NFL teams deserve to celebrate during the holiday season too. For teams like the Ravens and Colts, it's high time to be happy that a frustrating 2015 campaign is coming to an end. And the 11 teams that ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) assigns an 85 percent or higher chance of making the playoffs have all kinds of reasons to be festive, including the Panthers and the league-high 10 Pro Bowlers they'll be sending to the league's all-star football scrimmage next month.
One of the best parts about the holidays, of course, is giving and receiving gifts. With Christmas upon us, today is a great day to hand out gifts to the league's 32 teams, each of which could use one at the end of a long season. And let's start those handouts with a team who just lost a critical contributor . . .
A slot cornerback to replace Tyrann Mathieu, lost for the season after tearing his ACL against the Eagles on Sunday night. While the term "slot cornerback" usually indicates a situational player, Mathieu has been anything but. He has played 98.1 percent of Arizona's defensive snaps this season, more than any of coach Bruce Arians' other defensive backs. It took Mathieu a full year to really recover from his previous ACL tear, so sadly -- but realistically -- we may not see the Mathieu who looked like a defensive player of the year candidate this season again until 2017.
A FedEx envelope for the check they're about to write to the NFL after rookie defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. revealed that he has played the entire season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. The Falcons have not reported the injury on their report this season, but it does help explain why Beasley has just three sacks this year. And it helps explain why Atlanta has sacked opposing passers on just 3.4 percent of dropbacks this season, the second-worst rate in football.
An extra training table for the staggering number of injuries they've had to deal with this season. The Ravens added tight end Crockett Gillmore to the list this week as the 22nd player they've placed on injured reserve this year, including nine would-be starters. Nobody else in football can match those figures in 2015.
A time machine to go back to the opening week of the season, when the Bills dominated the Colts with a bloodthirsty defense for most of the game, eventually winning 27-14. It looked like coach Rex Ryan had picked up where outgoing defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had left off, but that game looks like it was a better indicator of Indianapolis' offensive woes than Buffalo's defensive nous. The Bills rank a staggeringly bad 29th in defensive DVOA this season, down from second in the league under Schwartz last year.
A bat rack so we can all put the baseball bats away and stop endlessly debating what happened during pregame warm-ups before the Giants-Panthers game Sunday. Does anybody really think that there was ever a threat that Carolina players were going to attack Odell Beckham Jr. with a bat? Reports that Panthers players used homophobic trash talk before the game are what really deserve genuine scrutiny, not the possibility that they were somehow going to execute a Tonya Harding-style attack on the star receiver.
Some pass-rush help for defensive end Willie Young, who has come to life in recent weeks after tearing his Achilles at the end of the 2014 season and requesting a trade earlier this year. Young has a sack in each of Chicago's past five games, and his 5.5 sacks over that time frame are the third-most in football. The only other edge rusher with a sack over that time frame for Vic Fangio's defense is LaMarr Houston, who has two, with free-agent acquisition Pernell McPhee limited by a nagging knee injury and held sackless since Week 8.
The 2014 version of Jeremy Hill, who sure would come in handy as an above-average power back while the Bengals try to keep their Andy Dalton-less offense afloat. (Imagine writing that sentence in August.) Hill scored two touchdowns against the 49ers on Sunday, but against a run defense that ranks 24th in DVOA, his 19 carries produced just 31 yards, a lowly average of 1.63 yards per rush. Hill averaged 2.29 yards after contact last year, the fourth-highest rate in the league; this year, he's down to 1.49 yards after contact as a runner, which is 39th among 45 qualifying backs.
A Tennessee win, given that the race for the first overall pick has basically come down to the Browns and Titans. Both Cleveland and Tennessee are 3-11, but with the Browns beating the Titans in Week 2, Cleveland holds a tiebreaker they would rather not have. Tennessee has a 63.2 percent chance of finishing with the first overall pick per FPI, so the Browns will need them to pull an upset and beat the Texans or Colts in one of their two remaining games. Cleveland gets the Chiefs and Steelers, so they should be able to hold up their end of the bargain.
A re-do on that Brandon Weeden/Matt Cassel decision. The Cowboys sent a fifth-round pick to the Bills to acquire Cassel in September and then subsequently stuck him in the starting lineup for Weeden, who was cut shortly thereafter. Dallas was probably doomed anyway after losing Tony Romo, but the move for Cassel only made things worse. Weeden completed 72.4 percent of his passes, averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, and threw interceptions on 2.0 percent of his throws before being benched and released, and that was without Dez Bryant. Cassel has completed just 58.0 percent of his passes, averaging just 6.2 yards per attempt and is throwing picks on 3.4 percent of his throws. And now, he has been benched for Kellen Moore.
An extra franchise tag, given that the Broncos may very well have to franchise star pass-rusher Von Miller and somehow find a way to lock up quarterback Brock Osweiler. Both Miller and Osweiler are unrestricted free agents after the season, and while Osweiler hasn't done enough to prove that he deserves a long-term extension as Denver's starting quarterback, the Broncos would likely love to bring him back on a one-year deal and see what he can do with a full offseason of practice reps as the guy in Denver.
Stickum for Ameer Abdullah, whose fumble woes may pin the dynamic rookie to the bench in years to come. Scouts already were worried about Abdullah's propensity to let go of the football after he fumbled 13 times in four seasons at Nebraska, and that has continued to be a major problem this year. Abdullah has fumbled five times on 176 touches as a rookie this season. That's one fumble every 35.2 touches. The only rookies since 1990 with higher fumble rates over 150 touches or more don't exactly augur much hope: It's a list that includes Dexter Carter, Reggie Cobb, Steve Broussard, Roosevelt Potts, Rashaan Salaam and fellow 2015 rookie Matt Jones.
Jordy Nelson. Or, at the very least, a guy dressed up in a Jordy Nelson jersey, if only to give Aaron Rodgers some inner peace. When Rodgers has to publicly clamor for more Jared Abbrederis in his offense, it's a bad sign. Last year, Rodgers threw seven touchdown passes that traveled 20 yards or more in the air to Nelson, which led the league. This year, Rodgers has thrown only five such touchdown passes to his entire team.
The Steelers in Round 1. With the Texans all but assured the No. 4 seed in the AFC bracket, their most likely opponents boil down to the Chiefs and Steelers. Pittsburgh is a dangerous team, but they're a good matchup for the Texans. The Steelers' defense is heavily dependent upon creating takeaways; they're just 26th in the league in forcing three-and-outs. Since the Texans stopped fooling around with Ryan Mallett and restored Brian Hoyer back to the starting job in Week 6, they've turned the ball over on just 7.0 percent of their possessions, the seventh-best rate in football. Pittsburgh also is allowing the league's seventh-worst DVOA to No. 1 receivers, giving up 86.5 receiving yards per game to the opposing team's top wideout. That's the sixth-highest rate in football, and that sure seems like it could be fun for DeAndre Hopkins.
Store credit or a full refund for Ryan Grigson's veteran shopping spree. Andre Johnson's 418 receiving yards are good for 97th in the league. Trent Cole has just three sacks. Frank Gore is averaging 3.6 yards per rushing attempt, the worst figure he has posted by a full half-yard over a professional season. And Todd Herremans lost his starting job after two games. Kendall Langford's snaps as a decent two-way defensive end might represent the best move Grigson made this offseason.
A left tackle for Blake Bortles, given that former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel doesn't appear to be the solution. Joeckel has been better at times in this, his third season as a pro, but he was an absolute disaster against the Falcons on Sunday. The problem is that the Jags also gave Jermey Parnell a big-money deal this offseason to play right tackle, so Joeckel can't exactly go there. The Jags will have plenty of cap space this offseason, though, and given how much they have invested in Bortles, it wouldn't be the stupidest thing in the world to go after Seahawks tackle Russell Okung when he hits the market.
A healthy Justin Houston. The good news is the Chiefs haven't really missed their star pass-rusher, who is out with a hyperextended knee. Replacement Dee Ford had three sacks against the Chargers two weeks ago, and the group combined for seven knockdowns of Jimmy Clausen during Sunday's win over the Ravens. The Chiefs would be far better off with their best player around, even if that doesn't occur until the postseason.
An offensive play sheet that solely consists of plays designed to get the ball to the sadly-overlooked Lamar Miller. Miami's top halfback is withering on the vine during what very well may be his final year with the organization. He has averaged 5.14 yards per rush on his 78 first-and-10 carries this season, which is eighth among running backs. Despite the empty platitudes Dan Campbell served up when taking over as interim coach, the Dolphins have run the ball just 36.3 percent of the time since firing Joe Philbin, which is 17th in the league. Take out the first two weeks of Campbell's tenure, a pair of blowout victories, and they fall to 28th. The Dolphins run when they're winning and throw when they're losing, which is why the power approach Campbell was talking up after his promotion is far more closely tied to game situations than team philosophy.
A victory at Lambeau Field in Week 17, which would be enough for the Vikings to clinch an unlikely NFC North crown, assuming that they don't lose to the Giants this week during their home finale. The Vikings have won on just one of their past nine trips to Wisconsin, beating the Packers in 2009 on Brett Favre's return to Lambeau. If they win out, they would either have more wins than the Packers or claim the North by virtue of having a superior division record. And if they come up short, the Vikings can look back at Week 1 and wonder how on earth they lost by 17 points to the 49ers.
A share of fantasy football championship week winnings, given how they've helped make stars out of opposing quarterbacks this season. As Chase Stuart noted on Twitter, the Saints have allowed an otherworldly line to passers this season. Against the Saints, quarterbacks are a combined 321-for-473 (68.9 percent) for 4,053 yards (8.6 yards per attempt) with 39 touchdowns against just six picks. Their combined 116.5 passer rating would lead the league by more than five points, and the only real quarterback with a better QBR than the 79.4 figure the Saints have allowed cumulatively this season is Carson Palmer (83.5).
An uneventful win over the Jets on Sunday so they can officially lock up the top seed in the AFC and rest the stars left on their injury-riddled roster during a meaningless Week 17 tilt against the Dolphins.
A steamer trunk where Tom Coughlin can store all the timeouts he doesn't seem to use at the end of games. Coughlin mismanaged the clock again in the fourth quarter during Sunday's loss to the Panthers, allowing Carolina to work the clock down to a Cam Newton spike with six seconds left without taking a single timeout to try to get the ball back after a possible Panthers missed field goal. Instead, Coughlin used a timeout to ice kicker Graham Gano and then took two timeouts with him to the locker room.
Sliding lessons for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who continues to sprint forward and take unnecessary hits when scrambling despite the fact that he suffered a thumb injury on a scramble earlier in the year. A rare slide against the Giants in Week 13 was such a pleasant surprise that even the announcers covering the game commented on how unlikely it seemed. T.J. Yates of the Texans tore his ACL on a Fitzpatrickian quasi-slide just last week. It just isn't smart football, which is weird for a guy who went to ... oh, you know about that too?
Protection from a Barnwell jinx, which I sadly brought into existence by praising their rebuilding project in a column last Friday. Derek Carr promptly responded by throwing two interceptions in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Packers, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The Raiders battled back and got within a point by halftime, but in a game where the average Packers drive began on the Green Bay 41-yard line, the early damage was too much to overcome.
A win over Washington on Saturday, which would throw the NFC East into relative chaos. Using the ESPN Playoff Machine, you can witness the various permutations of how things could go if the Eagles hold serve and beat Kirk Cousins & Co. at home this weekend. Philadelphia has a 42.3 percent chance of claiming the East, which would require wins over both Washington and the Giants during the next two weeks. The Giants are still in the race, but their 7.0 percent shot requires Big Blue to win out and Washington to lose out. Washington picks up the East the other 50.7 percent of the time.
The continued health of Ben Roethlisberger, who has been at the helm for a dominant stretch from the Pittsburgh offense. Since Roethlisberger took over for an ailing Landry Jones against the Browns in Week 10, the Steelers haven't been able to stop scoring. Sunday's 34-27 win over the Broncos marked Pittsburgh's sixth consecutive game with 30 or more points, making them just the 11th team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to pull that off. (The Patriots also did it earlier this year.) With a pair of dismal defenses left on the docket in Baltimore and Cleveland, it would be hard to bet against the Steelers making it eight straight.
San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams
Home games in 2016. No city deserves to lose its football team.
A playoff run by the No. 6 seed in the NFC. The Seahawks clinched a playoff berth Sunday afternoon, but hours later, Arizona's win over the Eagles locked up the NFC West for the Cardinals. That ensures that the Seahawks will have to play at least two road playoff games to advance to the Super Bowl, which hasn't exactly been their forte. Seattle is just 2-9 in the playoffs on the road, having won its first game at Miami in 1983 before waiting 29 years to win its second, against Washington in a game where they were losing 14-0 before Robert Griffin III blew out his knee amid horrific field conditions. The only way Seattle can host a playoff game this season would be if it went in as the fifth seed and faced the sixth seed (likely the Vikings) in the NFC Championship Game.
A time machine to go back to the 2012 season. I know that I already gave the Bills a time machine. They can split it with the 49ers. This ends with some weird paradox where Greg Roman is coordinating two offenses at once, but let's just run with it for now.
Some recognition for Lavonte David, the best player in football who hasn't yet made it to a Pro Bowl. If you're going to get angry about a Pro Bowl snub, it might as well be David, who is perennially among the most rangy, impactful outside linebackers in all of football. David doesn't get his due because of what amounts to accounting; the Pro Bowl voting stacks him (as a 4-3 outside linebacker) against a variety of players who generate sacks (3-4 outside linebackers), and that's simply not what David is assigned to do in Lovie Smith's defense. David has broken up 12 passes this year, and no other linebacker in football is in double digits. He's an absolute monster.
A new football operations department, that builds on the best thing the old football operations department did, drafting Marcus Mariota, by constructing a team around his strengths. That includes a coach who has more than a passing familiarity with the offense Mariota ran to near-perfection during his time in Oregon and a front office that does a better job with its draft assets and free-agent spending than what Ruston Webster has done over the past few seasons. Interim coach Mike Mularkey has gone 2-5 and has been outscored by 56 points in that run. It might be time to try something a little different, at least for once.
A division title. Some teams are easier to shop for than others.