Although the Buccaneers fell short of reaching the playoffs, what they've achieved this season with 10 rookie starters has been remarkable. The Saints were playing as well as any team in the league, and Tampa Bay didn't back down whenever New Orleans went on a little run.
An 18-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams on fourth-and-1 showed how much faith coach Raheem Morris has in quarterback Josh Freeman. Most young coaches wouldn't trust a young quarterback to try to make that kind of play. But Morris and Freeman clearly have a lot of confidence for their age. Now the Bucs need the Giants and Packers to lose to keep their season alive. If this was Ronde Barber's last game, congratulations on a brilliant and often overlooked career in Tampa Bay. Of course, the Saints probably did figure out they weren't playing for anything pretty early on Sunday afternoon, so New Orleans fans have no reason to panic. And the Saints should be encouraged by Reggie Bush's 125 combined yards from scrimmage.
Chiefs head coach Todd Haley decided to play his starters -- and it didn't help. The Raiders' pass rush pestered Matt Cassel all afternoon, and Oakland running back Michael Bush pounded the Chiefs for 137 yards. The Raiders finish 8-8 -- including 6-0 in the AFC West -- their best record since 2002. If Al Davis tries to fire head coach Tom Cable after this season, Raider Nation should storm the facility and demand they keep him. Oakland has developed into a physical team and was just a few bad quarters away from going to the playoffs. The big question for Kansas City is will this loss have any hangover effect next week in the wild-card round, when it will face the Ravens, whose physical defense could make life tough for Cassel.
The Panthers stopped the Falcons on fourth down in their own territory twice in the first half to at least keep the game within range. But it was a matter of time until Atlanta pulled away to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Carolina doesn't have a passing offense and its defense was on the field too long to be effective.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan looked extremely comfortable against the Panthers, especially throwing to receiver Roddy White (six catches for 62 yards) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (6-53), both of whom had touchdowns. The Falcons' three losses this season came to Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Philly, and they could see any of those teams again.
Baltimore defenders had good games, but it was the perennial Pro Bowlers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed who stood out. Lewis was everywhere and scooped up a fumble in the final minutes after earning his 12th trip to the Pro Bowl earlier this week. And Reed had two interceptions to increase his total to eight in just 10 games this season. The Ravens did lose a lot of steam in the second half after they learned the Steelers were winning big; that's when the Bengals had a chance. But they couldn't hold on to the ball, and they blew a chance to score in the final minute from within the Ravens' 5-yard line. If this was Marvin Lewis' final game as Cincinnati coach, it was no way to go out for a man who brought respectability to the Bengals during his tenure.
The Steelers clinched the No. 2 seed in impressive fashion, dominating their division record and probably ending any chances Cleveland coach Eric Mangini will keep his job. The Browns have lost four in a row and their rookie quarterback Colt McCoy has fallen apart. To be fair, the rookie QB has ended his season against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, a duo that makes veterans look bad as well. But he threw three more interceptions after throwing just three in his first six games.
Troy Polamalu showed why he's a bona fide MVP candidate. After missing the last two games, he grabbed his seventh interception of the season in the first quarter and almost made a spectacular diving play to tackle McCoy right after he got the snap. With Polamalu on the field, Pittsburgh is right behind New England as a favorite to win the Super Bowl.
If the Dolphins were playing for head coach Tony Sparano's job Sunday, owner Stephen Ross is going to have to open his checkbook and hire someone. The Dolphins were outplayed in every phase of the game by a Pats team that didn't have anything at stake. Some of the blame will fall on offensive coordinator Dan Henning, who is reportedly leaning toward retirement. But overall, the 'Fins have too much talent to play this poorly down the stretch.
All New England cared about was not reliving last season's Week 17 injury to Wes Welker. Bill Belichick also has to feel better about his defense heading into the playoffs. The young, steadily improving group has allowed only a touchdown or less in four of its last five games.
The Bills ended the season at 4-12 for several reasons, but the biggest had to be their 32nd-ranked run defense. Sunday, they allowed over 200 rushing yards for the eighth time this season. New York rookie Joe McKnight -- of throwing up in minicamp and looking like a klutz on Hard Knocks fame -- had 158 yards on 32 carries.
The Jets looked very relaxed with most of their key players on the bench. The cameras did a nice job of capturing the bromance between Mark Sanchez and Mark Brunell. For Team Drama, it was nice for New York to be able to take a week off from controversy.
The Lions end the season with their first four-game win streak since 1999 and will be a lot of experts' darkhorse pick in 2011. Detroit can build around a talented defensive front led by Ndamukong Suh and has some of the pieces in place to be effective offensively.
Lions quarterback Shaun Hill did a very nice job once again, completing 28-of-39 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown, and could get an opportunity as a starter somewhere next season. But Detroit would probably be wise to hold on to Hill with Matthew Stafford's health history.
The Vikings have to be relieved this nightmarish season is over. With Brett Favre in street clothes, quarterback Joe Webb came back to earth after his win over the Eagles last Tuesday. Meanwhile, Favre's likely final game couldn't have been less dramatic. He ran off the field with little fanfare, with everyone agreeing his exit was one year too late.
• Week 17 offered no evidence for why a team should play its starters for more than a few series in a meaningless game. While there were no Welker-type injuries, there wasn't much positive achieved by teams that did go predominantly with starters when they didn't have to. If anything, the Chiefs may have lost some confidence as their starters got manhandled. Obviously in a game of emotion, the starters aren't going to play at 100 percent anyway, which gives the opponent an unfair edge.
The Jets actually got great performances from several of their backups, who were playing with more effort than their starters would have. Maybe if a team has two weeks off -- like the Patriots -- it's worth giving the starters a bit of a run. But these are pros and they're going to show up in the playoffs, even if they don't have an exhibition game to end the regular season.
• Brett Favre's exit from the 2010 season was incredibly quiet. Too quiet you might say. Is he really going out like that? Why is everyone so certain he's done? We've been certain before and he's come back. No one is even mentioning it as a possibility. Favre will make it iron-clad in a press conference in the coming days and it may take a wild set of circumstances for him to return. But lots of teams will need quarterback help next season and a lockout might knock out training camp, one of the perennial roadblocks to Favre's return. So while the odds are he is done, we're not being realistic if we completely rule out a return.