Tipping Points
Breaking down the biggest plays and decisions from Sunday's closest games.

Tipping Points: Week 17

Jimmy Garoppolo
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

The NFL stacked the on-paper excitement of Week 17 toward the end of the day, ensuring that potential playoff teams and clubs with uncertain seeding couldn't benefit from the knowledge of their competitors' finishes. But that didn't stop the 1 p.m. ET window from producing some compelling performances, including an historic upset. Still, that was not enough to unseat the prescribed Sunday night game between the 49ers and Seahawks as the Game of the Week.

Game of the Week

49ers at Seahawks

The NFL saved us the best for last with a Sunday night game between the 49ers and Seahawks in Week 17 that would not only decide the NFC West but also the most likely NFC Super Bowl representative. With a win, the 49ers would secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, a bye, and home-field advantage. With a loss, they'd have to travel to Philadelphia to take on the 9-7 Eagles on wild-card weekend.

But just because the stakes were highest did not guarantee a compelling game. And at halftime, this looked like it could be a blowout. The 49ers were up 13-0, and the Seahawks had gained just 79 yards of offense. But Russell Wilson led an 11-play, 62-yard touchdown drive on the Seahawks' first possession of the third quarter, and after a 49ers drive to answer, Wilson advanced his Seahawks into 49ers territory to start the fourth quarter trailing 19-7.

On second-and-5, Marshawn Lynch took a carry right of center but couldn't escape defensive tackle Soloman Thomas at the line of scrimmage. Despite facing a defense that has been much weaker against the run (No. 12 DVOA) than the pass (No. 2), Lynch was bottled up for 34 yards on his 12 carries. In his first NFL game since October of 2018, Lynch played a limited role -- he carried the ball 12 times on his 23 offensive snaps and never saw a target -- and the 49ers knew it. They stacked the box against him and even stopped him short on a fourth-and-1 attempt in 49ers territory at the end of the first half.

Fortunately for the Seahawks, they had Russell Wilson. Wilson converted the ensuing third-and-5 with a well-timed out throw to Tyler Lockett, and then after dodging Nick Bosa for a potential first-down sack, he hit David Moore in the flat for a 17-yard catch-and-run. That advanced the Seahawks to the 24-yard line, which became the 22-yard line after rookie receiving back Travis Homer pushed linebacker Fred Warner forward after meeting him at the line of scrimmage. Wilson lofted a 5-yard pass to third tight end Tyrone Swoopes over Anthony Zettel and then connected with Lockett for a mirror-image out completion and another third-down conversion. Now at the 11-yard line, the Seahawks had room for another first down before the end zone, and they took advantage with a 2-yard Lynch run and 8-yard Wilson completion to rookie DK Metcalf. With a first down at the 1-yard line, Wilson faked to Lynch and likely would have thrown to him if safety Marcell Harris hadn't grabbed the running back to prevent him from getting open. But that grab drew a defensive holding penalty that halved the Seahawks' distance from the end zone. And from there, Wilson handed off to Lynch, who was not denied a second time. He leapt over the line and into the end zone for a touchdown and his first Skittles shower of the season.

Since the 49ers had tried and failed to convert a two-point conversion after their previous touchdown, the Lynch score cut the Seahawks' deficit to 19-14 and increased their Game-Winning Chance (GWC) to 22.0%. But the 49ers were ready to answer another Seahawks touchdown with one of their own. George Kittle started those efforts with a juke of pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah in the backfield and a 7-yard carry. Raheem Mostert faked an outside zone run but cut inside and up the middle for 13 yards, and then Kittle added 16 more, outracing the Seahawks defense to the right edge on a short catch and turning the corner. Now in Seahawks territory, the 49ers handed off to Matt Breida twice for 5 total yards. And then on third-and-5, Jimmy Garoppolo scanned the field from left to right and found an uncovered Deebo Samuel on the right sideline. That 21-yard gain put the 49ers in the red zone, and Mostert needed just one carry from there to score a touchdown, weaving around the left side of the line and back to the right of the Seahawks' second level.

The Seahawks had scored touchdowns on both of their second-half possessions but gained only two points on the 49ers. That left them with less than six minutes to try to erase a 12-point deficit of 26-14. 49ers kicker Mitch Wishnowsky made the task a bit easier by shanking his kickoff low, left, and out-of-bounds. Starting from their own 40-yard line, Wilson needed just one play to reach 49ers territory, a 13-yard slant completion to Moore in the middle of the field. Two plays later, Homer added another 13 yards through a gap in the left side of the line. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon prevented a deep completion to Metcalf down the left sideline, but two plays later, fellow corner K'Waun Williams was flagged for defensive pass interference for a left-shoulder grab on his attempt to do the same against Lockett. That penalty advanced the Seahawks to the red zone again. The pass rush pushed Wilson back in the pocket, but then he crouched and shot through a hole up the middle, avoiding a sack and scrambling for 2 yards. And on second-and-18, Wilson identified single-man coverage on his 6-foot-4 receiver Metcalf and threw high in the end zone. Metcalf jumped up to make the touchdown catch before Witherspoon could even react.

The Seahawks had made it a one-score game again, but with just 3:35 remaining, they maintained just a 16.5% GWC. They needed a quick stop on the 49ers' subsequent possession, but they did at least have all three of their timeouts to help them stop the clock. The 49ers helped in that respect after a 3-yard Samuel carry on second down. Center Ben Garland -- unable to see cornerback Shaquill Griffin break off a block and secure a quick tackle or hear anything in such a loud stadium -- dove to block safety Delano Hill after the whistle. That effort earned him a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty that also stopped the clock at 2:43. Mostert nearly overcame the resulting third-and-17 with a catch-and-run on a dumpoff pass that included a sharp cut and an avoided Brad McDougald tackle. But that reception came up a yard shy of the first down, and with a fourth-and-1 at their own 30-yard line, Kyle Shanahan chose to punt. Shanahan has typically been an exceptional coach and play-caller, but that decision sacrificed 19.5% GWC compared to a run, where a single yard gained would have all but sealed the game. With that poor decision, Wilson regained possession at his 27-yard line with 2:27 remaining and a 34.0% chance to complete the comeback.

Wilson started that effort with a short toss that Homer took for 5 yards, aiming for more with an inside cut that Richard Sherman read correctly to tackle him in bounds. But unphased by the situation, Wilson led his team calmly to the line and snapped the ball a second before the two-minute warning. Knowing he had the full field to use without worry for running clock, Wilson hit Metcalf on a comeback that unimportantly took him down in bounds but importantly created a new Seahawks first down at their 42-yard line.

Wilson threw to Metcalf again on the ensuing first down, but his pass was high and went off of Metcalf's hands along the left sideline. But after a checkdown catch that Homer dashed to the right sideline and out of bounds for a new first down, Wilson avoided pass pressure and this time connected with Metcalf for 24 yards. Metcalf came open with a sharp comeback against cornerback Emmanuel Moseley -- in for a seemingly injured Witherspoon and a frequent last-drive victim -- and then pushed through Moseley for 5 extra yards. Bosa prevented a follow-up Wilson-to-Metcalf connection by hitting Wilson as he threw, but Wilson unloaded just before linebacker Dre Greenlaw could reach him on a blitz on the next play, and Lockett wove his short reception through traffic for another Seahawks first down in the red zone.

That latest reception left the Seahawks with just under a minute to go the final 12 yards for a touchdown. They really didn't need their remaining two timeouts to make that happen -- if either team was concerned with the time remaining at this point, it was the 49ers, who could potentially answer a go-ahead Seahawks touchdown with whatever time they could keep on the clock. They almost had that full clock after Metcalf beat Moseley with an inside move in front of the end zone, but Wilson delivered the pass a hair late and allowed Moseley to recover and deflect it away. Pressure prevented another easy Seahawks touchdown on second down, forcing Wilson to overthrow tight end Jacob Hollister as he came free off a pick play in the right side of the end zone. An ill-fated pick attempt on third down resulted in a Wilson incompletion that was nowhere close to Metcalf. And that left a fourth-and-10 from the 49ers' 12-yard line. Wilson took the snap from shotgun with an empty backfield, rolled right, and connected with seldom-used rookie receiver John Ursua on the doorstep of the end zone.

That was Ursua's first target and first reception all season, and it was about 6 inches short of earning the Seahawks an NFC West title. Instead, the Seahawks -- who had already used their final timeouts for play strategy purposes -- were forced to scramble to the line to spike the ball with 23 seconds left on the clock. Still, the Seahawks had three plays to try to convert that last yard for a score, a task that GWC estimated they could accomplish 69.9% of the time. That became noticeably harder (63.1%) after the team inexplicably took a delay-of-game penalty after the spike, backing them into a second-and-goal just behind the 5-yard line. Still, it was hard to imagine Wilson falling short after his magnificent play all second half.

Pressure forced him to float a pass a bit too high and too long in the air to the left corner of the end zone on second down. Lockett's defender Harris had the best shot at a play on that ball, but his momentum carried him down out of bounds even if he had secured a catch. Warner got away with a grab of Hollister on third down that prevented him from cutting back to make a play on the ball. But that looked like it wouldn't matter when Wilson completed a fourth-down pass to Hollister on the 2-yard line. Hollister turned toward the end zone, just a stretch away from the game-winning touchdown. But before he could extend his arm, he crashed into Greenlaw, who sent him backward and to the ground. Hollister twisted slightly on the way down, which was nearly enough for the ball to break the plane of the front of the end zone. But the replay was not definitive, which left the result with the call on the field of down short of the goal line, a turnover on downs, and a 49ers victory.

Football may frequently be labeled a game of inches, but it's rare for a couple of inches to make the difference for a division title. And it's a little surprising that the Seahawks weren't the couple of inches on the right side of that result given that they had won 10 of their 11 games this season decided by a single score. It wasn't for Wilson's lack of effort or execution. He spearheaded the Seahawks' increase in offensive DVOA from -37.0% in the first half to 58.9% in the second half. Their problem was the 49ers improved about as much, from 20.5% in the first half to 74.6% in the second half.

And if football is supposed to reward the better team, then the result played out correctly. Despite playing a pair of head-to-head games that came down to their last plays, the 49ers outplayed the Seahawks over the season as a whole, nearly doubling their division rival with a 28.3% DVOA and finishing as one of just two teams (along with the Chiefs) in the top 10 of DVOA in all three phases of the game. Thanks to that excellence and the No. 1 seed this win earned them, the 49ers now have the best chance in the NFC to both win the conference (39.4%) and the Super Bowl (14.2%). Having to play immediately and on the road throughout the playoffs, the Seahawks have just 6.2% and 1.9% chances to do the same.

The Best of the Rest

Dolphins at Patriots

The Seahawks narrowly missed their upset, but that upset would not have held a candle to what the Dolphins pulled off in New England on Sunday. As 17-point underdogs, the Dolphins tied the biggest upset in the NFL of the last 20 years.

Rivers McCown will detail that craziness in his Any Given Sunday column, but the game's wild fourth quarter deserves inclusion in Tipping Points as well. The Patriots had fallen into a 10-0 deficit in the second quarter after an uncharacteristic Tom Brady pick-six, which Brady seemed to check to without reading the nearby defenders and which he threw inaccurately between Julian Edelman and Sony Michel. But the Patriots had pulled even at 17-17 by the start of the fourth quarter, and Michel danced around a pair of defenders to gain 9 yards and create a new Patriots first down at their own 26-yard line.

Michel churned his way forward on the next play for another 4 yards, which Brady promptly lost by double-clutching and taking a second-down sack from linebacker Trent Harris. The Patriots would have converted the ensuing third-and-10 anyway as James White took a dumpoff pass 15 yards toward the right sideline, but the gain was erased by an illegal shift penalty that backed the team into a third-and-15. They gained half of that needed distance with a short pass to N'Keal Harry, but on fourth-and-8 from their 28-yard line, the Patriots punted the ball back to the Dolphins.

Down a number of their top playmakers thanks to trades and injuries accumulated over the second half of the season, the Dolphins enjoyed surprising efficiency of 5.7 yards per play against the Patriots' No. 1 DVOA defense. De facto No. 1 back Patrick Laird managed just 21 yards on his 11 carries, two of which came on an attempt to start the next drive -- the Dolphins offensive line provided just 3.16 adjusted line yards this season, more than half a yard shy of the next worst team in the NFL. But Laird added 48 yards in the passing game and was frequently helped out by secondary wide receivers like Albert Wilson and Isaiah Ford. Ford created a new first down on this Dolphins drive by spinning away from a Jonathan Jones attempted tackle. But receiver DeVante Parker was the team's most important player on Sunday. He paced the team with 137 receiving yards despite frequent shadow coverage from defensive player of the year candidate Stephon Gilmore, a top-10 cornerback in yards per pass allowed (subscription required) and the heart of the Patriots' pass defense. Parker victimized Gilmore with a sharp inside cut to gain 23 yards here and advance the Dolphins into field goal range at the Patriots' 23-yard line.

The Dolphins would eventually settle for a field goal. They tried a trick play where Wilson took a pitch and then threw a wide receiver pass, but the Patriots defensive backs did not bite and maintained excellent coverage on intended target Durham Smythe. They earned a first down anyway thanks to a J.C. Jackson defensive pass interference penalty for holding onto Ford's jersey, but Smythe and Parker couldn't squeeze either of their difficult catch attempts on either side of a 5-yard Ford reception on second down. That left a fourth-and-5 on the Patriots' 14-yard line. Jason Sanders split the uprights on the 32-yard field goal attempt, but even with the resulting 20-17 lead with 8:29 left in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins held just a 36.4% GWC against a superior Patriots team at home in Boston.

It didn't take long for Brady and the Patriots to show why that was the case. Brandon Bolden set his offense up with excellent field position with a 38-yard kickoff return, and then Brady took the Patriots surgically down the field on an eight-play, 60-yard touchdown drive. He started that effort with an 8-yard dumpoff to White that put Brady over 4,000 yards for the season, his 11th such season in his career. Rex Burkhead followed that with a 14-yard carry built on a stiff-armed broken tackle of linebacker Jerome Baker. After a 2-yard Michel run, Brady hit tight end Ben Watson on a shallow cross and then converted the resulting third-and-4 with a 22-yard slant completion to Mohamed Sanu, thrown high over cornerback Nik Needham trailing Sanu in coverage. Brady quickly found himself on another third down after Michel ran for 2 yards and Harry failed to bring his second foot down in bounds on a fade throw to the left side of the end zone. That third down became a third-and-13 after Watson false started, but Brady converted that as well as White took a screen pass untouched up the right seam and into the end zone for a Patriots touchdown.

Now down 24-20 with less than four minutes to answer, the Dolphins had fallen to a 16.1% GWC. Seventy-five yards is a tall order against the league's best defense, but Ryan Fitzpatrick was up to the task. Pressure forced a short throw and incompletion to Laird on first down, but Fitzpatrick threw quickly to avoid pressure on second down. Wilson originally bobbled the pass but secured it as he fell backward beyond the first-down markers. Tight end Mike Gesicki couldn't catch a deep pass down the right sideline with safety Patrick Chung defending him closely, but he snagged a short throw on the next play and powered Chung to within a yard of a new first down before being forced out of bounds. And on third-and-1, Fitzpatrick threw a strike that Ford caught and converted for a new Dolphins first down at midfield.

Things could have ended there for the Dolphins in disaster. Fitzpatrick wasn't ready for the shotgun snap and had to dive forward to beat defensive tackle Adam Butler to the recovery. But Fitzpatrick responded well to the setback, completing a 24-yard pass after the two-minute warning that Parker skied over the shorter Gilmore to pull down by the right sideline. Parker added 5 more yards and ran out of bounds to the left sideline. Fitzpatrick stepped up in the pocket away from pressure but dramatically overthrew a well-covered Ford in the end zone. And then on third-and-5, Fitzpatrick found Wilson on a slant route that took him just past the markers before Jones could pull him to the ground.

That in-bounds completion dropped the clock to 40 seconds before Fitzpatrick took his next snap on a first-and-10 from the Patriots' 17-yard line. The Patriots had all three of their timeouts but never used any to conserve clock for a potential need to answer a Dolphins score. Fitzpatrick proved that foolish by completing another 8-yard pass to Parker, finding Ford for 4 yards and a new Dolphins first down, and then hitting Gesicki in the back of the end zone for a go-ahead 5-yard touchdown.

That touchdown put the Dolphins up three, but it didn't fully extinguish the Patriots' hopes. With 24 seconds remaining after a kickoff touchback, the Patriots retained an 18.0% GWC. But that was as high as they reached on their final drive. Brady overthrew his first deep attempt to Edelman. Nate Brooks defended his second deep attempt to Phillip Dorsett. And Brady overthrew his third deep attempt to Harry. That left just two seconds for a hook-and-ladder effort. The Patriots managed an impressive nine laterals on the play but never crossed midfield. White's final lateral attempt ended up in the hands of the Dolphins linebacker Baker, ending the game and the upset of the year.

On its own, a No. 32 DVOA team upset of the No. 2 DVOA team would be massive, but this one was made even more galling by its setting in New England and the uneven stakes. With the Chiefs taking care of business against the Chargers, the Patriots needed to win to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. Now, they have to play on wild-card weekend against a Titans team that has won seven of its last 10 games since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback and has risen into the top 10 in weighted DVOA. The Patriots are favored in that contest, but their loss on Sunday dropped their Super Bowl odds to 1.8%, eighth-highest of the 12 playoff teams.

One could argue that new Dolphins head coach Brian Flores did his franchise a disservice by winning five games and falling to the fifth pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. But on the other hand, Flores won those games after the front office dismantled his roster leading up to and even during the season with the trades of Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers and Kenyan Drake to the Cardinals. He didn't excel by EdjSports' play-calling metrics, but Flores would still be a candidate for coach of the year if that award considered only success relative to the true talent of team rosters. And now, the Dolphins seem incredibly well-positioned with a capable head coach, 14 total picks in the 2020 draft, and extra first- and second-round picks in the 2021 draft. They just need to find the right quarterback.

Packers at Lions

The Patriots weren't the only bye-week-hopeful playoff team who had a chance to blow a Week 17 game to a seemingly unmotivated division rival. The Packers fell to a 14-0 deficit against a three-win Lions team that was bottom-five in weighted DVOA, with the Lions scoring one of those touchdowns on a Danny Amendola wide receiver pass to a wide-open quarterback David Blough. The Packers had rallied a bit by the start of the fourth quarter, but they still trailed 17-10 and were on their side of the field at the 42-yard line on offense.

With excellent pass protection, Aaron Rodgers tried for a chunk play but threw incomplete ahead of tight end Jimmy Graham. Rodgers was just off the mark on his deep attempts all day. However, he was able to convert the ensuing third-and-6 with a 10-yard out to Davante Adams. Aaron Jones juked right to avoid run-stopper Damon Harrison in the backfield and picked up 11 yards. Rodgers followed that with a play fake and rolling-right completion to Robert Tonyan, and then Jones picked up another first down with a 6-yard carry up the middle.

Now at the Lions' 22-yard line, the Packers were close to a 50% GWC at 44.9%. But they couldn't finish off what had been a successful drive. Rodgers threw incomplete short to Geronimo Allison, incomplete on-target to Jones but leading him into a fierce Tavon Wilson hit, and then incomplete short to Jimmy Graham in the end zone where Tracy Walker could deflect it away. Mason Rudolph converted the 40-yard field goal attempt, but still trailing 17-13 with just over 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Packers had declined to a 33.2% GWC.

Meanwhile, the Lions wasted no time in answering the Packers' field goal with one of their own. They jump-started their subsequent drive with a 30-yard defensive pass interference penalty where Jaire Alexander tackled receiver Chris Lacy to prevent a walk-in touchdown. That penalty put the Lions in Packers' territory, but another penalty -- this time for a neutral zone infraction -- couldn't extend their drive further. Late pressure forced Blough to throw the ball away on third-and-2, and head coach Matt Patricia opted for a field goal try. That decision cost the Lions 6.0% of GWC, but they still maintained an overall 71.2% chance to win after Matt Prater smashed through the 56-yard attempt, his seventh make on eight attempts of 50 or more yards.

That make left the Packers in the same touchdown hole they were in four minutes earlier but now with just over 11 minutes to close the gap. Again, Rodgers went for a shortcut, throwing deep a few yards too far for a double-covered-but-still-open Adams. But this time, the Packers couldn't recover. Excellent coverage forced Rodgers to throw away his second-down attempt, and then on third down, he threw a bit behind tight end Robert Tonyan. Tonyan still had a chance to make a play and secure a much-needed Packers first down, but he turned to look for the ball too late to make the necessary adjustment.

After a punt put the Lions in strong field position at their 44-yard line with just 10 and a half minutes left to kill, Blough could have iced this game with strong discipline and decision-making. Instead, he gave the Packers extra lives. Running back Bo Scarbrough and Blough combined for a first down on three carries, the third a scramble, for a combined 12 yards. But then Blough stepped up in the pocket to avoid Za'Darius Smith coming around the right edge and right into a Blake Martinez sack. Backed into a second-and-17, one would assume Blough would play things safe, completing short passes to improve the team's field position and keep the clock running. Instead, Blough uncorked a deep pass that was nevertheless a good 8 yards short of Lacy. Martinez secured it for an easy interception and returned it 22 yards that became 37 thanks to an unnecessary roughness penalty on Danny Amendola, who shoved cornerback Kevin King in the back after the play was over.

The interception dramatically changed the Packers' fortunes, improving their odds from a nadir of 10.3% a play earlier to 33.5%. At first, it looked like they wouldn't capitalize. Jones ran for 9 combined yards on first and second down but was stopped for no gain on third down. But first-year head coach Matt LaFleur kept his offense on the field for the resulting fourth-and-1 from the Lions' 31-yard line. That was an excellent decision, improving the team's GWC by 4.9% over a long field goal try, and the football gods rewarded it when Rodgers connected with Adams for a quick 3-yard completion toward the left sideline. Rodgers couldn't complete either of his next two pass attempts to Adams, but on third-and-10, he unloaded deep to Allen Lazard.

Lazard elevated over cornerback Darius Slay to make that catch and tumble into the end zone. Mired on poor Lions teams, Slay seldom gets the recognition he deserves for his strong cornerback play. He's top-30 again this season with a 55% coverage success rate according to Sports Info Solutions charting. But the 6-foot-0 Slay can't play in the same air as the 6-foot-5 Lazard.

Mason Crosby's extra point tied the game at 20-20, but with just 5:19 left and regaining possession, the Lions remained well-positioned to win the game. Kerryon Johnson, back from injured reserve, improved that position further with a 20-yard carry to start the team's next drive. But after a 3-yard Johnson carry on the next play, Blough cracked again under pressure. He held onto the ball on a set-up screen pass, throwing deep and incomplete to Jamal Agnew instead. And then he held the ball too long again on third down, allowing pressure to disrupt his pass and throwing too late to Logan Thomas in any case. That forced a fourth-and-7 punt, leaving Rodgers with 3:34 to produce just a field goal for a Packers win.

Rodgers has come through in the spot so many times before. It seemed like a forgone conclusion that he would again. He escaped a quick third-and-9 with a 13-yard slant completion to Lazard. But two plays later, an offensive pass interference penalty backed the Packers up to second-and-20 at the two-minute warning. Rodgers tried to convert it with a deep strike to Marquez Valdes-Scantling that he again overthrew. And then Rodgers tried again with a deep pass to Jake Kumerow. This attempt was closer to on-target, but it was a bit underthrown and allowed cornerback Amani Oruwariye to leap up and make the interception.

Suddenly, the Lions were in really good shape. They needed just 40 or so yards from their own 26-yard line with a 1:40 to try a game-winning field goal attempt. It added up to a 59.2% GWC. But with the pressure on, Blough just couldn't come through. He completed a short pass that Lacy ran after the catch for 5 yards. But then he missed on a short screen to Ty Johnson and an intermediate cross to Travis Fulgham. Patricia could have improved his team's odds by 7.0% by leaving his offense out on the field for a fourth-and-5 pass. But he was no doubt scared off by Blough's poor second half. The Lions declined from a 36.4% offensive DVOA in the first half to -60.3% in the second half. They punted here, leaving Rodgers and the Packers 80 seconds to try to reach field goal range.

The Packers started that last drive deep at their own territory, but an unnecessary roughness penalty on a late hit of a sliding Rodgers on first down pushed them 15 yards forward to their 34-yard line. Rodgers added just 4 and 11 yards from there with short completions to Allison and Valdes-Scantling. But with 45 seconds left from midfield, Rodgers delivered an exceptional screen pass to Jones from an awkward arm angle. The non-traditional screen set-up left Jones with a seam, which he hit after dodging Miles Killebrew, the only defender with a chance to bring him down for a short gain. In the end, Jones ran for 31 yards and put the Packers in range of a field goal at the Lions' 20 yard-line.

Still with a couple of Lions' timeouts to kill, the Packers ran once and then kneeled to set up that final attempt. Holder J.K. Scott did an excellent job of corralling a high snap, and Crosby snuck the 33-yard try inside the left upright for a Packers win.

The Packers never led with time on the clock in either game against the Lions this season, but they won both games nevertheless. This close win seemed particularly critical, maintaining their tied record with the Saints and earning the No. 2 seed and a bye over them thanks to their better conference record. The Packers are not an elite team with the No. 9 overall and No. 11 weighted DVOA, but their bye and guaranteed home game improve their odds to 16.5% to reach and 4.1% to win the Super Bowl. Those are both third in the NFC behind the 49ers and Saints.

Falcons at Buccaneers

None of the other important games with playoff implications were close, but there were a couple of meaningless matchups that had compelling finishes. Jameis Winston was competing for a playoff berth in my heart. With a home game against the division-rival Falcons, he had a chance to finish the season with the most passing yards and interceptions in the NFL, not to mention an unbelievable 30-30 season of touchdowns and interceptions. No other quarterback had ever accomplished that feat. He came into the game with 31 touchdowns already, but he needed to throw two interceptions for the 30-30. He locked up his first with a terrible decision to throw to the inside of Justin Watson in the middle of the field with 5:14 left in the second quarter. But Winston still had not thrown another at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Falcons had the ball at Buccaneers' 37-yard line.

On a third-and-5, the Falcons quickly gained 9 and 8 yards with a Matt Ryan completion to Russell Gage and Devonta Freeman run and cutback. That advanced the team to the edge of the red zone. But after Freeman and rookie running back Qadree Ollison combined for just 1 yard on second and third down, the Falcons left their offense on the field. Down 22-16 and in need of a touchdown to tie the game, Dan Quinn's decision was a good one, improving their GWC by 2.6% over a field goal try. Ryan's pass to Freeman looked like it would convert a new first down, too, but defensive end William Gholston reached his hands up and batted the pass before it had the chance. That turned the ball over to the Bucs on downs and improved Tampa's GWC to 82.7%.

Eager to kill clock, the Bucs kept the ball on the ground on their next drive. Ronald Jones started it with a 5-yard carry, and then Winston kept it himself for 7 yards and an apparent new first down. However, that play was negated by an offensive holding penalty that backed the Bucs into a second-and-15 and all but forced a throw. Winston nearly made that work, rolling right and completing a 44-yard pass to Breshad Perriman down the right sideline. But Winston unloaded that pass with his full body a good 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, drawing an illegal forward pass penalty. Now on a third-and-18, the Bucs lost more yards on a Jones carry, forcing a fourth-down punt that landed the Falcons good field position from their 38-yard line.

The Falcons started that next drive with successive plays of 11, 7, and 9 yards, the first to tight end Austin Hooper and the second and third on carries from running back Brian Hill. Hill ran for just 1 yard on his third consecutive attempt, now at the Bucs' 35-yard line. But Ryan converted the ensuing second-and-9 anyway, hooking up with Gage in a soft spot in the Bucs' zone coverage. Once again, the Falcons were on the precipice of a touchdown, but once again, they came up short. This time, Ryan threw three straight incomplete passes, the first too high for Christian Blake, the second tipped by Jason Pierre-Paul, and the third short to Gage, forced by pass pressure. Younghoe Koo converted the resulting 43-yard field goal attempt, but the Falcons still trailed by three points with 6:27 remaining and retained just a 25.9% chance to win.

An extended drive here would have sealed the game for the Buccaneers, but their efforts to do so were again sabotaged by a penalty. This one came on second-and-10 from the team's 40-yard line with Winston intentionally grounding a pass to try to avoid a Deion Jones sack. Backed into a third-and-20, Winston dumped off a pass to Jones to regain some field position and kill clock. He managed 11 yards before Foyesade Oluokun brought him down, and the Bucs punted back to the Falcons with three minutes remaining.

Even at their own 20-yard line, the Falcons had plenty of time, and Ryan made decisions that showed his comfort in that situation. He passed short to Freeman twice and then Hooper to pick up 11, 3, and 4 yards and reach the team's 38-yard line at the two-minute warning. He took a third-down sack from Shaquil Barrett to set up a fourth-and-4, but then delivered a strike that Gage secured and fell back across the line to gain for a new first down. A neutral zone infraction advanced the Falcons to within 2 yards of midfield, but then they fell back again when Ryan took another Barrett sack. But on third-and-12, Ryan stepped up in the pocket and delivered a strike across his body to Justin Hardy, coming free in the middle of the field and running left and out of bounds for a 21-yard gain.

Ryan followed that with 11- and 12-yard completions to Olamide Zaccheaus and Gage to reach the Bucs' 15-yard line with 29 seconds remaining. He hit Hooper with a poorly considered wide receiver screen that dropped him in bounds with no gain. The Falcons were out of timeouts and didn't take their next snap until just 12 seconds were remaining. From there, Ryan missed on a couple of passes, the first of which was tipped and fell incomplete among a sea of red jerseys and the second too deep for Julio Jones to even attempt to win a jump ball in the end zone. That left the Falcons in fourth down with just three seconds to go, and Koo drilled the second of his two fourth-quarter field goals -- this one from 33 yards -- to send the game to overtime.

Koo added a ninth life to the dream of a 30-30 Winston season, and fate was kind by allowing the Bucs to win the overtime coin toss. And Winston took it from there, staring down his intended receiver Cameron Brate and never seeing the linebacker Jones who baited him into the throw. Jones secured the catch and a Falcons win with a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown. Winston achieved his 30-30 season and broke the NFL record with his seventh pick-six of the season for good measure.

The Falcons ended their season with four straight wins and six victories in their last eight games -- including wins over playoff teams in the Saints and 49ers. That was enough to save Quinn's job. Still, it's hard not to focus on the Bucs, who managed a 7-9 record despite Winston's 30 interceptions. Coming just a week after a report that Winston would return to the team in 2020, Bruce Arians made his feelings on the matter clear in saying that the team could win with a different quarterback under center. It will be fascinating to see how the Bucs handle this offseason given the other talent on their roster. They entered the final week with the No. 6 DVOA defense, No. 1 DVOA run defense, and receiver talent in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and maybe even Breshad Perriman that is the envy of the league.

Raiders at Broncos

The Raiders' slim playoff hopes lasted much longer than they had any right to. The Bears' win in the early window gave them the strength of victory tiebreaker they needed. If they and the Ravens, Texans, and Colts all won in the late window, the Raiders would sneak into the sixth seed in the AFC. Those hopes were all but extinguished by the start of the fourth quarter. Not only were the Raiders down 16-3, but the Texans (resting the starters) and Colts had fallen into double-digit deficits. At least the Raiders could scrape together an exciting fourth-quarter finish.

That effort started with 12- and 16-yard Derek Carr completions to DeAndre Washington and Zay Jones, the second of which advanced them into Broncos territory. After a 1-yard Washington carry, Carr continued the passing barrage with a 17-yard floater to Rico Gafford and a 6-yard checkdown to receiving back Jalen Richard. Washington put the Raiders in the red zone with a 3-yard carry and then earned a new first down with a 7-yard scamper. At the Broncos' 13-yard line, the Raiders were up to a 10.2% GWC. But on second down, Carr took a sack that backed the team into a third-and-16 -- and seemed to have tweaked Carr's knee -- and his 4-yard toss to Derek Carrier on third down had no chance of converting, with Carrier bracketed by a pair of defenders. The resulting fourth-and-12 was long odds of an offensive conversion, but a 10-point deficit following a made field goal were long as well, just 3.2% by GWC. Jon Gruden made the conservative choice, and he needed his defense to make a stop to give his offense another chance.

That nearly happened on the ensuing kickoff when Rod Smith dislodged the ball from returner Diontae Spencer, but fellow Broncos special teamer Devontae Booker recovered the ball to maintain the Broncos' possession. But after an unnecessary roughness penalty for a late hit out of bounds earned the Broncos offense one new first down, Phillip Lindsay mishandled a Drew Lock handoff. And this time, the Raiders recovered the loose ball, setting up their offense close to midfield with just under six minutes remaining.

Carr nearly squandered those defensive efforts by starting his next offensive series with a sack. Marcell Ateman dropped his second-down pass, but on third-and-15, Carr this time threw on the run, downfield to Hunter Renfrow. Renfrow went down to the ground to secure the catch, but with no one around him, he popped up, added 10 more yards, and then lateraled it to his teammate Ateman for good measure. Ateman added just a few more yards from there, but the play gained 48 yards in total and put the Raiders in the red zone.

Still, the Raiders sabotaged their near-touchdown efforts, this time with a Carr intentional grounding penalty on the very next play. Carr checked down to Washington on the next two plays to net 16 yards and create a fourth-and-4 from the Broncos' 10-yard line. But Gruden again played it conservatively -- this time with even odds of a win compared to a pass -- and kicked a field goal.

The Raiders were finally within a single score at 16-9, but with 3:09 left in the game, they needed another defensive stop. Maurice Hurst keyed that effort, exploding into the backfield and tackling Lindsay for a 5-yard loss on first down. And then Maxx Crosby batted down a second-down Lock pass attempt, stopping the clock and forcing a third-and-15. Lock gained 10 of those yards with a scramble, but that still left the Broncos in a fourth-and-5. They punted, giving the Raiders 2:45 to try to complete their comeback.

Despite the setup, the Raiders seemed to author a disappointment. Carr connected on a short pass to Ateman that kept him in bounds, draining the clock to 2:24. And from there, Carr threw incomplete on another pass to Ateman and consecutive passes to Darren Waller on third and fourth down. All three passes were catchable, if not easy given the close coverage. Now with the ball and just 2:08 left on the clock, the Broncos were a well-timed first down or a made field goal away from a victory. They made that harder on themselves with a Lindsay run for a loss and a false start penalty. But Lindsay found a hole in the middle that set up a realistic third-and-8. He tried again on the ground but this time hit a wall of Raiders defenders. That would not have been too bad a result for the Broncos, well within field goal range at the Raiders' 25-yard line. But tackle Garett Bolles drew a flag for unnecessary roughness for a pointless half-shove after the play was dead. That backed the Broncos up to their 39-yard line. In the altitude with big-legged kicker Brandon McManus, they still tried a 57-yard field goal attempt to seal the victory. But McManus missed just wide to the right, returning the ball to the Raiders with tremendous field position at their own 47-yard line.

The Broncos defense still seemed determine to ice this game, tackling Waller and Washington in bounds after short gains of 3 and 5 yards and batting a pass at the line in between. That left the Raiders with a fourth-and-2 with just 42 seconds left in the game. Gruden had to go for that one, and Carr delivered a soft pass that Ateman dove and caught at the left sideline. Ateman did an amazing job on the play of keeping his body in bounds, which the replay review upheld.

Even with the new first down, the Raiders 34 yards away from the end zone with just 36 seconds to get there. So naturally, Carr threw a jump ball that 5-foot-10 slot receiver Renfrow skied and pulled down over 6-foot-1 cornerback Isaac Yiadom.

The play itself advanced the Raiders to the Broncos' 6-yard line, and that became the 3-yard line after Yiadom removed his helmet on the field, drawing an automatic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And two plays later with just 11 seconds left, Carr hit Renfrow in the end zone to finally score a touchdown and pull the Raiders within a point.

After a game of conservativism, Gruden made a surprising but excellent decision to go for two points and a win in regulation on the road in Denver. It boosted their GWC by 3.6% over a point-after attempt. But that is where the Carr-to-Renfrow magic ended. Renfrow came free at the front of the end zone, but defensive end Shelby Harris batted it down before Carr could make the connection. And after a failed onside kick attempt with just seven seconds left, Lock was able to take a knee to secure the Broncos' unexpectedly hard-fought victory.

With the Raiders effectively eliminated before their comeback even began, there are fewer takeaways from this result, however exciting it was. The Raiders' second-half fade of five losses in their final six games marred a season of unexpected competence under the new Gruden regime. An overall 24th-ranked DVOA may not foreshadow a repeat of a 7-9 finish, but a top-10 DVOA offensive finish is impressive considering what happened with Antonio Brown. And it seems to suggest Gruden will keep Carr as his quarterback as the team makes its move to Las Vegas.

For the Broncos, the close of a disappointing season is all about quarterback evaluation as well. And while Lock had just the one stand-out game of 309 yards and three touchdowns against the Texans in his second start, he did lead all rookie passers with a 2.4% DVOA, albeit on a small sample of 166 dropbacks. John Elway didn't sound fully committed to his late-season starter on Monday, but the Broncos may be facing a rebuild whether they want to admit it or not. After top-five finishes in four of their last five seasons, their aging defense declined to just 13th in DVOA by season's end.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2020, 1:40pm

1 seahawks and 49ers

Seattle had a first down at the 49ers 1/2 yard line with about 28 seconds on the clock and the 49ers defense scrambling to avoid an off sides call. With all the attention to game planning that accompanies an NFL game, surely there was a better option than having Russell Wilson throw the football into the ground, rather than, oh I don't know, running around the right end and into the end zone to score the game-winning, division clinching, touchdown.

Or even something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZfzr9tB4oo

2 Re: Seahawks and 49ers

Three downs would likely have been plenty if the Seahawks hadn't drawn that delay-of-game penalty.  That was also a killer.

3 time vs downs

My math skills are poor, but 4 chances to score vs 3 to score seems like a significant change in the odds of winning. Indeed, time was less of a factor than it seemed, as the 49ers ended up having to run a play to end the game after taking over on downs. In addition, the defense has just given up a long completion in their dime package, and now must regroup the same personnel into stopping Wilson on the goal. Why kill the clock and give the defense a chance to bring in the goal line package? The Seahawks' endgame left a lot to be desired, but the implication is that teams do not seem to game plan for these rare, yet crucial moments when they get a 'freebie'. Besides taking a shot on an off sides call, or the occasional Hail Mary, few teams exploit chaos very well. It would be interesting to see the success rate in situations like that: 3rd or 4th and long leads to a near first down or a TD. The offense rushes to the line and converts as soon as the defense is set. I imagine that sample size is so tiny it would be almost useless, but something that a coach could exploit.     Thanks for breaking a lance on this Scott! Your column is the best read of the week.  

4 Re: 3 downs vs. 4 downs

In reply to by afcarriere

I can't argue with you.  I think they'd love a do-over of the whole deal.  And thanks so much for the compliment, I'm glad you've enjoyed the column.