- Ashley Fox
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It hurt on so many levels. Rex Ryan had chirped all week about wanting to be champions of New York, and not only are the Jets not champions of the city for which they play, they now might not have a chance to be champions of anything.
The AFC is wide open this year, but because they suffered a crushing 29-14 loss to the crosstown rival Giants, the Jets probably won't be able to take advantage of it. As Christmas Eve gave way to a quiet Christmas with only one NFL game on Sunday, that is what had to gnaw at Ryan's gut most of all.
This was the year. This was the time.
Of the six teams that ultimately advance to the postseason from the AFC, any one can get to the Super Bowl because every team that will make it has serious flaws.
The NFC has Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco, three teams that have played consistently well and been significantly better than their NFC counterparts. The AFC doesn't have a dominant team. It is anyone's conference to win.
New England has the straight path to home-field advantage throughout the postseason, and that certainly would help, but with that horrid pass defense, the Patriots are totally beatable.
Consider their first half against Miami. They made mistakes, got beat up front of offense, committed two pass interference penalties on defense and had two drives that went three-and-out. New England's first six possessions ended in punts and the seventh ended with a missed field goal.
Tom Brady was shaky, misfiring on 12 of 19 pass attempts and throwing for only 87 yards. The offensive line allowed three sacks, and the defense gave up 255 yards, including 102 yards receiving by Brandon Marshall.
It was New England's worst half of the season, and it trailed the Dolphins 17-0 at halftime. But unlike Green Bay against Kansas City in Week 15, the Patriots were able to pull out of it, and it was a good thing.
Having the home field would be a huge advantage for New England. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Brady took over as quarterback in 2001, the Patriots are 8-2 at home in the playoffs, outscoring their opponents by 7.3 points per game, with Brady throwing 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. During that span, New England is 3-2 on the road, with Brady throwing as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns.
The Patriots can clinch home-field advantage through the playoffs with a win Sunday at home against Buffalo.
Baltimore might be the toughest out in the AFC. With a win in Week 17 at Cincinnati, the Ravens would clinch the AFC North and be assured of at least one home playoff game for the first time since John Harbaugh became their coach. Since Harbaugh took over in 2008, the Ravens have played seven playoff games, all on the road. Twice they have lost at Pittsburgh.
The Ravens swept the series with the Steelers this season, but lost their next game to mediocre teams after each Pittsburgh win. Can they really be trusted to string together a series of big games?
Houston is down to its third-string quarterback, and with all due respect to T.J. Yates, third-string quarterbacks rarely win in the postseason. The Texans' defense has been much improved under first-year coordinator Wade Phillips, but if you can't stop Indianapolis and Dan Orlovsky, you don't have much chance in the postseason.
Pittsburgh, my preseason pick to get to the Super Bowl, has that little issue of Ben Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain. Mike Tomlin wisely opted not to play Roethlisberger on Saturday against St. Louis -- a game too late, in my opinion -- and the Steelers won anyway, shutting out the Rams, 27-0.
Denver and Tim Tebow? The much-improved but still young Cincinnati Bengals? The Oakland Raiders? The Titans? These are respectable but average teams. Denver and Cincinnati will be in the postseason with wins this week, but does either really look like a team that can make a Super Bowl run?
Even as the No. 6 seed, the Jets could get back to the AFC title game, and could fulfill Ryan's blustery preseason promise of a Super Bowl win.
But now? Now their destiny is in other team's hands. Now, they need help, and as Mark Sanchez noted after the game, it is never a good thing to have to cheer for someone else. The Jets must beat Miami, then hope Baltimore beats Cincinnati, Houston beats Tennessee and either San Diego beats Oakland or Kansas City beats Denver. It is a lot to ask.
"I'm not going to say we're out of it, or maybe I should," Ryan said on Saturday evening. "But we have to win this football game. It's not in your control anymore. A lot of things have to happen. Clearly we lost control of controlling our own destiny."
One of the lasting images from the Jets-Giants game came on a play in the fourth quarter. The Jets had third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and there was a problem with the snap between center Nick Mangold and Sanchez. The ball fell to the ground, bounced into the end zone and then was converged on by a couple of Giants, who recovered the ball.
Jets running back Shonn Greene watched from his knees, his hands on either side of his helmet, as the Giants celebrated the turnover. The Jets trailed 20-7 with just under nine minutes to play, but the season was quickly slipping away. They lost the ball, the game, and with no dominant team in the AFC, possibly a huge opportunity to make another postseason run.
What I learned from Week 16:
The Giants didn't quit. Tom Coughlin just might have saved his job on Saturday by beating his cross-town rival. Had the Giants lost to the Jets and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season, John Mara could have made a case for firing Coughlin after another late-season collapse.
But the Giants rallied around their coach. Not everyone likes the stern Coughlin, but the players played for him. They withstood an early Jets flurry. They overcame a series of turnovers, and a defense that has struggled to get off the field on third down forced the Jets to go 4-of-21.
"We knew that if we won two that we would be the winner of the NFC East and be in the playoffs," Coughlin said afterward. "So we have two games and now one under our belt. To be honest with you, we need to put this one aside as fast as we can and go to work on Dallas with the same attitude we had last week. Basically I just walked into the team meeting Tuesday and said, 'If we win two, then we are in. I am not going to focus on last week's game at all. Everything that we are going to do is in front of us.'"
The Buccaneers did quit. It likely will cost coach Raheem Morris his job. If the players really liked playing for the 35-year-old Morris, they would not have laid down the way they did against Carolina. They allowed the Panthers to drive down the field on their opening possession, and it just got worse from there.
The Bucs trailed 20-10 at halftime but allowed Carolina to score 28 unanswered points out of the break. They allowed the Panthers to score on fourth-and-1 from the 11-yard line, gave up a 41-yard touchdown run to quarterback Cam Newton, lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and gave up another touchdown two plays later.
A team that wants its coach to retain his job doesn't lose a division game 48-16.
Jerome Simpson scored a perfect 10. Simpson's soaring, tumbling, somersaulting touchdown over Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington, who is 6-foot-2, would have been enough for him to get recognized for the most electric touchdown of the year. But Simpson couldn't stick the landing in the end zone.
Simpson docked himself a style point for touching the ground on the landing, but nevertheless it was the most amazing touchdown we have seen this season.
There is one playoff spot open in the NFC. With Green Bay's win over Chicago on Sunday night, the Packers clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and Atlanta, which plays New Orleans on Monday night, clinched a playoff berth.
The only remaining spot will go to the winner of the Dallas-New York Giants game. Not surprisingly, NBC acted swiftly on Saturday night to flex into that game and make it the Week 17 Sunday night game.
Adrian Peterson going down was Minnesota's worst nightmare. On Sunday, the team confirmed what everyone feared when Peterson went down on the first play of the second half against Washington: The fifth-year running back tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. There were subsequent reports that Peterson also damaged the medial collateral ligament. As if things aren't bad enough for the Vikings.
Their $100 million star likely will not be ready for the start of the 2012 season. Depending on how his rehabilitation goes, Peterson might not play at all, and even if he does, players who come back from complicated reconstructive knee surgeries rarely have total confidence in their knee until they are more than a year removed from surgery.
It was a meaningless game at the end of a dismal season that will haunt the Vikings well into the next season, and potentially beyond.
Pay attention, NFC South GMs. Here is some advice for Mickey Loomis, Mark Dominick and Thomas Dimitroff: Use the draft to fortify your defense. You are going to need it. Cam Newton is going to be a problem for you for the next decade.
Newton has obliterated the records in every relevant statistical category for rookies. Early in the first quarter against Tampa Bay on Saturday, he blew past Peyton Manning's record of 3,739 passing yards as a rookie. With 171 passing yards on the day -- he also had three passing touchdowns and one rushing -- Newton now sits at 3,893 with one game to go.
Updated draft order. According to ESPN Stats & Information, if the season ended today, the Colts would have the No. 1 pick in the draft, followed by St. Louis, Minnesota, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Washington, Miami, Carolina and Buffalo. The Colts will end the season with the No. 1 overall pick if they lose at Jacksonville or St. Louis beats San Francisco at home.
SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE
Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:
The Jets have a serious quarterback issue. The knock on Mark Sanchez is that he is a decent game manager, but is limited and does not have the skills to win games for the Jets the same way Eli Manning does for the Giants. Saturday's performance did little to dispel that notion.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez entered the day having completed just 10 passes more than 20 yards down field and was 4-of-24 when targeting Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress on deep passes. Yet the Jets seemed to want to exploit the Giants' weak secondary. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called 59 pass plays. He called 28 in the first half, and seven on the opening drive.
Although the Jets took a 7-0 lead on that drive, Sanchez could not keep it up during the course of the game. He finished 30-of-59 for 258 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.
"You're not going to beat anybody -- we're not, for sure -- when you throw the ball 59 times," Ryan said afterward. "We're really not built to play that game."
Translation: Sanchez cannot be counted on to win a game for the Jets. That is a problem.
It's no longer Tebow Time. Denver has now lost consecutive games with Tebow at quarterback, and his shaky performance in a 40-14 drubbing by the Bills is why John Elway had been cautious until recently about giving his full support to his second-year quarterback. Tebow threw four interceptions in a span of 13 pass attempts at Buffalo.
After committing just two turnovers in his first six starts this season, Tebow now has eight turnovers in his last four. The Broncos can still win the AFC West, though, with a win over Kansas City.
Philadelphia's season is over. The Eagles did not collapse, which is a credit to coach Andy Reid, but the question Reid must address in another week or so is what to do with defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.
Yes, the defense is playing better after the first-year coordinator and former long-time offensive line coach simplified his defense. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said recently that the biggest difference in the defense from earlier in the season had been the "play calling," not exactly a ringing endorsement from one of the top players on the team.
Can Reid really bring Castillo back to coach these players? Or if St. Louis fires Steve Spagnuolo, would Reid make a run at a man who spent eight years on Reid's defensive staff and still has a house in South Philadelphia?
The Raiders are on the verge of being historically undisciplined. Losing Darren McFadden in Week 7 to a foot injury that he still has not recovered from was a crushing blow to a team that had playoff aspirations, especially considering McFadden was on pace for a second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
But even more problematic for the Raiders has been their lack of discipline. After committing 15 penalties in a 16-13 overtime win against Kansas City on Saturday, the Raiders are now four shy of breaking the 1998 Chiefs' record for most penalties in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They are also 11 penalty yards away from breaking the Chiefs' single-season record.
Oakland can still win the AFC West with a win over San Diego and a Denver loss to Kansas City, and they can still get a wild-card spot with some help from Cincinnati, Tennessee and the Jets. But if the Raiders miss the playoffs, their penchant for committing penalties will be one of the biggest reasons why.
RANT AND RAVE
A coach who will be under review today:
Major congratulations to the Detroit Lions organization. It has been 11 long, arduous, painful seasons since the Lions last made the playoffs, and yet here they are, after gutty wins at Oakland and against San Diego at home, heading to the postseason.
Forgive the team if they took the time to celebrate.
"There's going to come a time that we don't celebrate going to the playoffs or getting into the playoffs, but it's not going to be tonight," coach Jim Schwartz said on Saturday night, still damp from the Gatorade bath his players gave him. "It's been a long time coming and obviously it's something that we haven't done as an organization for a long time."
Isn't that the truth.
Schwartz is right on another thing, too. Detroit will do this again. This isn't the end goal for the team or the franchise. They Lions have been built through the draft, have a talented young quarterback, arguably the most dynamic receiver in the game, a nasty defensive front and a sharp, fiery coach who got his players to reverse their penchant for taking stupid penalties. The Lions are going to be players for seasons to come.
But this playoff berth was worth celebrating. The win over San Diego was a dominant performance against another team with playoff aspirations. In a game in which young players could have let their nerves get the best of them, the Lions dominated San Diego, taking a 24-0 lead in the first half en route to a 38-10 victory. Matthew Stafford was fantastic, completing 29 of 36 passes for 373 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
For the final five or six minutes of the game, the crowd kept chanting, "Playoffs! Playoffs!" and afterward, the players took a lap around Ford Field, slapping hands with the fans who had stuck around until the end.
It has been a long journey from 0-16 to 10-5. The Lions certainly aren't done, but it was a moment on Saturday that deserved to be enjoyed.
Notable tweets from around the league:
"Don't tell Bill I'm on here! Thanks! Hahaha!" -- @WesWelker, last week on his first day on Twitter. The Patriots wide receiver had more than 141,000 followers as of late Christmas night.
"Jets are making the Giants look like pretenders instead of contenders!" -- @RealJoeNamath, with the Jets leading the Giants 7-0 in the first quarter.
"I have nothing good to say, so I'm just keeping quite." -- @RealJoeNamath, about two hours later on Saturday with the Jets trailing the Giants 17-7.
"We've come a million miles this year & we're not going to back down. Thank you #12thMan for your nonstop support, Merry Christmas to all!" -- @PeteCarroll, on Sunday, a day after the Seahawks lost to San Francisco 19-17.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
The biggest stories from Week 16 begin in New York, where the Giants didn't quit and did their best to dash the Jets' playoff hopes.