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Week 17 Takeaways: Baker Runs Browns Into Playoffs, Wolford Wins, Bears Are In, Giants Bumble Past Dallas, Tua Meltdown

Plus, Rodgers clinches MVP, Bills assert themselves as the new kings of the AFC East, Titans survive Houston, Philip Rivers is still alive, Cam finishes Patriots career on a high note, Ravens run up another big win, looking at the futures of Stafford and Ryan, what the Jets and Dolphins will do with their top-three picks, and more.

Reacting and overreacting to everything that happened in the Week 17 Sunday afternoon games...

Things That Made Me Giddy

Baker Runs the Browns Into the Playoffs: As far as symbolic ways to end a lengthy playoff drought go, this is pretty much perfect. I pride myself on being the most cynical jerk in media and even I had goosebumps…

Alright, Alright, I Get It, Aaron Rodgers Is MVP: I thought Patrick Mahomes had an insurmountable lead coming into December. But it turns out it was surmountable. Because Aaron Rodgers surmounted it.

The Giants Deserve the NFC East: I mean that in the non-snarky sense. They are the only one of the division's four teams that can argue that they overachieved this season. We'll find out whether the football gods agree tonight.

Leonard Williams Saves… Something. Dave Gettleman’s Reputation?: The much-maligned intra-city trade acquisition was a monster in 2020, including three sacks in the regular-season finale against Dallas. It was fitting that Williams made the play of the season for the Giants with his sack of Andy Dalton on first-and-goal from the 7, setting up the comedy of errors that clinched the game (though the play itself was simply a blown protection).

Derrick Henry in The Year 2000: He flattened Texans defenders to the tune of 250 yards on 34 carries, pushing his season total to 2,027. Sing it, La Bamba...

Tannehill to A.J. Brown: How the AFC South was won…

Sam Sloman Banks It Home: To put it nicely, kicks from the rookie (recently of the Rams, filling in for Stephen Gostkowski) do not often look like NFL-caliber kicks. That was the case on the division-clinching kick to beat the Texans in Houston, knuckling off the left upright and banking through.

Josh Allen Eats the Dolphins’ Souls: The last three years included enough bad Josh Allen takes to power a mid-sized city, but there’s a special category for those who as recently as two months ago argued Tua Tagovailoa, not Allen, was the AFC East’s best young quarterback.

Isaiah McKenzie Goes Wild: Three touchdowns in a seven-minute span during the second quarter—two receptions and an 84-yard punt return. What became clear on Sunday: The best team in the AFC East is the Buffalo Bills. The second-best team is the Buffalo Bills’ backups.

Bears Are In!: The NFC playoff picture, from 4 p.m. until around 7 p.m. ET…

Now Matt Nagy Has Work to Do: I award him an official Sunday FreakOut Thumbs Up for clawing back into the postseason, but his defense is suddenly very leaky as the Bears get ready for a trip to New Orleans.

The Rams Earned It: The defense was excellent again, and after a disastrous interception on his first throw John Wolford found an acceptable level of play thanks to Sean McVay cutting the field in half and keeping things simple. (Not that McVay didn’t trust him: 40-plus dropbacks for Wolford in his first career start!) The bottom line, once again, is that Sean McVay and his staff solve problems.

Cam’s Foxboro Finale: The Patriots had 404 yards of offense and 28 points in a season-ending win over the Jets. To be clear: He wasn’t good enough this season, but the characterization that he was a disaster or even a mistake is unfair. This all would have played out differently if the defense provided better complementary football—instead, due to opt-outs and free-agent defections, they went from one of the league’s best in 2019 to one of the league’s worst in ’20—and/or there was any kind of supporting cast for Newton. And if we’re playing hypotheticals, Football Team would have been far better off signing him instead of Kyle Allen if they were as uninterested in developing Dwayne Haskins as they revealed themselves to be. That said, with approximately four starting quarterbacks entering the league in April, Newton wouldn’t be settling for a bridge/mentor job in ’21—he’d be lucky to get one.

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Andrew Wingard Owns Philip Rivers: Wingard had a huge pick of Rivers in the season opener, and on Sunday took a touchdown away from T.Y. Hilton as Rivers underestimated the back-side safety. When Rivers is inducted in Canton, they should unveil a second bust of a mullet-ed Wingard looking creepily over his shoulder.

Philip Rivers Lives: It got a little dicey, but the Colts get their sweet revenge on Jacksonville and enter the playoffs as a team kinda-maybe-possibly built for January (big-time defense, strong run game, veteran game manager at QB). They might be the fourth-best team in the AFC, but opening in Buffalo, on account of losing the AFC South race, is a tough draw.

The Ravens Are a Top-Five Team: It wasn’t a murder’s row of opponents, but they have won five straight with an average margin of victory of 19.4 points. No one should want any part of this team in the playoffs. I sure don’t—what, my 7-year-old is supposed to chase down J.K. Dobbins?

Raiders Go for Two and the Win: After a touchdown pulled them to within a point with 24 seconds to go in Denver, Derek Carr hit Darren Waller on the two-pointer to win it (because it is worth two points, and therefore gave Vegas a one-point advantage, and the Broncos were credited with no points for having a 63-yard field-goal attempt blocked on the game's final play).

Matthew Stafford Shines Again for the Franchise That Never Deserved Him: Thirty-five points with a short-handed offense, only to lose. If Stafford wants to stay as the Lions take on the years-long process of undoing the Bob Quinn Era, that’s his decision. He turns 33 in February. Here’s hoping the NFL’s most underappreciated superstar gets to play out his prime in an organization that is actually functional.

Nick Gates: He was in the head of Cowboys defenders all afternoon. Or, as the kids say, There’s my chippy (or, if they don’t say that, they should)…

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Regrets

The NFC East-Perfect End of Giants-Cowboys: A sack of Andy Dalton on a blown protection, followed by a drop by a wide-open CeeDee Lamb, followed by a Dalton prayer intercepted, followed by Wayne Gallman, needing only to fall down to clinch the game, getting stripped by some kind of poltergeist, followed by the different officials awarding that fumble to different teams, followed by officials ruling that Gallman had recovered the fumble with his butt, a la Adventure Time’s drop ball. It’s the only way it could end.

Wayne Gallman’s Fumble: This was after Gallman has gained the game-clinching first down and simply had to fall down and end the game. It was ruled a recovery by Gallman, which may or may not be true (it probably is not true), but it certainly saved Gallman from being a lifelong punchline.

One Last Missed Opportunity for Mike McCarthy: He clutched that challenge flag for dear life after a fourth-quarter third-down pass to Giants WR Dante Pettis was incorrectly ruled complete. The lack of a challenge led to Graham Gano connecting on a 50-yard field goal to stretch the Giants’ lead to four, instead of Riley Dixon coming on to punt. The game (essentially) ended on Andy Dalton’s red-zone interception a few minutes later.

A Bitter End for the Dolphins: The future is looking bright for Brian Flores’s squad, but Sunday showed just how big the gap is between Miami and Buffalo (as well as between Miami and Buffalo’s second-stringers) as far as the future of the AFC East goes. In 2020, it's hard to win without an elite offense or an elite pass rush.

Tua’s Troubles: It was another deflating performance, in which the Dolphins didn’t move the ball against the Bills’ first-team defense, then barely moved it against Buffalo’s backups. There were a couple drops, but this performance was every bit as ugly as the box-score numbers (6.2 yards per attempt, 3 INTs, 62.5 rating) indicate. Overall, Tua’s first NFL stint was marked by overly cautious decision-making, a lack of pocket presence, middling arm talent, an inability to create his own time and space and a complete lack of trust in what he was seeing. The Dolphins will have a top-three pick in April, and looking from the outside it is simply not a valid argument that he’s a better prospect than more physically gifted talents in this class (Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance). Tua was considered the high-floor prospect last spring, but it’s probably time to reassess what constitutes high-floor as the “traits vs. production” debate is very much tipping toward “traits” over the past few draft classes. One year after passing on Justin Herbert for the perceived safe pick, Miami's front office has to decide whether they're going to do it again.

To Be Clear...: (Because the above note is already way too long) this Dolphins front office will not have another chance to draft a QB in the top five—let alone in a great draft for quarterbacks. Because if they were to finish a season with a bottom-five record, after passing on Herbert and two of the top-four quarterbacks in the 2021 class... well, you know what's likely to happen. And, remember, this is a front office that was willing to sacrifice an entire season to find the right quarterback.

Kyler on One Leg: He plays in an offense that doesn’t provide many answers for him, and taking away his scrambling ability ultimately left him helpless.

Chris Streveler vs. John Wolford: Sometimes it’s neat to see two unproven quarterbacks who starred in smaller leagues (Steveler in the CFL, Wolford in the AAF). This was not one of those times. Wolford’s first career pass was an interception so easy—a linebacker sitting on a slant that Wolford stared down and delivered late—that Nathan Peterman would’ve blushed. Streveler made a few plays with his legs but was begging the Rams to take the ball back on every throw, including a devastating pick-six at the end of the first half. Wolford, ultimately, was good enough thanks to his coach and his defense.

Evan Engram’s Hands: His athleticism makes him such a weapon, and his tendency to not just drop easy passes, but deflect them straight up into the air when he does, makes him such a disaster in the making. On an easy pitch-and-catch slant in the third quarter, he batted it into a Dallas defender’s hands, and the Cowboys capitalized with a touchdown soon after. He followed it up with a brutal downfield drop on a first-and-25 (set up by a phantom 15-yard crack back penalty) on the ensuing drive.

The Titans’ Utter Lack of a Pass Rush: They’re going to have a tough time in the postseason when they can’t get near a QB.

Sweet Revenge Slips From Mason Rudolph’s Clutches: A little more than a year after nearly having his helmet permanently embedded into his skull by Myles Garrett, Rudolph kept the Steelers in it at Cleveland. He was a two-point conversion (which probably should’ve been flagged as pass interference) from tying it with a little more than a minute left.

Mike Evans’s Left Leg: He could not put weight on it after a non-contact injury late in the first quarter. The Bucs will travel to meet the NFC East champs next week.

Has Kirk Cousins Been Roughed?: You might see a run-of-the-mill tackle, but the officials flagged Tracy Walker for roughing the passer on this fourth-down play, essentially a six-point flag (Dan Bailey missed the PAT after a touchdown two plays later).

The Adam Gase Era Comes to a Merciful End: The Jets led the Patriots in the second half, and a win would have given Gase victories over Bill Belichick with Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler and Sam Darnold and, as you know, in the Book of Revelation…

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Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About

This Thing That Jaylon Smith Does: I’ve never seen someone so active while participating in a fight without actually fighting. At least he seems to be getting use out of the Billy Blanks VHS set Ben DiNucci gifted to all his teammates this holiday season.

Andy Dalton’s Hand Gets Stomped: He was handing off backhanded and eventually bleeding through his glove after Leonard Williams stepped on him at the end of a third-quarter scramble.

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What We’ll Be Talking About This Week

Steelers-Browns Rematch!: Will it be Ben Roethlisberger or Mason Rudolph getting the start for the Steelers? Or Joshua Dobbs? Or Tommy Maddox? Or Bubby Brister? We’ll have to wait and see. But the rematch in Pittsburgh will be all about Baker Mayfield’s ability to handle what should be heavy pressure from a rested Steelers defense, something Mayfield has struggled with all year.

Intrigue at Picks 2 and 3: The Jets and Dolphins (who own the Texans’ pick at No. 3) both have every reason to cut their losses and move on from their recent top-5 QBs. So... the intrigue is really what another franchise would give up for Sam Darnold or Tua Tagovailoa right now. While both quarterbacks could still become quality starters, there's no objective argument that either one would rank ahead of the top-three QBs in the class of 2021 right now. If the Jets or Dolphins can get a Josh Rosen-to-Miami type deal—a Day 2 pick, maybe a little more if you're Miami since Tua has more time left on his rookie deal—they should jump on it. (My colleague from New Jersey respectfully disagrees.)

The Futures of Stafford and Matt Ryan: If you’re playing matchmaker, Ryan reuniting with Kyle Shanahan would provide a level of stability the 49ers don’t have with Jimmy Garoppolo. And Stafford would elevate the Patriots, Steelers, Bears or Football Team to Super Bowl contender status.

Cardinals Have Some Soul-Searching to Do: Ultimately, they were a Hail Mary away from 7-9. This offense is not forward-thinking and regressed in the second half of the season despite a ton of talent and exceptional health until the last five quarters of the year. Steve Wilks was fired after one season that was much less problematic than this one.

I Love a Seahawks-Rams Rematch and So Do You: That is THE. MATCHUP. of Wild-Card weekend, and anyone saying differently is lying right to your face.

Ravens-Titans, Round 3: That’s a very good one too, this time in Nashville. The Ravens are red-hot and their defense is back at full strength, unlike the meeting back in November. But if the Titans beat them for a third time in one calendar year, Mike Vrabel officially becomes the mayor of Baltimore according to the city's bylaws (someone should have read those bylaws and maybe revised them before this came up).

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