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A vision commissioner Roger Goodell had a few years ago is paying off.
Concerned about playoff teams benching starters late in the regular season, Goodell decided to schedule more divisional games in the final two weeks.
A wild Week 16 sets up a Week 17 in which many coaches will have no choice but to keep starters on the field.
The four division winners are established in the AFC, but the top seeds have yet to be determined. On Sunday, Denver won the AFC West, New England won the AFC East and Baltimore's loss enabled the Cincinnati Bengals to win the AFC North. The Indianapolis Colts clinched the AFC South last week. The Kansas City Chiefs are the No. 5 seed with an 11-4 record.
The only thing resolved Sunday in the NFC was the Carolina Panthers clinching a playoff spot, joining the Seattle Seahawks. No division winner has been established, thanks to the Seahawks' 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
It still looks as though the Seahawks and Panthers will be the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, but they have to extend their play into next week and get victories.
In the AFC, all four division winners stepped up and played well Sunday. The Patriots were particularly impressive beating the Ravens in Baltimore 41-7.
Here's what we learned in Week 16:
1. Are the Colts back? Sunday's Indianapolis-Kansas City game was billed as a possible playoff preview. If they do meet again, expect a different game, but I don't know if the outcome would be different. The Colts surprised and dominated the Chiefs 23-7, and re-established the notion that Indianapolis could be a factor in the playoffs.
For six weeks, the Colts didn't look like they were a playoff team. They'd win one and lose one, and some of the losses were blowouts. The Colts regained some confidence in a 22-point win over Houston last week, but that confidence was in question early Sunday. The Colts sandwiched two three-and-outs around an easy Chiefs touchdown and fell behind 7-0. Then Indy QB Andrew Luck adjusted. He went to a no-huddle offense that focused on short passes.
"It just so happened that they were giving away some underneath stuff and the wideouts did a great job of creating separation underneath and catching and running," Luck said. "A lot of first downs were created on a guy catching a ball, missing a tackle and getting the first down."
Thanks to the no-huddle and the short passing game, the Colts ran 72 plays to the Chiefs' 53 and dominated the time of possession, 38:20 to 21:40. If they do meet again, it will be the Chiefs who will need the major adjustments. Their pass rush hasn't been the same since the San Diego game on Nov. 24, when Tamba Hali and Justin Houston suffered injuries. Hali missed only one game but Houston hasn't played since. The Chiefs' defense isn't the same without both pass-rushers attacking. The only sack on Luck was one that required a replay challenge in the second quarter. Luck completed 26 of 37 passes for 241 yards and was hit only three other times.
Houston should be back if the Chiefs meet the Colts in Indianapolis in two weeks. That should help the pass rush. But here is what should worry the Chiefs: They are 1-3 against teams with winning records. Plus, their offense really has only one true weapon, RB Jamaal Charles, who accounted for 144 of the Chiefs' 287 total yards Sunday.
On top of all that, the Chiefs gave confidence to a Colts team that has beaten Denver, San Francisco and Seattle. For K.C., going to Indianapolis in the playoffs suddenly sounds a lot more daunting than it did a couple of weeks ago.
2. Overzealous Payton: Sometimes coaches try to do a little too much to try to win. After getting on the scoreboard with a second-quarter field goal Sunday, Saints coach Sean Payton gambled with an onside kick. The Saints recovered and added another field goal, going up 6-0 over the Panthers. But Payton tried a fake field goal after the first possession of the second half and watched Luke McCown fire an incompletion to Jimmy Graham. The Panthers responded with a field goal drive to take a 10-6 lead.
Following last week's loss to the St. Louis Rams, Payton decided to shake things up. He cut field goal kicker Garrett Hartley and signed former Saint Shayne Graham, who hadn't kicked in a game since the Steelers released him in September. Maybe it might have been asking too much of Graham to make a 52-yarder, but regardless, the fake didn't work.
Payton's second shake-up came on the offensive line, as he benched left tackle Charles Brown and replaced him with rookie left tackle Terron Armstead. Carolina DE Greg Hardy destroyed Armstead. He had three sacks, four quarterback hits and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Saints QB Drew Brees was sacked six times in the 17-13 loss.
"It was a difficult loss, but I was real proud of our players today," Payton said. "They played with great passion. There are different things necessary to win a football game and we came up just short."
By coming up short, though, the Saints could hand the NFC South to Carolina. If the Panthers win in Atlanta next week, they'll get the NFC's No. 2 seed and leave the Saints as a No. 5 seed. The Saints host Tampa Bay.
|Peyton Manning's record-setting Sunday helped Denver clinch the AFC West title.|
3. The MVP and the MDP (Most Debated Player): Broncos QB Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes Sunday to break Tom Brady's single-season record for touchdown passes. Manning now has 51. He threw for 400 yards against Houston in a 37-13 victory and now has 5,211 yards. Charles has carried the Chiefs to an 11-4 record, but there is no debate about Manning as the MVP. He is having perhaps the greatest quarterbacking season in NFL history. At 12-3, the Broncos are likely to be the AFC's No. 1 seed and Manning is the reason. End of story.
A more dramatic story is that of Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys. No quarterback creates as much drama as Romo. Last week, the Green Bay Packers stacked the line of scrimmage with defenders and forced him into interceptions that resulted in one of the great chokes in Cowboys history. On Sunday, he connected on a fourth-down touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray with 1:08 left that clinched a 28-27 victory over the Washington Redskins. Adding to the drama was a back injury that almost knocked Romo out of the game.
The interesting part of Romo's postgame news conference was him pointing out how history keeps repeating itself for the Cowboys. For the third straight season, the Cowboys face an NFC East elimination game in Week 17.
"We're the only team that keeps putting ourselves in position to keep winning the NFC East," Romo said. The Cowboys host Philadelphia next week for the division title.
"Our playoffs started today," Romo said. "We just have to play mistake-free football."
4. AFC wild-card hopefuls flop: The two biggest disappointments Sunday were the Baltimore Ravens, who lost to New England, and the Miami Dolphins, who were shut out by Buffalo 19-0.
The Dolphins clearly weren't prepared for the Bills' blitz. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was under duress or sacked 15 times on 34 dropbacks. Because of those protection problems, Tannehill was 2-of-8 for 15 yards on passes when he was under duress. For the day, he was 10-of-27 for 82 yards and was sacked seven times. He also suffered a knee injury that brought Matt Moore onto the field to throw two interceptions. Tannehill said after the game that the knee was fine. Still, the loss was an embarrassment.
Even worse was the Ravens' 41-7 loss to New England. It was the worst home loss in Ravens history. Quarterback Joe Flacco wasn't as effective Sunday because of a knee injury. He wore a brace and wasn't as mobile. He was 22-of-38 for 260 yards and had two interceptions. After the game, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the loss doesn't change next week's game in Cincinnati. But instead of having a chance to win the AFC North, the Ravens have to win and need help just to get a wild card. To reach the playoffs, the Ravens have to beat the Bengals and the Dolphins or Chargers have to lose.
5. NFC North goes south: The Packers lost at home in overtime to Pittsburgh 38-31, and the Detroit Lions lost at home in overtime to the New York Giants 23-20. In doing so, the Lions and Packers opened the door for the Chicago Bears to win the NFC North, but Chicago got routed at Philadelphia Sunday night. The Bears and Packers will decide the division title next week at Soldier Field.
For the Packers, Sunday's loss was disappointing but not surprising. An organizational decision kept Aaron Rodgers out because of his fractured left clavicle, leaving Matt Flynn to go against Ben Roethlisberger. Advantage Roethlisberger. But in reality, the Packers were in trouble once Rodgers went down. According to experts on the topic, collarbone breaks can be 12-week injuries and that's probably what Rodgers is going through. Rodgers suffered his injury on Nov. 4. These injuries are slow to heal because very little blood gets to the fractured area and that slows the healing process. Don't be surprised if Rodgers doesn't play next week. In 2010, Romo went on injured reserve in Week 16 after suffering the same injury in late October.
To make matters worse, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews suffered his second fractured thumb of the season.
As for the Lions, they simply blew it. Sure, Calvin Johnson couldn't do much because ankle and knee injuries finally caught up to him, but the Lions make too many mistakes.
"All of our losses have come in close games," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "It's hard to take when every game is close."
True, but the Lions lose because of the turnovers, dumb penalties and other problems. Expect Schwartz to be fired after the season.
St. Louis Rams left tackle Jake Long blew out an ACL on Sunday in a 23-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Denver Broncos (linebacker Von Miller) and Carolina Panthers (wide receiver Steve Smith) have to await MRIs on Monday to see if their star players suffered major knee injuries. It's been a horrible year for ACL injuries. By my count, there have been more than 50 ACL injuries this season. ... It will be interesting to see how the NFL handles Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson. He's been suspended twice but had one suspension lifted. He made a hit Sunday that could put him out for the final regular-season game. It wasn't as bad as some of his other hits, but his history could come back to haunt him. ... Tampa Bay's loss could seal the fate of coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs needed to finish strong for Schiano to stay, but they are fading down the stretch of a 4-11 season. ... Rex Ryan successfully motivated his New York Jets to a 24-13 win over the Cleveland Browns. He told the team he expected to be fired, according to a Fox report. The win brought the Jets' record to 7-8, much better than expected for the talent Ryan is working with on offense. Still, with a new general manager looking to make his own mark, expect a change at coach. ... The Bengals once again reinforced the importance of home-field advantage with a 42-14 blowout of the Vikings. They are 7-0 at home and host Baltimore next week. ... News that Penn State coach Bill O'Brien lowered his buyout to go to the NFL puts him in a great position to be a candidate for the Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and Jets. ... Adrian Peterson's food injury clearly affected him. He had only 45 yards on 11 carries against the Bengals.