Let's take a look back at some notable performances and key plays from Week 15 of the NFL season.
MVP: Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Several times a season, there will be instances in which the Seattle Seahawks offense isn't running right and things look dire. And then, Marshawn Lynch will kick into a gear that very few NFL players have -- the gear that allows him to take a game over all by himself. This happened halfway through the third quarter, when the Seahawks got the ball at their own 40-yard line, down 7-3, and Lynch went to work. He broke through San Francisco's estimable defense for 13 yards on the second play of the drive, then added 15 yards two plays later. All in all, he gained 50 yards on the ground on that drive, added one reception for seven yards, and ended things with a walk-in touchdown. The Seahawks never trailed again on their way to a crucial 17-7 win. With all the talk about the Seahawks seeing Lynch as expendable and the veteran back maybe moving on, it's worth it for that front office to wonder what they'd do without the one player on their roster who can take things by the scruff of the neck. -- Doug Farrar
LVP: Officials who don't understand what roughing the passer is
My colleague Chris Burke details below the execrable call against Pittsburgh Steelers defender Jason Worilds when he had the nerve to tackle Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in an intense but apparently legal way, and came away with a roughing the passer penalty for his trouble. In San Francisco's loss to Seattle, Ed Hochuli's crew decided to double down with a roughing the passer call on 49ers linebacker Nick Moody near the start of the fourth quarter. It was an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-5, but the penalty gave the Seahawks a first down and new life. Two plays later, Russell Wilson hit Paul Richardson for a 10-yard touchdown pass.
Look -- we know that these calls are all bang-bang, and that the NFL has placed a huge emphasis on them. Which puts a lot of pressure on the officials, and makes the need for judgment calls to be reviewable more pressing than ever. Even FOX Sports analyst and former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira, as consistent an apologist for the league's current refs as you'll find, couldn't back either of these calls.
"I felt that he hit the quarterback in the chest with the hairline, and that's a foul unless he has his face completely up and would hit it face on with the facemask," Hochuli said after the game. "It's a foul, and that's why I called it." -- DF
Must-see GIF: Peyton Manning's block.
Good effort here by Peyton Manning on this C.J. Anderson run, but there are many reasons teams don't want their franchise quarterbacks out there blocking -- especially when those quarterbacks are in their late thirties and are already dealing with flu-like symptoms. Manning left soon after this play to get an I.V. and later returned, but you could just hear the relief on the Broncos' sideline when this block gone wrong didn't become a far more serious issue. -- DF
(H/T: The Big Lead)
Head-scratching decision: Russell Wilson's first-half interception
Down 7-3 with eight seconds left in the first half and with 3rd-and-10 at the San Francisco 29-yard line, Wilson threw a deep ball to Doug Baldwin, which was intercepted by safety Eric Reid. Not only did the pick take a field goal opportunity away from the Seahawks, but it was questionable from the standpoint that Reid and the rest of the 49ers' secondary had the Seahawks' passing game on lock throughout many of Wilson's deep attempts already. -- DF
Key injury: Peyton Manning (thigh)
Outside of the flu-like symptoms Manning suffered in Denver's 22-10 win over the Chargers, there was a thigh tweak (most likely on the aforementioned block). It doesn't seem serious, but it's worth keeping an eye on throughout the week. Manning's velocity has gone down precipitously since last season, and the Broncos have become a run-heavy team in response over the last month. -- DF
MVP: The Buffalo defense
Not often does a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, with an offense as potent as Green Bay's, look as out of sync as he did Sunday. Several times, Rodgers fired to ... well, nobody in particular, with his receivers going anywhere but where the Packers' quarterback expected. Even Jordy Nelson dropped a couple balls, including one that may have gone for a 94-yard touchdown.
Still, the majority of the credit here belongs to the Bills defense and coordinator Jim Schwartz. Buffalo sacked Rodgers just once, but they pressured him constantly and worked aggressive coverage downfield. The secondary came up with two interceptions, both by safety Bacarri Rambo, while the Packers' receivers were left looking for flags repeatedly.
The final nail in Green Bay's Week 15 coffin came courtesy of Mario Williams, who swung around the left side of the offensive line to swat the ball from Rodgers' hand, forcing a safety.
"They really get after you with their four-man rush, which is the typical Jim Schwartz defense," Rodgers said earlier this week. "He's a very talented coach and always has some schemes that put pressure on the offense."
Rodgers had thrown multiple interceptions in just one other game this season: a 44-23 loss in New Orleans. (He's still yet to throw one at Lambeau Field.) He was just 8-of-24 for 70 yards in the first half, his quarterback rating dipping from 42.2 at the break to 34.3 when all was said and done. That's the lowest mark of his career. -- Chris Burke
Johnny Football's many critics will have a field day with this one, even if the Browns suffered a complete team meltdown in their 30-0 loss to Cincinnati -- a result that puts their playoff hopes on ice until next season.
Manziel finished his first NFL start throwing 10-of-18 for 80 yards and two interceptions. The second interception came as Manziel tried to loft one off-balance into the end zone; he succeeded with this type of play on numerous occasions in college, but that clearly will not work as well against NFL defenses.
Cleveland's hopes to manage the game by leaning on its rushing attack sailed out the window early, as Cincinnati scored on its first drive en route to a 20-0 halftime lead. And nothing else in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's gameplan worked, either. The Bengals sacked Manziel three times, limited him to 13 yards on five runs and generally dominated up front on both sides of the football. The Browns defense was just as complicit in the loss, unable to get off the field or stop Jeremy Hill (25 carries, 148 yards, two touchdowns).
But all eyes were on Manziel, who at least on paper seemed to present a challenge for Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict-less linebacking corps. Instead, the rookie quarterback never found anything even resembling a comfort zone, which in turn regularly led to him exiting the pocket early or throwing dangerous passes into traffic.
Sunday's game could not have been more of a disappointment. -- CB
Must-see GIF (well, Vine): Browns' Dawg Pound
The Browns defense could not stop Jeremy Hill on Sunday. The Dawg Pound fared a little better.
Worilds was hit with a 15-yard penalty; Ryan needed a few seconds to regain his composure and get back to his feet. The explanation (if there is one) for the call:
PIT 93 was close to Ryan's neck - the rule is head or neck area, that's why I said close.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 14, 2014
The replay from the opposite side of the field did look a little more borderline, but this still appeared to be more a call made because of how hard Ryan hit the turf than the presence of an actual penalty. -- CB
Houston's chances at the AFC South -- and likely a wild-card berth -- vanished Sunday, via a 17-10 loss in Indianapolis. Would the outcome have been different if Fitzpatrick had finished the game?
The Texans will have all offseason to consider that question, as well as attempt to solve their quarterback situation permanently. Fitzpatrick was carted off with a reported leg fracture, which would end his 2014 campaign.
Rookie Tom Savage took over for Fitzpatrick, who has been starting because of a season-ending injury to Ryan Mallett. Savage hit 10-of-19 passes for 127 yards, with an interception on Houston's final offensive play. He also fired back-to-back incompletions on third and fourth downs during an earlier fourth-quarter drive, after helping Houston cross midfield. -- CB