Ravens Roll, Cardinals Shock Eagles as NFL Playoffs Picture Comes into View

Dec 31, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) throws during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) throws during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If the NFL made a New Year’s resolutions to lay off dramatic, blood pressure-raising games, we bet that goal fails miserably during the very first weekend of 2024.


Whether it be a stunning upset in Philadelphia or a controversial ending in Dallas, Week 17 continued this season’s trend of pumping adrenaline into fanbases league wide. The playoff picture became a bit clearer yesterday with San Francisco and Baltimore locking up No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences. The Dolphins loss in Baltimore sets up a Week 18 must-see matchup with Buffalo (in Miami) for the AFC East crown. As impressive as the Ravens were on Christmas Day, what they did to the visiting Dolphins still managed to open eyes and chisel another letter in Lamar Jackson's MVP trophy. 


The Giants and Rams locked themselves into a crazy finish in the Meadowlands. Wins for the Rams, Colts, Texans, Steelers and Packers, with their victory Sunday night over Minnesota, improved the playoff outlooks for those teams.


Despite tough losses, the Seahawks and Bengals are still alive but will need to win and varying degrees of help in what will surely be an intense Week 18. Say "goodbye" to the Raiders, Broncos and Vikings.


We'll miss you Maxx Crosby.



Arizona 35, Philadelphia 31


The shocker of the day, maybe of the season, saw the Eagles lose its fourth of their last five games, as Arizona rallied from a 21-6 deficit. Running back James Conner capped off a terrific 128-yard rushing day on a two-yard TD run with 32 seconds left. A Jalen Hurts’ Hail Mary pass on the ensuing drive was intercepted in the end zone.


Connor’s game-winning TD run came shortly after Kyler Murray found receiver Greg Dortch on a 36-yard catch and run that brought the ball to the Philadelphia 5-yard line. Murray finished 25-of-31 for 232 yards.


But it was the Arizona running attack that put its stamp on this game, rushing for 221 yards as the Cardinals outgained the Eagles by 174 total yards. Most impressively, the Cardinals did this playing from behind for the most the game. 


Trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, Arizona was driving when an ill-advised Murray heave was picked by Sydney Brown who returned the interception 99 yards for a score. Philadelphia padded their lead when Hurts connected with Julio Jones for a 22-yard TD to put the Eagles up 21-6 at the half. Hurts threw for three scores on the day but finished with just 167 yards passing. 


But Arizona dominated the third, scoring on two Murray TD throws to draw even. A Dallas Goedert touchdown catch put Philadelphia up, but Arizona responded on the next possession, finished off with Murray’s third TD pass, this one to rookie Michael Wilson. The Eagles went back in front with a Jake Elliott field goal before Murray, Dortch and Connor — the NFC West’s top law firm — made their game-winning contributions.


Arizona finishes its season knowing they threw sand into the gears of the NFC playoff picture. An absolutely crushing loss for the Eagles, who in the blink of an eye drop to the No. 5 seed. Perhaps even more important, this game should have the Eagles faithful questioning whether the Philly defense can stop anyone in the playoffs. Still in contention for the No. 2 and an NFC East title, Philadelphia visits the Giants next weekend — though the Giants are suddenly no gimme. 



Los Angeles 26, New York Giants 25


Giants placekicker Mason Crosby missed a 54-yard field goal with 34 seconds left to complete a wild finish in New York, giving the Rams a crucial win over the resurgent Giants.


His team trailing, 26-19, with three and a half minutes left in the game, New York returner Gunner “not just a special teams position” Olszewski returned 94 yards for a score. But quarterback Tyrod Taylor misfired to an open Saquon Barkley on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt that would have given the Giants the edge, keeping the score at 26-25, Rams.


On LA’s next possession, New York’s Isaiah Simmons sacked Stafford on third down, forcing a punt and giving the Giants one final chance. Taylor broke off a 31-yard run to move the ball into field goal range. But Crosby’s pulled his long field goal attempt wide left. 


The Rams led 14-10 at the half and extended that margin on the opening drive of the third quarter. Star rookie wideout Puka Nacua caught an 80-yard pass from Matthew Stafford, setting up a Kyren Williams two-yard TD run. Taylor and wide receiver Darius Slayton hooked up on an 80-yard strike of their own, later in the third period, to make it 20-16.


A Crosby field goal at the beginning of the fourth drew the Giants to within a single point, but the Rams took all of three plays to respond. A 36-yard hookup between Stafford and receiver Demarcus Robinson preceded a 28-yard TD run by Williams, his third rushing score of the day (12th of the year), increasing the Rams’ advantage to 26-19. 


Stafford threw for 317 yards. Nacua continued his pursuit of rookie records with five receptions for 118 yards receiving to pace the LA offense. He needs just four catches and 30 yards receiving to call both marks his own. Taylor, taking over at quarterback for Tommy DeVito, threw for 319 yards, a third of which went to Slayton (106 yards on four catches). 


With the win, their sixth in the last seven games, the Rams (9-7) clinched a wild card spot and currently are the No. 6 seed in the NFC. They travel to San Francisco to play the 49ers, who may rest starters after clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Giants’ (6-10) strong finish to the season may have saved Brian Daboll’s job. 



Baltimore 56, Miami 19


The Ravens backed up their impressive win over San Francisco with an even more dominant performance against the Dolphins. Baltimore’s 56 points was the second most in franchise history — second only to the 59 it put up against Miami in 2019. 


Lamar Jackson was a ruthlessly efficient 18-of-21 for 321 yards and five touchdown passes, as Baltimore pelted the Miami defense for 491 yards of total offense. So efficient was Baltimore’s attack that they faced just seven third-down plays. 


Nothing in the first quarter prepared the Dolphins or a viewing audience of the onslaught to come. Miami took a 7-0 lead on the opening drive of the game, Tua Tagovailoa passing eight yards to Cedric Wilson for the score. The Dolphins exited the opening period up 10-7.


It was almost all Baltimore in the second quarter, with the Ravens going on a 21-3 run to take control of the game. Jackson hit rookie receiver Zay Flowers on a 75-yard strike then punctuated the outburst just before halftime, tossing a 35-yard scoring pass on 4th-and-7 to tight end Isaiah Likely, who made a spectacular one-handed catch and run down the sideline.


Likely hauled in his second TD grab in the third to make it 35-13. Rookie De’Von Achane caught Tua’s second TD of the game early in the fourth to cut the deficit to 16 points. But unlike Week 2 last year, there would be no miracle comeback for Miami. Baltimore ripped off the last 21 points of the game to complete the annihilation. Worse even than the drubbing for the Dolphins was the loss of star pass rusher Bradley Chubb late in a game that was already decided. The Dolphins announced Monday that Chubb sustained a season-ending torn ACL.


It was a statement win for Baltimore (13-3), who clinched the top seed in the AFC. This means, of course, they play all their postseason games at M&T Bank stadium, where the Ravens have been an absolute buzzsaw in 2023. The Dolphins (11-5) are still the No. 2 seed in the AFC but now must face Buffalo next Sunday night in Miami. The winner takes the AFC East title.



New Orleans 23, Tampa Bay 13


Almost as big a stunner as the Cardinals-Eagles outcome — not so much because New Orleans won but how convincingly the Saints beat a team in the Bucs who seemed to be peaking at just the right time. The Saints’ win further muddles an already murky playoff picture in the NFL’s worst division.


The Saints rode a sterling effort by their defense to mount a 17-0 lead in the first half. Derek Carr threw two touchdown passes, a four-yarder to Juwan Johnson in the first quarter and a 22-yard score to Taysom Hill in the second. A Blake Grupe field goal just before halftime pushed the advantage 20-0.


Down big and playing against a prevent, the Bucs’ offense caught fire in the fourth, with two Baker Mayfield scoring passes making the score 23-13. Tampa had a chance to cut the deficit to a single possession after Mayfield hit Chris Godwin deep on a 47-yard TD throw with 1:37 left. But, on the subsequent two-point conversion, Godwin’s foot was on the end line.


Mayfield posted another 300-yard game but the Saints defense harassed the Bucs quarterback most of the day, intercepting him twice. Neither pick led to points, but a Rachaad White lost fumble in the third quarter, in New Orleans territory, set back Tampa’s efforts to rally. The other Mayfield TD pass went to Trey Palmer, though a fumble by the rookie late in the game also hindered Tampa’s hopes for a dramatic comeback. Palmer led the team with 84 yards receiving, followed by Godwin (80) and Mike Evans (70), whom the Saints secondary held to three catches.


Carr passed for 197 yards and two touchdowns — not a big numbers day but, crucially, he did not throw any interceptions. Johnson led New Orleans with 80 yards receiving. 


The Saints save their season and host Atlanta, which is back in the race thanks to New Orleans beating the Bucs. A truly disappointing loss for Tampa, which blew an opportunity to win the South. The Bucs’ loss sets up the possibility of three NFC South teams finishing 7-9 and one of those teams backing into the playoffs by virtue of a tiebreaker. 


An 8-9 division winner — this is what the dark side of parity looks like.



Buffalo 27, New England 21


The Bills won their fourth straight game by winning the turnover battle against division rival New England. The Buffalo victory sets up a winner-takes-AFC East showdown in Miami next Sunday night. 


Buffalo forced New England into four first-half turnovers, converting those miscues into all 20 of its first-half points. The Bills’ defense intercepted Patriots QB Bailey Zappe three times helping to camouflage a rough day for starting quarterback Josh Allen, who completed 50 percent of his passes (15-of-30) for 169 yards and an interception. Buffalo RB James Cook averaged just three yards a carry on 16 attempts as the running game seems to return to its pre-Dallas level of effectiveness.


The game started out terrific for New England when Jalen Reagor returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. But then Buffalo reeled off 20 unanswered points fueled by Patriots turnovers, including two Zappe INTs which set up two Tyler Bass field goals and an Allen TD run. Midway through the second quarter, Zappe’s third interception went into the hands of corner Rasul Douglas, who weaved his way 39 yards to put Buffalo up by two possessions. Zappe bounced back from the INTs and scored on a 17-yard run to make the halftime score 20-14, Bills.


Buffalo stormed out of intermissions with its best drive of the game, a 75-yard march highlighted by an Allen 51-yard toss to tight end Dalton Kincaid. Allen then scored on his second rushing touchdown of the game, and Buffalo seemed on the verge of taking control of the game. 


But the Bills offense was done scoring for the day. New England. Reagor added to his kick return by catching a 39-yard pass from Zappe, eventually setting up a six-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott that cut the margin to six points. The Patriots got the ball back at their own 11 with just under seven minutes remaining, but went three and out. They never got another chance as Buffalo converted three third downs to run out the clock.



San Francisco 27, Washington 10


San Francisco clinched the No. 1 seed, a bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Quarterback Brock Purdy bounced back nicely from his coal-filled-stocking performance on Xmas Day with two touchdown passes, the most spectacular of which was his fourth-quarter scramble and throw back across the field to Brandon Aiyuk. Maybe just as eye-popping was the 38-yard laser Purdy tossed to Aiyuk three plays before.


Aiyuk finished with seven catches for 114 yards, his seventh 100-yard game receiving of the year. Backup RB Elijah Mitchell led the 49ers in rushing with 80 yards and ran for one TD. The third-year back got more carries because workhorse Christian McCaffrey left the game in the second half with a mild calf strain.


Give credit to the Commanders for showing some spirit in the first half after it seemed as if the 49ers, up 10-0 in the first quarter, were primed to lay a serious beatdown. But Sam Howell and Commanders fought back to tie the game, 10-10. Howell passed three yards to Terry McLaurin to cap an 84-yard drive. 


However, as his 19 interceptons on the year reveal, the Commanders' quarterback has a hard time resisting the key turnover. Down 20-10 at the start of the fourth, he marched Washington to San Francisco's 11-yard-line. But Niners corner Charvarius Ward picked off Howell to turn back the threat. San Francisco then drove 95 yards on 10 plays to put the game out of reach. 


With the No. 1 seed under lock and key, the Niners are likely to rest some starters for their regular season finale against the Rams. McCaffrey's calf injury has already compelled head coach Mike Shanahan to rule out the NFL's leading rusher for Week 18, to get him fully healthy for the playoffs.



Houston 26, Tennessee 3


The hoped-for showdown between C.J. Stroud and Will Levis did not really materialize; Levis suffered an injury to his right foot in the second period and had to be carted off the field. Something about playing the Texans doesn’t agree with Levis’ lower legs — he injured his left ankle against the Texans two weeks ago and was still recovering from that injury. No word yet as to the extent of the new injury.


Stroud’s return after missing two starts because of a concussion clearly energized the home Texans. The shoo-in for NFL Rookie of the Year completed 24-of-32 for 213 yards and a touchdown. Levis was 2-of-6 before the injury. His replacement, veteran Ryan Tannehill, completed 16-of-20 passes and did not turn the ball over, but the Titans offense still struggled to move the ball.


Houston blew open a 3-0 ball game in the second quarter, scoring 17 points to take a 20-3 lead into halftime. Stroud hit Brevin Jordan from 12 yards out and Sheldon Rankins returned a Levis fumble on a Jerry Hughes strip-sack 12 yards to put Houston up 17-0. It was on this play that Levis suffered his foot injury.


Two Ka'imi Fairbairn field goals in the second half accounted for all the scoring. The Texans’ defense held Tennessee to 187 total yards of offense and dominated on third down, with Tennessee converting just one of 12 third-down chances. They also held running back Derrick Henry to 42 yards and a 3.5 yards per carry average.


Henry’s counterpart for Houston, Devin Singletary, led the Texans with 80 yards rushing. Wide receiver Nico Collins, working his way back from injury and welcoming the return of Stroud, had his best game in weeks with seven catches for 80 yards. 


A much-needed win for Houston (9-7), who face the Colts next Saturday with an AFC wild card berth on the line. The Texans still have a shot at the AFC South title if they beat the Colts and Jacksonville loses to the Titans (5-11).



Indianapolis 23, Las Vegas 20


Jonathan Taylor rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown as the Colts rebounded from an ugly Week 16 loss to Atlanta. 


Taylor made his presence felt early as Indianapolis took the game’s opening kickoff and drove 75 yards, with Taylor touching the ball on five of the drive’s six plays. But it was the play that did not involve the running back that did the most damage — Gardiner Minshew’s 50-yard bomb to rookie receiver Josh Downs. Taylor capped off the drive with a one-yard TD run to give the Colts a 7-0 edge.


Minshew went deep again for Indy’s second score, when he found receiver Alec Pierce on a 58-yard strike, making the score at the half, 14-3, Colts.


The Raiders responded at the start of the second half, burning up half the third quarter with a grinding 15-play drive kept alive by a roughing-the-punter penalty. Following the infraction, Vegas converted two key third downs, the last of which was a 3rd-and-goal when Aidan O’Connell threw a four-yard TD pass to Davante Adams. 


Matt Gay field goals on three straight drives spanning the third and fourth quarters boosted the Colts’ lead to 23-10 in the final period. The Raiders clawed to within one possession, when Adams caught his second touchdown pass with just 43 seconds remaining, this on one 4th-and-goal when he wrestled the ball from corner Jaylen Jones, on a fade pattern to the corner of the end zone. Adams managed to get both feet in bounds while pinning the ball to his shoulder on his way to the ground, completing an altogether brilliant catch. 


Adams finished with 13 catches for 126 yards in addition to the two TDs. The big wideout surpassed 1,000 yards receiving on the season. O’Connell finished with 299 yards passing.


The Raiders, down 23-20, tried but failed to recover an onside kick. 


The loss for Vegas (7-9) knocks them from any playoff contention. With the win, the Colts more than keep their hopes alive — they host Houston Saturday, and whichever team wins nabs a wild card spot. 



Pittsburgh 30, Seattle 23


The Steelers get their second crucial win in a row, this one a road conquest at the one of the tougher venues in the NFL. RB Najee Harris led the way for the Pittsburgh offense with 122 yards rushing and two TDs on the ground. Mason Rudolph threw for 274 yards as the Steelers racked up 468 yards of offense. Rudolph did not throw a touchdown pass but avoided interceptions as part of the Steelers' turnover-free afternoon. 


The game, between two evenly matched teams, was a tightly contested affair in the first half, with the lead changing hands three times before intermission. Seattle tied the game with a field goal on its opening drive of the second half. But back came Pittsburgh, going up 24-17 when Harris scored his second rushing TD of the day. The big play of the drive was a Rudolph-to-Diontae Johnson pass of 42 yards that moved the ball to inside the ‘Hawks 5-yard line. 


A 32-yard D.K. Metcalf grab set up the second of Jason Myers’ three field goals to trim the deficit to just four points. But Rudolph engineered a 13-play drive to set up a Chris Boswell field goal. Another Boswell field goal came moments later, making it 30-20, after rookie Nick Herbig forced and recovered a Geno Smith fumble. Seattle drove 69 yards in the final minutes, kicking a field goal in the final minute to make the game a single possession. But Myers’ onside kick was recovered by Pittsburgh’s Johnson to end the game. 


Smith, in his second start since returning from injury, threw for 290 yards and played well for the most part. But his fumble was a killer. Herbig’s sack was the only time Pittsburgh got to Smith as the offensive held star pass rusher T.J. Watt to zero sacks and a single tackle. Though the pass protection was sound the Seahawks’ running game again foundered.


A big for for the Steelers (9-7) who still need to beat Baltimore Sunday — a tall task but the Ravens perhaps rest some starters — and need some help. The Seahawks (8-8), though not mathematically eliminated, need to beat Arizona and receive too much help to cover here.



Kansas City 25, Cincinnati 17


Placekicker Harrison Butker kicked a career-high six field goals as the Chiefs rallied to clinch another AFC West title and deal a blow to the Bengals’ playoff hopes 


Kansas City trailed 17-7 midway through the second quarter after Bengals’ QB Jake Browning scored on a one-yard TD run. From that point, Kansas City’s defense pitched a shutout, as the Chiefs offense, fueled by Isiah Pacheco’s 122 yards, found enough of a rhythm to get within Butker’s range six times.


The first two Butker field goals came in the second quarter and closed the gap to 17-13 at the half. In the second half, he handled all of the scoring, kicking three of his field goals in the fourth quarter.


Along with the Butker, Chris Jones and his mates on defense starred in this win. The unit stopped Cincinnati on five consecutive possessions in the second half, none more critical than when it stuffed a long Cincy drive on 4th-and-1 at the Chiefs’ 6-yard-line. 


Trailing 25-17 late, Browning and the Cincinnati offense had one final opportunity to mount a game-tying drive. After being sacked on back-to-back sacks by linebacker Justin Reid, Browning hit Tyler Boyd to convert a 4th-and-18 into KC territory to keep the drive alive. But Browning was again sacked on consecutive plays — George Karlaftis and Jones doing the honors — before Browning’s 4th-and-27 heave fell incomplete. Four sacks on one drive. Yeeeesh.


The Kansas City secondary did a marvelous job containing Ja’Marr Chase, bracketing the star wideout on almost every passing down, and holding him just three catches for 41 yards.


On the offensive side of the ball for KC, Patrick Mahomes threw for 245 yards and a touchdown but also lost a fumble. Of course, Butker’s exploits only served to highlight the Chiefs red-zone and third-down issues: Kansas City was just 3-of-12 on third down.


Still, Andy Reid's team (10-6) gets the win and claims its eighth straight AFC West title. The Bengals' (8-8) postseason hopes are hanging by by a thread. They need a win Sunday against visiting Cleveland and then all sorts of help to make the playoffs. 

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