Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers led comeback wins and the Los Angeles Rams dominated Russell Wilson and the Broncos.
It was a triumphant Christmas for the Buccaneers, Packers and Rams as many figured it would be when the schedule was released in May. The NFC’s top three preseason Super Bowl favorites were expected to be jockeying for playoff positioning Sunday.
Instead, the Rams (5-10) are trying to avoid the most losses by a defending Super Bowl champion. The Packers (7-8) need help just to make the playoffs. The Buccaneers (7-8) lead the dreadful NFC South with a first-place showdown coming up against Carolina.
While the NFC is upside down, the AFC has lived up to expectations. The Buffalo Bills (12-3) and Kansas City Chiefs (12-3) entered the season as the top two Super Bowl favorites and they are 1-2 in the race for the No. 1 seed. The defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) are third with a chance to move up when they host the Bills next Monday night.
Brady rallied Tampa Bay from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to a 19-16 overtime victory at Arizona following another poor offensive performance. The 45-year-old, seven-time Super Bowl champion threw two picks for the third straight game, the offense had no rhythm until it went into hurry-up mode late and the depleted offensive line lost another key player.
The Buccaneers would clinch the division title with a win over the Panthers (6-9) on New Year's Day. They’d earn the No. 4 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage in a wild-card game with the most likely opponent being the Dallas Cowboys (11-4).
The Bucs opened the season with a 19-3 win in Dallas. These are two different teams now. If Brady and the Bucs play the way they have for most of the season, the Cowboys will beat them by double digits.
Brady doesn’t seem to trust his offensive line, so he’s getting rid of the ball at a faster pace than he ever has, and he appears to lack confidence in his receivers at times.
The offense has been out of sync all season and is averaging fewer than 18 points. But the defense has stepped up and Brady has engineered three comeback wins in the last seven games.
The Buccaneers had a lower seed in 2020 and had to win three road games in the playoffs on their way to a Super Bowl title in Brady’s first season in Tampa Bay. That offense was dynamic, averaging more than 30 points per game.
They’ll need to play far better than they’ve shown to have a shot at winning a playoff game.
Rodgers and the Packers were headed toward elimination a few weeks ago after a 4-8 start. But they’ve won three straight games and now can make the playoffs with two more wins plus a loss by Washington (7-7-1) or two losses by the Giants (8-6-1).
Green Bay trailed Miami 20-10 in the second quarter on Sunday before outscoring the Dolphins 16-0 the rest of the way. The defense picked Tua Tagovailoa three times in the fourth quarter to help secure the 26-20 upset on the road.
The Packers haven’t resembled the team that won 13 games in each of the three previous seasons. But they’re starting to come together down the stretch.
In 2010 when Rodgers won his only Super Bowl, the Packers made the playoffs as the sixth and final seed in the NFC. They host the Vikings (12-3) and Lions (7-8) in the final two games with a chance to sneak in.
The Rams already have been knocked out of the playoff race, but Baker Mayfield has made them interesting. He was excellent in a 51-14 win against Denver, completing 24 of 28 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Mayfield has led Los Angeles to two victories in three games since he joined the team two days before leading a comeback win over Las Vegas on Dec. 8.
The Rams, Buccaneers and Packers each won in the same week for only the second time this season and the first since Week 2.
Despite their struggles, Brady and Rodgers still have a shot. Don’t count them out until they’re eliminated.
Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP—NFL