The NFL decided to spread its penultimate regular-season docket of the 2020 season over this four-day weekend, starting with a stocking stuffer on Christmas Day followed by three more, ahem, presents Saturday.
With one quarter of Week 16’s games complete – providing further clarity to the playoff field going into Sunday’s slate (while doubtless playing havoc with the emotions of fantasy football owners who probably should have been focused on more important things in their lives) – it seemed as good a time as any to explore early winners and losers from the four contests in the books.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re going to the postseason for the first time since 2007 after officially snapping the NFC’s longest playoff absence – and that’s largely because they finally looked like the potential juggernaut many had foreseen after QB Tom Brady signed. He threw for 348 yards and connected for TDs with all of his premier weapons – TE Rob Gronkowski and WRs Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown – before halftime in a 47-7 Bucs blowout.
Brady: Add this to his laundry list of NFL accomplishments: He’s the first player to be a member of 12 consecutive playoff teams … hope that gives you some solace, New Englanders. TB12 is also now 9-0 on Saturday – so, take note, NFL playoff schedule makers.
Bucs’ record book: Brady’s 36 TD passes in 2020 are a single-season Tampa Bay record. Evans’ 13 TD grabs this year are also a Buccaneers standard. Saturday was the first time the team scored 34 points in a half. Club marks were also established for yards gained (588), TD passes in a game (6) and first downs made (30).
‘FitzTua’: Remember “Woodstrock,” that quarterbacking hybrid Hall of Fame coach Don Shula used in the pre-Marino 1980s when the Dolphins scratched out wins with a combination of youngster David Woodley and veteran backup Don Strock? It appears current Miami coach Brian Flores is going down the same path with rookie Tua Tagovailoa and erstwhile starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, now in his 16th NFL season. Saturday night, Flores pulled Tua for Fitz, and the Fins pulled out a miraculous victory with Fitzpatrick passing for 182 yards and a TD in relief while setting up the game-winning field goal with a 34-yard pass to Mack Hollins – as the QB was having his head twisted by a critical facemask penalty. One more win, and Miami is playoff-bound for just the second time in the past 12 seasons. Fitzpatrick has never appeared in the postseason.
New Orleans Saints: It took a few more weeks than they would have liked, but they finally put a bow on their fourth consecutive NFC South title and remain alive for the conference’s first-round bye.
Amazon: Unless you live in the Bay Area or greater Phoenix region, you had to tune in – or perhaps buy in if you hadn’t ponied up for free shipping costs for home-delivered packages – to the internet giant’s video service to watch 49ers vs. Cardinals on Saturday afternoon. Amazon surely enjoyed far more diehard eyeballs than it typically gets from simulcasts it does with Fox and NFL Network, this while the league continues to compile data about how its main product is consumed going into its next round of broadcast negotiations.
Chicago Bears: It seems like it’s been five minutes since they were in the throes of a six-game slide and hurtling toward irrelevance. But after Arizona lost, all Da Bears need to do to reach the playoffs is beat the Jaguars and Packers.
Former Hawkeyes stars: San Francisco QB C.J. Beathard (3 TD passes) and TE George Kittle (4 catches, 92 yards in his return from a foot injury) – they were also teammates at Iowa – helped the 49ers deal a potentially mortal blow to the Cardinals’ playoff hopes.
Former Mizzou QBs: Backups Blaine Gabbert (Bucs) and Chase Daniel (Lions) combined for 229 yards passing and two TDs in relief Saturday. Go, Tigers.
Alvin Kamara: He tied Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers’ 91-year-old league record by rushing for six TDs on Christmas, while wearing one red cleat and one green. (And Kamara could have reached the end zone seven times if Saints coach Sean Payton had let him try.) He also rushed for a career-high 155 yards (on just 22 carries) and assumed the NFL lead with 21 total TDs this season, which represents a New Orleans record.
Kamara’s fantasy GMs: In most standard points-per-reception leagues, the Saints star accounted for 56.2 points by virtue of his half-dozen TDs, three catches and 172 yards from scrimmage. Hard to believe anyone with Kamara on their roster still playing in a fantasy Super Bowl wasn’t bringing home the hardware and “hard-earned” winnings once Week 16 is over.
Kamara’s fantasy GMs: Of course, many who drafted Kamara wilted in the final weeks as Saints backup QB Taysom Hill largely failed to utilize him in the passing game. Suffice it to say quite a few who leaned on Kamara – pour a little out for our esteemed colleague, USA TODAY Sports’ fantasy Hall of Famer Steve Gardner – suffered in silence … or spewed vile outbursts amid AK41’s Yuletide scoring binge.
Raiders defense: The Silver and Black had Saturday night’s game virtually in the bag … until a D that has failed this team all season served a fatal double blow – in the form of an unforgivable completion and the facemask penalty that allowed Miami to kick a game-winning field goal with 1 second left. The loss eliminated Las Vegas from playoff consideration.
Baltimore Ravens: Imagine the emotional rollercoaster they were on before watching the Dolphins prevail – an outcome that suddenly casts the surging Ravens’ playoff hopes in doubt.
Cleveland Browns: They can end the league’s longest playoff drought – one that extends to 2002 – Sunday by beating the Jets (1-13) and getting some help. However that task became more difficult Saturday when the Browns were forced to place six players, including their top four wide receivers, on the reserve/COVID-19 list – all this happening while their flight to the New York metro area was delayed while the NFL performed contact tracing.
Buccaneers defense: They didn’t get credited with a shutout in Motown … because the punt team surrendered a TD to Lions return ace Jamal Agnew in the third quarter.
Darrell Bevell: You’ve got to feel for the Lions’ interim coach, who was finally getting at least a limited opportunity to show what he could do under the big headset. But instead of patrolling the sideline Saturday, Bevell and four of his assistants watched Detroit get hammered while confined to COVID-19 quarantine. And poor Bevell – he also had to miss Christmas and his 28th anniversary while holed up in a hotel room. And making this worse? The coaches would have been eligible to return had the game been played Sunday.
Arizona Cardinals: They surrendered control of their playoff fate while watching battered QB Kyler Murray stagger off the field after losing – and often looking lifeless – to a Niners team that had already been eliminated from contention.
Minnesota Vikings: They were officially cast out of the playoff race … after they had to fly to New Orleans on Christmas Eve … just so they could get their butts kicked on Christmas Day … when they might’ve given the worst defensive performance in the franchise’s 60-year history. What rhymes with #Skol? Coal.
Mike Zimmer: The Vikes coach, a noted defensive guru, saw his unit truly bottom out – Minnesota was gashed for a franchise-worst 583 yards by New Orleans – at the end of a season that saw this group stripped by free agency, COVID-19 opt-outs and injuries. “This is a bad defense – worst one I’ve ever had,” said Zimmer, a veteran of 27 NFL seasons, Friday.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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