Forgive Santa if he was a little confused this year.
Even though Jolly Old St. Nick did his job on Christmas Eve, providing the Patriots with a season's worth of gifts from the Broncos, there were many New Englanders who reacted as if they received socks and underwear and not one of those cars featured in those omnipresent Christmas commercials.
The win, just the fourth in a lost season that has been over for two months, certainly had those inside the locker room grateful. As far as Bill Belichick and the players were concerned, the big guy came up with the perfect gift: Four fumbles, scared and shaky quarterback play from Russell Wilson, reckless, blitz-happy defense and even some help from the guys in stripes, who somehow awarded the Patriots the ball following one of those fumbles despite the fact that a Bronco recovered it.
All things considered Denver gave them a Lexus to remember.
But that's not how many fans saw the events of Sunday night. The win, while providing a rare memorable moment from the 2023 season with Chad Ryland's 56-yard game-winner, may have done more harm than good in the overall big picture.
With just two weeks to go in the regular season, the 4-11 Patriots vaulted from the No. 2 slot in the draft to 4, which may not seem like much but if the intention was to select a quarterback next spring then it's huge.
Put in Christmas terms, the quarterback would be the Lexus while the alternative (and offensive lineman?) is the socks and underwear. Everyone needs the necessities, but few are excited to receive them.
So, it's understandable that the majority of calls that we took on our postgame show featured a variation of frustration over the win. Fans understand rebuilding without the quarterback position being solidified is quite difficult, and finding one later in the draft is even more so. Of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the league, 21 were first-round picks. Of the 14 teams that are currently in playoff position, 10 are led by quarterbacks who were taken in Round 1.
It's possible to wait and hope for a Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott or Brock Purdy, but the odds of success are greatly diminished.
That said, it was hard not to feel happy for the Patriots and Belichick as Ryland's bomb split the uprights. Not much has gone right for the team this season, and at least for one night the players were able to enjoy the flight home while playing the role of spoiler.
And while likely losing the opportunity to select one of the top-rated quarterbacks is a problem, it's not necessarily a crushing development. First, the Patriots need more than just a quarterback. The offensive line needs reinforcing, the receiving corps – both wideouts and tight ends – needs help and the defense lacks depth everywhere but safety.
That opens the door for something I'm almost never in favor of – a trade down. Yup, I said it. Moving down a few spots should add some quality picks to the coffers – some for 2024 and some likely for the future. That would allow the Patriots to work at filling multiple needs.
Many draft experts consider tackle to be a deep position, which would make it likely that the Patriots could grab a quality option at the position without having to take one at No. 4. Last year Chicago moved down from No. 1 to 9 and added a second-round pick plus a future 1 and 2 as well as D.J. Moore. It's possible the Patriots could add some quality picks by sliding down as well.
Of course, that assumes someone would be willing to move up, and that's easier said than done. If both quarterbacks are off the board, and can't-miss wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. goes, there might not be a specific player a team feels strong enough about to target. Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels is intriguing, but few felt he was a top 10 pick when the season ended. Now it might be a different story.
Still lots of time to debate the virtues of trading – up or down – between now and draft time, but for one of the few times in Patriots history Santa's arrival was not universally met with smiles.
Stating his (MVP) case?
How impressive was Baltimore's destruction of San Francisco in prime time on Christmas night? The Ravens thoroughly outplayed the favorites throughout, with an opportunistic defense and a masterful performance from quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson offered a maestro-like effort against the tough Niners defense, bouncing around the pocket to buy time with his legs while also delivering accurate strikes all over the field. He completed 23 of 35 for 252 yards and a pair of touchdowns while also adding 45 yards on the ground. He never put the ball in harm's way against a ferocious pass rush and he consistently found the open man off platform after scrambling around. About the only thing that slowed him down was umpire Alex Moore, who tripped in the end zone in front of Jackson and caused an intentional grounding penalty that resulted in a safety.
Otherwise, he was MVP worthy in a showdown of the league's two best teams. Many felt the matchup would be a showcase between Jackson and Christian McCaffrey in the MVP race, and while McCaffrey was great his team was not, and Jackson was a big reason for that.
Personally, I'd probably still lean toward Tyreek Hill, but often the league slants to quarterbacks for its most prestigious award and Jackson is the clear front runner at that position at this point.
Detroit Rock City
Hats off to Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions for securing the first NFC North title in franchise history. When the Lions last won their division back in 1993 it was the NFC Central, and the last time the team won an actual playoff game was 1991.
At 11-4 the Lions are in the mix in the top-heavy NFC, and they could face an interesting opponent in their first postseason game. Detroit currently holds the No. 2 seed and would host the No. 7 seed in the wild card round. The 8-7 Rams now sit at No. 6, and with two weeks to go there certainly could be further movement in the seedings. A Rams-Lions matchup would be fascinating with Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff going against the teams that dealt them in the blockbuster deal three seasons ago.
The overreaction on snapshots of backup quarterbacks' play is starting to reach ridiculous levels. Comments on Twitter (sorry, X) after the Raiders romp over the Chargers was comical as Aidan O'Connell was somehow credited for injecting life in a Vegas team that put 63 points on the board. While O'Connell played well that night, most of the damage was done by the Chargers themselves, who accounted for 35 of those points with their own turnovers. O'Connell previously was ineffective for the Raiders, ranking near the bottom of the league's passers, and was again an afterthought in his team's win over the Chiefs when he failed to complete a single pass over the final three quarters and passed for 68 yards in the game.
Jake Browning also received more than his share of praise after his first four games as a starter. Browning was excellent against the Jags in a Monday night win, and his numbers remained strong in his ensuing outings. But his play was not nearly as good as his stats in the comeback win over Minnesota that saw Tee Higgins basically take over the game, and he followed that with a dismal showing in Pittsburgh against the previously reeling Steelers. Browning is now 3-2 in place of the inured Joe Burrow.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, Mason Rudolph was the latest backup being lavished with praise after leading the team to the win over Cincy. Some wondered why Pittsburgh waited so long to make the switch from backup Mitch Trubisky. Perhaps they weren't aware that Trubisky only started two games after Kenny Pickett went down, and that Rudolph was a rather pedestrian 5-4-1 as a starter previously in his four NFL seasons.
Even here in Foxborough some tweets indicated that Belichick could have saved the season had Zappe relieved Mac Jones as the starter earlier. One fan wrote that the team would have beaten the Giants, Colts and Chargers had Zappe played.
I didn't have the heart to tell him or her that Zappe started and played the entire way against the Chargers and put a total of zero points on the board, and that he played the entire second half of the Giants loss and managed just seven points.
Oh well, details.
- Baltimore (12-3) – The Ravens impressive showing on the road gives them the top spot.
- San Francisco (11-4) – Still very much a believer in Brock Purdy and the Niners despite poor outing.
- Miami (11-4) – We waited to see a quality effort against a quality opponent and the Dolphins delivered.
- Dallas (10-5) – The Cowboys are still looking for road success but went toe to toe with Miami.
- Philadelphia (11-5) – The losing streak is over but hard to come away with much confidence in the Eagles.