LOS ANGELES, December 29, 2014 — All the Chargers had to do to make the playoffs was beat a Chiefs team without injured Alex Smith. Chase Daniels was making his second career start. If San Diego faltered, all the Ravens had to do was win at home against a Browns team that had lost four straight and was starting third string rookie quarterback Connor Shaw.
If the Ravens also faltered, the Texans could get into the playoffs by winning at home against lowly Jacksonville. The Texans were starting fourth string quarterback Case Keenum. All the Seahawks had to do to lock up home field advantage was beat a Rams team starting Shawn Hill. If they faltered the Cardinals would have a shot at home field but had to start third string quarterback Ryan Lindley.
All the Dolphins had to do to finish with a winning record was beat the Jets and chronic bumbler Geno Smith. All the 2-13 Titans and Buccaneers had to do to get the inside track for the top pick in the 2015 Draft was lose badly like they have all year.
If we learned anything in Week 17, it is that we learned nothing in a season where the Saints were supposed to contend for the Super Bowl and the Cowboys were labeled by some the worst team in football. The late Pete Rozelle’s dream of “Any Given Sunday” is more alive than ever. Games went down to the wire as the playoff picture changed with every passing moment. The playoffs cannot start soon enough. For now, welcome to the NFL 2014 Week 17 lessons learned and not learned.
Baltimore Ravens 20, Cleveland Browns 10 — The Browns led 10-3 after three quarters. Trailing 10-6, Joe Flacco went deep to Troy Smith for a 53-yard gain. On the next play Flacco went back to Smith for the 16 yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Baltimore got it back at their own 43. A 24-yard completion from Flacco to Steve Smith led to the Ravens facing third and goal at the two with under four minutes left. The Dawg Pound desperately needed a stop but could not get one. Flacco the clinching touchdown. It was hideous, but a 17-point fourth quarter got the Ravens into the playoffs with the same 10-6 record they had when they won it all two years ago. The Browns began the season 7-4 but crumbled with five straight losses to miss the playoffs for the 12th straight year.
Houston Texans 23, Jacksonville Jaguars 17 — With five minutes left in the third quarter after a Keenum fumble, Gus Bradley went to the bag of tricks. From the Houston 23, Blake Bortles lateraled to Cecil Shorts. Shorts threw a halfback option pass to Jordan Todman for a 17-14 Jaguars lead. 90 seconds into the fourth quarter Keenum hit Andre Johnson for an eight-yard touchdown and a 21-17 Texans lead. With six minutes left in the game the Bortles was sacked in the end zone by J.J. Watt for a safety. The Texans led by six but could not add to their lead after the free kick. The Jaguars got it back at their own 15 with 2:51 to play. On fourth and ten from their own 38, Bortles found Shorts for 18 yards. Bortles then scrambled for 34 yards. With 1:41 to play, the Jaguars had first and goal at the 10. On 4th and goal, Bortles again threw incomplete. Houston finished 9-7 but were eliminated from the playoffs when Baltimore came back to win their game. The 3-13 Jaguars have their quarterback of the future and for the second straight year will have the number three pick in next year’s Draft.
Kansas City Chiefs 19, San Diego Chargers 7 — Rivers was intercepted twice and fumbled the ball away once inside his own red zone. Rivers also threw incomplete on fourth and goal at the three. Carlos Santos kicked four field goals for the Chiefs as both teams finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs due to Baltimore winning their game. Chase Daniel was even more of a game manager than Alex Smith, dinking and dunking for 157 yards without a turnover.
New York Jets 37, Miami Dolphins 24 — Last year the eliminated Jets went into Miami and knocked the Dolphins out of the playoff race, saving Rex Ryan’s job and nearly costing Joe Philbin his. This year before the game Philbin was guaranteed to return next year while Ryan is a goner. A 97-yard touchdown run after a goal line stand had the Dolphins leading 24-14 in the third quarter. Rex Ryan pulled out all the stops in his final half as Jets coach, calling a fake punt on fourth and 12 with the Jets at their own 39. It worked perfectly and went for a 38 yard gain as the Jets exploded for 23 unanswered points to close the season. A beaming Rex Ryan laughed and enjoyed his last press conference before Black Monday after a 4-12 season. Geno Smith passed for a career-high 358 yards. The Dolphins for the second straight season dropped to 8-8 by losing to the Jets at home.
Minnesota Vikings 13, Chicago Bears 9 — Teddy Bridgewater threw a 44 yard-touchdown pass to Adam Thielen for a 10-6 Vikings lead in the third quarter and the game’s only touchdown. The Bears twice on one drive had a touchdown call reversed off the board. With 1:43 to play the Bears faced fourth and nine at their own 26. A completion came up one yard short as the Bears awaited a Black Monday that could be uglier than their season for Marc Trestman, Jay Cutler and General Manager Phil Emery.
Buffalo Bills 17, New England Patriots 9 — Despite locking up home field last week, Bill Bellichick played Tom Brady and the rest of his starters in the first half. He could not have liked what he saw. Kyle Orton threw for one touchdown and the Bills ran for another one to lead it 17-6 at halftime. Jimmy Garoppolo played the second half and led the Patriots to a fourth and one at the Buffalo 13 with 6 minutes left in the third quarter. Bellichick went for it and Garoppolo lost a yard. Down by eight midway through the fourth quarter, the Patriots faced first and ten at the Buffalo 30 seeking to tie the game. Instead a sack of Garoppolo and an offensive holding penalty meant 3rd and 36, which the Patriots failed to convert. The Patriots finished the season 12-4 and the Bills, despite finishing 9-7, missed the playoffs again for the 15 straight year.
Philadelphia Eagles 34, New York Giants 26 — After starting 9-3 and having a shot at home field, the Eagles dropped three straight to miss the playoffs. After starting 3-9, the Giants won three straight and may have saved Tom Coughlin. Leading 17-16 in the third quarter, the Eagles blocked a punt and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown. With 13 minutes left in regulation on third and goal from the one, Chris Polk got in for a 31-19 Eagles lead. Eli Manning quickly came back with a bomb to O’Dell Beckham for a 63 yard touchdown as the Giants were within 31-26. Down by eight with three minutes left and the Giants at their own 35, Manning was intercepted. Coughlin wants to return next year. Black Monday will tell the story.
New Orleans Saints 23, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20 — The Buccaneers actually led 20-7 after three quarters over the reeling Saints. One minute into the fourth quarter Mark Ingram got in from the one to get the Saints within 20-14. With 5 1/2 minutes left in regulation Josh McCown was intercepted, setting up the Saints at midfield. On third and eight from the Bucs 36, a short pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston went for a touchdown as the Saints had the one-point lead at the two-minute warning. The Bucs took over and soon faced third and 21 at their own six. McCown was sacked in the end zone for a safety. 16 fourth quarter points had the preseason Super Bowl contenders finish 7-9. The Buccaneers finished 2-14 and will have the top pick in the 2015 Draft.
Indianapolis Colts 27, Tennessee Titans 10 – The 10-5 Colts were locked into their playoff seed and continued to beat up on bad teams to pad their record. Matt Hasselbeck replaced Luck for the second half. The Colts only led 17-10 after the three quarters. Adam Vinatieri hit a 26-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter and Hasselbeck threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Coby Fleener with 3 1/2 minutes left to drop the Titans to 2-14. That was still not good enough to be the worst, as the Titans will have the second pick in the 2015 Draft and not the top pick.
Dallas Cowboys 44, Washington 17 — Trailing 7-3, Tony Romo threw 65-yard and 23-yard touchdown passes to Dez Bryant as the Cowboys exploded for 24 straight points and a 27-7 second quarter lead. The offense then hibernated for most of the rest of the game. Robert Griffin III did get Washington to within 27-17 with six minutes left, but he also threw a pair of red zone interceptions. RGIII was then sacked and fumbled with three minutes left for another Dallas touchdown. Another Washington fumble after the two-minute warning set up Dallas at their own 35. Just trying to run out the clock, Joseph Randle raced for a 65-yard touchdown to complete the blowout. Dallas at 12-4 will host a playoff game on wildcard weekend while Daniel Snyder may fire everybody or nobody after a miserable season. Washington has the number five pick in the 2014 Draft. 44-17 Cowboys
Carolina Panthers 34, Atlanta Falcons 3 — The 6-8-1 Panthers and 6-9 Falcons faced off for the right to win the NFC South and make the playoffs with a losing record. Both Ron Rivera and Mike Smith were Black Monday casualty possibilities with a loss. Matt Ryan is known as Matty Ice, but when it mattered most he was ice cold. He had two interceptions returned for touchdowns, one in each half. Rowdy White had a fumble returned inside the Atlanta five to set up another Saints touchdown. One week after going on the road and belting New Orleans, Atlanta was getting throttled at home 24-3 at halftime. Four straight wins after a 3-8-1 start meant the Panthers were NFC South champions for the second consecutive season.
Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos — Peyton Manning threw for 273 yards but did not throw a touchdown pass. Instead it was C.J. Anderson running for three touchdowns as the Broncos led 20-7 at halftime in a game that was never competitive. Things were so lopsided that Brock Osweiler even came in and threw two passes with the Broncos up 40-14. One of them went for a touchdown. Denver at 12-4 easily rolled to their first round bye. Oakland at 3-13 lost out on getting Jon Gruden and appear to be losing out on Jim Harbaugh as well. Black Monday could be ugly for Tony Sparano and Reggie McKenzie. The Raiders have the number four pick in the 2015 Draft. 47-14 Broncos
Green Bay Packers 30, Detroit Lions 20 — An NFC North showdown between 11-4 teams still heavily favored the Packers, who had not lost at home to the Lions since 1991. Snow flurries meant Packers weather. Aaron Rodgers did briefly leave the game with an injury after throwing a touchdown pass late in the half. When the Lions rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game in the third quarter Matthew on two Stafford touchdown passes to Megatron Calvin Johnson, Rodgers returned and threw the go-ahead touchdown pass to Randall Cobb. In the fourth quarter Rodgers took the quarterback sneak Bart Starr-style and put the Packers up 28-14. Intentional grounding on Stafford in the end zone meant a safety. Green Bay locked up the NFC North and a first round bye for the Packers as the Lions will have to go the wildcard route.
Seattle Seahawks 20, St. Louis Rams 6 – While Seattle has the Legion of Boom, Jeff Fisher teams have a defense every bit as tenacious as teams coached by Pete Carroll. This was another nasty NFC West slugfest. Seattle trailed 6-0 at halftime and tied the game 6-6 after three quarters. On the last play of the third quarter the Rams faced second and nine at the Seattle 24. Offensive holding hurt matters but the Rams were still in field goal range for the lead. On the first play of the fourth quarter Shawn Hill was intercepted. Marshawn Lynch ran for the nine-yard score as the game’s first touchdown came with 12 minutes left. Hill then had an interception returned 49 yards to put the game away and send the NFC playoffs through Seattle for the second straight year.
San Francisco 49ers 20, Arizona Cardinals 17 — Consecutive losses after an 11-3 start had the Cardinals miss chances to lock up home field. For the third straight game the Cardinals needed a win from third string quarterback Ryan Lindley. Four straight losses after a 7-4 start meant this was Jim Harbaugh’s final game coaching the 49ers. Bruce Arians does not close the playbook when top players go down. Lindley threw touchdown passes of 20 and 41 yards to Michael Floyd, the first one coming off of a perfectly executed flea flicker as the Cardinals led 17-13 at halftime. Lindley had 260 yards passing by halftime but only added 56 more yards in the second half. He also threw three interceptions, one of which led to a Colin Kaepernick three-yard touchdown pass to put the 49ers in front after three quarters. After the two-minute warning, Lindley’s last interception doomed Arizona. The Cardinals fell to 11-5 and will have to host a playoff game on wildcard weekend. The 49ers got to 8-8 to send Jim Harbaugh out of San Francisco a winner. Jed York did not wait until Black Monday, firing Harbaugh Sunday as soon as the game ended.
Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Cincinnati Bengals 17 — The Sunday night game to conclude the regular season was an AFC North showdown as 10-4-1 Cincinnati was at 10-5 Pittsburgh. Antonio Brown returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Steelers lead early on. A.J. Green was the difference, and not in a good way. In the second quarter of a 10-10 game, Andy Dalton then had a pass bounce off of Green’s fingers for an interception that was returned 31 yards to set up a Pittsburgh touchdown and a 20-10 Steelers lead after three quarters. In the fourth quarter an interception of Roethlisberger led to a Bengals touchdown. Then a Steelers fake punt attempt failed as the Bengals had a chance to win. A completion to A.J. Green in tying field goal range saw Green get blasted. Pittsburgh recovered the fumble at their own 30. Rather than run out the clock, Mike Tomlin again decided to go bold and aggressive. With three minutes left the Steelers faced third and eight at their own 37. Big Ben went bombs away and found Antonio Brown for a 63-yard touchdown to seal the win and keep the Steelers home for the first week of the playoffs as AFC North Champions. The Bengals will be going on the road for their annual first round playoff exit.
The NFL 2014-2015 Playoffs are now set.
NFC: 6) Detroit Lions at 3) Dallas Cowboys, 5) Arizona Cardinals at 4) Carolina Panthers
1) Seattle Seahawks and 2) Green Bay Packers have the bye week.
AFC: 6) Baltimore Ravens at 3) Pittsburgh Steelers, 5) Cincinnati Bengals at 4) Indianapolis Colts
1) New England Patriots and 2) Denver Broncos have the bye week.