NFL Nation: 2011 Week 17 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 45, Bucs 24

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
11:55
PM ET
ATLANTA – Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 45-24 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Falcons are 10-6 and in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. The Falcons are in as the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs. They’ll play on the road against the winner of Sunday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. The Buccaneers ended their season in dismal fashion. After starting off 4-2, they lost their final 10 games and weren’t even competitive in most of those.

Momentum found: The Falcons bounced back nicely after a bad Monday night loss to the New Orleans Saints. Yeah, they were playing the Bucs, who might have become the worst team in the NFL, but the victory should create a positive vibe for the Falcons as they head into the playoffs.

Record Turner: Michael Turner broke Gerald Riggs’ team record for career rushing touchdowns with two in the first half. Turner now has 50 rushing touchdowns since joining the Falcons in 2008. Riggs set his record over the course of seven seasons. Turner also tied Riggs’ team record with his 25th 100-yard rushing game since joining the Falcons. Too bad Turner doesn’t play for the Saints. Sean Payton would have kept feeding Turner the ball and given him a shot at a 500-yard day.

Roddy’s records: Roddy White became Atlanta’s all-time leader in receiving yards. He passed Terance Mathis’ previous record of 7,349 yards. White also had his 100th catch of the season. That makes White the first player to have two seasons of 100 or more catches.

Farewell, Jeff George: Quarterback Matt Ryan surpassed Jeff George’s 1995 record for passing yards in a season (4,143).

The Morris Watch: If Tampa Bay’s ownership hadn’t made a decision about the future of coach Raheem Morris before Sunday, another embarrassing loss couldn’t have helped his case. This game was over almost as soon as it started and it’s stunning to remember that the Bucs beat the Falcons in Week 3. As has been the case through most of the losing streak, the Bucs looked like a team with no direction. At some point in the next few days, the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs will have to break its silence and let the world know if they’re sticking with Morris or going in a different direction.

What’s next: The Falcons have to wait until the end of Sunday night’s game between the Giants and Cowboys to find out where they’ll travel to for the first round of the playoffs. The Buccaneers will get a top 10 draft pick and an offseason that’s sure to be filled with change even if Morris stays.
CINCINNATI -- Thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals game:

What it means: The Ravens (12-4) got a much-needed road win to secure their first home playoff game in five years. Baltimore clinched the AFC's second seed, the AFC North title and a first-round bye. This was the first time that the Ravens went undefeated in the AFC North. The Bengals (9-7) lost but they backed into the playoffs because the Jets and the Broncos both lost. Cincinnati got the sixth and final seed in the playoffs and will travel to Houston in the first round. The Bengals finished 1-7 against teams that currently have winning records.

Suggs steps up: Terrell Suggs once again showed why the Ravens linebacker is a strong candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. At a time when the Bengals had closed to within a touchdown and were driving in Ravens' territory, Suggs punched the ball out of tight end Jermaine Gresham's grasp in the fourth quarter. It was his seventh forced fumble of the season and led to a Ravens touchdown.

Running with Rice: Ravens running back Ray Rice started and finished strong. He scored a 70-yard touchdown on the game's fourth play from scrimmage and then ran 51 yards for another score in the fourth quarter. Rice finished with 191 yards on 24 carries.

Help before halftime: The Ravens took a 17-3 halftime lead with a final drive that was helped by three Bengals penalties. Cincinnati was flagged three times for 25 yards on a series that ended with Joe Flacco hitting Dennis Pitta for a 9-yard touchdown. It was Cincinnati's only penalties of the first half, but they came at a costly time.

Missed opportunities: The Bengals squandered some chances in the first half that hurt them in the second half. Andy Dalton threw too high to tight end Donald Lee on a third-down pass in the red zone, and kicker Mike Nugent sliced a 36-yard field goal wide right.

What's next: The Ravens receive a first-round bye for the first time since 2006. The Bengals go to Houston to play the third-seeded Texans in the first round.
DENVER – A look at a game that the Broncos let slip out of their hands.

What it means: We don’t know yet. If San Diego beats Oakland, the Broncos will back into the AFC West division title. If the Raiders win, they will win the title. Denver is 8-8. Kansas City ended its season at 7-9.

Crennel makes big push for job: I wouldn’t be surprised if interim Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel is promoted to the permanent coach soon. The Chiefs went 2-1 under Crennel after he took over for Todd Haley, including a win over Green Bay. It was the Packers’ only loss of the season. Players love Crennel and he fits what the Chiefs want to do.

Orton gets his revenge: Former Denver quarterback Kyle Orton wasn’t great against the Broncos, but he was better than Tim Tebow -- who replaced Orton as Denver’s starter -- in Week 5. You bet Orton is going to enjoy this win.

HOUSTON -- Thoughts on the Titans' 23-22 win over the Texans at Reliant Stadium:

What it means: The Titans finish the regular season at 9-7 and will be the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs if three 4 p.m. ET games fall right for them. They need the Bengals to lose and the Raiders and Broncos to win. The Texans finish the regular season on a three-game losing streak and find out later if they will host Cincinnati, Oakland or Tennessee next week in the first playoff game in franchise history.

What I liked, Texans: The decision to go for two with 14 seconds left in regulation. Absolutely the right thing to do, even after a false start penalty pushed them back. The Texans did not need the extra work of overtime with nothing at risk and nothing to be gained based on the game result. Thomas Austin’s shotgun snap over Jake Delhomme’s head was unfortunate for Houston, but didn’t mean much in the big picture. The drive to the touchdown that put them in position to win or lose on the conversion was a big one.

What I liked, Titans: They found a way, thanks largely to Nate Washington’s work. He caught a 55-yard pass in the third quarter to set up a go-ahead field goal and a 23-yard touchdown that provided the winning margin. On the second catch, Matt Hasselbeck threw a high ball as he was hit that took a long time to come down. But Washington ran past Quintin Demps and outfought Brandon Harris for the ball. The good news for Houston: Neither of those guys is part of the base defense and Johnathan Joseph would have been involved if he were playing.

What the Texans can feel good about: Second- and third-tier options were productive, from fullback James Casey to receiver Bryant Johnson to linebackers Bryan Braman and Mister Alexander.

What’s next: The Texans await results of the 4 p.m. games to learn who they’ll host next weekend. It’ll be Cincinnati if the Bengals beat the Ravens. It could also be the Raiders or Titans. The Titans will spend their plane ride back to Nashville tracking the three games they need to break right and hoping for a celebration after they get home.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 49, Bills 21

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
4:18
PM ET

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ 49-21 win over the Bills in the regular-season finale:

What it means: The Patriots earn the No. 1 seed to give them home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. In a similar script to last week against the Dolphins, they fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter before charging back with 49 unanswered points. The defensive turnaround was impressive. Can the Patriots dig such a hole and expect to recover in the playoffs? That figures to be a question asked around New England in the coming weeks.

Brady over 5,000 yards passing: With a 39-yard touchdown connection to tight end Aaron Hernandez in the second quarter, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went over the 5,000-yard passing mark for the season, becoming just the third player in NFL history to do so (joining Dan Marino and Drew Brees). Brady played through an injured left shoulder, which was a top storyline entering the game. He also tossed the 300th touchdown of his career, tying John Elway for fifth place on the NFL’s all-time list.

Tight end Hernandez stars: After he was edged out for a Pro Bowl berth by San Diego’s Antonio Gates, Hernandez put together a performance that showed he was worthy of the Pro Bowl consideration -- 7 catches, 138 yards, 1 TD, to go along with 26 yards rushing on two carries. Hernandez was the most dynamic offensive player on the field.

Gronkowski gets tight end record: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski set the NFL record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end, with 1,327 yards. Gronkowski got the record on the Patriots' final drive, on a 22-yard catch, as the Patriots seemed to make a concerted effort to make sure he got the record over the Saints' Jimmy Graham. The game was well in hand, and the Patriots could have kneeled on the ball at that point, as backup quarterback Brian Hoyer was in the game.

McCourty at safety: In a defensive wrinkle, the Patriots used cornerback Devin McCourty at safety in their sub package, which they were in often against the Bills’ spread attack. McCourty had an interception in the fourth quarter. The 2010 first-round draft choice has had a tough season after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and his time at safety sparks the question: Would the Patriots consider making it a more permanent switch? McCourty was injured on the Bills' final drive (looked like his leg), so his status will be something to monitor in the days to come.

Chung and Spikes return: The Patriots’ much-maligned defense got some reinforcements in the form of safety Patrick Chung (foot) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee), both of whom returned after missing the previous seven games.

Johnson benched for Bills: The Bills benched receiver Stevie Johnson after his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for lifting up his jersey after a first-quarter touchdown. Johnson had written “Happy New Year” on his white shirt under the jersey.

Belichick's record: The Patriots finish the season at 13-3, with Bill Belichick becoming the first coach in league history to lead a team to 13 wins in the regular season five different times.

What’s next: The Patriots will be off next weekend as the playoffs begin. The Bills close the season at 6-10.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the merciful end of the regular season for two NFC North teams.

What it means: The Chicago Bears snapped a five-game losing streak and finished the season 8-8. The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, tied a franchise record for losses in a season by finishing 3-13 and are set to pick No. 3 overall in the 2012 draft. They also finished the season winless in the NFC North. Back to the drawing board, huh?

AllenWatch: Vikings defensive end Jared Allen came up one sack shy of breaking the NFL record for most sacks in a season. His 3.5-sack game still qualified as one of the best of his career and left him with 22 sacks on the season. The record remains 22.5, set by the New York Giants' Michael Strahan on the final day of the 2001 season. After beating Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb for his final sack, Allen faced regular double- and triple-teams from a Bears team not interested in giving him the record. Bears quarterback Josh McCown had no interest in being Allen's Brett Favre, if you know what I mean.

WebbWatch: That's right. It's time to shift from PonderWatch, which ended for 2011 with a reaggravation of rookie Christian Ponder's right hip injury, with WebbWatch. Joe Webb continued to make a case to at least be given consideration for the starting job in 2012, giving the Vikings obvious energy when he entered and keeping a number of plays alive with pocket scrambles. On a particularly notable play, he wiggled free of Bears defensive end Julius Peppers and threw a 19-yard pass to receiver Devin Aromashodu. It's true that the Vikings had already scored 10 of their points when Ponder departed, but Webb had two drives end with field goal miscues and at least provided fodder from some internal discussion this offseason.

McCownWatch: Like Webb, McCown has at least given the Bears an interesting offseason discussion. He was out of the game when the season began, but his performance over the past two starts -- he completed 15 of 25 passes Sunday for 160 yards -- makes him at least a candidate to back up starter Jay Cutler next season.

Injury report: Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher departed in the fourth quarter with what appeared initially to be a bad left knee injury. Urlacher was able to walk to the Bears' locker room, however. We'll update you postgame.

What's next: The status of two key coordinators are first up for both teams this offseason. The Bears must make a decision on offensive coordinator Mike Martz, whose contract has expired. And the Vikings reportedly are prepared to make some changes to their defensive staff, leaving the status of defensive coordinator Fred Pagac uncertain at best.

MIAMI -- Here are some thoughts on the Miami Dolphins' 19-17 victory over the New York Jets:

What it means: The Dolphins (6-10) split the season series with the Jets (8-8) and ended New York's slim playoff hopes. Miami was the NFL's most dangerous spoiler in the second half of the season and finished 6-3 in its last nine games. That run offers hope for the Dolphins in the future. The Jets, meanwhile, ended their year on a three-game losing streak and missed the playoffs for the first time under head coach Rex Ryan. Both teams have a lot of offseason questions to face.

Clock eater: The biggest drive of the game started midway through the third quarter. The Dolphins went on a season-long 21-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that ate up 12 minutes and 29 seconds. It was the longest scoring drive in Dolphins history and gave Miami a 13-10 lead. It also shortened the game and gave Miami's defense plenty of rest to close out the game.

Quarterback woes: Neither Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez nor Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore did much to prove they are the long-term solutions for their respective teams. Both combined for five interceptions -- Sanchez threw three picks and Moore threw two. Miami will be searching for Moore's replacement this offseason via the draft or free agency. At the very least, the Dolphins should draft a rookie to challenge and groom behind Moore. Sanchez's situation is more complex. He is a first-round pick who's won big games but also hasn't improved much over his three-year career. There have been rumors of the Jets trading for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, but that’s simply speculation at this stage. Indianapolis' public stance is that Manning will not be on the market.

Starks gets two: Miami's defense has been getting big plays from many players this season. But the Dolphins got some unexpected plays from Dolphins defensive end Randy Starks. He recorded a sack and two surprise interceptions.

Farewell to Taylor: Longtime Miami defensive end Jason Taylor wrapped up his 15-year career Sunday. Taylor recorded one tackle in his final game and his quarterback pressure helped set up one of Starks' two interceptions. Taylor is sixth all-time with 139.5 career sacks. He will be a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame in five years.

What’s next: A disappointing season ends for both teams. For the Dolphins, they begin a busy offseason that will include a coaching search and an attempt to land a long-term solution at quarterback. For the Jets, they have to find answers to why a talented roster that nearly everyone thought would make the playoffs crashed so badly and finished at .500.

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