Musings, observations and the occasional insight in a busy and ultra-meaningful Week 17 in the NFL. ...
• As it turns out, the Seahawks and Packers are who we thought they were: the two most Super Bowl-worthy teams in the NFC. Just like so many presumed ahead of their highly anticipated Sept. 4 meeting in the first game of the NFL’s 2014 regular season, almost four months ago.
When all was said and done in the still up-for-grabs NFC in Week 17, it was Seattle and Green Bay who stood tallest, wrapping up the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the conference with tense and gritty victories on Sunday, wins that vindicated their elite status.
Not that any of it came easily. In a twist symbolic of their seasons, both clubs were tested in Week 17 and had to scratch and claw their way to home-field wins. The Seahawks (12-4) trailed St. Louis 6-0 at halftime and looked in danger of falling to the Rams for the second time this season, a loss that could have cost the defending Super Bowl champs plenty if Arizona had found a way to win at San Francisco and claim the NFC West crown.
But Seattle stiffened in the second half and scored the game’s final 20 points, beating St. Louis 20-6 to earn its sixth consecutive win and second straight NFC West crown. The streaking champs have won nine out of 10 games since sinking to 3-3 at midseason, allowing just 39 points over the season's final six games, and once again look hell-bent on taking the big confetti shower in February.
It was roughly the same story at Lambeau Field, where the Packers were a pristine 7-0 this season entering Sunday. Green Bay (12-4) scuffled for quite a while with the combative Lions, who beat the Packers in Week 3 and pulled into a 14-14 tie with the home team in the third quarter. But like Seattle, Green Bay regrouped and reasserted itself, outscoring Detroit 16-6 the rest of the way in a 30-20 victory that clinched another NFC North title and assured the Packers of being off for the first week of the playoffs and at home during the divisional round.
That development, of course, is seen as crucial for Green Bay’s Super Bowl dreams, given the tender state of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ strained left calf, which he re-aggravated in the second quarter on Sunday. After backup quarterback Matt Flynn took over for the first drive of the second half and the Packers faithful held their breath, Rodgers returned from the locker room to restore order to Green Bay’s universe.
It was the second year in a row the Packers claimed a Week 17 victory at home over a division rival -- with Rodgers’ health in question both times -- that resulted in a hard-fought division championship. But unlike last year’s 8-7-1 club that squeaked into the No. 4 seed, the Packers are well-positioned this year to do some damage in January.
That scenario seemed hard to imagine after Green Bay got blown out at Seattle on that Thursday night of Week 1, or even when the Packers slipped to 1-2 after their defeat in Detroit, prompting that well-timed reminder from Rodgers to Cheeseheads everywhere: R-E-L-A-X. But there’s no need to chill now. The Packers have rebounded and look as ready as anyone in the NFC to challenge Seattle for conference supremacy.
We’d be foolish to discount the chances of the wild-card Cardinals or Lions, or look past the suddenly red-hot Panthers or Cowboys in the NFC field. Dallas, after all, already owns a statement-game win in Seattle this season, back in mid-October. But the Seahawks and Packers are just one home win in the divisional round away from the rematch that has seemed possible and perhaps even meant to be ever since the season began: Green Bay at Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Both teams still have work to do to get there. But both the Seahawks and Packers have already come a very long way this season and don’t seem likely to be deterred until they settle the issue in the NFC themselves.
• It’s probably as it should be, with three AFC North teams making the playoffs thanks to Baltimore’s securing of the AFC’s No. 6 seed on Sunday. The division has been the NFL’s deepest and most successful all year long, and now Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and the Ravens will make up half the AFC’s six-team field, the first time that’s happened since 2011.
The Ravens never ever make it easy on themselves, and their ugly 20-10 win over the reeling Browns on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium wasn’t exactly a confidence booster as the postseason begins. But we know this much about the Ravens: They can get hot in the playoffs and make their regular season struggles a moot point, just as they did en route to a wholly unexpected Super Bowl title two years ago.
"Anything’s possible in the playoffs," said Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who stunk up the joint against Cleveland for three quarters, then went 8-of-9 for 161 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. "We’ve been beat up a lot, but we’re a really good football team. We’ve got to just go and see what happens."
The top-seeded Patriots certainly didn’t have a good day on Sunday. They lost a meaningless game to the visiting Bills at Gillette Stadium, but even worse, Baltimore squeaked into the playoffs when it beat Cleveland and Kansas City cooperated and knocked off the Chargers in Arrowhead Stadium. (John Harbaugh, you owe your old friend and boss, Andy Reid, at least a beer or three for that.)
You don’t have to tell anyone in New England how dangerous the Ravens can be in the playoffs. Baltimore has twice ended the Patriots season in Foxboro, winning there in 2009’s first round and in the 2012 AFC title game. If New England has a postseason nemesis, it’s the Ravens, who always seem to match up well against Bill Belichick’s team. Baltimore is supremely experienced in the postseason, and it has repeatedly proven it can win on the road in January.
• I know the NFC South has made for an easy target all season long, and I’ve had way more than my share of fun at its expense. But the division’s newly crowned champion probably isn’t to be trifled with about now. Carolina just put together the most improbable division-winning season in history -- a 2-0 start, a 1-8-1 middle and a 4-0 finish -- but when you add it all up, the Panthers are playing their absolute best ball of the season right now, and isn’t that every team’s goal as January looms?
The 7-8-1 Panthers didn’t just beat Atlanta in that de facto playoff game on Sunday in the Georgia Dome -- they destroyed the Falcons 34-3. Put that with Carolina’s 41-10 domination of New Orleans in Week 14, and it was pretty clear that Ron Rivera’s club deserved to be declared the best of the league’s worst division.
Carolina is the No. 4 seed in the NFC, and how can you not like its chances at home next week against the reeling fifth-seeded Cardinals (11-5), who have lost four out of six and clearly are not peaking as the playoffs begin? Arizona’s quarterback issues alone make it the most vulnerable of the NFC’s six teams.
As for Carolina, it is the ultimate back-from-the-dead story. The Panthers were 3-8-1 after losing at Minnesota on Thanksgiving weekend, and here they are, having clinched the first back-to-back playoff trips in franchise history. It doesn’t get any wilder than that. It can’t possibly.
• So it’s a mutual parting of the ways for the 49ers and Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, in news that was announced just after the team’s 20-17 win over Arizona. I’m tempted to believe that makes it the only thing Harbaugh and the team’s front office have agreed on in quite some time.
No resignation. No firing. No surprise, either. In a divorce that still makes no sense to a great many people in football, there was no reason to make it ugly in any way at the end. But Harbaugh’s final record in San Francisco is almost perfect. He won 49 games, including the playoffs, for the 49ers, losing 22 and tying once: 49-22-1. That should be easy to remember when the 49ers fans start to miss the level of success he attained in his always interesting tenure.
• Really, Ndamukong Suh? Stepping on Aaron Rodgers in a less-than-accidental fashion, at least the second time you planted a cleat on his gimpy left leg? What is it about Lions' linemen and stepping on opponents? In the same week that Detroit center Dominic Raiola was suspended for a game by the league for tromping on the leg of Bears defensive tackle Ego Ferguson last week in Chicago, Suh pulled basically the same dirty stunt against Rodgers, who tried to push Suh away in anger.
I think Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell has a sterling reputation for high character in the NFL. And I think he still has some veteran players with very well-deserved and notorious reputations for dirty play still on his roster.
• Wow, Geno Smith. Have yourself a day. You, too, Eric Decker. But if the Jets had gotten that kind of clear-cut No. 1 quarterback and No. 1 receiver performance out of those two all season long, chances are they wouldn’t be firing head coach Rex Ryan or general manager John Idzik any day now.
Smith morphed into Aaron Rodgers on Sunday in a 37-24 upset win at Miami, carving up the supposedly tough Dolphins' defense for 358 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-25 passing, with a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Where’s that been the first two seasons of his rocky career? Smith did lose a fumble for his lone turnover, but the Jets could win with that kind of quarterbacking. One game does not a strong case make, but at least Smith gave New York something to think about in terms of his status in the Jets’ 2015 starting quarterback picture.
As for Decker, with Smith locked in, the ex-Broncos' receiver actually produced like a guy who earned a $36 million contract during last year’s free agency splurge. Decker had 10 catches against Miami for a career-best 221 yards, just eight yards shy of breaking the Jets’ team record of 228 yards, established by Hall of Famer Don Maynard in 1968.
There it is again -- 1968. Still the Jets’ standard when it comes to any and all positives.
• Get ready for plenty of NFL pundits -- me included -- to tab Houston as a team to watch and a chic pick for the playoffs in 2015. The Texans just missed this season, finishing 9-7 on the strength of wins in four of their last five games, and you can tell that first-year head coach Bill O’Brien has quickly transformed the culture into a no-excuses type of work environment.
Yes, Houston still has its revolving door at quarterback question to answer, but even in starting four passers this season -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage and Case Keenum -- the Texans were a tough out all year long.
Poor Houston. In order for its long-shot playoff bid to come in, it had to rely on its fourth-string quarterback in Keenum to beat Jacksonville, and it saw that happen in a 23-17 win at home. Then the Texans needed Chiefs backup Chase Daniel to vanquish the visiting Chargers, and they got that box checked too. Alas, Houston required Cleveland third-team quarterback Connor Shaw to lead the Browns to victory at Baltimore, and for more than three tantalizing quarters it looked like the rookie making his first career start would complete that mind-boggling trifecta.
But it was not to be for Houston. At least not this year. And that meant the Texans couldn’t follow in the wake of the 2012 Colts and 2013 Chiefs and go from the first overall pick in the spring to the playoffs in less than one year’s time.
• I’m guessing Jacksonville defensive end Chris Clemons won’t be vacationing this offseason with Jaguars cornerback Aaron Colvin. Clemons entered Week 17 needing one more sack to hit eight on the season, which would have activated a $250,000 contract bonus. Clemons seemingly got the money sack in the third quarter when he nailed Houston’s Case Keenum for a five-yard loss, but Colvin was flagged for defensive holding on the play, negating the sack and Clemons’ payday.
Ouch. Colvin could do one of those Southwest Airlines "Wanna get away?" spots about now.
• Question that needs no answer: Is there any more entertaining way to spend a Sunday afternoon than watching Philip Rivers’ facial contortions? At his most frustrated, like on Sunday in a 19-7 loss at Kansas City, Rivers gives Mexican national soccer coach Miguel Herrera a run for his money when it comes to histrionics.
Rivers came into Sunday 8-0 in regular-season finales in his San Diego starting tenure, but the Chargers fell flat against the Chiefs, with Rivers absorbing seven sacks and throwing for 291 yards with no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy needs to wear this season’s failure a bit. San Diego started the season 5-1 but won just four of the last 10 games, finishing 9-7. It’ll be the first time McCoy has missed the playoffs in the past four seasons -- he went to the postseason as Denver’s offensive coordinator in 2011 and '12, and led the Chargers to a wild-card berth at 9-7 last season.
• What a total calamity in Cleveland as a once-promising Browns season limped to a close. Cleveland improved to 7-4 in Week 12, then proceeded to drop its final five games to somehow log yet another losing season along the shores of Lake Erie. In short, the Browns turned back into the Browns from about Thanksgiving on.
And then there are the endless immaturity issues. Receiver Josh Gordon suspended on Sunday for a violation of team rules, his second suspension of the season from either the team or the league. Rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel being fined for showing up late for treatment on his injured hamstring on Saturday after throwing a party at his place Friday night for several team members. Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert being deactivated for the game at Baltimore after missing a team meeting at the hotel on Saturday night.
Anybody in charge of things in Cleveland? Head coach Mike Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam look impotent, and their team looks rather leader-less in light of all those off-field distractions. And it’s good thing Johnny Football stood up last Tuesday and said he needs to take his NFL career more seriously from here on out. I just wonder if that was before or after he had made all the necessary preparations for Friday night’s team get-together.
In about the span of four weeks at season’s end, Manziel managed to confirm every fear that NFL personnel evaluators had about him, both on and off the field. Quite the feat.
• Whew, that was a close one, Tampa Bay. But in the end, well played, Bucs. Well played. No one could even tell. I mean, you made it look so convincing, that too-narrow-for-comfort 23-20 loss to the visiting Saints. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were actually trying to win your regular-season finale and blow the first overall draft pick that was locked up with the loss.
Tampa Bay (2-14) led 20-7 early in the fourth quarter and picked off Drew Brees three times in the game. But when the Bucs set their mind on losing, they know how to get it done. For the record, this will be the fifth time in franchise history Tampa Bay has owned the top overall selection, but the first time since 1986. Let’s hope for the sake of the Bucs the picking goes better in 2015 than it did the past two times Tampa Bay owned the pole position. In the 1987 draft, the Bucs took Vinny Testaverde at No. 1, and he played six mostly unimpressive seasons with them. In 1986, the result was even worse, when Tampa Bay took Bo Jackson, despite Jackson’s pledge that he would never sign or play for the Bucs. Bo was a man of his word and never appeared in orange and white.
• It’s good to see the Saints (7-9) were the same maddening team in Week 17 that they have been all season. New Orleans basically sleep-walked through the first three quarters in Tampa Bay, trailed by 13 points entering the game’s final 15 minutes, then woke up in time to post a 23-20 win and avoid a double-digit loss season.
Only Saints head coach Sean Payton knows if he’s going to bring embattled defensive coordinator Rob Ryan back for a third season in 2015. But to scapegoat only Ryan for this year’s disaster in the Big Easy is to exhibit myopia. Seemingly everybody had a hand in the underachievement in New Orleans.
I know what I’d do for starters if I were Payton: end the club’s one-year experiment of spending the first three weeks of training camp at a posh resort in the mountains of West Virginia. The Saints’ stay at The Greenbrier was something of a tone-setter this year, and New Orleans looked and played soft all season long.
• If you can figure out the Dolphins, let me know. Every time I think I recognize progress in Miami, I’m convinced otherwise by the team’s latest performance. Joe Philbin’s Dolphins lost rather convincingly, 37-24, to the three-win Jets on Sunday at home, dropping them to 8-8 for the second consecutive season. After they went 7-9 in Philbin’s first season of 2012. That’s about as mediocre as it gets in any three-year run, and the Dolphins have richly deserved their so-so label.
And now there’s Mike Wallace trouble. The team’s temperamental star receiver was benched in the second half of the game Sunday after a disagreement with a coach and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, then had teammate and fellow receiver Brandon Gibson answer questions for him in the postgame.
Maybe I was wrong about owner Stephen Ross being wise to prioritize stability and retain Philbin for a fourth season. Though Sunday’s loss was meaningless in terms of the playoff picture, it was telling nonetheless. The Dolphins just don’t have the look and feel of a winning organization or locker room.
• Houston’s all-world defensive lineman J.J. Watt had three more sacks on Sunday against Jacksonville, giving him 20.5 in his mind-boggling season and making him the first player since the sack was made an official statistic in 1982 to log two seasons with 20 sacks or more.
So Watt will no doubt get his share of his MVP votes, and I fully expect he’ll win the Defensive Player of the Year honor in overwhelming fashion. But has there ever been a more deserving runner-up in the DPOY race than Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston? Houston had four sacks of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on Sunday, giving him a league-high 22 on the season and leaving him just a half-sack away from Michael Strahan’s highly controversial, Brett Favre-aided total of 22.5 in 2001.
And for that, Houston will get what amounts to a glorified "Atta boy," all because of the playmaking beast that plays for Houston.
• One of the stats of the year to me is the Cowboys becoming just the sixth team since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978 to go 8-0 on the road, a record they put the finishing touches on Sunday with a blowout win at Washington. Four of the previous five teams to accomplish that feat reached the Super Bowl. For a little perspective, Dallas went 3-5, 4-4 and 3-5 on the road in head coach Jason Garrett’s first three seasons on the job from 2011-13, all of which played a huge role in the team's three consecutive 8-8 records. This year, the Cowboys went 4-4 at home and 8-0 on the road, and that was the difference in Dallas getting to 12-4 and winning its first NFC East title since 2009.
Did the Cowboys have some fortunate road outcomes in 2014? Yeah, they did. They caught St. Louis in Week 3 and Seattle in Week 6, before those two clubs started playing greatly improved ball at home and on the road. They had a "road" game in London, against a 1-8 Jacksonville team in Week 10. And by the time the Cowboys traveled to the Giants and Bears in Weeks 12 and 14, respectively, both teams were a mess.
But even with those breaks of the schedule, 8-0 on the road is pretty remarkable. And the Cowboys have that away record to thank for their 2014 success.
• The other statistic that defies belief this season was the Chiefs’ well-chronicled lack of a touchdown catch by a wide receiver. Dwayne Bowe almost ended the streak on Sunday in the win over San Diego, but being a Kansas City receiver, he fumbled just before crossing the goal line on what looked to be an 11-yard scoring catch. Tight end Travis Kelce recovered the ball in the end zone to get credit for the touchdown. A team going an entire season without a touchdown catch by a wide receiver hadn’t happened since 1950, when the NFL played a 12-game schedule.
The Chiefs (9-7) didn’t make the playoffs, but tune in next season to see if Kansas City can continue to thrive in the pass-happy NFL without a wide receiver finding the end zone.
• New England (12-4) had nothing to play for on Sunday and obviously rested or pulled some key starters during the game. But the Bills still deserve credit for wanting the win in Week 17 more than the AFC East champions did, and going out and getting it. Over the span of the season’s last three weeks, Buffalo beat the Packers at home and knocked off New England in Foxboro for the first time since 2000.
Buffalo had some costly losses at home to Kansas City in Week 10 and at Oakland in Week 16 that wound up being the difference between making the playoffs and missing them for the NFL-worst 15th consecutive season. But the Bills at 9-7 were winners for the first time since 2004, and that incremental step of progress means the arrow is definitely pointing up in Buffalo as this season ends.
I still think there’s a chance for new owner Terry Pegula to make some front office changes this offseason, with perhaps general manager Doug Whaley’s job in jeopardy. But the Bills made solid progress from 2013’s 6-10 finish in head coach Doug Marrone’s second season at the helm.