It was a ride that Dak Prescott needed, and perhaps the Dallas Cowboys as well.
On the road, facing a Super Bowl contender, staring down a six-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Seventeen plays and 69 yards later, Prescott had his signature moment, fleeting as it was, a beautiful, arcing throw to the corner of the end zone that Brandin Cooks scooped up for the go-ahead score. It capped a campaign that saw some of the best from the Cowboys MVP candidate.
Dallas was suddenly ahead of the Dolphins 20-19. But more than three minutes remained.
In the end, it would prove to be too time consuming. Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins spoiled the Cowboy's Christmas Eve night in Miami, answering with a 12-play, 49-yard drive to set up Jason Sanders' game-winning, 29-yard field goal.
The Dolphins' 22-20 win — at least for a week — quiets the narrative that Miami can't beat the league's elite teams. This has reinforced the belief that the Cowboys simply are not the same team away from AT&T Stadium this season. Dallas (10-5) has dropped two in a row and is now 3-5 on the road this season.
Elsewhere in the NFL, the Lions clinched their first division title in 30 years.
The Browns and Joe Flacco keep winning. A three-game winning streak means Cleveland is 10-5 and all but locked in an AFC playoff berth. The New York Times estimates the Browns' playoff odds at more than 99 percent.
The Jaguars, who were competing for first place in the AFC, suddenly lost four in a row, and Trevor Lawrence was injured — again. The good news for them: Neither the Colts nor the Texans made up any ground in the AFC South race on Sunday.
The Bucs are on the rise, having won four straight titles and are the only team in the NFC South above .500.
The Jets, just hours after news leaked that owner Woody Johnson intends to keep coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas for at least one more season, escaped with a 30-28 win over the Leaders after Greg Zuerlein drilled a 54-yard field goal. The goal five seconds before the end of the match.
The Seahawks drove 53 yards in 14 plays on the game-winning drive at Tennessee, Seattle's second thrilling victory in six days. Nearly a week after Drew Lock led a thrilling last-second win over the Eagles, Geno Smith returned to the lineup to lead a comeback, and it was a 20-17 win over the Giants that kept Seattle breathing in the NFC playoff race.
On Sunday night, the Patriots stunned the Broncos, 26-23. New England earned its fourth win of the season in wild fashion, rallying after the Broncos erased a 23-7 second-half deficit to tie it late. Billy Zappe engineered a game-winning 43-yarder, and Chad Ryland, after missing a field goal and an extra point earlier in the game, was perfect from 56 yards out with two seconds left to give the Patriots the unlikely victory. The defeat kills any shot the Broncos have at the postseason.
So far, six of the NFL's 14 playoff spots have been clinched: the Ravens and Dolphins in the AFC, and the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys and Lions in the NFC.
Here's what we learned from Sunday's Week 16 NFL slate:
1. Cowboys open door to Eagles in NFC East
What could have been an impressive road victory for the Cowboys — something they haven't really done this season — has slipped through their fingers, once again, raising valid concerns about this team heading into the playoffs. At this point, with the Eagles leading the NFC East, Dallas is on track to open the postseason on the road, as the Cowboys have consistently been exposed this season.
Sunday was the final act: early turnovers in the red zone followed by late penalties that cost them dearly. Dallas' vaunted defense, which didn't get sacked until the fourth quarter, couldn't close out the game late, helping the Dolphins' final drive with a brutal facemask penalty.
To win the NFC East, the Cowboys, now 10-5, must hope the Eagles (10-4) lose one of their final three games.
Philly will face the Giants twice, including Monday afternoon, with a date with the lowly Cardinals sandwiched in between. The Cowboys will see the Lions and Commanders to close out the season.
At the same time, this was an important win for the Dolphins, who remain in the race for first place in the AFC. With the Ravens' loss Monday night in San Francisco, Miami and Baltimore will have identical 11-4 records heading into their Week 17 showdown.
The Dolphins' 11-4 start is the best in the series since the days of Dan Marino.
“We're not even close to being done. We're changing the narrative to what we want it to be,” said defensive end Bradley Chubb, who played one of his best games of the season on Sunday.
For the first time in franchise history, the Dolphins have a 4,000-yard passer (Tagovailoa), a 1,000-yard rusher (Raheem Mostert) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle) in the same season.
2. The Lions are NFC North champions for the first time… ever
Enjoy it, Detroit. I've waited a long time for this.
On Sunday, the Lions clinched their first-ever NFC North title — the most recent title in the franchise, dating back to 1993, came when they were still in the NFC Central. The drought was the third longest in football.
But it's now history because of the vision of Brad Holmes, the leadership of Dan Campbell and the revival of Jared Goff, who, after getting dumped by the Rams three years ago, wrote a thrilling second act in the Motor City, pulling a downtrodden Detroit team from defeat. The NFL later considered an NFC competitor.
“It's just the beginning for us,” Goff said after Sunday's 30-24 win over the Vikings.
“This is special. This is special. It's something you can't do all the time,” Campbell said. “It's always special to win the league. I don't care how many of them you get, because of the work that goes into it. “To do something that hasn't been done in 30 years for a team is special.”
The victory moves the Lions to 11-4 on the year and means they will host their first playoff game since January 1994. Detroit will be looking for its first postseason win since 1991, the year Barry Sanders led the team to the NFC Championship game. appearance.
Dating back to an 8-2 finish last season, Campbell's Lions have gone 19-6 over their last 25 games. The Coach of the Year candidate led back-to-back winning seasons in Detroit.
3. Flacco, Brown close to playoff spot
No coach in football this season has weathered the storms of adversity better than Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski, whose Browns rank fourth at starting quarterback yet are 10-5 and on the verge of qualifying for the AFC playoffs.
Their 36-22 win Sunday in Houston brought them closer, a game the Browns controlled throughout, and they led 36-7 early in the fourth quarter. The biggest reason was a record-setting day from wideout Amari Cooper, whose 265 yards on 11 catches set a new franchise record and were the most yardage for any receiver in a game this season. “Private,” Stefanski called him. Cooper added two touchdowns and more than one highlight reel along the way, splitting the Texas secondary.
He is the sixth player in NFL history with four career games of at least 200 receiving yards, joining Lance Alworth, Calvin Johnson, Don Hutson, Jerry Rice and Charlie Hennigan.
Since the 38-year-old Flacco got the start a month ago, the Browns are 4-1. (Flacco threw for 1,307 yards, the most by a Browns quarterback in his first four starts.) All told, the team has won six of eight and, despite losing Deshaun Watson for the season, then beat P.J. Walker and Dorian Thompson Robinson, Cleveland eyes a spot in the playoffs for the first time since the 2020 season.
The Browns can clinch it with a win Thursday over the Jets.
4. The Jags' slide continues as the AFC South leads 0-4
Sunday was a disappointment for South Asia.
What's the good news for teams in this division after 0-4 p.m.? No one got any land.
Bad news? The path to a potential playoff spot has become more difficult for those who don't win the division.
The Colts were defeated 29-10 in Atlanta.
The Texans fell 36-22 at home to Flacco and the Browns.
Then the Jaguars, in one of the most surprising results of the day, fell 30-12 in Tampa. Jacksonville, once 8-3 and in the running for the top seed in the AFC, did not win a game in December and lost its last two games (to the Ravens and Bucs) by a combined score of 53-19.
For good measure, the fourth team in the division, the Titans, lost 20-17 to Seattle.
The Colts started the weekend as a No. 6 seed, but with their loss and Buffalo's win, they dropped to No. 7. Currently, there are five teams in the AFC at 8-7 and in the mix: Colts, Jaguars, Texans, Steelers and Bengals.
There's something not right with Jaguar. Lawrence suffered from a series of injuries late in the season, and left Sunday's game after injuring his right shoulder. He suffered a sprained ankle two weeks ago, then cleared concussion protocol in time to play this week.
The offense, as expected, has not been sharp, recording 10 turnovers in the last three games, including four on Sunday. The defense has never been better, allowing nearly 30 points per game amid the Jags' four-game losing streak.
The Jaguars, Colts and Texans entered the day tied atop the division. All three are now 8-7, with the Jags owning the tiebreaker over both. But the way Jacksonville is playing, it looks like this division is up for grabs.
The Jags will finish with the Panthers and Titans. The Colts face the Raiders and Texans, and the Texans will see the Giants before traveling to Indy to conclude the regular season.
5. Christmas gift: more football
Monday's schedule includes three more games with playoff implications.
The Chiefs, losers of three of four but still competing for the top seed in the AFC, will host the Raiders at 1 p.m. Kansas City can clinch a playoff spot with a win.
The Eagles, who took advantage of the Cowboys' loss on Sunday, will face the Giants at 4:30 p.m. ET.
And in the Night Cup, one of the best matchups of the season: The current top seed in the NFC, the 11-3 49ers, will host the current top seed in the AFC, the 11-3 Ravens.
(Photo by Jameson Williams and Stephen Maturin/Getty Images)
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