimmer after six mostly successful years. Zimmer certainly has his work cut out for him, facing the league's hottest offense on the road.
Who will take the field for each team?
The Seahawks are hopeful to get left tackle Duane Brown and safety Quandre Diggs back for the playoffs, but Rapoport reports that starting LB Mychal Kendricksis believed to have torn his ACL. The Eagles, meanwhile, were without roughly halfof their starting lineup by the end of their win over the Giants on Sunday. By another measure, 12 of the Eagles' top 17 offensive players were out. Doug Pederson's crew has shown incredible resolve all season, but Philly needs some additional talent to make a playoff run, too. Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks and rookie running back Miles Sanders -- two of the team's best players -- left Sunday's win with new injuries. Pederson announced Monday that Brooks won't play again this season. Tight end Zach Ertz's status for Sunday is unclear. If Sanders and Ertz don't return, the Eagles will be facing an even steeper uphill battle.
In the end, it wasn't close. Lamar Jackson may not have played in Week 17, but his fingerprints were all over the Ravens' stampede to the NFL's all-time team rushing record, which had stood since 1978. Michael Thomas' league-record 149 receptions and Christian McCaffrey's 1,000-1,000 campaign deserve notice, while Russell Wilson's slowdown in December shouldn't distract from a sublime season overall. Still, it won't surprise me one bit if Jackson gets all 50 votes when the award is announced at NFL Honors on Feb. 1.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Miami Dolphins
The best quarterback in the AFC East this season took his team down the field in Foxborough for yet another game-winning drive. Dolphins MVP Ryan Fitzpatrick's 320-yard performance Sunday was a fitting capper to a preposterous season, as the 37-year-old evaded 33 total pressures from New England, per Pro Football Focus, while making excellent decisions.
HONORABLE MENTION: Fitz's running mate, DeVante Parker, also deserves love for torching Stephon Gilmore throughout the day. It was the first time Gilmore gave up more than 100 yards to a single receiver since joining the Patriots, likely costing him a Defensive Player of the Year award.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.
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