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Good morning to everyone but especially to...
We entered Sunday with three open playoff spots, and, boy, did we get some thrillers to determine who would fill them.
Let's start on Sunday night with a win-and-you're-in (well, technically, win-or-tie-and-you're-in) matchup between the Chargers and Raiders. Lucky for us — and the NFL — these AFC West rivals opted not to just kneel down and both make the playoffs and instead gave us one heck of a game, as well as an end to a season that will likely never be replicated.
Let me explain:
- In the early afternoon window, the Colts had a win-and-in game against the lowly Jaguars. Indianapolis was a complete no-show and lost, 26-11 (more on that later).
- That opened the door for Pittsburgh, who won an overtime thriller of their own, 16-13, over the Ravens.
- The only other thing the Steelers needed was a win by either the Raiders or the Chargers. Anything other than a tie Sunday night would do for Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, a tie would put both Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the playoffs.
Ok, now onto a Sunday night I'll never forget:
- The Raiders led, 29-14, with under five minutes to go in regulation.
- Then Justin Herbert found Josh Palmer on 4th-and-21 for a touchdown and found Austin Ekeler for the two-point conversion.
- Los Angeles got a stop, and then Herbert orchestrated another masterpiece, finding Mike Williams for the game-tying touchdown as time expired in regulation.
- The teams exchanged field goals on their first possessions of overtime.
- REMINDER: THESE TEAMS COULD HAVE SETTLED FOR A TIE RIGHT THERE AND THEN AND BOTH MADE THE PLAYOFFS!
- The Raiders drove into Chargers territory, and with 38 seconds left, Josh Jacobs ripped off a 10-yard run to move the Raiders into field goal territory, where Daniel Carlson converted for a 35-32 win.
From Herbert's heroics to a frantic finish to Carlson's clutch gene, this game was an all-timer to finish the longest regular season ever. And now, somehow, some way Pittsburgh keeps going, too, writes NFL insider Jason La Canfora in his weekly notebook:
- La Canfora: "This Steelers team is not fortified for a real playoff push... But then again, defying the odds is what Roethlisberger does best, and I'm not sure anyone could have predicted this 9-7-1 finish and this team being as viable as it ended up being. He keeps escaping. He keeps extending. And his career isn't over yet."
There was plenty of drama on the NFC side as well. The 49ers fell down 17-0 to the Rams late in the first half only to come roaring back for an impressive 27-24 OT victory that clinched their playoff ticket. It was San Francisco's largest comeback win since 2011 and it was the first time Sean McVay has ever lost when his team led at halftime.
It showed the 49ers will be a tough out in the playoffs, writes our NFL expert Jordan Dajani:
- Dajani: "No matter your thoughts on [Jimmy] Garoppolo, the 49ers are contenders because of their offensive line and playmakers. Even without star left tackle Trent Williams, this offensive front was effective in paving the way for Elijah Mitchell and [Deebo] Samuel to run the ball. The two combined for 130 rushing yards. The wide receivers also had one of their best outings as a collective unit."
- T.J. Watt tied Michael Strahan's single-season sack record with 22.5.
- The Titans are the No. 1 seed in the AFC after a 28-25 win over the Texans. It's a remarkable accomplishment, and it gives Derrick Henry an extra week to get healthy.
- Please watch this absurd block by Ja Morant.
- The Yankees are expected to name Rachel Balkovec the manager of their Low-A affiliate, the Tampa Tarpons. Balkovec will be the first female full-time manager in the minor leagues.
And not such a good morning for...
CARSON WENTZ AND THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
On Sunday, several Jaguars fans showed up in clown outfits to express their displeasure with the franchise. But the joke was on the Colts, and unfortunately for Indianapolis fans, it's no laughing matter.
The Colts' 26-11 loss in Jacksonville was an unmitigated disaster. It means they will miss the playoffs after being near shoo-ins two weeks ago. And at the center of it all is Carson Wentz. Here are some of the lowlights:
- He was sacked six times. Before Sunday, he had never been sacked more than three times in a single game this season.
- The two second-half turnovers: an awful fumble followed by an equally awful interception.
- His numbers prior to a garbage-time touchdown drive: 9-20, 100 yards, one interception ... a passer rating of 39.6.
And this was all AGAINST THE JAGUARS.
Remember, the Colts traded a first- and third-round pick for Wentz, and he let them down massively Sunday after struggling last week in a loss to the Raiders. Had the Colts won either of those games, they'd be in the playoffs. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of other issues. The defense fell apart (Jacksonville's 26 points were a season high), the offensive line struggled, and Jonathan Taylor never got going.
But these situations were supposed to be why Indianapolis got Wentz, and he just fell apart.
Two weeks ago, the Colts had won six of their last seven and were a Super Bowl darkhorse with a superstar running back and a strong defense. Now, they have a lot of questions to answer, potentially starting with Wentz. NFL guru Cody Benjamin explored all the options:
Benjamin: "Let's say [GM Chris] Ballard wants to explore alternatives right away. Can he? Yes. Absolutely. ... The Colts owe just $15 million guaranteed on the remainder of Wentz's four-year, $128M deal -- originally signed with the Eagles. That may sound like a lot, but Wentz is owed a total of $28.3M in 2022, meaning Indy could release Wentz and instantly save $13.3M."
Not so honorable mention
- The Vic Fangio era is over in Denver, and the Broncos will now look for their fifth head coach in nine seasons. You can keep up with coaching carousel updates here.
- Giants head coach Joe Judge spent all week saying the Giants aren't "some clown show." Then his team ran a quarterback sneak on 3rd-and-9. You sure about that, Joe?
The NFL playoff field is set 🏈
Let's keep this simple. Above is the entire field for the playoffs and below is the entire Super Wild Card Weekend schedule:
- No. 7 Eagles at No. 2 Buccaneers (-9.5), Sunday, 1 p.m. on FOX
- No. 6 49ers at No. 3 Cowboys (-3), Sunday, 4:30 p.m. on CBS/Paramount+/Nickelodeon
- No. 5 Cardinals at No. 4 Rams (-4), Monday, 8:15 p.m. on ESPN/ABC
- BYE: No. 1 Packers
- No. 5 Raiders at No. 4 Bengals (-6.5), Saturday, 4:30 p.m. on NBC
- No. 6 Patriots at No. 3 Bills (-4.5), Saturday, 8:15 p.m. on CBS/Paramount+
- No. 7 Steelers at No. 2 Chiefs (-13), Sunday, 8:15 p.m. on NBC
- BYE: No. 1 Titans
Everything you need to know about the CFP National Championship 🏆
Hope you still have room for more football, because tonight is the College Football Playoff National Championship! No. 3 Georgia takes on No. 1 Alabama in a rematch of the SEC Championship, which was won by the Crimson Tide, 41-24. Lets see what our experts think about tonight's game.
College football reporter Barrett Sallee has five keys for the Bulldogs to get revenge:
- Sallee: "The front seven was touted as one of the best of all time, and polishing off an unblemished regular season seemed like a mere formality. Instead, they were unable to sack Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young once as the star sophomore sewed up the Heisman Trophy and set multiple SEC Championship Game records in the process. That has to change."
On the other side, our expert Chip Patterson has five keys for the Crimson Tide:
- Patterson: "Freshman Ja'Corey Brooks started the Cotton Bowl in [John] Metchie's absence, but he's far from the only underclassmen option for potential game-breakers in Alabama's receiver room. Sophomore Javon Baker is another talented player who could be poised to emerge, and freshman JoJo Earle is another one to watch as he's worked his way back from a late-season injury.
As for where you should put your money, Tom Fornelli has his eyes on one number in particular:
- Fornelli: "Have you seen the history between these two? There have been four meetings between Saban and Smart, and only one of those four featured fewer than 52 points -- Alabama's 26-23 overtime win in the first title game. The three meetings since have featured an average of 64.3 points per game. I don't think we get that high again -- barring another overtime game -- but we should get past this number. Pick: Over 52"
For all of our preview content (and there's a lot of great stuff), you can click here.
Klay Thompson has triumphant return to Warriors 🏀
For the first time since June 9, 2019, we saw Klay Thompson in an NBA game, and it was awesome.
Coming off a torn ACL followed by a ruptured Achilles, Thompson scored 17 points in his long-awaited return as the Warriors beat the Cavaliers, 96-82. Thompson produced plenty of highlights, including a thunderous dunk and three 3-pointers.
Our NBA expert Colin Ward-Henninger was on hand for a special night at the Chase Center:
- Ward-Henninger: "Watching Thompson score 17 points in 20 minutes in his first game since the 2019 NBA Finals, going 3-for-8 from the 3-point arc, was thrilling, but honestly it wouldn't have mattered if he didn't score a single point. Warriors coach Steve Kerr did all he could before the game to keep himself from saying the outcome didn't really matter. This was about more than basketball, and everyone knew it. The fact that Thompson played well was icing on an already delicious cake."
What we're watching Monday 📺
🏈 CFP National Championship: No. 3 Georgia (-2.5) vs No. 1 Alabama, 8 p.m. on ESPN