In a perfect holiday script, the Detroit Lions and their fans were supposed to wake up Monday morning feeling good about how the results of Sunday's games put the team one realistic step closer to making the playoffs.
The Lions, of course, would have beaten the downtrodden Cincinnati Bengals.
And the Atlanta Falcons, of course, would have lost to the New Orleans Saints.
That was the dream scenario for Monday morning – the Lions and Falcons both at 9-6, and another season with an opportunity for the Lions to play their way into the playoffs in Week 17.
View the best stylized photos from the Detroit Lions Week 16 game against the Cincinnati Bengals by team photographer Gavin Smith.
Didn't happen. The Lions and Falcons both lost, leaving the Falcons alive at 9-6 and the Lions eliminated from the postseason at 8-7.
What we learned painfully -- and more painfully, something we learned again -- is that the NFL doesn't follow a script on the field. It writes its history with results created play by play, game by game, season by season. You get what you earn, not what you dream about.
Among other things we learned is that the NFL's offseason begins – and not just in Detroit – when hope runs out; that Ziggy Ansah still has some fuel in the tank; Tion Green stepped forward on the Lions' running back depth chart; and that mental breakdowns were the most distressing part of the Lions' fourth-quarter collapse against the Bengals.
Christmas Eve nightmare: As Matthew Stafford said a couple times Sunday when asked what had gone wrong: "It's NFL football."
And it is. Bad teams can find ways to rise up when given the chance, and the Cincinnati Bengals at this stage of the season are a bad team. They were on a three-game losing streak going into Sunday's game, and the last two losses were 33-7 at home to the Chicago Bears, and 34-7 on the road to the Minnesota Vikings.
Even looking back at what transpired Sunday, it should have been easy pickings for the Lions. They were the better team, with a golden opportunity in front of them. The Bengals were ripe to be beaten for a fourth straight game.
When the Lions got a 7-0 lead, it looked like they'd settled down and would cruise home. They didn't.
The Lions reverted to how they've played too many times this year. They couldn't finish drives, getting to midfield on three straight possessions after the opening TD and getting zero points. They let the NFL's worst running team run on them at will.
And the blizzard of yellow flags, especially in the fourth quarter, made the Lions look like a team that had lost focus and discipline.
It's a sick feeling when a team is eliminated from playoff contention, and sicker still when the Lions play like they did Sunday.
The offseason: The Lions have a game to play Sunday against the Packers at Ford Field, and there are players on both teams who see it as one more opportunity to enhance their position with a good performance.
But on a broader level, when teams are booted out of the playoffs – as the Lions and Cowboys were with bitter losses – the offseason steams forward at full throttle with major decisions coming.
Tis the season.
Sack time: Never count out a pass-rusher with a proven record, and that's been the case of late with Ziggy Ansah.
He's had a tough two seasons because of injuries, but he has finished strong. He had three sacks Sunday, giving him nine for the season and five in the last three games. Two weeks ago he sacked Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston on the final play, ending any hope of a miracle Bucs comeback in the Lions' 24-21 win.
Tion Green: We were right to wonder what the rookie running back would bring after his strong finish in the preseason. He has been one of the good surprises late in the season, and it bodes well for his future.
He made another good impression Sunday. He had quality production with a team-high 43 yards on seven carries while playing only 13 of 64 offensive snaps.
Green had three big runs in the fourth quarter: 11 yards on a third and one, 12 on a fourth and one and a five-yard blast up the middle for the go-ahead TD in what turned out to be the last gasp of the game.
Fourth-quarter breakdowns: When the Lions should have tightened up, they came unraveled.
They had nine penalties for the game, but six were in the decisive fourth quarter. Three were on guard Don Barclay. The other three were spread out on defense – holding against safety Quandre Diggs, pass interference on Darius Slay and offside on A'Shawn Robinson.