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Niners, Rams set stage for fantastic regular season finish

Plus, Vikings stay relevant, don’t count out the Patriots and a playoff spot for losers? All on the road to Miami Gardens

San Francisco’s stunning last-second victory in New Orleans and the Rams’ streak-snapping defeat of the Seahawks have turned the NFC West into must-watch football for the last three weeks of the regular season.

Los Angeles downed Seattle 28-12 Sunday night, knocking the Seahawks from the top seed to the final spot in the six-team playoff. Along the way, the Rams broke Seattle’s five-game winning streak and its streak of scoring an offensive touchdown in 43 straight games since their 2017 season opener. Los Angeles also ended the Seahawks’ franchise-best six-game road winning streak.

Quarterback Jared Goff (293 yards passing, two touchdowns) and a resurgent Todd Gurley (133 yards total offense on 27 touches) led the way for the Rams (8-5), while the Seahawks (10-3) and Russell Wilson were left clinging to the threads that connect them to the post season.

“Everything is still out in front of us,” Wilson said after failing to throw a touchdown pass for the first time all season. “There’s a lot of season left. It’s not a setback for us. It’s just the beginning, and we feel like there’s a lot more we can do, a lot of areas that we can get better.”

Los Angeles’ playoff bid may be too little, too late, but they will play a pivotal role in who ends up in the playoffs. Los Angeles will sandwich its pivotal game against top-seeded San Francisco (11-3) with a road game against Dallas and a season-finale at home against the Cardinals, who have now lost six consecutive games.

Seattle travels to fading Carolina this Sunday and this plays host to Arizona and a potential epic tilt against none other than the 49ers. The Niners host the Falcons and the Rams before traveling to Seattle.

Game of the year

Jimmy Garappolo may have had his best game as a pro in leading San Francisco to a 48-46 win over New Orleans. [BUTCH DILL | AP]

The reason San Francisco now has the first seed: Jimmy Garappolo and an apparent antidote for West Coast teams. Garappolo completed 26 of 35 for 349 yards, four touchdowns and one interception to outduel New Orleans (10-3) and Drew Brees in a 48-46 shootout some are calling the game of the year.

Of all his completions, the last may have been the one that Garoppolo completed on fourth-and-2 to tight end George Kittle in the final minute. That, plus a facemask penalty at the end of the play, set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal as time expired.

“Jimmy Garoppolo being clutch down the stretch. This is a big game and he played big-time," Niners cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He played like the best quarterback in football today. He beat a legend.”

The Niners also have to feel good about their decision to train at IMG Academy in Bradenton instead of returning to San Francisco after their narrow loss in Baltimore. Five days in Florida and two on Bourbon Street without incident indicates the team was in the right time zone, physically and mentally.

Packers can’t shake Vikings

The Packers (10-3) remained a game ahead of the Vikings (9-4) in the NFC North with both teams winning Sunday.

Green Bay remains atop the division and in possession of the second seed, due to the Saints’ loss to the 49ers. But if the Vikings, currently seeded sixth, catch the Packers, Aaron Rodgers and company could go from having a bye to having to play on the road in the wild-card round.

Minnesota travels to San Diego this week while Green Bay hosts Chicago, then closes out with games at Minnesota and Detroit. The Vikings, who have to worry about being caught by the resilient Rams, finish the season hosting the Bears. Credit the schedule makers for putting everybody in the mix.

Do we need an adjustment?

In theory, at least four teams could finish .500 or better and not make the playoffs, while the Cowboys (6-7) or Eagles (5-7), who host the Giants tonight, could end up with a losing record and make the playoffs as the NFC East division champs.

It has happened before, and some of those teams with losing marks have actually gone on to play well in the postseason. Remember Seattle’s 2010 “beast quake” victory against New Orleans? Still, it seems odd that a team such as the Cowboys, who have lost three straight and have yet to beat a club with a record over .500, would get to host a playoff game while other teams playing well at the end of the season could be left sitting home. The league could penalize a division champ with a record under .500 by at least making it play on the road. Maybe that would help justice be served.

Patriots still in good shape despite losing two straight

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, left, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speak at midfield after an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) [STEVEN SENNE | AP]

The Patriots lost a much-anticipated matchup against the Chiefs despite blocking and a blocked point. New England, particularly on offense, has hardly looked like world beaters.

But the Pats (10-3) might be able to stand pat and hold on to the No. 2 seed. They’re still a game ahead of Buffalo (9-4) in the AFC East and a game ahead of the Chiefs (9-4) for the second seed. Adding to New England’s confidence, a relatively easy finish to the season: at Cincinnati, versus Buffalo, versus Miami. Yes, Bills fans, your team is playing better. New England has won six straight against Buffalo and 14 of the last 16. The Pats would have to totally collapse to lose the bye.

Chiefs equipped to win, barely

The Chiefs needed a police escort to get their equipment to Gillette Stadium in time for the game. ESPN reported an equipment container with some shoulder pads, helmets and footballs was not unloaded Saturday and wound up in New Jersey.

It had equipment for some 35 players. Some reports said if the equipment didn’t arrive on time, the Chiefs would have had to forfeit.

Kansas City’s 23-16 win at New England also proved to be a close call. The Chiefs went up 23-7, then held off a Patriots rally to hand them their first home loss in more than two years. Bashaud Breeland knocked away Tom Brady’s fourth-down pass attempt to Julian Edelman in the end zone to preserve the win for the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes led the way for Kansas City, completing 26-of-40 for 283 yards and a touchdown.

The Chiefs clinched a playoff spot and appear to be in fairly good shape with their final three games: versus Broncos, at Bears and versus Chargers. To ensure a home playoff game, KC needs to first gear up for Denver and quarterback Drew Lock, who appears to be on a roll.

Gators to Texans: Been there

Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3)scramble as he looks to pass against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) [DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP]

Lock passed for 309 yards and three touchdowns to propel the Broncos to a stunning 38-24 victory over the Texans. And while Lock’s performance might have surprised some, University of Florida fans know all too well what he can do when he gets hot. In his final two games for Missouri against the Gators, both wins, Lock completed a combined 39 of 62 for 478 yards and six touchdowns.

Lock delivered more of the same in NRG Stadium even though Houston (8-5) was coming off an impressive victory over the Patriots. His first-half effort — 235 yards with three TDs — essentially put the game out of reach as Denver (5-8) went up 31-3.

With the win, the Broncos actually remain in the playoff hunt. The loss, however, means more to the Texans. They had a chance to solidify their hold on the AFC South, but now they’re tied with the Titans, who rolled the Raiders. Remarkably, the Texans and Titans play twice over the next three weeks.

Steelers’ resilience remains strong

Pittsburgh won for the seventh time for eight times in a 23-17 win over Arizona. The Steelers, again playing without its best quarterback, running back and receiver, found a way with an opportunistic offense and defense. The defense led the way with three interceptions — two by cornerback Joe Haden and another by linebacker T.J. Watt — to end Arizona drives. One came in the end zone and another negated a Cardinals drive deep into Steelers territory.

Rookie free agent Devlin Hodges made his third career start, completing 16 of 19 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. Hodges didn’t need to make many tough throws but came through with a good one in the third quarter, hitting Johnson in the front corner of the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown that gave the Steelers a 20-10 lead. Hodges also finished with 34 yards rushing.

Pittsburgh (8-5) still sits in the sixth and final playoff spot. It should benefit from the Texans and Titans beating up on each other, but its schedule is daunting: Buffalo, at the Jets and at Baltimore. The team’s underdog season is one of the more fascinating stories, and Mike Tomlin should be coach of the year if he gets his club in the playoffs.

Ravens roll on against Bills

Baltimore won its ninth straight and became the first AFC team to clinch a playoff berth with a 24-17 win at Buffalo, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh said his team didn’t seem interested in a big celebration.

“I tried to make a big deal out of it in the locker room, and the guys kind of gave me a smattering of applause,” said Harbaugh, who led Baltimore to its eighth playoff berth in his 12 seasons. “They’ve expected that, and I think they earned the right to expect that.”

The Bills held Baltimore to a season-low 257 yards but took no solace in limiting the Ravens. “Ultimately, we’re here to win, and that’s the most frustrating part,” Bills defensive end Ed Oliver said.

Baltimore (11-2) now looks to hold off the Patriots for the top seed and homefield advantage. It hosts the Jets on Thursday, then closes at Cleveland and home against the Steelers.

Et cetera

Matt Ryan led Atlanta to a 40-20 win over Carolina and in the process became the 10th NFL player to pass for 50,000 yards in his career. … Austin Ekeler rushed for 101 yards on just eight carries and caught four passes for 112 yards thanks to an 84-yard touchdown catch from Philip Rivers in the Chargers’ 45-10 romp over the Jaguars. Jacksonville lost its fifth straight by 17 points or more, matching a dubious feat set by the 1986 Bucs. The Jags were officially eliminated from the players with their 19th loss in past 25 games. Coach Doug Marrone might want to start working on his resume. … Miami’s Jason Sanders kicked a team-record seven field goals, but the fact the Dolphins went 0-for-6 in the red zone ultimately contributed to a last-second loss against the Jets. … The Browns beat the Bengals 27-19, but talk after the game centered on Odell Beckham. The receiver could get traded again after a vague response about his future.

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