By Nick Shook | NFL.com
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Sunday of Week 17 offered us an appetizing slate of extremely important matchups for more than a few road squads. Some prospered, and some faltered.
Carolina’s defense played the game of its collective life, terrorizing Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons‘ offense and the tri-county area of Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett on Sunday. If I could give the award to the Panthers‘ defense I would, but I have to pick names, and it’s hard to decide between Roman Harper‘s 31-yard pick six, Tre Boston‘s 84-yard pick six and Thomas Davis‘ 33-yard fumble return.
San Diego, on the other hand, choked away the simplest of paths to a playoff berth, falling to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium when all they needed to do was win, and they were in.
I can tell you can’t wait to scroll down. Let’s get to the stars of Sunday, the best away from home.
Greatest on the Road …
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
I started to feel guilty picking Bryant for this nearly every week.
Then Bryant hauled in his 16th receiving touchdown of the season, breaking the Cowboys‘ single-season record, and suddenly I didn’t feel so bad. He set a new record for a franchise that once featured Michael Irvin, Terrell Owens and Drew Pearson, three receivers who were in the discussion for best receiver in the league during their respective eras.
Bryant has dominated in 2014 just as much as each of the aforementioned did in their heydays.
Sometimes it’s difficult to choose between Bryant and Tony Romo, because they’ve both had scintillating seasons, and they’re the two most important cogs in Dallas’ passing touchdown machine. After all, Dallas finished the regular season with a pristine 8-0 record on the road, instantly drawing attention to the guys with the stars on their helmets when it came time to write this weekly post. But Bryant has done it in such a manner that makes you run into the room to watch the replay after he’s made a fool of a defensive back, stiff-armed a would-be-tackler and then used his freakish straight-line speed to beat the remaining defenders to the endzone.
For example, on Sunday, Dallas trailed Washington 7-3 in the first. The Redskins had the momentum. My television was practically screaming “TRAP GAME” at me.
No worry for Bryant.
Romo silenced the Washington faithful on the fourth play of the drive, tossing a short pass to his freak-of-nature wideout and letting Bryant do the rest. That stiff-arm plus straight-line speed combo you read above? Well, that’s why we embed videos: It was too beautiful for you to just read and imagine.
Bryant burned down the sideline, scoring in impressive fashion and stealing the momentum back in favor of the Cowboys.
But wait, there’s more!
On the Cowboys‘ next drive, Bryant made one of those I-honestly-do-not-believe-that-happened catches for which he’s notorious, even tricking the officials into initially ruling him out of bounds. Jason Garrettknew better, tossing the red challenge flag and getting his wideout the touchdown he earned.
Also considered …
Geno Smith, New York Jets
I’ll just go ahead and answer your question ahead of time. No, I did not expect to ever include Geno Smith in this column.
But here we are, the day after the end of the regular season and in the unlikeliest of occurrences, Smith is here — and for good reason.
Smith completed 20 of 25 passes for 358 yards and three touchdowns and compiled a perfect — yes, PERFECT — passer rating of 158.3 as the Jets sent Rex Ryan into a likely short-lived unemployment with a 37-24 win to close out 2014. Smith’s 14.3 yards per attempt propelled a Jets offense that, with weapons such as Eric Decker and Percy Harvin, should be putting up numbers like this more often.
Smith is the same quarterback who has been the butt of both Jets and quarterbacking jokes for much of his career, which was largely seen as a direct cause of Ryan’s departure. Ryan started his time with the Jets with a fresh-faced Mark Sanchez, but it became apparent that he wasn’t the answer, prompting now-fired general manager John Idzik and Ryan to draft Smith in the second round. Smith was once projected as a first-round pick, potentially the top pick in the draft.
It’s safe to say he hasn’t lived up to those expectations.
But the final quarter of the season might offer a little insight into Smith’s future. For the first time in his career, Smith has full control of the starting quarterback position and has strung together a few respectable performances, with Sunday being the pinnacle.
The 358 yards were a career high, powered an attack that overcame a 10-point deficit, and Smith finally established a bit of a rapport with offseason splash signing Eric Decker, hooking up with the former Bronco 10 times for 221 yards and a touchdown. We finally got a long-awaited cut-up of Decker highlights. We might not be too far off from seeing weekly Smith highlights.
It’s a shame it will come after Ryan is long gone.
Kyle Orton, Buffalo Bills
Remember those meaningless games we touched on earlier? This game was one of those.
The Bills‘ defense was the real MVP of this matchup, harassing Tom Bradyduring the first half as Buffalo built a lead. But the news of Orton’s impending retirement has swayed me to throw the old passer a bone.
After all, his 16-of-23 passing, 176-yard, one-touchdown performance helped Buffalo end an 0-12 drought at Gillette Stadium. No matter that Brady sat out the second half, and Rob Gronkowski didn’t suit up at all — this game erased that ugly mark, and snapped the Pats’ 35-game home winning streak against AFC opponents. This meaningless game proved New England isn’t invincible at home after all!
Sarcasm aside, Orton went out a winner, capping a winning season for a Bills team that was projected to be one of the worst in the league with EJ Manuel at the helm — that is, before Orton swooped in to take the job and reclaim the interest of Western New York. Buffalo missed the playoffs and is uncertain at quarterback heading into 2015 and beyond, but Orton provided some excitement for a team that has a defense that is way too good to finish 9-7.
Maybe that season on the bench will help Manuel next year, when Orton is at home, being the dad he said he wants to be in his retirement statement.