Since Wagner's return in Week 12, Seattle has been dominant.
Sunday's 17-7 victory over San Francisco made it four straight for the defending champs, all with Wagner back on the field. Seattle has allowed a total of 27 points in those games (against Arizona, Philadelphia and San Francisco twice), an average of 6.75 per contest. The effort has been better across the board, but there is no question Wagner's presence changes the outlook defensively.
Wagner led the Seahawks with nine tackles in a Thanksgiving night win over San Francisco, then did it again Sunday in a 10-tackle showing. (He also inadvertently knocked Gore from the Week 15 game; Gore suffered a concussion trying to block Wagner in the second quarter.)
Wagner is to Seattle's linebacker corps what Earl Thomas is in the secondary: a rangy, aggressive player capable of covering up other defenders' mistakes.
"He's playing way better than he has at any time," Pete Carroll said following Sunday's win. "He's more physical. Every game, he has six or eight tackles and they're really good, solid thumping tackles. It's really a great spot, part of his game right now. It's cool to see it happening."
More of the best and worst from Week 15:
First Down: Bacarri Rambo? Bacarri Rambo.
Sports sometimes flat-out defy explanation, which leads us into Rambo's two interceptions of Aaron Rodgers.
A 2013 sixth-round pick by Washington, Rambo struggled to get on the field as a rookie and was mostly overmatched when he did. The Redskins cut him loose two games into the 2014 season, then Rambo waited two months for the Bills to call.
He played zero defensive snaps in his debut for Buffalo in Week 14. That number rose to 29 on Sunday, and Rambo responded with a pair of picks to help his team pull the upset. An added bonus (as if the day needed one): Rambo provided an escort into the end zone for Marcus Thigpen on a long punt-return touchdown.
Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone: "[Rambo]'s someone that, at one point. I remember we talked about him and said, 'Hey, listen. We don't want to lose this kid. We think he can play.'"
Turns out he was right. Who knew?
Fourth Down: Staying healthy as a Texans quarterback.
Ryan Mallett: Done for the year with a torn pectoral. Ryan Fitzpatrick: Broken leg. Tom Savage: Out for Week 16 after hurting his knee. Those last two injuries occurred Sunday, in a playoff dream-crushing 17-10 loss to Indianapolis. Savage was in the game when it ended -- he finished 10-of-19 with an interception on Houston's final possession.
Only a 2-0 finish and bunches of help can push the Texans into the playoffs now. To accomplish step one, they'll have to find a way past Baltimore next Sunday with either Case Keenum or Thad Lewis under center.
Odds probably favor Keenum, even though he just made his way back onto the roster Monday. He was squeezed off the depth chart by the trio of now-hurt quarterbacks coming out of camp, eventually leading to St. Louis claiming him on waivers.
First Down: Cincinnati committing to one back.
"I'm used to having one guy kind of dominate some carries because in order for backs to be really good, they've got to get lathered up to play," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said last week, via the team's website. "We have two capable guys and they're different guys and we'll let it play itself out, but I think we have a pretty good idea which way we're headed."
The arrow pointed Jeremy Hill's direction Sunday, with Jackson staying true to his word and riding the rookie back over Giovani Bernard. Hill responded by rushing for 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, part of a runaway 30-0 win over Cleveland. Bernard wound up with 15 rushes for 79 yards of his own, but the majority of those touches came in the final quarter, long after the outcome had been decided.
Fourth Down: The Bears' effort.
May as well get that U-Haul reserved, Marc Trestman. Even though defensive coordinator Mel Tucker probably deserves the first ax and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer probably dug his own grave by badmouthing Jay Cutler, it has become borderline impossible to imagine Trestman surviving this season.
The Bears are not just losing; they're humiliating themselves. Three straight weeks, Chicago has landed a national-TV audience and in that span has lost every game by an average of 16.3 points. Were it not for a combined 36 meaningless points in the fourth quarters against New Orleans and Dallas, that gap would be even wider.
Trestman's team has shut it down. Case in point: a fake punt attempt Monday night, which came up short ... and would have been negated anyway because Chicago had just 10 men on the field.
First Down: Jason Jones.
On Monday, Jones had his jersey retired by Southfield-Lathrup High School, where he played his prep ball. One day earlier, he played a central role in pushing Detroit to the brink of a postseason berth.
With the Vikings threatening to stretch their 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Jones first sacked Teddy Bridgewater on a second-and-goal from the 8, then blocked Blair Walsh's 26-yard field goal attempt. Detroit marched for three points of its own on the ensuing drive, enough to steal a 16-14 victory.
Fourth Down: Philadelphia's playoff chances.
The Eagles' hopes essentially boil down to this: They must win out and hope that either Dallas loses a game or at least one of Detroit/Green Bay/Seattle stumbles to an 0-2 finish. Anything else will send Chip Kelly's team home early.
The most imminent threat comes from the Cowboys, who took over the NFC East lead by winning in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The Eagles still hold a key tiebreaker (record within the division) should they somehow pull back even with the 'Boys. They have less hope elsewhere -- losses to the Packers and Seahawks combined with a mediocre intra-conference record would leave them out of luck in just about any tiebreaker scenario.
First Down: The NFC South ... uh ... race.
Is this putting lipstick on a pig? Sure. But for all the mind-numbing ugliness the South has produced this season, it still comes down to this: four of the five games left involving the division's teams will play a part in determining a champion.
New Orleans, which now holds a slim lead at 6-8, hosts 5-9 Atlanta this week and may need a win over the last-place Buccaneers in Week 17 to clinch the crown. The Falcons also have a game left against Carolina (Week 17 in Atlanta); the Panthers will be in must-win mode Sunday vs. Cleveland.
Perhaps a little drama will make up for 15 weeks of disappointing play.
Fourth Down: Tanking.
Have you watched the NBA at all in recent years? Teams with little to no hope of winning the championship are almost going out of their way to lose -- Philadelphia's roster this season is a particular embarrassment. A worse record equals a better chance at a high draft choice.
The practice makes sense for downtrodden franchises, but that doesn't make it any less undignified.
So, kudos to the Jets not only for playing all out Sunday (most of the other NFL also-rans deserve that same praise) but also for making it clear how they feel about losing on purpose.
"Tough you-know-what," Rex Ryan said when asked about fans hoping for a higher draft pick, and with it a possible shot at Heisman winner Marcus Mariota. "A real Jets fan wants to win. It doesn't matter what pick you get or whatever. If it were Peyton Manning out there, I could understand it, but I don't think Peyton Manning is out there."
First Down: New England's AFC East domination.
Make it six straight division titles for the Patriots, one shy of the NFL record held by the Los Angeles Rams (1973-'79). Anyone want to bet on New England matching and then surpassing that mark in the coming seasons?
"Every year is a different year for us and every year we have a great opportunity to try to accomplish something," said Tom Brady, who now has 12 division titles under his belt. "It's a lot of hard work that goes into it, and I don't think you ever take winning for granted. I certainly don't because I know how hard it is to win."
The Patriots would be sitting on a dozen consecutive division titles had the Dolphins not broken their run in 2008. Miami could not stand in the way Sunday.
Fourth Down: Bruce Arians' opinion of the Rams.
St. Louis headed into Thursday night favored by several points, in spite of sitting in last place and playing host to the NFC-leading Cardinals. The standings -- not the spread -- proved true. Arizona leaned on its defense for a 12-6 win, clinching a playoff spot in the process.
"There is an 11-3 team and a team that is always 8-8," Bruce Arians sniped after it was over. "You figure it out."
Later, he added this: "Everybody wanted to talk all that stuff about how great their defense is. I think they saw a good defense tonight, it was in red and white ... I think [the Rams] had been reading their press clippings way too much."