The Week 16 Sunday slate was fun from start to finish: The Eagles won a thrilling back-and-forth victory over the Texans, keeping their playoff hopes alive while knocking Houston out of the catbird seat for the no. 2 seed in the AFC. That position was reclaimed by the Patriots, who dominated the Bills to clinch their 10th straight AFC East title. The Saints edged the Steelers to lock up the no. 1 seed in the NFC, while the Cowboys beat the Bucs to wrap up the NFC East and the no. 4 seed. Elsewhere, the Colts overcame an ugly first half to beat the Giants and stay afloat in the postseason race; the Bears squeaked by the 49ers; the Falcons dispatched the Panthers; the Browns ran past the Bengals; the Packers won a surprisingly fun overtime tilt over the Jets; and Jaguars knocked the Dolphins out of playoff contention. Finally, on Sunday Night Football, the Seahawks took down the Chiefs in a barnburner to punch their playoff ticket.
Sunday’s action delivered plenty of excitement, but a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.
Nick Foles Finds Zach Ertz for 20 Yards
The Texans seemed to take control of this game with a fourth-quarter go-ahead drive that was punctuated by a pair of astounding plays by Deshaun Watson. The second-year phenom kept the chains moving with an unbelievable escape and throw on third-and-11 that picked up 22 yards and pushed Houston into Philadelphia territory. He followed that up with a 35-yard rainbow touchdown pass that gave the Texans a 30-29 lead at the 2:11 mark and swung their win probability 42 points—to 66 percent. Houston’s problem, though, was that it left too much time on the clock for Nick Foles.
The Eagles’ backup signal-caller and reigning Super Bowl MVP built on his late-season legend with another clutch performance for the ages. On the ensuing possession, Foles shook off a devastating hit to the chest from Houston pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney that knocked him out of the game for one play, returning to the field to promptly convert this crucial third-and-10. Foles dropped back and looked to his right to find tight end Zach Ertz wide open for a gain of 20 yards.
Zach Ertz was able to maintain his balance while almost falling to haul in this key 20-yard reception on 3rd-and-10 pic.twitter.com/h0uVI6MDpH— The Bitter Birds (@AdrianFedkiw) December 23, 2018
That moved the Eagles into field goal range and represented a huge 25-point swing in win probability, pushing Philly back to a 55 percent chance to win. Four plays later, Jake Elliott redeemed a missed extra point from earlier in the game and kicked the game-winning field goal.
Everything about the Eagles’ 32-30 win felt a little bit too ... familiar, as Philly once again leaned on the pillars that helped it win a Super Bowl last season. Foles filled in for an injured Carson Wentz and gave his team a much-needed dose of magic, making up for a pair of second- and third-quarter turnovers by setting a new franchise record with 471 passing yards and connecting on four touchdowns. While the Texans settled for punts on a handful of their key fourth-and-manageable situations, Philly was aggressive on its opportunities. Darren Sproles scored a 37-yard touchdown in the first quarter on a fourth-and-2, and Ertz found paydirt on a fourth-and-1 late in the second quarter from the 1-yard line. Like last year, the Eagles leaned on their depth to overcome injury losses throughout the game and got a few huge plays from their dominant defensive line. Philly racked up four sacks and nine hits, including Chris Long’s early-fourth-quarter strip sack of Watson (which was recovered by Fletcher Cox) that helped set up an Eagles touchdown.
At 8-7, the Eagles still have their backs to the proverbial wall, needing a win over the Redskins next Sunday and a little bit of help from Chicago (Philly can clinch a playoff spot if the Vikings lose to the Bears) to make it to the big dance. But for the first time all year, the Eagles are starting to seem like the team that made an improbable run to the Super Bowl last January: With Nick Foles under center, an aggressive mind-set on fourth downs, and an elite defensive line providing constant pressure, a big part of their winning formula for the postseason is still intact. Now they just need to get in.
Doug Baldwin’s One-Handed Grab
When the Seahawks took the ball back with 4:39 to go and a 31-28 lead, they were in desperate need of a statement drive. Patrick Mahomes II had just put Seattle on their heels with one of his own, engineering a nine-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that he capped with an all-too-easy two-point conversion—pulling Kansas City to within three points and giving it a chance to complete the comeback. Russell Wilson delivered his answer—with a little bit of help from his friends.
The Seahawks strung together a dizzying blur of pivotal plays, with Wilson first connecting with David Moore on a big third-and-6 to keep the chains moving before hitting Tyler Lockett on an arching deep shot down the sideline for a gain of 45 yards. Then, on a second-and-19 from the Kansas City 30-yard line, Wilson moved to his left to avoid pressure and tossed up another deep shot toward the pylon. That’s when Doug Baldwin did this:
That incredible, one-handed grab moved Seattle down to the 1-yard line. On the next play, running back Chris Carson plowed through a pair of Chiefs defenders for the score, pushing Seattle’s lead to 38-28 and all but sealing a win and a postseason spot for the Seahawks.
Baldwin’s return to something resembling full speed could be crucial for the Seahawks’ upcoming playoff run. After battling through multiple injuries for most of the year, the underrated pass catcher has come on strong just when the team needs him most. He finished with seven catches for a season-high 126 yards and a score, showing exactly why Seattle’s offense needs him if they’re going to have a chance to make some noise come January. As we saw on the Seahawks’ signature drive, with the now-healthy Baldwin back as a go-to mismatch in the passing game. Paired with Lockett’s speed down the field and Carson’s beast mode impression in the run game, the Seattle offense might be play its best ball in January.
Sony Michel Punches It in for the Score
The Patriots have turned to Tom Brady countless times over the past 19 years to lift them up and carry them when they need it most. On Sunday, Brady’s teammates returned the favor. The future Hall of Famer followed up a rough outing in last week’s loss to the Steelers with an even rougher first half against Bills, completing just seven passes for 40 yards and a pick—so New England turned to its defense and run game to win the day and clinch the AFC East title.
The Pats’ second drive was a tone-setter: New England ran the rock on all six plays, gaining 51 yards before capping it off with Michel’s 4-yard dive for the score.
That run gave the Pats a 7-0 lead and pushed their early-game win probability to 85 percent. They never looked back. Against a Bills front that came into the game ninth in run defense DVOA, New England racked up 179 rushing yards before the half―their most after two quarters since 1991―and finished with a season-high 273 yards (second most in the Bill Belichick era) and two touchdowns on an incredible 47 totes. Brady completed just 13 passes for 126 yards, a touchdown, and two picks, but got all the support he needed. A dominant run-blocking line opened up lanes for Michel (116 yards, one TD at 6.4 yards per carry), James White (41 yards, one TD at 5.1 yards per carry), Rex Burkhead (39 yards), and Cordarrelle Patterson (66 yards) as the Pats ran roughshod on the ground. The team got plenty of help from its defense, too, which limited Josh Allen to just 217 yards on 41 pass attempts and, crucially, took away his ability to run, holding the rookie dual-threat signal-caller to just 30 yards rushing on five carries.
The Patriots aren’t the unstoppable juggernaut they often look like at this time of year, but as they showed Sunday, they’re still capable of playing the type of hard-nosed, complementary football they’ll need for a long postseason run. With the win—and the Texans loss—the Patriots now have a chance to clinch the no. 2 seed next Sunday with a victory over the Jets. That’d give this flawed team a couple of huge advantages: a first-round bye and a divisional-round home game.
Andrew Luck’s Fourth-Quarter TD Pass to Chester Rogers
Speaking of winning ugly: I present to you the Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck and Co. looked out of sorts and overmatched for most of the first half, falling into a 17-7 hole to the Giants. But as it’s done for most of the second half of the season, Indy fought its way back over the final two frames, setting up a chance for a go-ahead drive with 3:43 left in the game. Trailing 27-21, Luck took over from the Indianapolis 47-yard line and quickly moved the ball down the field, connecting on passes to T.Y. Hilton, Dontrelle Inman, and Chester Rogers while picking up another 12 yards on a scramble to set up a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 59 seconds to go. Luck surveyed the defense, saw that New York was in man coverage on the outside, and checked out of a run and into a pass.
The Colts ran a two-man route combination to the left and criss-crossed receivers to create a natural pick. Giants undrafted rookie free agent Grant Haley couldn’t get through the traffic, and Luck made the easy toss to Rogers to give Indy its first lead of the game and cap an impressive comeback.
The win epitomized the plucky, do-whatever-it-takes identity the Colts have taken on since a Week 6 loss dropped them to 1-5. In their nine games since, they’ve shaken off injuries and a lack of star power to go 8-1 and set up a win-and-you’re-in matchup with the Titans next Sunday in prime time.