LOS ANGELES, December 23, 2014 — The playoff picture is a mess, exactly as the late Pete Rozelle wanted it. In the NFC, we know most of the teams, but practically every playoff team can win home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In the AFC, the top seed is decided and the second seed is likely, leading to the expected AFC Title Game between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. However, the AFC Wildcards could be two of several different teams. There is plenty of time to dissect the permutations, combinations and predictions of the playoffs, but for now here is the NFL 2014 Week 16 lessons learned and not learned.
Jacksonville Jaguars 21, Tennessee Titans 13 — The Thursday night game featured a pair of 2-12 teams battling to see who could anger their fans by winning and blowing a shot at the top pick in the 2015 Draft. With 9 1/2 minutes left in regulation and the Jaguars nursing a 14-10 lead, Jordan Todman broke free for a 62-yard touchdown run to make it 21-10. Charlie Whitehurst got the Titans within eight and a chance to tie the game. With 17 seconds left and the Titans at the Jacksonville 35, Whitehurst was sacked to end the worst game in the history of prime time football.
Washington 27, Philadelphia Eagles 24 — The Saturday afternoon game saw a key coaching blunder by Chip Kelly at the worst possible time. After the Eagles rallied from a 24-14 fourth quarter deficit to tie the game, Washington moved to third and goal at the five with one minute left. Since the Eagles were out of timeouts, the only smart move would have been to let the Redskins score a touchdown. Instead another run up the middle killed most of the clock. Kai Forbath hit the 26-yarder. It is better to be down by seven with one minute left than down by three with only five seconds left. After a failed Hail Mary, Washington snapped a six-game losing streak. Now, with a 4-11 record, Washington has no shot at the top pick in the 2015 Draft. The Eagles lost their third straight to fall to 9-6 and the brink of elimination from the playoffs.
San Diego Chargers 38, San Francisco 49ers 35, OT — The Saturday night game was a thriller. Although the 49ers gashed the Chargers for 355 rushing yards, this was a tale of two quarterbacks. Philip Rivers had an interception returned 49 yards for a touchdown as the 49ers jumped to a 21-0 lead and led 28-7 at halftime. Leading 28-14, the 49ers had a touchdown bomb called back by a penalty. One play later Colin Kaepernick was sacked, resulting in a fumble and a gift touchdown to get the Chargers within 28-21. Kaepernick then ran for a 90-yard touchdown to make it 35-21 49ers after three quarters. Three times in the fourth quarter the 49ers crossed midfield but could not get into field goal range to ice the game. Leading 35-28 late, the 49ers could not get off the field as Rivers converted twice on fourth and long. Rivers’ fourth touchdown pass with 30 seconds left tied the game. Phil Dawson missed a 60-yard field goal at the gun. In overtime, after a 49ers fumble, Nick Novak hit the 40-yarder to give the Chargers the greatest comeback win in franchise history. The 49ers are 7-8, while San Diego at 9-6 is still alive for a wildcard spot.
Carolina Panthers 17, Cleveland Browns 13 — Johnny Football became Johnny Locker Room when Johnny Manziel was belted out of the game. Bryan Hoyer played the second half. Down 13-10, Cam Newton threw a nine-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter for the win. The 6-8-1 Panthers travel to 6-9 Atlanta next week with the winner entering the playoffs with a losing record as NFC South Champions.
Detroit Lions 20, Chicago Bears 14 — Jay Cutler was benched before the game started in favor of Jimmy Clausen. Down 14-10 midway through the fourth quarter, defensive pass interference on Chicago set up Matthew Stafford’s winning touchdown pass. Down by six at the two-minute warning and facing fourth and ten at their own 45, Clausen went deep and was intercepted. The Bears are one game away from ending the Marc Trestman era. The 11-4 Lions travel to Green Bay next week with the NFC North division at stake. Jim Caldwell was so pleased over clinching a playoff spot that he almost made a facial expression.
Houston Texans 25, Baltimore Ravens 13 — Randy Bullock hit six field goals and Arian Foster completed a halfback option pass for a touchdown as the Texans led 25-7. The 9-6 Ravens and 8-7 Texans both need plenty of help to make the playoffs. Joe Flacco was intercepted three times.
Miami Dolphins 37, Vikings 35 — This was a wild one as the Vikings led 17-7 at halftime and 17-14 after three quarters before the teams combined for 41 points in the fourth quarter. Two touchdowns in 15 seconds thanks to a fumbled Miami kickoff had the Vikings turn a 28-20 deficit into a 35-28 lead with less than five minutes left. Ryan Tannehill finished 35 of 47 for 396 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. His last touchdown pass with one minute to go tied the game 35-35. Minnesota took over at their own 13 with one minute left and called a timeout rather than let the clock wind down to overtime. In a stunning finish, the Dolphins blocked the Vikings punt for the game winning safety. After the game owner Stephen Ross announced that Philbin is not being fired. Despite being 8-7 and out of the playoffs, Philbin will coach the team next year.
Atlanta Falcons 30, New Orleans Saints 14 — After returning the opening kickoff 99 yards, the Saints offense went dark as they fell behind 20-7. Turnovers in the fourth quarter killed the Saints. Jimmy Graham fumbled at the goal line. Down 20-14, A pair of turnovers by Drew Brees in the final 2 1/2 minutes gave the Falcons ten points, including an 86-yard fumble return by Osi Umenyiora on the final play. The game was a lot closer than the score indicated. Both teams are 6-9, but the Saints are eliminated from playoff contention due to an inferior division record. The Falcons host Carolina next week for the NFC South division title and a playoff berth.
New England Patriots 17, New York Jets 16 — As expected, the Jets fought hard for Rex Ryan in his final home game and last battle against nemesis New England before his firing next week. Nick Folk hit three field goals and the Jets only trailed by one point when Nick Folk came in for a 52-yard field goal try with five minutes left to give the Jets the lead. In a season full of broken dreams, this time Folk was no good as the Patriots hung on to get to 12-3. Due to Denver losing on Monday night, the Patriots clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers 20, Kansas City Chiefs 12 — With less than 30 seconds left in the half Andy Reid decided to gamble on fourth and one from the Pittsburgh 11 with the Chiefs down 10-6. Jamal Charles got nothing. Ben Roethilsberger threw a three-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown as the Steelers led 17-6 after three quarters. Kansas City never reached the end zone, settling for four field goals. The Chiefs at 9-6 are still alive for a playoff berth while the 10-5 Steelers face an AFC Central division showdown next week with Cincinnati.
Green Bay Packers 20, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3 — Sometimes statistics tell the absolute truth. Aaron Rodgers began 17 of 22 for 164 yards while Josh McCown was 1 of 8 for 5 yards. Eddie Lacy raced for a 44 yard touchdown but the Packers only led 10-3 after three quarters. Rodgers eventually threw a one-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson as the Packers got to 11-4 and the Buccaneers fell to 2-13 with a chance for the top pick in the 2015 Draft. The Packers clinched a playoff spot and host the NFC Central division showdown against Detroit next week.
New York Giants 37, St. Louis Rams 27 — Neither of these teams is playoff bound but Tom Coughlin and Jeff Fisher teams always play hard. Eli Manning found Odell Beckham for a nine-yard touchdown as the Giants led 20-3 in the second quarter. After the Rams closed to within seven points, Manning then went back to Beckham for an 80-yard touchdown and a 34-20 Giants lead after three quarters. Josh Brown’s third field goal from 52 yards out midway through the fourth quarter put the game out of reach. Manning finished 24 of 29 for 360 yards, 3 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Coughlin says he wants to coach next year and the normally patients Giants ownership would be crazy to force him into retirement.
Dallas Cowboys 42, Indianapolis Colts 7 — A pair of 10-4 teams looked to firm up playoff positions but only one team showed up. Tony Romo completed 17 of his first 18 passes for 208 yards and four touchdown passes without an interception. Andrew Luck threw two interceptions and was sat down for his own safety in the third quarter. Romo and DeMarco Murray headed to the bench early in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys up 35-0. Matt Hasselbeck and Brandon Weeden finished the game, and Weeden even threw a touchdown bomb to make it 42-0. With the win Dallas clinched the NFC East. After three straight 8-8 seasons and missing the playoffs in Week 17, this was sweet vindication for Jason Garrett, Tony Romo and the uncharacteristically patient Jerry Jones.
Oakland Raiders 26, Buffalo Bills 24 — Sebastian Janikowski hit four field goals and Derek Carr threw a three-yard touchdown pass to James Jones as the Raiders took a 19-10 lead into the fourth quarter. Leading 19-17 with five minutes left, the Raiders appeared to be collapsing. Then on third and 22 from their own 19, Carr went deep to Andre Holmes for a 51 yard gain. Darren McFadden then burst outside for a 25 yard run down to the Buffalo one. With three minutes left Carr found Jamize Olawale alone in the flat for the touchdown. The Raiders withstood a late charge to knock the Bills and their number one defense out of the playoff race. After starting 0-10, the Raiders have won three of five including three straight home games.
Seattle Seahawks 35, Arizona Cardinals 6 — The Sunday night game saw both the 10-4 Seahawks and 11-3 Cardinals clinch playoff spots before this game began. An Arizona win would lock up home field throughout the playoffs. Russell Wilson finished 20 of 31 for 339 yards and two touchdowns while third string quarterback Ryan Lindley only completed 18 of 44 passes. Wilson hit Luke Wilson for an 80 yard touchdown as the Seahawks held a 14-6 lead after three quarters. The fourth quarter was all Seattle as Wilson went back to his namesake with a 20-yard touchdown and Marshawn Lynch, who had a six-yard touchdown in the first half, broke through tackles for a 79-yard touchdown run. In two games against Seattle, Arizona did not crack the end zone. If Seattle wins next week at home against St. Louis, they would win the NFC West and home field throughout the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals 37, Denver Broncos 28 — The Monday night game featured wild swings and hard rain in the fourth quarter. Andy Dalton threw a touchdown pass to the Denver defense but rebounded as 20 unanswered points had the Bengals up 20-7 at halftime. Peyton led three touchdown drives in the third quarter to give the Broncos a 28-27 lead. Two big plays decided the game. Early in the fourth quarter, Brandon Tate took a punt return 49 yards to the Denver 12, leading to the go-ahead field goal for the Bengals. With 4:14 to play on third and one from the Denver 29, Manning threw an off-balance pass that was intercepted by Dre Kirkpatrick and returned 30 yards for the clinching touchdown with 2:50 to play. The Bengals clinched a playoff spot for the fourth straight year but still need to win next week to clinch their division. Denver can still gain a first round bye with a win next week but the top seed and home field is out of reach. If Manning wants to beat Bill Bellichick and Tom Brady in the expected AFC Title Game, he will have to do it on the road. 37-28 Bengals