Next weekend, it will be almost 18 years to the day since the Buffalo Bills last appeared in the postseason. That exit was memorable even among other Bills postseason playoff falters in the '90s, as Buffalo fell prey to the Music City Miracle. The Titans eventually advanced to the Super Bowl that year, and Buffalo wandered the football desert for a generation.
Even going into Week 17, few Bills fans who have been conditioned to expect disappointment would anticipate the stars aligning for their team. After all, not only would the Bills need to take care of business the final day of the regular season, which has often eluded them over the past decade, they would need a consistently competitive Ravens team to lose to the lowly Bengals at home. Though Buffalo won and Cincinnati led early in the game, Baltimore got the advantage late. It was shaping up to be the predictably disappointing result, until it wasn't. The Bills beat the Dolphins 22-16, and the Ravens lost to the Bengals 31-27.
The Bills did themselves few favors toward the midpoint of the season. Despite a better than expected 5-4 start, the team abruptly opted to bench starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor in favor of rookie Nate Peterman, who cratered in his debut with five first-half interceptions in a loss to the Chargers. This was a signal the team was willing to abandon something that might work for what it hoped would work. There was a big outcry, and Taylor was reinstalled as starter.
Buffalo won four of its last six games and will travel to play Jacksonville in the wild-card round. The Bills' fortunes there against a strong Jaguars defense likely hang on the health of LeSean McCoy, who left Sunday's win with a sprained ankle. One thing that should give comfort to Bills fans not willing to settle for a one-and-done performance now that they made it back to the postseason is the return of Bad Blake Bortles for the Jags. Jacksonville has lost two straight coming into the playoffs. For a little while, the Jags looked like a dark horse possibility to win the AFC, and now they're no lock to escape their first playoff game in a decade.
Buffalo still seems committed to blowing everything up in the offseason. So maybe this is still Taylor's last stand. Just playing in a postseason game, and maybe even advancing a round, could help him get another starting job in 2018.
Don't worry, there's still some Hue Jackson magic left
#Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said he TOLD new GM John Dorsey that Hue Jackson would return as head coach, that there was no debate. Says, "I don't think Hue has lost (his) magic."- Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) December 31, 2017
Not every long-suffering franchise can reverse its fortunes every year. Otherwise, there'd be no long-suffering franchises. And so, the Browns joined the 1960 Cowboys, 1979 Buccaneers, 1982 Colts and 2008 Lions as the only winless teams in NFL history. Of course, this year's Browns and those '08 Lions are the only ones to have completed the full 0-16 campaign.
Bizarre as it may sound, keeping Jackson isn't quite as crazy as his historically bad 1-31 record as head coach indicates. The team should have a dramatic infusion of talent with its load of draft picks in 2018. There wasn't much for hope for contending in 2017. The next season will be a make-or-break one for Jackson. Obviously, it's easy to improve on 0-16. It will take a defined direction and a sense of sustainable forward momentum to last more than one additional season.
Remember, Belichick is the smartest of head coaches and a tactical genius
A source with the Patriots tells me Bill Belichick ordered the field crew to place these thermometers inside the Jets tunnel so New York is reminded how cold it is. Mental warfare. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/I7IwcZQZXf- Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) December 31, 2017
Bill Belichick may tower over his contemporaries in terms of wins and championships. In some ways, he's susceptible to the same psychological techniques as any football coach. In this case, it was sternly reminding the Jets that they would be playing in conditions slightly colder than they would experience on their own field. Of course, the news that Jon Gruden could return to coaching with the Raiders comes with the knowledge that Gruden will be able to use his "QB Camp" breakdowns as material for psychological warfare with the young quarterbacks of the league.
Eagles punter Donnie Jones was teased a great deal for running onto the field with his sweatpants on before quickly realizing his mistake. But, hey, it's cold out and he's the punter. It's an understandable gaffe. Frankly, any team like the Eagles that is just showing up so they won't get fined should be allowed to coast through games in sweats. Sure, it removes some of the dramatic tension of the game, but it's more faithful to the overall mood of Week 17 games -- especially Philly's 6-0 loss to the Cowboys.
Fan of the Week
The Bills and Jaguars will meet in the early game next Sunday. More importantly, the Bills' and Jaguars' intense, somewhat self-destructive, fans will meeting in the hours before the early game next Sunday. There's no guessing at the carnage that could result. If anything, this Sunday might have provided them a little inspiration. A fan in the lots before the 'Skins-Giants game Sunday plunged off the top of a truck through a table. If the Jags and Bills fans want to one-up that one, let's hope they find a way to do it safely.
Offense may have been sparse overall in the Panthers-Falcons game, but Atlanta's kicker made it count the many times the team turned to him to get something out of drives against Carolina. Bryant was 5-for-5 on the day. Dan Quinn put some heavy-duty trust in him in the second half, counting on Bryant to make a 56-yarder when Atlanta led 16-10 midway through the fourth. A miss would have set up Carolina in good position to take the lead. Instead, the Falcons found themselves ahead by two scores.
The Killer Bs might not have been in action against Cleveland. Instead, it's was Pittsburgh's breakout star in 2017 who provided most of the production for the Steelers. Smith-Schuster was the biggest part of the offense from scrimmage, piling up 143 yards receiving and a touchdown. He also added a 96-yard kickoff return for a score right after the Browns came back to tie the game at 21 in the third quarter. With Martavis Bryant putting his objections aside, the Steelers have an embarrassment of riches at receiver, assuming Antonio Brown will be ready to return in two weeks.
The biggest playmaker for the Saints offense in 2017 closed out the regular season in dominant style, scoring both of New Orleans' first-quarter touchdowns. The first came on a 106-yard kickoff return where he slightly hesitated before bringing the ball out of the end zone, only to burn the defense getting to the other one. Beyond that, Kamara finished with 128 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. It was in a losing effort, but that's only because the Bucs came up with 18 in the final quarter.
It was his long catch and run for the go-ahead score in the final minute that snatched a spoiler victory out from underneath Baltimore. Boyd had four other catches, and his 91 yards nearly doubled his output for the season. The Ravens didn't help themselves by suddenly switching to zone after playing man coverage most of the game, then botching the coverage on the pivotal play.
It was hard to find an NFL writer not singing the Patriots' praises for bringing on the former Steelers linebacker after Pittsburgh cut him last weekend. Harrison had been little-used this season by the Steelers, which was at the root of his discontent, and perhaps some would say coordinated effort to get out of Pittsburgh. The early returns in New England are encouraging, however. Against the Jets, Harrison had two sacks, double the one he had posted all season for the Steelers, as well as five tackles.
The 2017 Browns have joined the fraternity of winless NFL teams. It didn't have to be this way. Surely there were other opportunities throughout the season to steal a victory. But the ultimate nail in the coffin of this Browns 0-16 season was the agonizing drop made by Coleman on fourth down in the last two minutes. While a game-winning touchdown was not assured even if he extended the drive, the Browns had the ball deep in Pittsburgh territory and had surged back from a 21-7 deficit. Now Cleveland has one of the worst teams in NFL history as yet another punch line for the organization since it was brought back from the dead in 1999.
Given the fact that he'll have an extra week to stew on this poor outing, it's surprising that the Eagles pulled Foles as early as they did in the 6-0 loss to the Cowboys. Foles hardly instilled confidence in his ability to lead the team through a loaded NFC playoffs, going 4-for-11 for 39 yards and an interception. It might have made sense to give him more reps before the layoff. At the same time, Nate Sudfeld struggled so much that the instinct to protect Foles is understandable.
It may not have mattered much since the Falcons' win eliminated the Seahawks from playoff contention regardless. Still, it was one last field goal miss with the game on the line for Walsh, who will be hard-pressed to return to the Seahawks in the offseason. Given the way teams go through kickers, he may very well get another shot in the NFL, but he's had some of the most brutal misses over the past few seasons.
Mental warfare over low temperatures notwithstanding, the Jets didn't much show up in the season finale against the Patriots. Burris was easily picked on by Tom Brady, giving up five catches on seven targets for 81 yards. On consecutive New England touchdown drives, he had drive-extended penalties on incompletions on third down.
Carolina had every chance to walk away with the NFC South title and host a playoff game next weekend. The loss to the Falcons was at a 7-7 deadlock until well into the third quarter. Atlanta figured out how to pull away, while the Panthers never got it going. Newton threw three interceptions and never really had his accuracy. Far better this weekend than next against the Saints, at least. New Orleans swept the Panthers in the regular season and scored more than 30 points in both meetings, so Newton has his work cut out for him to rebound.
The week in celebrations
The closing of the regular season means bidding farewell to a large chunk of potential celebrations until September. Luckily, the teams still in the running are among the best innovators in team celebrations this season. Makes sense, as you'd assume those holding leads and getting into the end zone most often to be those with the chance to hone their craft.
No surprise, then, that Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had one of the standout celebrations of Sunday. Part of his becoming a recognizable rookie star this season has in part been because of his memorable TD celebrations. He's already simulated a snowball fight after one touchdown in recent weeks. Thanks to there being some accumulation behind the end zone in Pittsburgh, he could make the snowball fight a real thing in Week 17. It wasn't the best snow for making snowballs, mind you. That and the fact that JuJu is from Southern California and unaccustomed to snowballs probably hurt the integrity of his projectile. Still a quality celebration, though.
JuJu Smith-Schuster- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) December 31, 2017
Celebrations rating: 99
Snowball packing: 26 pic.twitter.com/AlPjxl2Tiy
Elsewhere in the Browns-Steelers game, Cleveland back Duke Johnson continued his tributes to injured Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier. He's been doing it in Browns games for weeks since Shazier suffered the spinal injury against the Bengals at the beginning of December. On Sunday, he got into the end zone against the Steelers and prayed for Shazier, surely a touching moment for the Steelers and their fans following an opponent's score.
The Bills might not yet have known it at the time, but they had a whole lot to eventually celebrate on Sunday evening. Even had Buffalo not sneaked into the postseason, it was a momentous day for Kyle Williams, the defensive tackle who has been with the team since 2006. Sunday marked his first career touchdown on his first career carry. He marked it with a great celebration, referencing a grenade celebration that was featured in the 1999 Oliver Stone movie "Any Given Sunday."
omg Kyle Williams scored and the Bills did the grenade celebration from "Any Given Sunday" pic.twitter.com/7b81LweIZy- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) December 31, 2017