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NFL morning after: A Sunday of football, the best TV show ever

Aaron Dobson AP

The late, great Hall of Famer Art Donovan was in an old ESPN commercial, back when ESPN first began airing NFL pre-game and post-game shows, in which he pointed out that if you watched both of ESPN’s Sunday NFL shows, plus both of the NFL games airing in your own local market, you’d spend more than eight hours on Sunday watching nothing but football. As the idea of that much football in one day sunk in, Donovan proclaimed, “I love it!”

Now, of course, there’s a lot more pre-game and post-game coverage than there was back then, plus there’s the Sunday night game, which didn’t exist back then. Now you can turn on the TV for the first pre-game show, on NFL Network, at 7 a.m. Eastern, and keep watching football through the Sunday night game on NBC, which often ends after midnight, then watch the various highlight shows that keep going well after midnight. Forget eight hours of football, you can spend 16 hours or more in front of TV watching nothing but football.

And I love it.

The NFL is America’s best and most popular television show, and there’s simply no such thing as too much of it. I think nothing of turning on pre-game shows at 7 in the morning on Sunday and leaving some football, either live games or NFL news and highlight shows, on my TV until I go to bed after midnight. During the offseason, I love a good TV binge — I can go back to Breaking Bad or The Wire or Seinfeld or Arrested Development over and over and over again — but I’ve had my fill of any of those great shows long before I’ve watched 16 hours in one day. There really is no such thing as too much football.

Think about how great the television programming was yesterday, for those of us who can watch all the games on the Sunday Ticket package. In an insane rush of fantastic finishes starting around 4 p.m. Eastern, we got four different thrilling endings within minutes of each other:

— The Jets beat the Patriots in overtime after New England fans found out the hard way that you’re not allowed to push your teammate into the line to try to block a field goal.

— Washington beat Chicago 45-41 in a crazy back-and-forth battle that featured six rushing touchdowns, three passing touchdowns, a special teams touchdown and a defensive touchdown.

— Cincinnati beat Detroit on a 54-yard field goal as time expired.

— The Bills kicked a go-ahead field goal with 31 seconds left, then hung on for dear life as the Dolphins maneuvered into position for a last-second Hail Mary that fell incomplete in the end zone.

That kind of drama beats anything you’ll ever get in scripted television, but that was just a few minutes of Sunday’s football binge. We also got:

Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis, in which the Colts legend turned Broncos quarterback suffered his first loss of the season in front of fans who cheered him loudly when he was introduced before the game, then cheered even louder when the Colts won.

— The Steelers beating the Ravens on a field goal on the last play of the game.

— Two of the most talented receivers you’ll ever see, Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green, putting up 155 yards apiece in Bengals-Lions.

— Monte Kiffin’s Dallas defense stepping up in a big way, completely shutting down Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia offense in a 17-3 win.

Philip Rivers continuing his ridiculously efficient season passing the football by completing 22 of 26 passes in a win over the Jaguars. Rivers has now completed 73.9 percent of his passes this season. (The all-time single-season record is 71.2 percent, set by Drew Brees two years ago.)

Case Keenum leading the reeling Texans to a surprisingly competitive performance against the undefeated Chiefs before ultimately falling to Kansas City, the league’s most pleasant surprise.

Watch all of that football, all day long, and you’re going to be exhausted and bleary-eyed by the end of the day. But it’s still not too much football. There’s no such thing as too much of sitting in front of your TV watching football.

Here are the rest of my thoughts on a great Sunday in the NFL:

The first three touchdowns of the day were scored by the defense, and Matt Schaub wasn’t even playing. Mr. Pick Six himself was out for the Texans’ late afternoon game, but the early afternoon games got started with not one, not two, but three quarterbacks giving up the ball to a defensive player who took it to the house. First we had Sam Bradford throw an interception that Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn returned for a touchdown. Then we had Ryan Tannehill throw an interception that Buffalo’s Nickell Robey returned for a touchdown. Then we had Mike Glennon fumble a ball that Atlanta’s Thomas Decoud returned for a touchdown. It was Geno Smith and Jeremy Kerley, of all people, who got on the board for the Jets’ offense and ended the league-wide run of defensive touchdowns. (And Smith would throw a pick-six of his own later in the first quarter.)

Pro Bowl voting begins way too early. The NFL allowed fans to start voting for Pro Bowl rosters on Sunday morning, when some teams had only played five games and some had only played six. Why on earth are we voting for Pro Bowlers now, when they’ve still got two-thirds of the season to play and the game is more than three months away? If the NFL wants to make the Pro Bowl more relevant, how about waiting until the end of the season to vote, so fans can actually vote for guys who had good years?

Jimmy Johnson said something about Jerry Jones masked as something about Jim Irsay. Asked on the FOX pregame show about Irsay’s comments tweaking Peyton Manning last week, Johnson said, “Just because a guy has money and owns an NFL team, doesn’t mean he’s smart.” Johnson was ostensibly talking about Irsay, but I think he was also taking a little shot at Jerry Jones, his old boss in Dallas with whom Johnson has had a famously prickly relationship.

Devin Hester, the greatest kick returner ever. Hester’s return touchdown was the 19th of his career, tying him with Deion Sanders for the most return touchdowns in NFL history. But most of Sanders’ return touchdowns came on defense. All of Hester’s were kick returns. There’s really no one who has been even close to the kind of consistent big-play threat returning kicks that Hester has been throughout his NFL career. Usually, once a return man establishes himself as one of the best in the league, opposing teams start kicking to him differently and limit his effectiveness. They punt high to force him to fair catch, or they punt out of bounds. On kickoffs, if they’re not sure the kicker can boot it out the back of the end zone, they tell him to kick it high and short to help the coverage team get into position to make the tackle. The amazing thing about Hester is that he’s still scoring touchdowns even after opposing teams have come to realize that they must kick away from him. As soon as a team’s attempted punt out of bounds ends up staying just barely inbounds — which is what happened with Washington on Sunday — Hester makes them pay for it.

The top picks in the next two drafts had big days on Saturday. It may be too early to talk about the top pick in next year’s NFL draft, and it’s definitely too early to talk about the top pick in the 2015 NFL draft. But I’ll do it anyway. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney spent as much time in Tennessee’s backfield as their own running backs on Saturday, looking like the kind of one-man wrecking crew who absolutely deserves to be considered the top pro prospect in college football right now, despite some talk that he was off to a slow start this season. And then there’s Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. A redshirt freshman, Winston won’t be eligible for the draft until 2015. But his performance on the road against No. 3 Clemson, in which he completed 22 of 34 passes for 444 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception, leaves little doubt that he’s good enough to play in the NFL. No, I don’t mean he will be good enough to play in the NFL. I mean he’s good enough right now, and the only thing holding him back is the NFL’s three-year eligibility rule. Winston is better right now than either of his two immediate predecessors at Florida State, EJ Manuel and Christian Ponder, ever were. And Manuel and Ponder were both first-round draft picks. Winston has all the tools to be a great NFL quarterback.

I hate it when coaches won’t be aggressive. Tennessee’s Mike Munchak punted on fourth-and-inches in the third quarter while the Titans were trailing 24-0. What was Munchak afraid of? Your team is losing and needs to do something. If you’re just going to give up on fourth-and-inches, you might as well give up on the game. If there’s anything that’s not fun about a day watching football, it’s watching a bunch of punts from coaches who don’t have the guts to go for it.

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Chris Hogan puts the Patriots up 10-0

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots reacts during the first half against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

He’s not Rob Gronkowski, but Chris Hogan has created quite a niche for himself in New England.

He just scored to put the Patriots up 10-0 on the Steelers late in the first, dominating a drive.

Hogan caught four passes for 57 yards, including the 16-yard touchdown which capped a quick, effective drive.

He doesn’t fall into the diminutive Julian Edelman/Wes Welker profile the Patriots have had such success with over the years, and they’re using him on some of the same seam routes that have been so productive when their All-Pro tight end was healthy.

Tom Brady’s already 10-of-12 for 128 yards so far, an efficient start as he’s been willing to go no-huddle to keep the Steelers off balance.

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Mike McCarthy: We ran into a buzzsaw

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers walks off the field after being defeated by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn’t see Sunday’s NFC Championship Game much differently than anyone else who watched the Falcons roll to Super Bowl LI with a 44-21 win.

McCarthy noted the rough start that saw the Packers miss a field goal and lose a fumble in the end zone on their first two drives while the Falcons were scoring on their first three possessions. That left the Packers down 17-0 and McCarthy said that’s “a game you don’t want to play” on the road against a team as good as the Falcons.

We ran into a buzzsaw,” McCarthy said during his postgame press conference. “…We couldn’t overcome the pace that these guys were playing. They played lights out and it got away from us.”

McCarthy was asked about injuries taking a toll and he admitted they did, but the overall theme of the press conference was the same as the overall theme of the game. The Falcons were just too much for the Packers to handle across the board on Sunday.

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AFC lacks NFC fireworks, Patriots up 3-0 early

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) greets team owner Robert Kraft before the AFC championship NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) AP

Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are no slouches, but the AFC Championship Game is off to a much slower start than its NFC counterpart.

The Patriots are up 3-0 in the first quarter, with both teams getting stops early on.

The Patriots got off to a quick start, with Tom Brady completing his first four passes to four different receivers. But their drive stalled in the red zone, forcing them to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and a 3-0 lead.

The Steelers first drive stalled when they decided to go over the top to Sammie Coates on third-and-1, and he let it drop between his hands.

While it might not keep the same frenetic pace of the first game, there has already been more defense played.

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Ryan, Falcons roll to NFC title

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons runs for a 14 yard touchdown in the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

Matt Ryan and the Falcons left zero doubt.

They dominated from the beginning Sunday, turning the NFC Championship Game into a rout and eventually a 44-21 victory.

Julio Jones feasted on an overmatched Packers defense, catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. He caught a short touchdown pass on the final play of the first half and had a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the third quarter.

Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns, and he also ran for a touchdown in the first half. The Falcons led by 24 at halftime and were at 400 total yards before the Packers got 130. They led 31-0 before the Packers scored.

The Falcons are headed to their second Super Bowl, their first since the 1998 season. They had missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.

Already down 7-0 after a Ryan pass to Mohamed Sanu, the Packers missed a field goal on their first drive Sunday, and Aaron Ripkowski fumbled inside the Atlanta 10-yard line on their second. By the time the Packers generated offense again Jones had already scored two touchdowns. Ryan had wide open receivers all day, and the Packers just couldn’t keep up in any sense.

The Falcons punted once in the first 57 minutes. Making an awful day worse, three Packers offensive linemen — Lane Taylor, Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang — left the game with injuries. Defensive tackle Letroy Guion had to play offensive line on the final drive, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was taken out for his own protection. Rodgers threw for 287 yards, three touchdowns and was intercepted once.

The Falcons finished Sunday’s game with 493 yards of offense, 30 first downs and a six-minute time of possession advantage.

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T.J. Lang carted to locker room

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 27:  Guard T.J. Lang #70 of the Green Bay Packers on the sidelines during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 27, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Packers 38-8.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang was carted to the locker room late in the third quarter of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

Lang suffered a lower leg or ankle injury. The Packers have had a miserable day and previously lost Micah Hyde, Kentrell Brice, Lane Taylor and Jake Ryan to injuries, so with Taylor and Lang out they’re trying to mount a comeback without two starting offensive linemen.

The Falcons hold a 37-15 lead late in the third quarter.

Packers running back Ty Montgomery also left the game due to a rib injury and his return is questionable. Unless the Packers somehow make it close, he likely won’t return.

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Michael Floyd, Ladarius Green out for Sunday night

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 01:  Michael Floyd #14 of the New England Patriots scores a touchdown during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on January 1, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Getty Images

As the Falcons continue to shred the Packers en route to Atlanta’s second Super Bowl appearance, another spot remains to be earned.

Patriots receiver Michael Floyd and Steelers tight end Ladarius Green are among the players who won’t be in uniform for the AFC title game.

Floyd is a healthy scratch for the Patriots, along with quarterback Jacoby Brissett, cornerback Justin Coleman, cornerback Cyrus Jones, running back D.J. Foster, safety Jordan Richards, and tackle LaAdrian Waddle.

Green, who suffered his latest concussion on December 18 and hasn’t played since, will be joined by receiver DeMarcus Ayers, quarterback Zach Mettenberger, cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz, linebacker L.J. Fort, defensive end Johnny Maxey, and tackle Brian Mihalik as inactive Steelers.

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Ryan throws fourth touchdown pass of the day

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22: Austin Hooper #81 of the Atlanta Falcons signals for a first down during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers finally scored. The Falcons came back throwing, showing they wanted more.

The Falcons answered the first Packers’ points with another long touchdown drive, going 75 yards in eight plays to make it 37-7. Matt Ryan’s fourth touchdown pass of the game went to Devonta Freeman, and though Matt Bryant missed the PAT it shouldn’t matter.

The Falcons have dominated from the start.

An Aaron Rodgers pass to Davante Adams with 9:19 left in the third quarter got the Packers on the board.

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Pereira, Blandino offer different reasons for Falcons touchback

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22: Jalen Collins #32 of the Atlanta Falcons recovers a fumble in the second quarter by Aaron Ripkowski #22 of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

If NFL fans have a hard time understanding the rules, that’s understandable: Even the head of officiating and the former head of officiating don’t always see a call the same way.

After the Falcons were given a touchback on a recovery of a Packers fumble that almost rolled into the end zone, NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino and his predecessor, FOX rules analyst Mike Pereira, offered different explanations for the ruling.

Blandino wrote on Twitter that Falcons safety Jalen Collins “Gained possession with left leg touching the goal line so it is a touchback.” In other words, the ruling was about where Collins’ leg was, not where the ball was.

But Pereira wrote on Twitter that it was a touchback because “the recovering player did not have total control of the ball until the ball had broken the plane.” In other words, Pereira says the ruling was based on where the ball was, not where Collins was.

Blandino and Pereira both agree that the ruling of a Falcons recovery in the end zone for a touchback was correct. But they disagree on why it was the correct ruling. And when even the experts can’t agree, it’s hard for the fans to understand the league’s convoluted rules.

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Julio Jones showing off speed, skill as Falcons rout Packers

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons catches a 5 yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter against LaDarius Gunter #36 of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

Julio Jones was limited in practice last week. He’s apparently OK — and he’s killing the Packers.

A 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Jones early in the third quarter has made it 31-0. Jones also caught a 5-yard touchdown pass just before halftime and is over 140 receiving yards in this NFC Championship Game.

The Packers have had no answers. Matt Ryan is over 300 yards passing; he’s thrown three touchdown passes and he ran for another.

The Packers moved the ball early but Mason Crosby missed a field goal and Aaron Ripkowski fumbled at the end of a run that would have made it first and goal. Now the Packers need a miracle, but they’re struggling to even get first downs.

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Packers have few answers, no points at halftime

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates with Mohamed Sanu #12 after a 14 yard touchdown run in the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

Matt Ryan and the Falcons dominated the first half and hold a 24-0 halftime lead over the Packers.

Ryan has thrown touchdown passes to Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and also ran 14 yards for a score. He threw for 271 yards in the first half.

Jones caught a 5-yard touchdown pass with three seconds left in the first half to further deflate the Packers.

The Packers moved the ball early but Mason Crosby missed a field goal and Aaron Ripkowski fumbled at the end of a run that would have made it first and goal. Ryan has had wide open receivers and has been a step ahead of the Green Bay defense.

At halftime the Falcons have 325 total yards and the Packers have 127. The Falcons have run 46 plays to the Packers’ 21.

The Packers will get the ball to start the second half.

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Falcons finagle touchback after fumble near end zone

Green Bay Packers' Aaron Ripkowski fumbles the ball during the first half of the NFL football NFC championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) AP

As Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski bulldozed toward a touchdown, he lost the ball. Falcons safety Jalen Collins pounced at the one and then rolled into the end zone.

The officials ruled it was a touchback.

Arguably, Collins gave himself up at the one. Arguably, he deliberately took the ball into the end zone, possibly making it a safety.

Regardless, the issue was glossed over by the officials and by the FOX broadcast. Since it was a turnover, any challenge would have come from the replay booth.

It would be nice to know why the play was ruled the way that it was, and why the ruling wasn’t Atlanta ball at its one or two points for Green Bay.

UPDATE 4:17 p.m. ET: NFL senior V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino says via Twitter that, because Collins gained possession at the one with his leg touching the goal line, it’s a touchback. If his leg hadn’t been touching the goal line, the Falcons would have had the ball at the one. The FOX broadcast still hasn’t explained the ruling.

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Ryan runs for score as Falcons extend lead

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons looks to pass in the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Getty Images

Matt Ryan and the Falcons keep converting third downs, keep moving the chains and keep scoring.

They lead the Packers, 17-0, midway through the second quarter of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

Ryan ran 14 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-0. He threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu on the game’s first drive, and he’s had a bunch of wide open receivers on the first three possessions.

Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski fumbled inside the Falcons’ 10-yard line early in the second quarter, and Falcons safety Jalen Collins recovered in the end zone for a touchback as the Falcons preserved a 10-0 lead. The Packers have moved the ball on both of their possessions but have missed a field goal and fumbled.

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Falcons dominate first quarter, lead 10-0

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons passes the ball in the first half against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Falcons hold a 10-0 lead over the Packers after one quarter in the NFC Championship Game.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is off to a hot start. Ryan is 11-of-16 for 125 yards and had two passes that would have been big gains dropped.

Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu caught the game’s first touchdown and has been busy. He has four catches for 46 yards and a rush for seven yards.

The Packers moved inside the Falcons’ 25-yard line on their first possession but stalled and Mason Crosby missed a 41-yard field goal. Crosby had made 23 consecutive field goals; it was also the first missed field goal of the entire playoffs.

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NFL teams may have to jam cell signals in locker rooms

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As the Antonio Brown Face Book Live fiasco prepares to yield to an actual football game (during which it will be “fair or not” to point out the potential social-media infraction distraction if Brown struggles), there’s a lingering question about the situation that gave rise to the violation.

How will the NFL prevent similar incidents in the future?

One league source suggests that, eventually, the league will need to implement scrambling devices in the locker room when social-media activity is prohibited — from 90 minutes before kickoff through the conclusion of the post-game media obligations.

That’s the easiest way to keep players from violating the rules, and it’s something the league needs to consider if other players will be tempted to broadcast live from the locker room.

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Ryan sharp as Falcons take early lead

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 11:  Mohamed Sanu #12 of the Atlanta Falcons scores a two-point conversion against Chris Conte #23 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Georgia Dome on September 11, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Falcons got the ball first and scored first in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

They went 80 yards in 13 plays with Matt Ryan completing three third-down passes.

The Falcons scored on a third-down shovel pass to Mohamed Sanu after Ryan was flushed out of the pocket. The Falcons have now scored a touchdown on their first drive in eight straight games.

Ryan was 6-of-8 for 64 yards on the first drive. The Packers moved inside the Falcons’ 25-yard line on their first possession but stalled and Mason Crosby missed a 41-yard field goal. Crosby had made 23 consecutive field goals.

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