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NFL Week 15 Blanket: The playoff-bound Oakland Raiders are officially back

For the first time since 2002, the Raiders are going back to the playoffs. Plus, the Chiefs shot themselves in the foot, the Ravens are struggling and more takeaways from Week 15.

That sure seemed like Separation Sunday, as in separating the contenders from the pretenders. Teams like the Steelers, Texans, Ravens, Packers and Raiders did enough to get the job done but lingering questions remain. The Patriots, Giants and Falcons dominated to stake their claims as contenders in their conferences. And then you had the Lions and Broncos come up woefully short in performances that call into question whether they’ll even be in the postseason. The intensity is ratcheting up with playoff berths and jobs on the line. Let’s get nuts…

Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines out of Week 3 of the 2016 NFL season:

Go crazy, folks

The Raiders are back: For the first time since 2002, the Oakland Raiders are going back to the playoffs after their 19–16 victory over the Chargers. It was a complete team victory with Latavius Murray running, QB Derek Carr making a few plays,  Sebastian Janikowski hitting four field goals, and a relentless pass rush in crunch time. Just win, baby.

Patriots have a defense: The Broncos might not be the prettiest offense out there (ok, they’re putrid), but for the Patriots to hold Denver without a first down for the entire third quarter (three drives) and most of the fourth (two drives) is an accomplishment for anyone. The Patriots snuffed out the Broncos’ running game (3.4 yards per rush), harassed Trevor Siemian (four sacks) and made Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders no-factors until the game was decided. Who knows how good the Patriots’ defense really is? Does it really matter in today’s NFL? They’re executing at a high level, and can evolve from game to game and down to down. That’s usually a good formula.

Stay classy, Jacksonville: Gus Bradley wasn’t the greatest coach for the Jaguars, to be sure, but he represented the team well and conducted himself with class. He did not deserve to be fired in Houston, and then have to ride the plane with the team. Bradley deserved to be fired with some dignity back home after the flight.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, Mike Mularkey: I don’t care if the Titans eventually beat the Chiefs 19–17, it was not the right call by Titans coach Mike Mularkey to go for the two-point conversion down 17–16 with 3:12 remaining in the game. The Titans should have kicked the extra point to tie it, and if they somehow got a chance at a game-winning field goal, all the better. If they had one timeout left then, yes, I could see them being aggressive, but they had zero remaining when they made that decision. After missing the two-point conversion, the Titans needed such a confluence of events to win, the risk was not worth the reward. As it happened, those events transpired. Chiefs coach Andy Reid called a keeper for QB Alex Smith on third down, and then called a timeout on the Titans’ first field-goal attempt, which was no good. In any event, it was still a great victory by the Titans, who have beaten the Packers, Broncos and Chiefs in the past month. And a tremendous kick by Ryan Succop from 53 yards to beat his old team.

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It’s all set up now, the AFC North de facto championship on Christmas Day between the Steelers (9–5) and Ravens (8–6). I guess I should be excited. But I’m not. This is the first time in a long time where these two teams are playing a meaningful game late in the season and I’m far from jacked up to watch it. Both teams have been so underwhelming this season. The Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell (for most of the season), have beaten the Chiefs and Giants this season, but they’ve also lost to the Eagles, Dolphins, Patriots, Ravens and Cowboys. Shouldn’t a contender win a few more of those games? Not to mention the Steelers trailed the Bengals 20–6 on Sunday and most of the Steelers’ comeback came off four-straight field goals. Then you have the Ravens, whose signature victories this year have come against the Steelers and … the Dolphins? And the Ravens themselves were fortunate on Sunday to have the Eagles go for two points when the Ravens looked to be on the ropes had the game gone to overtime. Yes, it will be an important game on Christmas that figures to be compelling. And each team has the potential to wreak havoc in the postseason. But it sure doesn’t feel like they will. It’s a shame these teams aren’t better at this point.