Week 16: Lions are in; plenty left to resolve
They clinched a wild-card spot with a 10-5 record. The Falcons can clinch the other wild-card spot if they beat the New Orleans Saints Monday night, but a Falcons loss will keep that wild card dangling into the final week.
The AFC playoff race grew a little clearer. The Patriots clinched a bye week and are a win away from getting home-field advantage, but Bill Belichick can't rest his starters in Week 17. The Ravens and Steelers won Saturday, so the No. 1 seed is still up for grabs.
The Cincinnati Bengals' victory over Arizona gave them the edge for the AFC's second wild-card spot. The Jets' loss to the Giants put the Bengals in position to be the third AFC North team in the playoffs, but they have to beat the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17 or get help to make it in.
Eliminated from the playoffs were the Cardinals, Eagles, Seahawks, Chargers and Chiefs. The Bears need a miracle to stay alive in the NFC.
Still to be determined are the winners of the NFC East (Giants or Cowboys) and AFC West (Broncos or Raiders).
Here are the five things we learned in Week 16:
1. Jets stray from strengths: After a 29-14 loss to the Giants Saturday, Jets coach Rex Ryan admitted his game plan wasn't to throw 59 passes.
"We're really not built to play that type of game,'' Ryan said. "We were running the ball effectively but we were behind a couple of scores. We thought we would be able to run the ball on them.''
Jets QB Mark Sanchez completed 30 of 59 passes but got only 258 yards. Worse, Sanchez was sacked five times -- including one that resulted in a safety -- threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. The loss all but eliminated the Jets from playoff contention, while the win kept the Giants alive heading into next Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Ryan bragged that his Jets were the kings of New York before the game. "[The Giants] were definitely the better team today, they are the best team in New York,'' he said after. "Clearly, I was wrong. I'll take responsibility for that. It's on my shoulders.''
After the game, Giants halfback Brandon Jacobs called Ryan a loudmouth, which caused Ryan to say, "He doesn't respect me, I respect him. But I could care less about him.''
Though they share the same stadium, there is a great rivalry between the two teams. The Giants didn't like how the Jets, who were the home team, put black curtains in front of the Giants' four Super Bowl logos outside their locker room. Jacobs was one of two players who removed the curtains, but a Jets official and security guard put the curtains back.
After the game, Jacobs said Ryan tried to come after him, but Jacobs allegedly told Ryan, "You're talking to the wrong Giant because I'll kick your ass.''
2. Tebow comes back to reality: Tim Tebow has now lost two in a row, but his playoff hopes are still alive if the Broncos beat the Chiefs in Week 17. Still, Saturday's 40-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills was a major setback.
Because of turnovers, Tebow looked like a rookie. He threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. He threw four interceptions overall and had a fumble. One of the best things about Tebow this season is how he has protected the football. The Bills ended a 117-attempt streak in which he didn't throw a pick.
"I think he had a couple of misreads, which is going to happen with a young quarterback,'' Broncos coach John Fox said after the game. "He didn't see pressure coming off his right side.''
It will be interesting to see if the Bills' defense came up with a formula to contain Tebow. Defensive backs played mostly man, forcing Tebow to complete passes into tighter windows. Once the Bills were able to open a 17-7 lead before the half, Tebow and the Broncos were not equipped to come back. Tebow was 13-of-30 for 185 yards. He was 10-of-26 for 160 yards when he was behind by 10 after the start of the second half. Fox had no plans of benching him, though.
"Every rep he gets is an important experience,'' Fox said. "I didn't consider that.''
The AFC West now comes down to the final week to see if the Broncos can beat the Chiefs or if the Raiders can beat the Chargers and hope the Broncos lose. What's interesting is that the Broncos-Chiefs game comes down to Tebow, who entered the season as a third-string quarterback, going against Denver's former starter, Kyle Orton.
Though he didn't look great Saturday, Orton has thrown for 299 and 300 yards, respectively, in his first two starts with the Chiefs. Could the Orton move come back to haunt the Broncos and cost Tebow a chance at the playoffs? Could be.
3. Brady's banged-up bunch: Because of shoulder tendinitis, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady often starts games slowly. Because of offensive line injuries, the Patriots almost lost the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Thanks to Brady's resilience and patience, the Patriots were able to hold off the Miami Dolphins 27-24 and clinch a playoff bye. A win next week clinches home field. The Patriots fell behind 17-0 in the first half, and Brady was rattled. Left tackle Matt Light (ankle) was scratched before the game, and because tackle Sebastian Vollmer remained out, coach Bill Belichick had to gamble by moving Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to left tackle.
Then Dolphins defensive end Jared Odrick fell on Mankins' left knee and ankle and knocked him out of the game. The Patriots had to put rookies Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon at tackle. Journeyman Donald Thomas took over Mankins' left guard spot.
In the first half, Brady was 7-of-19 for 87 yards and was sacked three times.
"To lose Matt Light an hour and a half before the game and then lose Logan in the first or second series of the game, a lot of guys really stepped up and played hard, played for 60 minutes,'' Brady said.
Brady took control of the game by going no-huddle. Somehow the rookie tackles responded. "They're tough, they're very well-coached and they have a lot of pride,'' Brady said. "Hopefully, we get some guys back next week. You don't want to certainly make a habit of it, but we did it and we overcame it against a team that played very hard. We showed some resiliency and some mental toughness.''
And they needed it. Had the Patriots lost, they would have lost control of the AFC's top seed to the AFC North heavyweights.
4. Wrong decision with Romo? Organizationally, the Cowboys were going to be smart about their game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Although owner Jerry Jones might have been scared about the Eagles' talent, Dallas got a break when the Giants beat the Jets, keeping the Cowboys in position to win the NFC East. Technically, the Giants hold the division lead, but next week's game will determine the winner.
In the first quarter of a 20-7 loss to the Eagles, Romo threw a pass in which his right hand hit the helmet of Eagles defensive end Jason Babin. Romo's hand immediately started to swell and his day was done. Stephen McGee came in and didn't have a chance against the Eagles. Now, the Cowboys don't know for sure if they'll have Romo for the Giants game. X-rays were negative, but the swelling will have to go down for Romo to play.
"We'll have to see how it responds as the week goes on,'' coach Jason Garrett said. "His was more in the back of his hand. The biggest issue is gripping the ball along with taking the snap.''
Garrett isn't in jeopardy of losing his job, but his decision-making has come into question numerous times this season. Romo naturally would have wanted to play, but coaches have to make the tough calls. If the Cowboys lose the NFC East to Giants, the Cowboys will have blown a winnable division.
5. Stafford outduels Rivers: What do Lions QB Matthew Stafford and Chargers QB Philip Rivers have in common? Both are bold gunslingers. They are willing to throw deep and throw deep often. They also aren't afraid to throw into double coverage.
Stafford got the best of Rivers in a classic shootout Saturday. Stafford completed 29 of 36 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-10 victory . Rivers was 28-of-53 for 299 yards but had only one touchdown. Rivers knew going into the game it was going to be a tough assignment because WR Vincent Jackson was playing with a groin injury that would have caused him to miss any other game. But the Chargers knew they were facing playoff elimination, so Jackson played. He caught two passes for 41 yards.
Stafford had all of his weapons and destroyed the Chargers' defense. Even though the Chargers tried to surround Lions WR Calvin Johnson with defenders, he still came up with four catches for 102 yards and a touchdown. But the more a defense covers Johnson, the more it opens up opportunities for other pass-catchers. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew was the biggest benefactor. He caught nine of 10 passes thrown in his direction for 80 yards. Nate Burleson caught six passes for 83 yards.
The Lions clinched their first playoff appearance since 1999, and the fans were loud and energized. Because of their offense, the Lions could be a big factor in the playoffs.
With the Vikings beating the Redskins, the Andrew Luck sweepstakes comes down to the Colts and Rams. If the Colts lose to the Jaguars next Sunday, the Colts get Luck. If the Colts and Rams finish 2-14, the team with the easier schedule gets the higher selection. The Colts have a .554 schedule. The Rams are at .570. Not only did the Lions clinch their first playoff berth since 1999, but they ended the AFC's dominance in interleague play. The Lions' 38-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers gave the NFC a 33-31 edge. It's the first time the NFC has won an interconference year since 1995. In a test of wills, the Seahawks ended the 49ers' 14-game streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown. Seahawks halfback Marshawn Lynch broke a short touchdown run to the left in the fourth quarter. He has 11 consecutive games in which he's scored a touchdown. Even though the Eagles were eliminated from the playoffs, their easy victory over the Cowboys should take the heat off coach Andy Reid. The offense looks explosive and the defense is getting better. Chargers coach Norv Turner needed a strong finish to keep his job, so the lopsided loss to the Lions probably sealed his fate. The loss eliminated the Chargers from the playoffs for a second consecutive season. Credit the Minnesota Vikings and coach Leslie Frazier for resilience. With the score tied at 10 on the first drive of the third quarter, the Vikings lost halfback Adrian Peterson to a knee injury and quarterback Christian Ponder to a concussion on back-to-back plays. Still, they outscored the Redskins down the stretch and won 33-26. The Peterson knee injury looked bad. If Peterson's season is finished, he fell short of 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Frazier said Peterson's knee injury was a sprain but it's being reported as a torn ACL. With halfback Chris Johnson nursing an ankle injury, the Titans were smart. They started the game with three wide receivers -- Lavelle Hawkins, Nate Washington and Damian Williams. That was the first time this season they opened up with a three-receiver set. Matt Hasselbeck was the star for the Titans in a 23-17 win over the Jaguars. He completed 24 of 40 passes for 350 yards and a touchdown. Johnson had 56 yards on 15 carries. The strategy opened the middle of the field for tight end Jared Cook, who caught eight passes for 169 yards. Credit the Steelers with being smart. They rested Ben Roethlisberger (high-ankle sprain) and won easily, 27-0 over the hapless Rams, with Charlie Batch as the starting QB. The reason Batch is ahead of Dennis Dixon is because he can manage a game. Batch was smart in completing 15 of 22 passes for 208 yards and called 28 running plays for 169 yards. The Baltimore Ravens used a simple game plan to beat the Cleveland Browns 20-14. Ray Rice led a rushing attack that had 37 carries for 162 yards. He had 23 rushes for 87 yards, allowing QB Joe Flacco to throw only 24 passes. Could the Carolina Panthers be next year's Detroit Lions? Expect it. Thanks to Cam Newton, the Panthers have gone from 2-8 to 6-9, just like the Lions went from 2-10 to 6-10 with a four-game winning streak at the end of last season. Newton threw for only 171 yards, but he and the Panthers blew out Tampa Bay 48-16. He broke Peyton Manning's rookie passing yardage record and now has 3,893 yards for the season. As for the Bucs, this was their ninth straight loss, which should seal Raheem Morris' fate as head coach. Cardinals backup quarterback John Skelton almost brought his team from behind to beat the Bengals, but mistakes (three INTs) will prevent him from replacing Kevin Kolb as the starter. In 253 attempts, Kolb has nine touchdowns, eight interceptions and three lost fumbles. In Skelton's 235 attempts, he has 10 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and two lost fumbles. Kolb can't shake his concussion problems and was inactive Saturday. Give Cincinnati's Jerome Simpson credit for coming up with the best highlight of the day. In the second quarter, Simpson made an incredible flip in which he sailed over an upright defender and somehow landed on his feet in the end zone. "I've been wanting to do that in a game for a long time." Simpson said. Playing with a third-degree shoulder sprain, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green caught two passes for 25 yards. If you are wondering why Tony Sparano lost his job, the Dolphins clearly underachieved this year. They've outscored opponents 310-296, yet their record is 5-10. Sparano was an offensive line coach by trade, but Dolphins quarterbacks have been sacked 51 times.
John Clayton's game balls
• Offense: Matthew Stafford completed 29 of 36 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Stafford has thrown nine TDs against zero picks in his past three games.
• Defense: Rewarding the Patriots for his five-year, $48.5 million contract extension, LB Jerod Mayo was everywhere in a 27-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins. He had 13 tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hits.
Week 16 rundown
• Indianapolis 19, Houston 16
Now that they're suddenly winning games, the Colts' grip on the No. 1 pick -- and Andrew Luck -- isn't so secure.
• Buffalo 40, Denver 14
Another week, another second-quarter disaster (17 points allowed) for the Broncos. You could argue questionable officiating served as a catalyst. You can't argue Tim Tebow (four INTs) was dreadful.
• New England 27, Miami 24
The Patriots are a win away from home-field advantage in the AFC. Still, the Dolphins' Moore-Bush-Marshall trifecta exposed a lot of holes in New England's struggling D.
• N.Y. Giants 29, N.Y. Jets 14
The Giants survived the Meadowlands showdown. Now they advance to what will essentially be a division championship game against Dallas in Week 17.
• Carolina 48, Tampa Bay 16
The turnovers (four more Saturday) keep piling up for the Bucs. So do the losses (nine straight). The Panthers' Cam Newton is now the most prolific rookie passer in history.
• San Francisco 19, Seattle 17
So the 49ers finally allowed a rushing touchdown. Big deal. They still have the NFC's No. 2 seed in their grasp.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL• Atlanta at New Orleans (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET)
An early look at next weekend's biggest games:
• Dallas (8-7) at N.Y. Giants (8-7): Winner is the NFC East champion. It's as simple as that.
• Baltimore (11-4) at Cincinnati (9-6): A rivalry game with a lot at stake for both teams.
• Kansas City (6-9) at Denver (8-7): A win gives the Broncos the AFC West title. Kyle Orton's hoping to play spoiler.
• San Diego (7-8) at Oakland (8-7): The Raiders need to win and hope the Chiefs can do them a huge favor.