The Ravens' defense had the AFC North in its hands. This group, so much greater than the sum of its parts all season, had a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day. They had a three-point lead with 1:18 left. These are the situations that teams build toward from the first day of organized team activities.
They couldn't hold on.
"I told [Antonio Brown] he had to go get the game-winning touchdown," Le'Veon Bell told NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala after the game. "We weren't even thinking about a field goal; we were thinking about getting the touchdown."
With so many playoff spots decided over the holidays, Week 16 proved to be a final, failed exam for many groups like the Ravens' defense. Simply give up two fourth-quarter touchdowns and the Ravens are headed for a division title. They gave up three. It was a brutal moment of self-realization in Baltimore that there are no true shutdown defenses in NFL this season.
There are plenty of top-shelf offenses at the top of the league. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott put together his best performance all season on Monday night against Detroit, fitting countless difficult throws into tight windows. The entire Cowboys team, including an emerging pass rush, showed great mental toughness in a game that "meant nothing" to them. They proved they are mature enough to stay sharp for the next few weeks before their playoff journey starts, that they don't need to take a break from greatness.
Before we move on to playoff mode for good, here's a look at which teams passed or failed their Week 16 tests:
Failed final exams
Rex Ryan's defense: Ryan coached the Bills defense in his head -- rather than the one on the field -- for two seasons in Buffalo. Facing a fourth-and-2 from the Buffalo 41-yard line with 4 minutes left in overtime against Miami, Ryan chose to punt the ball away and trust his defense to get the ball back quickly.
A tie did the Bills no good in that scenario. Simply giving up a few first downs would have eliminated the Bills from playoff contention. But Rex's ultimate confidence in his side of the ball was unwavering despite Miami's 31 points and Matt Moore's ease in setting up a game-tying field goal with no timeouts left in regulation. At that point in the game, the Bills' defense had failed to get a stop for five straight drives. The Dolphins wound up rushing for 261 yards against a Bills defense that decayed after Ryan arrived in town. There were only 10 Bills even on the field for Jay Ajayi's decisive overtime run.
For the second straight season, the stronger side of this Bills team was the offense. They were the top-ranked rushing team in football, with 272 yards on the ground against Miami. Yet the Bills did not have enough confidence to pick up two yards in two plays, calling a shotgun pass on third-and-2 in overtime before punting. Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins' incredible effort against Miami (589 total offensive yards!) should make it clear that Rex's defense -- and his inability to assess his own team -- was his downfall.
Titans' offense: This was a season of great progress and hope for Tennessee's offense. Marcus Mariota, the running game and the young offensive line provide a great foundation for years to come. This was an offense-led team, though, and the offense came up short well before Mariota's broken legin Jacksonville.
The Titans were doubled up in yardage over three quarters with Mariota under center, gaining 159 yards in nine drives. Mariota had an incredible fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Week 15, but overall, the offense had been stagnant in December, with Mariota's accuracy wavering -- he completed less than 50 percent of his passes combined in his final three games -- and some struggles in short-yardage running. As Chris Wesseling put it on our Christmas Eve podcast, the Titans just weren't ready this season. They are coming.
Luck grades himself on a steep curve and often takes the blame when it's not his fault. But he's right about the Raiders game. He was one of the big reasons they trailed throughout, missing throws and making mistakes in the game early. This was always a near "Mission Impossible" task for Luck this season. He returned to being a top-tier quarterback and mostly was outstanding. But he did not play particularly well in the two biggest games of the Colts' season, against Houstonand Oakland over the last three weeks. Luck needed an MVP-caliber effort to carry his lousy offensive line and defense. That's a steep curve and he fell short in December.
Trevor Siemian: An underrated asset for most of this year, Denver's passing game caved in the last two weeks against playoff-quality competition. Siemian was better than his numbers despite a terrible offensive line and running game, but this sluggish finish opens the door more for Paxton Lynch to compete for the starting job in the offseason.
(Denver's defense, which has set an incredibly high bar like Luck, also did not achieve transcendence by giving up 484 yards in a do-or-die game in Kansas City.)
The Week 17 finale against San Franscisco won't tell us much about the state of these roller-coaster Seahawks. They likely will finish the season 3-3 in their final six games, with two of those wins coming against Jared Goff and Colin Kaepernick. One of the most impressive streaks in football should end, with Seattle unlikely to finish as the best scoring defense in football for the first time since 2011.
This is not to say the Seahawks are done. They have the talent and coaching staff to pull it all together, and their playoff journey starts at home. Carroll, however, wanted to see a championship-level response from his team after a few rocky weeks. He got a dud, a far cry from the December surges that typified their best seasons.
A brief preview of coaching changes
The coaching carousel looks likely to be more active than expected back in Week 12 when we first previewed the market. (That was way back when Mike McCarthy's status was a question. Feels like a generation ago.)
The Rams and Jaguars started their coaching searches. The Bills joined them Tuesday when they fired Rex Ryan, a surprise only for its timing. The Chargers and Bears, both mentioned prominently in November, sound more likely than not to make a change. Chip Kelly, like any 2-13 coach, shouldn't feel totally safe, but there have been multiple indications he should make it to Year 2.
The biggest change since Week 12 concerns teams that struggled down the stretch. Todd Bowles and Chuck Pagano are potential "surprise" names that could pop up. Then again, they wouldn't be surprise names if we could guess them ahead of time. Add it all up, and the bar for teams hiring new head coaches this offseason is around six.
Passed their test
Jay Ajayi and Dolphins' running game: The Dolphins season turned around when Jay Ajayi took over the workhorse running back role in Week 6. It gave the team's offense some clarity and an identity when the passing game was struggling. Ajayi's numbers fell off down the stretch, but it wasn't for lack of effort. Miami's line is ranked No. 30 in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking rankings. Ajayi has earned his yards all season, and his 206-yard effort against Buffalo was a symphony of labor.
Miami should play to win in Week 17 for a variety of reasons, but reducing Ajayi's workload after a 32-carry effort should be a priority. The Fins will need him fresh for the playoffs because he's the biggest reason they've made it this far.
Redskins' offense: After an ugly performance on Monday night against the Panthers, Kirk Cousins and friends played in Chicago on Saturday on a very short week. Four straight long-scoring drives in the first half set the tone that Washington's offense was back in form. Now the team is in position to make the playoffs with a victory against the Giants in Week 17.
Pittsburgh's balance: After not authoring a fourth-quarter comeback all season, Ben Roethlisberger has pulled it off in back-to-back weeks against tough division rivals. The Steelers are the only team ranked in the top 10 in defense and offense in Football Outsiders' metrics, and they needed that balance on Christmas. The defense kept the team in it early, and Big Ben put together a fourth quarter for the ages: 14 of 17 for 164 yards and three touchdown drives against the big, bad Ravens. Two of those incompletions were spikes.
Texans' defense:Randy Bullock, the artist formerly known as "Fat Randy," missing a field goal as time expired in Houston was a perfect way for the AFC South to be won. Sure, these Texans were fortunate along the way; they've been outscored by 42 points over the course of the season and still find themselves in the playoffs. Still, Houston's Watt-less defense has passed every test it's faced. The unit's effort against Cincinnati was, as has become typical this year, led by Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and breakout cornerback A.J. Bouye. The Texans, with newly installed Tom Savage under center, still punted on their first six possessions. The Texans' defense is used to overcoming it.
Matt Ryan: It says a lot that Atlanta's 33-16 win in Carolina felt so ho-hum. Ryan strafed a defense that had been playing well, and the win moved the Falcons into position for a playoff bye. This Falcons offense has passed every regular-season test. There have been a lot of phony "No. 1 defenses" this season, but Atlanta is undoubtedly the league's best offense. (Sorry, Dallas.)
Joe Thomas: Doing a job at the very highest level when others crumble around you is the definition of professionalism. Thomas is a top-five tackle again in his 10th season, never letting the weight of a winless campaign show in his play. His emotions after the Browns win said plenty about how much the game means to him. Let's hope the rest of the franchise can begin to rise toward Thomas' standard before he retires.