The NFL has a funny way of humbling you. That's true whether you are a player, coach, official or even fan. Just when you think you know something, calamity strikes.
Week 16 was a disaster for so many. The Carolina Panthers' undefeated dream ended at the hands of a division rival they just beat 38-0 a few weeks ago. Seattle, which had looked like the best team in football over the last month, lost at home to a team led by Case Keenum. (Yup, the Rams swept the Seahawks.)
Bill Belichick strangely decided to kick the ball off to start overtime, a decision that looked even stranger when the Jets marched right down the field for a game-winning touchdown. And worst of of all, the Steelers lost control of a wild-card spot by getting swept by their rival Ravens. The Steelers couldn't beat Baltimore when their backup quarterback played (Mike Vick), but the Ravens had no problem winning with Ryan Mallett. The same Ryan Mallett that was out of the league a few weeks ago.
Here's what else we learned in Week 16:
- This game likely will be remembered for one puzzling strategic decision by the Patriots. After winning the overtime coin toss, Pats special teams ace Matthew Slater elected for New England to kick. Slater looked confused moments after making the call, but the Patriots said after the game that the decision to kick was made purposefully. It was a questionable strategy for several reasons, and the worst-case scenario played out: The Jets took the ball and marched down the field for the game-ending touchdown while Tom Brady watched helplessly from the sideline.
- Fitzmagic is real. Ryan Fitzpatrick continued his dream season for the Jets, throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns without a pick. The journeyman quarterback was at his best in overtime, going 3 of 3 for 74 yards and the decisive touchdown. The game-winner to Eric Decker -- on a perfectly placed end-zone fade -- was set up by a 48-yard connection with Quincy Enunwa (who atoned for a killer drop late in the fourth quarter) and a 20-yard completion to catch-machine Brandon Marshall. Bottom line: Fitzpatrick outplayed Brady in a Border War showdown in late December. Who saw that coming?
- The Patriots edged the Jets in October with a pass-saturated attack that featured Brady throwing on 57 of 66 plays. The Pats had more balance on offense this time, but it might not have been the right play. New England ran the ball 22 times, gaining just 2.9 yards per rush. The Jets continue to show they have one of the best defensive fronts in football.
-- Dan Hanzus
- How bad was this game for Green Bay? Aaron Rodgers left the game with 9:56 remaining and it felt like Packers coach Mike McCarthy left him in for too long. Arizona's pass rush was savage all game, hitting Rodgers 14 times, knocking him down another eight and sacking him eight times. All that came despite only 28 pass attempts. Arizona has dialed up blitzes well all year, but now Dwight Freeney (3 sacks), Calais Campbell (2.5 sacks) and Markus Golden are getting pressure more often lately without any help.
- The Cardinals clinched a playoff bye with the victory, but they could have plenty to play for in Week 17. The No. 1 overall seed in the NFC remains up for grabs following Carolina's loss to Atlanta. Keep an eye on whether the NFL moves Panthers-Bucs next week to 4:25 pm ET so that both Carolina and Arizona "play to win." The Cardinals have a tough finale at home against the Seahawks.
- The Packers haven't been a particularly good team for nine games running. That's a concern to put it mildly. If the Packers wanted to take any solace in this loss, look to the 2008 Cardinals. They lost 47-7 in Week 16 to the Matt Cassel-led Patriots, and then wound up winning the NFC anyway, and nearly the Super Bowl. With Aaron Rodgers and some defensive talent, anything is possible. But Green Bay does not have an effective passing game and they can't stop the run. That's a rough combination to overcome, and they now need to beat Minnesota next week to win the NFC North.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- The Panthers (14-1) extended their streak of 100-yard rushing performances to 28 games, but the Falcons' defense eliminated Ted Ginn and smothered Cam Newton's downfield passing attack. Credit rookie edge rusher Vic Beasley for leading a front seven that battered Newton and kept everything near the line of scrimmage. Down seven points in a one-minute drill, Newton was stripped by Beasley to end the game. The Panthers' first regular-season loss in the past 392 days means the Cardinals still have a shot at the NFC's No. 1 seed with wins over the Packers and Seahawks and a Carolina loss to Tampa Bay.
"We did not take this team lightly," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the game, via NFL Media's Jeff Darlington. "Truth of the matter is, we came in and played hard. They played better. They coached better."
- This was not a fluke performance for the Falcons (8-7). They left nine points on the field with a third-down drop from Julio Jones, a shanked field goal from Shayne Graham and an errant snap recovered by Josh Norman. Matt Ryan and Roddy White came through with their best performances of the season while Julio Jones produced the play of the game, out-jumping Luke Kuechly and Kurt Coleman for a 70-yard touchdown. Grimacing through an early-game rib injury, Ryan withstood a handful of drops to win the time of possession battle and out-gain the Panthers, 373 yards to 268.
- One week after breaking White's single-season franchise record for receptions, Jones broke his own single-season mark for yards. He's now up to 127 receptions for 1,722 yards and eight touchdowns, with a matchup versus the Saints' historically inept pass defense on the horizon. Although Norman wasn't in coverage on the long touchdown, Jones still won this matchup handily. Per Next Gen Stats, Jones had seven receptions for 91 yards on eight targets with Norman in coverage.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Looking to become just the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start, the Chiefs are postseason-bound after knocking off the Browns just as the Ravens put Pittsburgh away in Baltimore. It was no easy victory, but Kansas City's ninth straight win assures them a wild-card berth. That might not be all, as the Chiefs can also win the AFC West if Denver loses one their final two games and Kansas City beats the Raiders next Sunday. It's hard to look past Ron Rivera and Bruce Arians, but Andy Reid deserves Coach of the Year attention after pulling this off.
- This was a weird one that boiled down to Johnny Manziel and the Browns running out of time on a potential winning drive that fizzled out in Kansas City territory with Cleveland trailing by four. It was a tale of two halves for Manziel, who threw for just 54 yards over the first two quarters before returning to light up the Chiefs on the ground over the final 30 minutes. Running for 108 yards on the day, Johnny turned an ugly start around in the third period with a gutsy 20-play, 62-yard field goal march that ate 12:01 off the clock and saw the Browns passer extend one play after the next with his feet. We still saw too many poor reads and off-kilter throws, but Manziel showed toughness playing through a series of brutal hits. The diminutive signal-caller has a long way to go, but the Browns would be foolish to trade him away this offseason without a longer look.
- Alex Smith's 11-yard touchdown strike to Jeremy Maclin capped a dominant opening drive that chewed eight-plus minutes off the clock while putting the Chiefs receiver over 1,000 yards on the year. It was tough sailing from there, though, with Smith throwing an ugly second-quarter pick before getting back on track with a clutch touchdown march before the half to put the Chiefs up 17-3. Like Manziel, Smith was especially dangerous on the ground with 54 yards rushing, but almost all of that came early for a Reid-led offense that barely took the field in the second half.
-- Marc Sessler
- For the first time in 71 regular-season and postseason games, Russell Wilson's Seahawks never held a lead, breaking the longest such streak in NFL history. Seattle's offense regressed to October form with William Hayes, Aaron Donald and Akeem Ayers dominating the line of scrimmage for St. Louis. Wilson had opportunities for a fourth-quarter comeback, but the Seahawks couldn't make the plays with the game on the line.
Rams center Tim Barnes recovered two Rams fumbles on one possession, leading to a Todd Gurley two-yard touchdown. A bad snap by center Patrick Lewis sabotaged a third-and-2 on the ensuing Seahawks series. Down two scores, J.R. Sweezy's holding call negated a 25-yard catch by Jermaine Kearse that would have put Seattle on the doorstep of the end zone with 3:23 remaining. Two plays later, Wilson fumbled inside the 10-yard line when he chose to fight for extra yardage rather than running out of bounds. That rare bad decision by Wilson effectively ended Seattle's comeback.
- One of the most effective rotational pass rushers over the past few years, Hayes whipped the Seahawks' offensive line for three sacks, four tackles for loss and five QB hits. Ayers added 0.5 sacks, two QB hits and a 45-yard touchdown via fumble recovery. Pro Bowl snub Trumaine Johnson stole the show in the secondary with an interception and two passes defensed. The Rams defense outshone the Seahawks' more celebrated Legion of Boom.
- A few weeks back, Seahawks fans were wondering how Marshawn Lynch would fit into the offense once he returns from groin surgery. With rookie star Thomas Rawls out for the season, Seattle's backfield of Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, Christine Michael and fullback Will Tukuafu combined for just 21 yards and a costly lost fumble on 16 carries (1.3 YPC) Sunday. Lynch can't get back soon enough for a Seattle squad that has already clinched a playoff berth.
-- Chris Wesseling
- The loss puts a huge dent in the Steelers' playoff hopes. Pittsburgh controlled their own path to the playoffs entering Sunday, but the loss puts the New York Jets (10-5) in the driver seat for the final wild card spot. Pittsburgh now needs a win over the Cleveland Browns, coupled with a Jets' loss to the Buffalo Bills to hop back into the playoffs. The Steelers were considered a scary team that most wouldn't want to face in the playoffs. They need help to make it first.
- Just 12 days after signing in Baltimore, Ryan Mallett played his best game as a pro, throwing for a career high 274 yards on 28-of-41 passing and a touchdown. Credit Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman for concocting a game plan that tailored to Mallett's big arm, asking the quarterback to make quick throws up the seam or to the sideline. Mallett wasn't required to make many touch throws, a noted weakness in his game. Instead Trestman utilized a balanced attack and allowed Mallett to fire darts. This is the type of game talent evaluators see when they drool over the quarterback's positive traits.
- Ben Roethlisberger did not play well. The Steelers came out running early in the first half with the Ravens playing their safeties deep, daring Pittsburgh to patiently run the ball. Big Ben had just 12 passing attempts in the first half (completing just seven for 66 yards). In the second half, Pittsburgh scrapped that plan and went pass heavy. Big Ben ended 23-of-33 passing for 227 yards, his lowest yardage total of the season in a game he's started and finished -- he entered the contest averaging 336.9 pass yards per game. Roethlisberger was off target much of the day and forced several passes that his receivers couldn't snag. His two interceptions killed Steelers momentum in each half -- he also had a 100-yard pick-six negated by a Ravens penalty. It was Big Ben's worst game of the season at the worst time.
-- Kevin Patra
- We can only feel good for Brandon Weeden, who is so often a punching bag. He ended a personal 11-game losing streak as a starter, becoming a key figure in a playoff race despite being the fourth Texans quarterback to start a game this season. He became the first Texans quarterback in team history to throw for two passing touchdowns and rush for a score. While Weeden was only a supporting player to the Texans' defense, he made some legitimately pretty passes in the final three quarters on the way to 200 yards on only 24 attempts.
- J.J. Watt was a treat to watch throughout this game. Even though his stat line was not crazy with two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a sack, Watt wreaked havoc on the entire Titans offense throughout the game. A telling sequence came early in the game when the Titans forced a Weeden fumble. The Titans were in field-goal range and went backwards because Watt forced a holding call and knocked a pass down. They missed the field goal and Tennessee didn't score a point until 1:31 was left in the game.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- Frank Gore is simply incredible. He has the most rushing yards for a Colts running back since 2007 and, with 85 yards and two TDs on Sunday, gave himself an outside shot at having his ninth 1,000-yard season in his last 10 seasons. His 37-yard touchdown run, which was created by a nice block but continued by Gore's incomparable center of gravity and balletic balance, was one of the few highlights from this one.
- What a disaster the Colts' quarterbacking situation has become. Charlie Whitehurst came in and aided in the victory, but even rookie Stephen Morris was warming up by the end of the afternoon. The shots of Whitehurst limping on the sideline past Matt Hasselbeck, who left the game early with a shoulder injury and had to be placed in a sling, and an injured Andrew Luck were just depressing.
- Jarvis Landry is fantastic. He and Odell Beckham have teamed up to deliver five of the best catches we've seen all season. This one-armed highlight reel edition showed us what we have believed all season -- Landry is the one Miami Dolphins player consistently giving 100 percent. DeVante Parker is also finally healthy and caught a deep ball that flashed some of his potential. If there is a head coach out there confident he can build up Ryan Tannehill, this is not a bad gig to walk into.
-- Conor Orr
- If this was Drew Brees' final home game at the Superdome, he went out in fitting fashion. The veteran quarterback -- playing through a painful foot injury -- passed for 412 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover. Brees is due to make $20 million in 2016 -- including an NFL record $30 million cap hit. If the Saints are thinking about hitting the reboot button, they should fire up this game and be reminded that Brees remains an elite talent at age 36.
- This has been a frustrating season of ups and downs for the Jaguars, but Jacksonville can sleep soundly knowing they have set up quarterback Blake Bortles with some talented young playmakers. Allen Robinson had six catches for 151 yards, including 90-yard score in the latest chapter of the Brandon Browner's Great Book Of Coverage Fails. Allen Hurns had 106 yards and two scores, and now has more touchdowns and receiving yards than any undrafted wide receiver in his first two seasons. Bortles is up to 35 touchdowns, by the way, even if too much damage came in garbage time on Sunday.
- Brandin Cooks keeps building on his breakout season. The speedy second-year wideout torched the Jacksonville secondary for two first-half touchdowns and is now over 1,000 receiving yards on the season. If Brees and Sean Payton end up somewhere else in the offseason, Cooks should demand he's part of the package deal.
-- Dan Hanzus
- The Bears ground down the Bucs with the run game. Jeremy Langford was the best back on the field Sunday -- which included the NFL's No. 2 rusher Doug Martin. The rookie galloped through and around defenders for 83 yards on 19 carries. Langford displays a good combination of vision, power and burst. He is the Bears future in the backfield. That's not to say Matt Forte is a limp noodle. The veteran churned out 54 yards on 11 carries and three catches for 23 yards, offering a balance to Langford. Ka'Deem Carey also played a short-yardage role, with a pair of one-yard TDs (one running and one receiving).
- Sunday's game was the epitome of Jameis Winston's season. The rookie quarterback made some unbelievable throws -- he's makes especially delicious plays on the run -- but succumbed to too many mental errors and errant throws. One third-quarter drive with the Bucs up one point was a microcosm of Winston's season: He missed Mike Evans on a bomb that would have gone for a TD if it weren't underthrown. Winston followed that with strikes of 14 yards, 17 yards and a ridiculous 46-yard heave to Cameron Brate (in which the rookie scrambled left, heaved the bomb across his body, on the money, while getting hit). Three plays later, in field goal range, Winston inexplicably heaved a prayer to the goal line that was intercepted.
- Turnovers doomed Tampa. Aside from Winston's touchdown, Doug Martin lost two fumbles. No team can win when their best players turn it over. Tampa also missed a fourth-quarter field goal. The Bucs have outplayed their talent at times this season and with Winston have plenty of hope for the future. However, they've shot themselves in the foot too often with penalties and mental errors. It's something Lovie Smith will have to answer.
- -- Kevin Patra*
- The Cowboys (4-11) opted to give Kellen Moore the starting nod at quarterback -- the third backup to start in place of an injured Tony Romo. Despite having a new signal caller under center for an entire game, it didn't yield positive results for Dallas. Sans Dez Bryant, Dallas' passing game struggled to get started. Moore did connect with both Brice Butler and Terrance Williams four times totaling for 136 of the Cowboys' 186 receiving yards. The Cowboys run game was just as unimpressive, forcing Dallas to get on the board with just two field goals.
- The Bills (7-8) squandered multiple opportunities, including failing to capitalize on an interception late in the third. It was the run game fueled by the three-headed monster of Mike Gillislee, Karlos Williams and Tyrod Taylor that kept Buffalo in the game -- Taylor set the franchise record for the most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback. Rookie running back Gillislee finished with 93 yards and one touchdown. His performance secured the victory over Dallas.
- -- Andie Hagemann*
- Matthew Stafford had a mistake-free game for the Lions, throwing for 301 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-37 passing. The dagger came in the fourth quarter when the Lions were helped by a questionable pass interference call on third-and-goal, setting up a one-yard Calvin Johnson touchdown catch that put the Lions ahead, 29-17. That effectively put the game out of reach.
- Niners quarterback Blaine Gabbert led San Francisco on a 13-play opening drive that resulted in the team's first opening-quarter touchdown all season -- a one-yard touchdown strike to Vance McDonald. Gabbert was relatively effective in the first quarter but killed his team with a fumble inside their own 10-yard line midway through the second quarter. Joique Bell ran it in on the very next play for the Lions, putting Detroit ahead 17-14. The Niners were shut out in the second half as Gabbert never got back in rhythm.
- The 49ers shot themselves in the foot constantly due to a lack of discipline. Matthew Stafford was great at drawing San Francisco defenders into neutral-zone infractions and offsides penalties -- totaling seven such penalties over the course of the game. The Niners also helped the Lions out due to their poor tackling, allowing Stafford to throw short routes that his receivers then were able to turn into first downs and big gains. The Niners now have 11 losses, which is the same amount they had in 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined under Jim Harbaugh.
- -- Mark E. Ortega*
- Teddy Bridgewater didn't need to do much of anything to secure the win for Minnesota -- Adrian Peterson did that for him. The Vikings ran away with a double-digit lead early enough that Norv Turner stuck the pigskin in A.D.'s grip for the rest of the night. The Vikings' workhorse took back the league rushing lead (1,418 yards) with a 104-yard, one-touchdown showing. Following three sub-100 yard performances, a breakout game like this one should inspire Turner and coach Mike Zimmer heading into the postseason to feed Peterson repeatedly.
- Sans Odell, Eli Manning and the Giants' offense resembled British croonstress Adele, calling out to her long-lost loved one. The suspended Beckham was sorely missed against the Vikings, especially in the first half. Eli Manning threw two interceptions in the first 26 minutes and three in the game, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and didn't complete his first pass until 10:49 of the second quarter. Part of the problem was that Manning was throwing to anonymous receivers (see: Myles White and Matt LaCosse) who couldn't find separation in the secondary, but that doesn't excuse many of the throws Manning tossed well behind his targets.
- -- Jeremy Bergman*