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DeMarco Murray breaks Cowboys single-season rushing record
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DeMarco Murray breaks Cowboys single-season rushing record
Chris Burke & Doug Farrar
Sunday December 28th, 2014

As the final week of the NFL regular season winds down, we take a look back at some notable performances and key plays.

Late games

MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

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Even for those who, like me, have been convinced through most of the season that Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt should be named the NFL's Most Valuable Player, Rodgers' performance in the Packers' division-clinching win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday was certainly fodder for re-consideration. Rodgers suffered a re-aggravation of the calf injury that had been bothering him already as he threw a touchdown pass to Randall Cobb with 2:24 left in the first half. The entirety of Green Bay's fanbase held its collective breath as Rodgers was carted off the field, but their franchise guy wasn't done yet: he returned in the second half and finished the Packers' 30-20 win with 17 completions in 22 attempts, 226 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Even with his mobility shot after the injury, Rodgers beat Detroit's excellent pass defense over and over with all the assets that make him great -- accuracy, velocity, anticipation. And even with that injury, Rodgers ducked in on a one-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown with 8:45 left in the game. Rodgers proved that he's not only great, but he's also very tough, and he makes the second-seed Packers a very tough out in the upcoming playoffs.

LVP: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

Yes, the Atlanta defense was gashed by Cam Newton in the loss that gave the Panthers the NFC South, and the Falcons will likely finish with the worst defense in the NFL per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, but it was Ryan who was the real bumbler in Atlanta's 34-3 loss. Ryan finished his day with 29 completions in 47 attempts for 260 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions -- both of which were returned for touchdowns. Ryan can be a highly prolific player when he's got healthy targets and an offensive line blocking at an above-average level, but with Julio Jones dealing with injuries and Carolina's defense turning Atlanta's line into mush, Ryan failed to show any of the play-extending or improvisational abilities common to the league's best quarterbacks. Falcons owner Arthur Blank is likely about to make some serious decisions about the future of head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. There will be no such decisions about Ryan's future, nor should there be, but today's game was a reminder that Ryan is limited in certain ways and the team must be better-built around him.

Must-See Play: Ndamukong Suh's latest stomp

Last Sunday, Lions center Dominic Raiola clearly and intentionally stepped on the ankle of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson after the play was over, an act for which the serially dirty Raiola was suspended for... one game. So much for the league's professed concern about player safety. This week, Lions head coach Jim Caldwell came out and said that he didn't believe Raiola's action to be intentional, which was fairly hilarious. We imagine that Caldwell will have a tough time defending what defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh did to an already-injured Aaron Rodgers late in Detroit's loss.

(H/T: Bleacher Report)

Yeah. Pretty clear. And given that Suh has already been suspended for something similar -- a two-game rip for stepping on Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving Day, 2011 -- the NFL may actually have to act in a more vociferous fashion. It's clear, however, that Detroit's definition of tackle football didn't leave with ex-head coach Jim Schwartz; it's just become more refined.

Head-scratching decision: Jim Caldwell's fourth-and-10 gamble

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Give Detroit's stellar defense credit for giving Aaron Rodgers fits for the second time this season, but debit Detroit's head coach for a wasted end to a drive that made no sense. In the second quarter, the Lions saw Matthew Stafford overthrow Calvin Johnson after Megatron had beaten a double-team on first down, throw to tight end Eric Ebron and have Ebron develop alligator arms on second down, and underthrow Reggie Bush on a short pass on third down. That brought up fourth-and-10 at the Green Bay 31-yard line with 6:33 left in the second quarter, and the Packers up 7-0. Caldwell called a timeout, and it was decided that the Lions would go for it... on fourth-and-10, in field goal range. The result was another incompletion to Ebron, and the Packers took over on downs. They marched the ball 69 yards downfield for their second touchdown of the game, after Caldwell was caught playing to extend a drive that was not going to be extended. Bad move. 

Key Injury: Jordan Hill, DT, Seattle Seahawks (knee)

We'll obviously be monitoring Rodgers' status through the next two weeks, but it was Seattle's defense that caught an injury that could make a hidden difference in the postseason. Jordan Hill, who recorded his first career interception against the Rams in the 20-6 win that gave the Seahawks the NFC's top seed for the second straight season, left that game in the fourth quarter with a sprained knee. The sprain status may have Hill back when the Seahawks play in the divisional round, but if he's absent or effected, it would be a major hit. After the season-ending hamstring injury to tackle Brandon Mebane, it was Hill who stepped up in a major way, recording 4.5 sacks in the team's final four regular-season games, stopping the run with regularity, and adding hits and hurries at an impressive rate. 

Early games

MVP: Justin Houston, OLB, Chiefs

Just short.

That phrase will go down as the tagline for the 2014 Chiefs, who just missed out on a wild-card spot despite a 9-7 finish; and for Houston, who finished a half-sack shy of Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5.

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Houston nearly willed himself past Strahan with a dominant four-sack outing Sunday vs. San Diego. Taking advantage of a banged-up San Diego front line and a rather indecisive Philip Rivers, Houston capped his remarkable season with the second-best showing of his career (he posted 4.5 sacks last season at Philadelphia). 

"You guys aren’t out there after practice but he stays out another half-hour after practice just working different moves and the pass game,” Andy Reid said recently. "Him and Tamba [Hali], anytime the offense is up, they are on the sideline working all their hand games. The two and a half hours that he’s out there, he’s out there practicing his trade so you respect that."

Houston's 22-sack campaign will receive real recognition during upcoming contract talks. The 25-year-old edge rusher is an impeding free agent, and contract talks between he and the Chiefs failed to reach any conclusion during training camp. The franchise-tag price for linebackers this season was $11.455 million. Houston could top that number, per year, if he makes it to the open market. -- Chris Burke

LVP: The Dolphins' defense.

The Dolphins played with the effort of a team eliminated from the playoffs last week, in a relatively meaningless game, with their head coach's future uncertain.

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Miami closed out another disappointing season in horrid fashion, falling 37-24 to the Jets. Worse yet for Miami, its defense, which had started the year playing so well, allowed Geno Smith -- yes, that Geno Smith -- to post a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Smith hit on 20-of-25 passes for 358 yards and three touchdowns. The 358 yards were a career-high and he had thrown three touchdowns in a game just once before during his career.

All told, the Dolphins coughed up 494 yards of offense to the 4-12 Jets, and that was without Percy Harvin and Nick Mangold in New York's lineup. -- CB

Must-see GIF: J.J. Watt's safety

The Texans were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday, meaning the league's top defender will not be seen again until the Pro Bowl (assuming he plays). It's almost a guarantee that Watt will take home the Defensive Player of the Year award, and he might be the frontrunner for league MVP. 

He nearly caught both Houston and Strahan on the sacks chart, too. Watt dropped Blake Bortles three time Sunday, giving him 20.5 sacks on the year, capped by this game-clinching safety. (GIF via SBNation-- CB

Head-scratching decision: Playing the starters

More on one injury that could loom large in a moment, but several teams with little on the line -- Dallas, Indianapolis and New England -- all kept their starters on the field through at least the first half.

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The Cowboys had the most to play for, with a first-round bye still on the table (though they needed help). Even so, they led 27-7 midway through the second quarter and could have downshifted into cruise control much earlier.

This is nitpicking, perhaps. But having guys like Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and DeMarco Murray on the field for extra snaps was a gamble. -- CB

Key injury: Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts

Herein lies the problem with trying to get some run for the first-teamers. It's tough to sit guys for an entire weekend, let alone two if a team has a bye. The last thing a coaching staff wants is to have a key player shaking off rust come the postseason.

The Colts, though, would have preferred that option to what they have now with Wayne, which is a question about his health for wild-card weekend.

Wayne crumpled to the turf after a long 80-yard run in the second quarter, then hobbled off not to return. He said that he will play next weekend, but already Wayne reportedly is dealing with a triceps injury that will require offseason surgery. A gimpy leg would further limit how effective he can be. -- CB

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