Commentary

Week 16: NFC far from settled

Five teams still in hunt for playoff spots; Bengals complete AFC picture

Originally Published: December 23, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Two nights before Christmas, the AFC playoff berths were wrapped up like a neat present. The NFC, however, needs one more week to figure out a couple of spots.

The bow was wrapped around the AFC postseason roster when the Cincinnati Bengals eliminated the Pittsburgh Steelers and clinched the No. 6 seed. That win, along with the Baltimore Ravens' victory over the New York Giants, enabled the Ravens to clinch the AFC North, so all four divisions are clinched.

The Houston Texans, though, put the No. 1 seed in play by losing to the Minnesota Vikings. To get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Texans have to beat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 17. If they do and the Broncos beat the Kansas City Chiefs, the Texans will be the No. 1 seed, the Broncos No. 2 and the New England Patriots No. 3. The odds now favor the Bengals opening the playoffs against the Patriots in the wild-card round and the Ravens hosting the Colts, who clinched a wild-card spot Sunday.

In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons wrapped up the top seed Saturday night, but the big news was the New York Giants losing all chances to win the NFC East. They can still get a wild card, but things don't look good.

Officially, five teams are still in the mix for the last two playoff spots in the NFC. The Seattle Seahawks clinched a playoff berth with their win over the San Francisco 49ers, but the 49ers can lock up the NFC West if they beat Arizona in Week 17.

The Vikings can earn a wild card if they beat the Green Bay Packers next week. If the Vikings lose, three other teams, including Chicago, have a chance to earn the last wild card. The winner of the Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys game wins the NFC East. The Redskins still have a chance at a wild card if they lose, but the Cowboys are out of the playoffs with a loss.

The big winner Sunday was the Packers. With the 49ers losing, the Packers in position to earn the No. 2 seed with a win at Minnesota.

"If we're able to get the No. 2 seed, it would help injured guys, but a couple years ago we played every week and made it work,'' Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

Here is what else stood out in Week 16.

1. Young guard prevails: Watching Marvin Lewis put together this young Bengals team, you got the idea at some point it would catch or surpass the old guard in the AFC North -- the Steelers and Ravens. How the Bengals did it wasn't pretty. Lewis made coaching mistakes. A.J. Green lost an untimely fumble. Andy Dalton threw two picks. But the Bengals' 13-10 win is a classic example of a good, young team being oblivious to pressure.

"This is a very young football team," Lewis said. "This group in there has very little history of anything."

Lewis has lived his NFL coaching life in the Baltimore-Pittsburgh-Cincinnati triangle. He coached in Pittsburgh and Baltimore before becoming the head coach in Cincinnati, but he has pretty much finished third in most years. Even Lewis joked that this young team almost lost because of some of his late decisions.

With 3:22 left in regulation and having the ball on the Steelers' 38-yard line, Lewis elected to go for a 56-yard field goal that didn't have a chance. That gave the Steelers the ball at their 46. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who dialed up a near-perfect game on defense, was able stop Ben Roethlisberger at the Bengals' 36. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin went for a 53-yard field goal that fell short. After a three-and-out, the Bengals had to come up with one more stop and got it when Roethlisberger overthrew Mike Wallace for a Reggie Nelson interception. One Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green completion set up the game-winning field goal by Josh Brown.

"I told them thanks for bailing me out, plain, flat and simple," Lewis said.

The Steelers were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception. They laid the Inexplicable Egg. Roethlisberger looked off Sunday. He threw two interceptions, including a pick-six to Leon Hall, and accepted the blame. "We should be [going to the playoffs] if it wasn't for me," he said. "We have a lot of talent and it shows."

Dalton targeted 18 throws to Green, who caught 10 for 116 yards. One thing that helped Green was having a cushion because cornerback Cortez Allen was not playing press coverage. The free release allowed Green to beat double coverage and not get caught up in how the Steelers historically have beaten the Bengals.

"I told everybody that I wasn't here 30 years ago," Green said about the Bengals making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years.

2. Tale of two No. 1 seeds: The Falcons might not be dominating, but they secured home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs by beating the Detroit Lions 31-18 on Saturday night. The Falcons have parlayed the league's easiest schedule into a 13-2 record.

The surprise of Sunday was watching the Vikings dominate Houston, winning 23-6. Although the Texans' defense held Adrian Peterson to fewer than 100 yards, the Texans as a whole didn't look like a No. 1 seed. The Falcons may not have a playoff win with Mike Smith as head coach and Matt Ryan at quarterback, but you have to better feel about their chances than the Texans'. Houston was routed in New England and lost to Minnesota at home in the past three weeks. Adding to the concerns is the irregular heartbeat of halfback Arian Foster, who couldn't finish the game.

"He is doing fine," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "[The irregular heartbeat] was why we took him out of the game. But he is doing fine. That is something that happened once in practice. I'm not sure when it happened, but it was a precaution."

The Texans were terrible on offense. They had 34 yards rushing as a team. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had 48 individually. Houston left tackle Duane Brown couldn't figure out why the Texans were so flat on offense.

"I can't explain why," Brown said. "We killed ourselves in some drives. Like I said, myself included, some penalties put us in some bad situations, just being inconsistent in the run game. Just flat."

To clinch the AFC's top seed, the Texans have to win next week in Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin
Alex Trautwig/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III relied on his arm, not his legs, to put the Skins in position to win the NFC East.

3. New beast in the NFC East: Officially, nothing was decided in the NFC East race. Unofficially, the Redskins, a 3-6 team earlier in the year, are on the verge of clinching the division, and they look like the champs. Wearing a knee brace that hindered his running, rookie QB Robert Griffin III returned to the starting lineup and led Washington to an efficient 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Griffin tried only two runs. He relied more on his accurate arm, completing 16 of 24 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.

The Cowboys lost a wild 34-31 overtime game in which they once again proved they are a tease. They fell behind New Orleans 31-17. The defense had no answers for screen and check-down passes to running backs. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram combined for 15 receptions for 172 yards. Drew Brees was able to convert 11 of 19 third downs.

"We didn't get off the field on third downs, and we didn't stay on the field on third downs," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. The Cowboys converted only two of 10 third downs.

As for the Giants, the malaise of November carried over to December. Normally, the Giants are good at the finish. On Sunday, they didn't show up against the Ravens and lost 33-14. Once again, the defensive line was a disappointment and didn't pressure Joe Flacco. Eli Manning was inconsistent. At 8-7, the Giants, the defending Super Bowl champs, are all but out of the playoffs.

"We obviously have a very bad formula going on right here," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We've had two games in a row, pretty much the exact same scenario, with 47 offensive snaps last week, [45] this week."

The defense has given up 67 points in the past two losses. It appears that some starters are playing as though they are satisfied with last year's Super Bowl ring. The Ravens had 533 yards and held the ball for more than 39 minutes.

"It's a very difficult time for us," Coughlin said. "If we get in the playoffs, we deserve to make it. It's very remote right now."

The Cowboys still have a chance to win the division, but they have to win a potentially close game next Sunday in Washington. In Dallas' past six games, the scoring differential has been 22 points. They won four of those games; three went to overtime.

4. Lucky and good: The Colts made the incredible rise from 2-14 to a 10-5 wild-card team. They clinched that spot Sunday with a 20-13 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Colts are the No. 5 seed in the playoffs one season after having the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Sunday's game wasn't easy. The Chiefs rushed for 352 yards and became the first team in NFL history to lose a game with that many rushing yards.

The Colts haven't had it easy all season. They've won 10 games but have been outscored 371-329. Luck has had four consecutive games in which he has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. He was 17-of-35 for 205 yards on Sunday, but he wins close games. The Colts are 9-1 in games decided by eight points or less.

"This team has found a way to win close games," interim coach Bruce Arians said. "If you play hard, play really hard for 60 minutes, you'll beat most teams in this league, because they don't."

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Peterson needs a big game in Week 17 to break Eric Dickerson's rushing record.

5. Records that mean something: Plenty of records were being pursued this weekend. Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions broke Jerry Rice's 1995 record of 1,848 receiving yards and now sits at 1,892. Luck broke Cam Newton's rookie quarterback yardage record and now has 4,183.

The third record that could fall is the single-season rushing record. Peterson, who was held to 86 yards on 25 carries Sunday, needs 208 yards to break Eric Dickerson's mark of 2,105. Considering Peterson put up 210 rushing yards on Green Bay in Week 13, Dickerson's record seems within reach.

"Of course, I care about it," Peterson said of the record. "I'm not going to let that overwhelm me. I'm going to go out and play my game. If it comes, it comes."

The best part of the Vikings' win was the improved play of Ponder. For more than a month, Peterson has more rushing yards than Ponder has passing yards. Ponder completed 16 of 30 passes for 174 yards and one touchdown. Was it great? No, but it's a step in the right direction. Head coach Leslie Frazier explained the relief of getting Ponder a win considering the pressure he is under.

"He gets too much of the blame when things don't go right," Frazier said. "He deserves a lot of credit for the success that we had today. He did what an NFL quarterback needs to do the way we're structured. He did a terrific job of running our team and leading our offense throughout this ballgame."

Peterson is still carrying the team, but the Vikings have exceeded expectations.


SHORT TAKES


The New York Jets' benching of Mark Sanchez now means seven of the 22 highest-paid quarterbacks in the league are finishing the season on the sidelines. The list starts with Michael Vick, who has a six-year, $100 million contract. Sanchez's contract is for three years and $40.47 million. Kevin Kolb is on injured reserve with a five-year, $62 million deal. Matt Cassel has a $9.6 million-a-year average, followed by Alex Smith ($8 million), Matt Hasselbeck ($6.666 million) and Matt Flynn ($6.5 million). ... Greg McElroy's first start for the Jets was awful. He had almost as many sacks (11) as completions (14) in a 27-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Jets coach Rex Ryan didn't say why he dressed Tim Tebow but didn't play him. There are reports Tebow didn't want to participate in Wildcat plays. ... Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman could find out as early as Monday whether he will be suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He claims his test was contaminated. If he loses the appeal, he would be out for the season finale against St. Louis and into the playoffs. ... At 7-7-1 after their easy victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the St. Louis Rams are trying to have their first winning season since 2003. It won't be easy. They play in Seattle next week. ... The Rams' Steven Jackson surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the eighth time in his career. ... The Buccaneers are finishing the season like last year. They have lost five in a row and have been outscored 69-13 in the past two weeks. At 6-9, first-year coach Greg Schiano has improved the team by only two games despite adding Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson, Eric Wright and others. ... The best Christmas present in football is having Chuck Pagano return to work Monday for the Colts after being cleared by doctors following his bout with leukemia. ... Looks like Cardinals QB John Skelton is back in the doghouse. Even though he was healthy, he was the third quarterback Sunday behind Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer. Hoyer was just signed a couple weeks ago. Didn't the Cardinals decide Skelton was their best quarterback to start the season? ... Jake Locker isn't doing a lot to make the Titans feel good about the future. In a 55-7 loss to Green Bay, he started 3-of-12 for 35 yards with three sacks and two interceptions. ... For those wondering, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant has grown into a big-time receiver. He has had 10 touchdown catches in the past seven weeks. ... Is it me, or do the Patriots look a little faulty? Although it appeared they were moving toward the No. 1 seed in the AFC, they lost to the San Francisco 49ers at home last Sunday night and squeaked out a 23-16 victory over the 2-13 Jacksonville Jaguars. Had the Patriots lost, they would have been 5-5 in nondivisonal games. They are 5-0 in the AFC East. ... Titans owner Bud Adams may be thinking again about firing head coach Mike Munchak. He told The Tennessean, "I like Mike. But liking him and getting the job done are two different things." ... The NFC won three interconference games Sunday and finished the season 39-25 against the AFC. ... The AFC West finished 14-26 against the rest of the league in nondivisional games, worst in football.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer