NFL Wire News

NFL playoff picture: 3 divisions to be settled head to head


There is only one playoff spot to be determined in the NFC, and the sixth entry comes down to a pair of six-win teams in a win-or-else finale in Atlanta next week.

Multiple division championships and playoff positioning will be on the line in Week 17.

Five NFC teams, all with 11-4 records, are in the postseason, but in what order they will fill out the conference bracket is very much in question.

The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) beat the Kansas City Chiefs to clinch a postseason berth and can claim the AFC North title by beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale.

In the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers (11-4) and Detroit Lions (11-4) will settle the championship at Lambeau Field, where Detroit has just one victory in the past 22 years. The Lions held off the Chicago Bears on Sunday to reach 11 wins for the first time since 1991, and Detroit is 5-0 in the division.

Seattle (11-4) took another step toward reclaiming the NFC West perch Sunday night, overtaking the Arizona Cardinals with a 35-6 rout. The Seahawks earned their fifth consecutive win and their eighth in the past nine games. The Cardinals (11-4) fell for the third time in five games.

The final NFC spot and the automatic No. 4 seed is up for grabs at the Georgia Dome.

The Atlanta Falcons (6-9) will host the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) with the NFC South championship hanging in the balance. The winner gets a home game in the wild-card playoff round, and the loser is eliminated. The Falcons took a 19-17 decision in the first meeting Nov. 16.

Houston, with castoff quarterback Case Keenum re-signed and at the controls, shocked the Baltimore Ravens 25-13. That outcome, coupled with the Chiefs’ loss at Pittsburgh, gives the San Diego Chargers (9-6) renewed optimism. A Week 17 win at Kansas City (8-7) would put San Diego in the playoffs after the same teams battled in the regular-season finale for the No. 6 seed in the AFC last December.

Two possible AFC playoff teams face off Monday night, when the postseason picture could become even more defined. A Cincinnati win over Denver would leave the Ravens (9-6) in big trouble and lock the New England Patriots (12-3) into the No. 1 seed.

The Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday. Miami won but was eliminated on potential tiebreakers based on head-to-head results.


Who’s In:

New England Patriots (12-3) — AFC East champion, clinched first-round bye

Denver Broncos (11-3) — AFC West champion, at Cincinnati on Monday

Indianapolis Colts (10-5) — AFC South champion

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) — clinched playoff spot


Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1) — vs. Denver on Monday

San Diego Chargers (9-6)

Baltimore Ravens (9-6)

Houston Texans (8-7)

Kansas City Chiefs (8-7)


Who’s In:

Seattle Seahawks (11-4) — clinched playoff spot

Arizona Cardinals (11-4) — clinched playoff spot

Detroit Lions (11-4) — clinched playoff spot

Green Bay Packers (11-4) — clinched playoff spot

Dallas Cowboys (11-4) — NFC East champion


Carolina Panthers (6-8-1)

Atlanta Falcons (6-9)

What we Learned Week 16

Lions 20, Bears 14

Improved? Sure. But the new and polished Detroit Lions are still susceptible to sloppy performances that cast doubt on their potency entering Sunday’s NFC North championship game at Lambeau Field. Matthew Stafford’s decision-making was troubling and the Lions’ three first-half giveaways kept the inept Bears in a game that should’ve been a blowout. The Lions can save face by beating the Packers, but that hasn’t happened in Green Bay in 22 years. And even a win would not shake all of the naysayers wondering what kind of product the team will put on the field in January.

Panthers 17, Browns 13

The Panthers are willing to allow quarterback Cam Newton to move the ball on the ground even amid a season that has involved injuries at the onset and during the late stages. Newton’s 63 rushing yards came at critical times against the Browns in his first game back after missing a game because of an automobile accident. He had 12 carries in the game, including a couple that picked up yardage for first downs on the game’s opening possession. By the end, his rushing output marked the third-largest total of the season. With Jonathan Stewart running strong as well, the Panthers have a diverse rushing attack.

The years-long drama at quarterback continues to the Browns, who lost rookie Johnny Manziel to a hamstring injury in the first half. Brian Hoyer replaced him and could start against the Ravens next week.

Dolphins 37, Vikings 35

Head coach Joe Philbin is coming back. It’s a bit of a surprise because the Dolphins have been eliminated for the playoffs for the sixth straight year. The Dolphins went 8-8 last season (and 7-9 in Philbin’s first year in 2012), and owner Stephen Ross, when he announced that Philbin was coming back for 2014, said he wanted to see progress. Well, the Dolphins are now 8-7 and out of the playoffs with one more game to go. Even if the Dolphins beat the lowly New York Jets next week, that would not represent much progress.

Progress is not as much of a question for the Vikings, at least not where quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is concerned. Bridgewater completed 19 out of 26 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on Sunday against Miami. Bridgewater is now 5-6 as a starter, but he has passed for more than 250 yards in each of his past three games.

Packers 20, Buccaneers 3

The Buccaneers are going into Week 17 battling not for more victories, but for the No. 1 overall pick. Those who expected a quick rebuilding under coach Lovie Smith did not see the season-long struggles on the offensive line — $30 million free agent left tackle Anthony Collins was inactive Sunday, if that helps paint the picture — or of running back Doug Martin when the preseason ballots were cast.

“We do see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Smith said. “There are a lot of positives. But you can’t really talk about it until we start winning football games. That day will come. We’re not there now.”

The Packers are putting their foot down on defense but with the Lions up next, there is some worry about Green Bay’s offensive production. Detroit held the Packers to seven points in Green Bay’s Week 3 loss at Ford Field. As prolific as this group can be, they only managed 13 points against the Bills last week and 20 against the Bucs on Sunday. It will help to have quarterback Aaron Rodgers healthy, if he’s recovered from his calf strain by then. There were encouraging elements in Sunday’s performance, particularly in how well balanced Green Bay’s game plan was. Eddie Lacy ran 17 times for 99 yards and a touchdown, and Rodgers completed 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown despite his illness and injury. Randall Cobb caught 11 balls on 14 targets and racked up 131 yards. Jordy Nelson caught all nine of his targets for 113 yards. Most teams would take a 100-yard rusher, a 300-yard passer and two 100-yard receivers, obviously. But the Lions have one of the NFL’s top defenses, particularly up front, and the Packers know they’ll have to be on top of their game to claim the NFC South title. “It’s exciting,” Rodgers said. “Detroit’s playing really good. They’re already in the playoffs. They’ve got a great defense, one of the best in the league if not the best.”

Steelers 20, Chiefs 12

A young Steelers defense that was so porous and undisciplined throughout the first three months of the season is starting to finally pick up veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s schemes.

“We’ve been doing what teams need to do this time of year which is ratcheting it up and being a more difficult team to beat. We’re beating ourselves less which is good,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Steelers were at their best on that side of the ball Sunday as they stuffed running back Jamaal Charles, sacked quarterback Alex Smith six times and held the Chiefs without a touchdown. That sets up next week’s showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that couldn’t keep up with the Steelers in a 42-21 Pittsburgh win on Dec. 7.

Falcons 30, Saints 14

Ranked dead last in the NFL after allowing nearly 410 yards per game through 14 games, the Falcons made all the difference against the league’s second-best offense.

The Falcons entered the game with a league-low 16 sacks, but they got to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times, harassed him consistently, intercepted him twice and forced two fumbles.

The last fumble came on the game’s final play — a strip sack by defensive end Kroy Biermann in the final seconds that defensive end Osi Umenyiora picked up and returned 86 yards for a score.

On his way to the end zone, Umenyiora turned to wave goodbye to the Saints, who were eliminated from the playoff picture.

“That’s about as bad a feeling as you could ever have,” said Brees, who threw for 313 yards but was picked off twice, including a pick by cornerback Robert McClain with 2:28 left with the Saints trailing 20-13 to kill any chance for a comeback. “It’s disappointing to know that with two games left we controlled our own destiny.”

Texans 25, Ravens 13

Quarterback Case Keenum really does have a functional command of the offense, despite being released just prior to the season. Keenum, who lost all eight of his starts last season with the Texans, was re-signed Monday and played admirably in leading the Texans to victory. Keenum posted only a 50.2 passer rating, but he kept his mistakes to a minimum (one interception) and managed the offense well enough for the Texans to record five red-zone field goals. “I really can’t put words on it,” Keenum said of his first victory. “It’s very special.”

The Texans sacked Flacco only twice, but they hit him 10 times and recorded three interceptions and nine pass deflections. Flacco rarely appeared comfortable in the pocket, the constant duress leading to hurried throws and an inefficient performance. “They did some things up front, they got me on my back foot and had good coverage,” Flacco said. “They took away the main two guys. They did a lot of things. They were disruptive. Nothing came easy.”

Patriots 17, Jets 16

The Patriots will be sitting home on wild card weekend watching teams beat each other up for the opportunity to face them — again. New England clinched its fifth straight first-round bye with Sunday’s 17-16 win over the Jets. But the Patriots still have plenty to play for: A win next Sunday against the Buffalo Bills will assure the Patriots home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

The Patriots can also clinch home field if Denver loses to Cincinnati on Monday night. But even if that happens, expect Bill Belichick to approach the season finale as if it’s the Super Bowl.

“Every game is important,” Belichick said. “You’re always playing for something.”

Cowboys 42, Colts 7

December doldrums had dogged coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo in Dallas, where they finally found sunshine and spent the Winter Solstice celebrating their first NFC East title since 2009. Dallas could be a dangerous out in the postseason. The Cowboys are 7-0 on the road entering the season finale at Washington next week.

There is no reason to question DeMarco Murray’s toughness. Injuries have been an issue for Murray in his young career, but the Dallas Cowboys running back suited up a week after breaking his left hand and six days after undergoing surgery. The NFL’s leading rusher said he was going to play and lived up to his word, gaining 58 yards on 22 carries.

Raiders 26, Bills 24

The NFL is unpredictable, and the Buffalo Bills are proof positive that highs and lows travel in tandem.

Rookie quarterback Derek Carr threw two touchdown passes, running back Latavius Murray rushed for 86 yards, and the Raiders (3-12) earned a third consecutive home win in their home finale.

“I can’t said enough good things about this team,” said Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano, who is vying to keep the job next season. “They’re fighters. Every time someone counts them out, they bounce back.”

The Bills (8-7) were coming off a 21-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers, but they lost for the second time in three games.

“It just really breaks your heart, you know?” Bills quarterback Kyle Orton said. “You just sit there and put it all into it for a really long time, and you don’t do it for anybody but yourselves and for the guys next to you in the locker room.”

Giants 37, Rams 27

The Rams again showed a lack of poise that has marked their efforts over the last three seasons. Too often, they confuse late hits and trash-talking with real toughness. They gave up three first downs via penalty, all of which led to scores. For this team to take the step from promising team to winning team next year, the Rams will have to lay off the borderline stuff and play a more disciplined game.

St. Louis also looked like a tame defense after not getting to Eli Manning other than a well-timed blitz by T.J. McDonald.

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