The Lions and the Seahawks lost, diminishing their chances of making the playoffs, while the Packers and the Panthers kept hope alive.
For most of us, it’s the crescendo of the holiday season, but for the N.F.L., it’s do-or-die time. The Packers preserved their N.F.C. playoff prospects Sunday with a win over the Dolphins. On Saturday, two scrappy underdogs, the Lions and Seahawks, saw their playoff chances shrink with painful losses, while the Panthers extended their hopes for at least another week.
The Lions’ recent success may have been an illusion.
The Detroit Lions season was shaping up to be a Cinderella story. After a 1-6 start, the Lions had battled back with a 6-1 run to get to .500 heading into Christmas weekend. Though they were still a long shot for the playoffs, the Lions were rolling, and they controlled their destiny. But it all came crashing down Saturday under the weight of a desperate Carolina Panthers’ run game.
The Panthers, barely clinging to playoff hopes themselves, mashed the Lions up front. It was a four-quarter stomping, but the Panthers did a majority of their work in the first half. Led by Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman, the Panthers rattled off 240 yards on 22 carries in the first two quarters alone, an effort that put them up 24-7 at the half.
The Lions’ edge defenders and linebackers had a particularly rough day. On the first play of the game, the Panthers set up a misdirection play. The entire line blocked to the right side, and Hubbard took his first step that way, but then he cut back the other way. With one blocker coming back across the formation, Hubbard ran from right to left, away from the direction the Lions defense had been suckered into going. Hubbard raced to a 30-yard gain, an omen of what was to come.
Midway through the second quarter, tied at 7 with 9:40 left, Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold held the ball on an option play for a touchdown. The Panthers called a zone read on the goal line, putting Lions edge defender Romeo Okwara in a bind between the running back and the quarterback. Okwara crashed on the running back, freeing Darnold to trot into the end zone as the Lions’ linebackers got stuck inside playing the fake handoff.
A lack of run defense and discipline killed a Lions team that was built on running the ball and doing all the little things right. They’re normally a sound team, if a bit short of talent on both sides of the ball, but they erred on Christmas Eve, a performance that may well dash their chances of playing postseason ball. The Upshot now has the Lions with just a 17 percent chance to make the playoffs.
The Vikings need to learn how to win big.
The Minnesota Vikings had already locked up a playoff spot and the N.F.C. North title, but a dramatic win over the Giants moved them to 12-3. Kicker Greg Joseph finished off the affair as time expired, draining a 61-yard field goal to give the Vikings the 27-24 victory. The narrow win was a perfect encapsulation of a Vikings team that somehow escapes with victories despite never dominating its opponents.
In games decided by a single possession — 8 points or fewer — the Vikings are now 11-0 this season. They have beaten just one opponent by more than 8 points, and that came in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. Those 11 close wins include a bizarre final two minutes against the Bills that featured Justin Jefferson’s one-handed catch on fourth-and-18; the biggest comeback in N.F.L. history against a Jeff Saturday-coached Colts team; and now a career-long field goal for Joseph that was also the longest ever for the Vikings. The last might be the most impressive considering Minnesota’s history of kicking woes since, well, as long as anyone can remember. This year has been shockingly kind to the Vikings.
Relying on tight wins is dicey in the playoffs, though. Competent teams keep games close and the fortunate ones win them, but great teams find ways to dominate their opponents. The Vikings haven’t done that. Instead, they were slammed in their three losses to the Eagles, Cowboys and Lions by a combined score of 98-33. It’s obviously great to win football games, but close-game wins are generally not sustainable, and the Vikings haven’t proved they can win big.
The Vikings might need to find another gear to be a serious contender, a gear more convincing than a 3-point home win over the Giants.
Kansas City’s success may not be all about its offense.
Nobody will mistake Kansas City for a defensive team. Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid run the show, and all the defense has to do is hold the other team to fewer than 30 points in most weeks. But Saturday’s win over the hungry Seattle Seahawks was different. Kansas City’s offense put up a respectable 24 points, but it was the defense that really did the job, holding Seattle to 10 points and perhaps giving the team an extra bit of confidence heading into the postseason.
Kansas City had held only one other opponent to 10 points this season. That was in a Week 11 win over a Rams team quarterbacked by backup Bryce Perkins and missing wide receiver Cooper Kupp. That hardly compares to smothering the Seahawks, whose offense has been rolling for most of the season behind Geno Smith, a Pro Bowl quarterback who has DK Metcalf at his side.
It was a collective effort from the Kansas City defense, with a focus on stopping the Seahawks’ passing game. Up front, Chris Jones led a pass-rushing onslaught that garnered two sacks of Smith and seven quarterback hits. Rookie defensive end George Karlaftis popped for his biggest moment of the season, earning a well-timed third-down sack deep in Seahawks territory after beating Seattle rookie tackle Abraham Lucas around the edge. Smith was under duress all day and was not getting the pockets he had been used to.
Kansas City’s physicality and variety of zone coverages played well against the Seahawks’ receivers. Metcalf still produced a solid seven catches for 81 yards, but it wasn’t enough to carry the offense. Smith seemed rattled by the heavy pressure and mix of coverages, leading him to take more checkdowns and short throws than he might have otherwise. Kansas City’s second- and third-level defenders did an excellent job rallying to tackle on those short throws, leaving the Seahawks with a nickel-and-dime approach that didn’t produce enough coins to pay for a win.
It must be said that the Seahawks were without wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who surely would have made this game more difficult for Kansas City. But this was still Kansas City’s most convincing defensive performance, and it could not have come at a better time. If its defense can inch closer to average, as opposed to the below-average unit it has been for most of the season, Kansas City might again be the team to watch in January.
Around the N.F.L.
Buccaneers 19, Cardinals 16 (Overtime): The day’s final game was a rock fight between teams that are in worse shape at this point in the season than they anticipated. Like in a handful of other games this year, the Bucs held on for dear life in a low-scoring affair before Tom Brady pulled a win out of his hat. Two straight fourth-quarter drives, both strung together primarily by Brady’s quick passes, sent the game into overtime after Tampa Bay trailed by 10. The Buccaneers limited the third-stringer Trace McSorley and the Cardinals to one first down before kicking a game-winning field goal.
Rams 51, Broncos 14: A season’s worth of frustrations poured out for Denver. Russell Wilson could not stop falling prey to negative plays, taking six sacks and throwing three interceptions. It got so bad that by the third quarter the backup quarterback Brett Rypien and the entire offensive line had words on the sideline after Wilson had been sacked. Rypien himself threw a pick-6 after entering in the fourth quarter. The Rams’ offense, backup quarterback and all, took advantage of the floundering Broncos roster: Cam Akers had three rushing touchdowns, and Los Angeles scored on every single drive except its last, a kneeldown to end the blowout.
Packers 26, Dolphins 20: Tua Tagovailoa played his best half of football in more than a month to kick off the Christmas Day games. With his guidance, the Dolphins scored on four of their first five drives, marching downfield with a symphony of Raheem Mostert carries and explosive receptions from Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Tagovailoa came out flat for the second half, however, and gifted the Packers’ defense three consecutive interceptions in the fourth quarter. All three of the picks went straight into a lurking defender and contributed to Miami’s scoreless second half. The short fields, as well as a strong touchdown drive to open the third quarter, were enough for the Packers to put enough points on the board in Florida to keep their N.F.C. playoff hopes alive for another week.
Steelers 13, Raiders 10: The Raiders burned all the offense they had on their opening possession. They mounted a 14-play touchdown drive to kick things off, but then running back Josh Jacobs stalled out, leaving the Raiders’ passing game with a lot of third-and-longs in snowy, 13-degree weather. The Steelers’ offense didn’t get many points in response for most of the game, but quarterback Kenny Pickett rose to the challenge and scored on a two-minute drive, hitting George Pickens down the middle for the go-ahead score. Derek Carr, with all three timeouts and 43 seconds to work with, threw an interception to Cam Sutton, almost certainly ending the Raiders’ playoff hopes for the year.
Cowboys 40, Eagles 34: There’s a case to be made that Jalen Hurts would have won this game if he had been able to play, but it’s not as if the Eagles collapsed with their backup quarterback, Gardner Minshew. The Eagles’ offense scored 27 points, thanks in part to Minshew’s willingness to feed his skill players, and their defense scored a pick-6 on the Cowboys’ first drive. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys went nuclear after that opening drive blunder, however, and proved too explosive for the Eagles defense.
49ers 37, Commanders 20: Brock Purdy isn’t perfect, but he will uncork the ball to the 49ers’ handful of elite skill players. Kyle Shanahan usually makes that pretty easy to do, too, just as he did in this one. Tight end George Kittle had himself a day, scoring one touchdown on a deep post and another on a 33-yard catch and run. The 49ers’ pass rush got after Taylor Heinicke to the point where he was pressured into a fourth-down misfire for an interception that got him benched in favor of Carson Wentz.
Bengals 22, Patriots 18: Each team scored in only one half, the Bengals dominating the first before the Patriots rallied in the second. Joe Burrow diced up the Patriots for the first two quarters, leaning heavily on the big-bodied wide receiver Tee Higgins to dunk on the Patriots’ small cornerback group. But a couple of key mistakes — two interceptions thrown by Burrow and a Ja’Marr Chase fumble — made it tough for the Bengals to pull away, and the Patriots clawed their way back, narrowing the lead before fumbling inside the Bengals’ 10-yard line on what could have been a game-winning drive.
Kansas City 24, Seahawks 10: Geno Smith was in hell all day. Kansas City’s pass rush swarmed him for four quarters, generating a ton of interior pressure led by Chris Jones. When paired with the physical, tight-window style of coverage played by Kansas City, it was tough sledding for a Seahawks’ passing offense that has otherwise carried the team. For Kansas City, the ever-reliable Patrick Mahomes-to-Travis Kelce connection did its magic. Kelce snagged six catches for 113 yards, earning just over half of the team’s total receiving yards on the day.
Bills 35, Bears 13: Not many teams throw two interceptions and come away with a 22-point win anyway. The Bills are not most teams. Josh Allen was mostly good outside of a few numbskull plays, the kind of performance he can be prone to when nothing is really on the line. The Bills’ defense was the real reason for the team’s success, though. Bears quarterback Justin Fields had just seven carries for 11 yards, the first time he’s been held to under 50 yards since early October.
Ravens 17, Falcons 9: A surging Ravens’ defense held its own against a tough Falcons’ run game. The Falcons slammed their running backs forward 33 times but netted just 115 yards, roughly 3.5 yards per carry. The Ravens ran the ball much better, earning 5.4 yards per carry, and were able to control the pace of the game. Atlanta’s rookie quarterback, Desmond Ridder, led the offense into the red zone twice in the fourth quarter, but the first drive ended on downs and the second ended in a field goal that was too little, too late.
Panthers 37, Lions 23: The Lions needed to win this game to have a good shot at the playoffs, but they didn’t play with any urgency. From the first play of the game, the Panthers’ ground attack gashed the Lions up and down the field. The Panthers finished with 320 yards rushing, 240 in the first half alone. The Panthers went into the half with a 24-7 lead, and that was enough of a cushion to stave off the Lions’ comeback attempt.
Vikings 27, Giants 24: The Vikings have once again come out on top in a game decided by one possession, extending their record to 11-0 in those games. This time, kicker Greg Joseph had to clear his career long by a few yards, nailing a 61-yarder as the clock wound down to zeros. Quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 71 percent of his passes, leaning heavily on Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had just his second 300-yard passing game, but one costly second-half interception inside the Vikings’ 35-yard line was the difference between a win and a loss.
Saints 17, Browns 10: This game was played in 5-degree weather, yet the team used to playing in a dome, the Saints, came out victorious. Thanks largely to the conditions, it was a big Taysom Hill game. Hill had nine carries for 56 yards and a score, and he was on the field as a decoy during a handful of other plays. The Browns, traditionally a good running team, didn’t have much success running the ball, earning fewer than 4 yards per carry and struggling to prop up an abysmal passing game.
Texans 19, Titans 14: It’s impressive that the Titans strung together seven wins with a makeshift roster, but now injuries have fully caught up to them. With rookie quarterback Malik Willis playing in place of the injured Ryan Tannehill, the Titans’ offense had little to offer outside of Derrick Henry’s 126 yards on 23 carries. Willis threw two interceptions and took four sacks, more than enough mistakes to give the Texans chances to win. Davis Mills, though not very effective himself, did just enough with the short fields to get the Texans just their second win of the year, both of which have come in the division.