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NFL Christmas Day 2022 Takeaways: Buccaneers Escape Again, Packers Are Alive, New Low for Broncos

How the Packers kept their season alive, what's next for the once-surging-now-struggling Dolphins, Baker Mayfield's brighter future and more from Sunday.

Merry Christmas and welcome to the NFL’s day of excess. Yes, the league got greedy this year, with a Christmas Day triple-header, and in return Santa came down the chimney with some of the most disappointing teams in the league. Rams-Broncos might as well be coal.

How truly bad is this slate of games?

I sorted all 32 teams by preseason win total over/unders compared to the number of wins every team had going into Week 15. Five of the six most underachieving NFL teams (by this admittedly rudimentary metric) landed in standalone windows on what the league is trying to turn into a showcase day.


But it’s still a full day of NFL football, and two of the matchups (Dolphins-Packers and Cardinals-Buccaneers) are at least interesting, if not as quite as important as they looked on paper when the schedule was released in the spring. It’s still Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and three teams alive in the playoff hunt.

Of course, people will still watch, and after reports come out about more people tuning in to watch Trace McSorley than Ja Morant, we’ll surely see chest-thumping from the league, the TV networks airing the games and the people who enjoy bragging about which sports are most popular.

So don’t worry about me! I’m sitting at home eating Chinese food and happily logging takeaways on all three games. And because I’m fully leaning into clichés, we’ll put plays and players onto lists naughty and nice.

This post will be updated throughout the day.

Packers defenders celebrate a game-clinching interception against the Dolphins

The Packers celebrated interceptions on Miami's final three possessions, the last one by Rasul Douglas (29). 

Packers at Dolphins

What happened
The Packers fell behind by 10 points in the first half, but shut out the Dolphins in the second half and scored the game’s final 16 points to win 26–20. Miami’s effort to come back was quashed as Tua Tagovailoa interceptions on their final three possessions.

The Dolphins outgained the Packers 376–301, but Green Bay won the turnover battle 4–1, took advantage of short fields, played aggressively on fourth downs (more below) and earned a season-saving win.

What it means for the Packers
Green Bay improves to 7–8 and keeps its hopes alive for at least another week. The team was handed a lifeline Saturday with every competitor for an NFC wild-card spot (Giants, Commanders, Lions and Seahawks) losing. The Packers have now won three straight and pulled into a tie for eighth in the NFC, just a half-game behind Washington and 1.5 back of New York.

If they win out with a pair of home games against the Vikings and Lions, a playoff berth is eminently possible. Of course that won’t be easy, but it also wouldn’t be the first time Rodgers ran the table to end the regular season.

This also makes the rest of the season more pleasant in Green Bay. A loss would have put conversations into hyperdrive about supplanting Rodgers with Jordan Love, but a win delays the inevitable conversations about whether the future Hall of Famer will return next season. For now, he can keep setting his aim on a 12th playoff berth in 15 years as the starter. The Packers have not been the same team they were in their three straight 13-win campaigns preceding this one, but here’s guessing neither the Vikings nor the 49ers would be thrilled to see them roll into town on wild-card weekend.

What it means for the Dolphins
Miami’s fourth straight loss has knocked the early-season darling down to 8–7. The Dolphins have fallen into the AFC’s No. 7 seed, but remain one game clear of any other team chasing them for one of the final spots (a long list: Patriots, Jets, Steelers and whichever of the Jaguars or Titans does not win the AFC South). The Patriots, Jets and Titans all lost on Sunday. And as much as the Dolphins’ once-very-promising season has been derailed, can you really say you feel better about any of those three teams than Miami right now?

The Dolphins are trying to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, and still have a good chance to do it. If we’re searching for reasons to feel O.K., the Dolphins have had a streaky season, winning their first three, losing the next three, winning five more and now dropping four in a row. Maybe they can regroup and turn it around again (granted, that first losing streak came with backup quarterbacks in). Also: The first three games of this current streak were against no slouches (49ers, Bills and Chargers). But it’s tough to right the ship after losing four in a row (even if we remember the Rams went 0-for-November last year and still got a trophy at the end of the year).

The Dolphins can still beat the Patriots and Jets the next two weeks to roll into the playoffs at 10–7, but they have lost the shine they had in the season’s first two months when Mike McDaniel was a leading Coach of the Year candidate.

Nice list
The Packers’ aggression on fourth downs: Matt LaFleur coached like a team down to its last game. The Packers scored a touchdown on their second drive on a fourth-and-2, and for the game they went 3-for-5 trying to keep possessions alive. One of the misses was a fake punt deep in their own territory where they may have been better off just trying to pick it up with their offense. But I appreciate the spirit, if not the execution.

Packers returner Keisean Nixon: The Dolphins kicked a field goal on the first possession of the game, and Nixon answered with a 93-yard return to the 9-yard line. He left the game with a groin injury, but did his part to keep Green Bay in it early.

Tyreek Hill blocking way down field on Jaylen Waddle’s 84-yard touchdown catch and run: More like “running down the field with Waddle” than blocking, per se, but it still got the job done, accompanying his pal to the end zone.

Jarran Reed’s hand strength: Reed made a really nice play stripping Raheem Mostert in the first half—getting a hand on the ball and just ripping it out even as he was going down to the ground, then recovering it himself. Great play.

The ageless Marcedes Lewis!: The 17-year vet scored a touchdown on the aforementioned fourth-and-goal, and then made a lunging 31-yard grab on a wheel route up the left sideline (though Mike Perieria said it could have been reversed to an incomplete pass if challenged).

Not quite, but good tweet. (Side note: I loved this game, and it was the reason I bought a DreamCast instead of whatever version of PlayStation was out at the time. Probably a mistake by high school Mitch.)

Naughty list
Tua’s back-to-back-to-back interceptions: The first, by Jaire Alexander, came on the first play of the drive after Miami had taken over after a takeaway. The second, by De’Vondre Campbell, came on the ninth play of a sustained drive—the Dolphins took over down by three with 11:45 to go in the game, Tagovailoa was marching his team down the field until Campbell walked right into the passing lane for an easy-looking pick on a seam pass intended for Mostert. Rasul Douglas sealed the game with the third one on another poor decision you can witness for yourself below.

Miami’s botched kickoff: It came on Miami’s second kickoff of the game, so it was likely prompted by Nixon’s long return. It was weirdly underdiscussed on the broadcast, but it was either a squib kick that went awry and hit a guy, or an attempted onside kick where you try to bonk it off the front line. It didn’t come close to working. Either way, the miscue gave Green Bay the ball at its own 46. The Packers took advantage of a second straight short field, which led to the Lewis touchdown and evened the game 10–10. Whatever the intent, the execution left a lot to be desired.

Rodgers’s deep balls: This may have topped the list, had the Dolphins not melted away. Christian Watson had a step on his defender on a fourth-and-1 early in the second quarter, but Rodgers sailed it over him. He had another deep ball in the second quarter that was in and out of Xavien Howards’s hands and probably should have been picked off on the Packers’ side of the field. He then threw an interception to Kader Kohou on a ball that was underthrown into the end zone. (Packers fans probably wanted a push-off called against Kohou, but the broadcast defended the no-call.)

Fortunately for the Packers, these plays will mostly be forgotten rather than living in infamy as the plays that ended the season.

Baker Mayfield scans the field during a game against the Broncos

Baker Mayfield added to his Rams highlight reel on Sunday.

Broncos at Rams

What happened
The Broncos came to Los Angeles and the Rams absolutely blew their doors off (which is tricky in SoFi Stadium, a mostly covered dome with open walls, but that’s what they did). Denver jumped out to leads of 17–0 and 31–3 before finishing things up 51–14.

It was the perfect backdrop for a Christmas Day nap. Or spending time with family. Or a quick showing of your favorite holiday film. Or furiously texting all your friends about how Tyler Higbee didn’t score any touchdowns until after you’d been eliminated from the fantasy playoffs so now of course he got two on Sunday.

What it means for the Rams
Not a whole lot! The defending champs are now 5–10 and famously do not own their own first-round pick, which went to Detroit as part of the Matthew Stafford trade.

There are questions about which members of the team’s core will return in 2023, and for how many more seasons, but those decisions are unlikely to hinge on how the final three meaningless games of this season go.

What it means for the Broncos
Not a whole lot! This team is now 4–11 and famously does not have its own first-round pick, which went to Seattle as part of the Russell Wilson trade.

This season just has been a disaster all the way around. People have been talking since September about the chances of Nathaniel Hackett being a one-and-done coach, and things have only gotten worse since then. Wilson will almost certainly be back, given his contract and the assets sunk into the trade for him. Will the way the team finishes out its last few meaningless games matter for the future of either man? That’s impossible to know unless your family owns Walmart. But losing in laughable, embarrassing fashion certainly can’t help.

Nice list
Baker Mayfield playing for a job: The Rams’ quarterback came out sharp, completing his first 11 passes. Higbee’s second TD catch made his QB 12-for-13 for 119 yards and two touchdowns, putting the Rams up 24–3. And, frankly, Mayfield’s final stats don’t matter much because things so quickly got out of hand. While the Panthers have a chance to reach the playoffs without him, he has been given a huge opportunity to play for his future by getting this stretch run in L.A. The idea of a team going into 2023 with Mayfield atop the depth chart felt like a nonstarter just four weeks ago; now, he won’t be laughed off the free agent market when he asks for a starting job. Matthew Stafford has since said pretty definitively that he plans to come back next year, but for Mayfield L.A. would be a comfortable place to return as a backup if he tests the market and doesn’t find what he’s looking for. This has been a huge month for him at a career crossroads.

Bobby Wagner intercepting his old teammate: Wagner and Wilson were both in the Seahawks’ 2012 draft class and spent 10 years together as teammates in Seattle. Wagner had a sack, a tackle for loss and a first-quarter interception deep in the Broncos’ own territory that set up Mayfield & Co. at the 11-yard line. I can only imagine the messages flying on the (Russ-less)-former-Seahawks group text right now.

Cam Akers’s hat trick: The running back has had a strange year. He spent time away from the team, Sean McVay acknowledged they were trying to trade him, and then he worked his way back into the mix after the deadline. We know the former Octopus of the Year Award winner is familiar with the end zone, and with the Rams spending much of the game in clock-control mode, he ran it 23 times for 118 yards and three scores.

Slime time: This game marked the latest chapter in Nickelodeon’s efforts to slimify the NFL. Friend and colleague Julie Kliegman wrote a nice feature story about the endeavor to take over football, golf, perhaps the world. You can read it here.

Naughty list
Sideline fight!: The broadcast showed Brett Rypien and Dalton Risner jawing with each other on the Denver bench. You don’t normally see the backup QB and the starting offensive line beefing during a game, but when that does happen it’s typically the mark of a bad team going through a long season.

Russell Wilson: The guy is just having a disastrous season. We are running out adjectives here, and it barely even feels worth dwelling on at this point. He finished this game 15-for-27 for a (meaningless, late) touchdown and three interceptions. He threw picks on the Broncos’ first two drives, burying them before they could get off the ground, and another on the first drive after halftime when the score was already 31–6.

Denver defense: This had been the good unit this season. Sunday was pretty gross. The final score came on a pick-six of Rypien, but it still goes down in the history books as a 50-burger.

The end zones at SoFi Stadium: I hate them! I’ve been talking about this for two full seasons, but I just find it so aesthetically displeasing how they paint most of the end zone blue, but then leave a green rim around the inside edge instead of filling the end zone with that pleasant, deep blue all the way to the edge of the white line. I noted they now do the same at NRG Stadium in Houston, and this is a concerning trend.

The future of primetime and standalone game windows: I’m just reusing old complaints at this point (this more like a Festivus airing of grievances than a naughty list), but it feels particularly apt to say this today. I’ve written about it here, and tweeted about it here, and spoken about it on podcasts and paced around my neighborhood muttering about it, but the NFL is absolutely obsessed with taking as many games as possible out of the two big Sunday windows and putting them in standalone TV slots. We see it with the expanded Christmas schedule, the forthcoming proliferation of extra Monday-night doubleheaders, the eventual expansion of international games in the 9 a.m. ET window every week, the Black Friday game, the Saturday triple-headers, the expanded playoffs, etc., etc., etc.

People will watch (myself included!) because it’s NFL football on TV. And some of the games will be awesome. But many of the games won’t be. You can institute as many new flex scheduling rules as you want; there are just going to be some bad and/or meaningless games in standalone TV windows if you take this many bites of the apple. The NFL has made a bet—it really began with the expansion of Thursday Night Football and the effort to get nearly every team on it once a year—that even the very worst of its product will draw more eyeballs than anything else on TV, so it must be worth it. But I fear at some point it will simply be too much and the games won’t be appointment viewing as they have been while the NFL built this empire. 

Buccaneers QB Tom Brady calls a play at the line of scrimmage

Tom Brady pulled yet another improbable comeback out of thin air on Sunday night.

Buccaneers at Cardinals

What happened
The Cardinals, with nothing to play for but pride, kept the Buccaneers’ offense in check all night. Until, that is, Tom Brady followed a familiar script, waiting until the last possible moment to will his team over the finish line. This game was tied 6–6 after three quarters, at which point Arizona quickly scored 10 straight. The Bucs took over the ball with 10:47 left in the fourth quarter and marched 67 yards on seven plays for their first touchdown of the night. The Cardinals fumbled on a botched pitch from Trace McSorley to Keaontay Ingram, the Bucs tied it up on a field goal and then both teams traded punts before overtime.

Arizona won the toss, but mustered only 11 yards in the extra session before pinning Tampa at its own 12. The Bucs drove 66 yards into field goal range, where Ryan Succop nailed an easy 40-yarder to escape with a 19–16 win.

As we have seen several times this year, Brady couldn’t get anything going on offense until the team switched to hurry-up mode late in the game. Running backs routinely got stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. Receivers had little-to-no time to get open before J.J. Watt and the pass rush broke through. Brady had an impossible time advancing more than a few yards at time. And then they went tempo and suddenly found success moving the ball when they needed to most.

What it means for the Buccaneers
Just about everything. The Bucs improved to 7–8 and can now clinch the NFC South with a win at home against the Panthers next week. A loss would have treated us to the bizarre sight of Brady playing in a must-win game to keep his playoff hopes alive in Week 17. It would have clinched a below-.500 season both for Brady and whoever ends up winning this division and hosting a playoff game.

Expectations are still pretty low for this team if it does reach the playoffs. But winning the division with a poor record and losing to a good Cowboys team would be a mostly benign and forgettable ending for Brady’s career, his run in Tampa or both (should he move on to a different phase of his life next year). Whereas missing the playoffs and watching a 7–10 Panthers go instead would have been memorable, memeable and amusing to many.

And sure, maybe they’ll still get into the playoffs and go on a deep run. Would it really surprise you, deep down inside? They have Tom Brady, after all.

What it means for the Cardinals
Like I said above for the Rams and Broncos, not a whole lot. In fact, you could argue this is a good outcome for a team that does own its own draft pick—currently No. 4 after falling to 4–11.

It’s fun to play spoiler and win a game, and I’m sure Trace McSorley and Kliff Kingsbury would have both enjoyed the bragging rights that come with beating Brady. But chalk this up as a moral victory. Cardinals fans got to enjoy a nice evening seeing Watt out there making plays and Pharoh Cooper hurdling a guy on a punt return without any real concerns or consequences.

And if Kingsbury is indeed on the hot seat, at least he can say his team continued to fight hard in a lost season without Kyler Murray.

Nice list
Marco Wilson’s big day: The second-year Cardinals corner had one career interception to his credit when he woke up on Christmas morning and tallied two more that night against a player who literally inspires his opponents to seek autographs when they pick him off. On the first one, there was pressure in Brady’s face as he tried to float it out to Mike Evans but it looked like he wasn’t ready as it fell short and behind him. On the second one, the broadcast did a good job showing how Evans was wide open, but Brady was late on the throw and Wilson was able to undercut it and make the grab. Again, Brady just had no time to let anything develop for most of the night.

Tom Brady stats: Maybe not any particular stat, just the genre of Tom Brady Stats in general. As in, the idea that Brady’s career has gone on for so long and been so ridiculous that every week we seem to get a new one that is either amusing or astounding, and it’s fun to consume them. This week’s is that this was Brady’s third straight game with two interceptions, for the first time since 2002. See what I mean? Remember the joke above about Marcedes Lewis? Brady actually was in that video game.

DOINK IN: Oh yes; love a good doink. Matt Prater, who had a great night, doinked one off the upright and safely through from 53 yards out. This led me to thinking: Do you prefer to see field goals doink and go in, or doink and go out? Both are fun for different reasons.

Take my poll to have your voice heard:

Doink in had roughly 57% at time of publication.

The Cooper hurdle: As previously mentioned. And this was not just a matter of style points, as this return set up the first touchdown of the game, which put the Cardinals up 16–6. It was a massive, game-swinging play at the time.

Naughty list
The Cardinals’ fumble that gave the game away: On probably the most consequential play of the game, the Cards had the ball up 16–13 after the Bucs had finally scored a touchdown. They had a third-and-1 on Tampa’s 42 and McSorley threw a pitch to Keaontay Ingram. The toss was a little hard, and a little high, and bounced off his running back for a fumble. Ingram could have made the play, but McSorley didn’t make it easy on him. It was a pivotal turnover. The Cardinals could have converted the first down, or at the very least were in the part of the field where they would have gone for it on fourth down. Instead, the Bucs drove down for the game-tying field goal.

Star wide receivers: It was a quiet night for some big names, which may have cost some fantasy managers their playoff games. DeAndre Hopkins had one catch for four yards, and it came on the last drive of regulation. Mike Evans had one catch for five yards in regulation, though he had an eight-yard grab and a 16-yard grab on the overtime drive for a field goal.

As I said, both teams really struggled to move the ball. For most of the night, Cardinals receiver Greg Dortsch seemed like the only player who could do anything. (He should probably be on the nice list, but I guess I snubbed him.)

Missing out on a tie: Admit it, it would have been fun to have another tie thrown into the NFC playoff scenario mix. I am on the record that ties are fun, and I think it would have created a little more intrigue over the final two weeks of this mostly amusing NFC South race. Mike Tirico promised we were very close to seeing NBC’s “how a tie affects the playoff scenarios” graphics package, but the game ended just before we got the chance. Bah, humbug!