The task for the Jets was simple, or at least it was on paper. All they'd have to do was defeat the Bills, who recently lost to both the Eagles and Redskins, and struggled to beat the Cowboys, and they'd qualify for the playoffs. New York, off a win versus New England, was effectively considered a lock to win this game, at least in the eyes of the public. The Jets were favored by three and were getting three-quarters of the betting action.
However, once again, a team that needed to prevail in Week 17 fell flat on its face. The Jets lost and the Steelers won, so Pittsburgh claimed the No. 6 seed in the AFC. Making matters worse for New York, the team lost at the hands of the head coach it fired the year before.
The Jets made so many mistakes in this game. The receivers dropped some passes early, including a throw to Brandon Marshall that fell through his hands, which would've resulted in a first down. Meanwhile, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the offensive line couldn't handle the blitz at all. Fitzpatrick, seeing tons of pressure, was very inaccurate. It didn't help that fierce winds were blowing around his wobbly passes.
Fitzpatrick didn't turn the ball over in the first half, but that changed as the game progressed. The Jets were in position to take the lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but Fitzpatrick forced the issue into the end zone to a covered receiver. A field goal would've given New York a one-point advantage, so the decision-making on Fitzpatrick's part was horrific. Fitzpatrick then threw interceptions on his next two possessions. The first occurred as he was getting hit, while the other came on a desperation heave that sealed the victory for the Bills.
Fitzpatrick finished 16-of-37 for 181 yards, two touchdowns and the three picks. New York fans that had developed faith in Fitzpatrick had to be shocked by this result, given how well the bearded quarterback had been playing. However, Fitzpatrick was just repeating what he's done in the past; he has always enjoyed some nice stretches but then absolutely killed his team in the clutch. All Jets backers have to do is ask Bills fans about him.
One final note on Fitzpatrick: He threw his 30th touchdown of the season in this game, breaking the Jets' single-season record. I'm astonished that New York's previous record, held by Vinny Testaverde, was just 29.
Fitzpatrick's scores went to Marshall (8-126) and Eric Decker (5-50). As mentioned, Marshall dropped a crucial pass.
I mentioned earlier that the Jets committed a number of errors. One such mistake was not feeding Chris Ivory enough. Ivory was given just six carries for some reason, gaining 81 yards in the process. The Jets instead fed the ball more to Stevan Ridley, who had meager numbers (9-29).
There were two major injuries in this game, one on each side. Muhammad Wilkerson had to be helped off the field in the third quarter, and it was later ruled that he sustained a broken leg. The second was to running back Karlos Williams. The rookie runner was off to a great start before getting knocked out with a knee injury. He appeared to be stuffed at the line of scrimmage on one occasion, but made a great spin move to get away from Wilkerson to pick up the first down. He also muscled through a tackle to move the chains on a third-and-3. Williams gained 24 yards and a touchdown on six carries.
Supplanting Williams was Mike Gillislee, who was very ineffective. Despite seeing a New York front without Wilkerson for half the game, Gillislee was restricted to 28 yards on 24 carries. He also lost a fumble that set up the Jets with a quick touchdown.
Tyrod Taylor actually led the Bills in rushing with 51 yards on 10 scrambles. He scored on an 18-yard burst that was very impressive. He also made some key third-down conversions amid heavy winds, performing well overall. He went 18-of-28 for 182 yards.
More than half of Taylor's passes were thrown to Sammy Watkins, who caught 11 passes for 136 yards. Darrelle Revis, who had a down year, simply had no chance against him. Revis was also whistled for a penalty on Watkins at one point. Watkins was dominant, and his only blemish on the afternoon was a drop in the first quarter.
Remarkably, only one other Buffalo player had more than three receiving yards. That was Greg Salas (3-41), who also dropped a pass.
Dolphins 20, Patriots 10
I wrote last week that I thought Bill Belichick kicked off in overtime to sort of concede the game. He didn't necessarily desire to lose, but he didn't want to put Tom Brady in a situation to get injured behind a pathetic offensive line. Besides, he had the Dolphins in Week 17, so how could his team not claim home-field advantage with a victory?
Well, the offensive line happened. It appeared as though the Patriots were just hoping to win this game without having to throw the ball at all. Brady attempted just two passes in the first 21 minutes of this game, and his second attempt saw Ndamukong Suh hit Brady low, prompting the New England quarterback to hobble around. Brady only appeared to twist his ankle though, and he remained on the field until close to the very end.
Once it was clear that Brady was going to have to throw, it was apparent that the Patriots were definitely going to be in trouble. Brady had absolutely no time in the pocket, and I'm not exaggerating. He was often hit by multiple defenders before moving to his second read. This obviously affected his accuracy, as he was way off the mark all afternoon whenever he tried to go downfield.
Brady finished 12-of-21 for 134 yards, and most of that came on a 68-yard checkdown to James White. Take that out, and Brady was just 11-of-20 for only 66 yards. The protection was so bad that Bill Belichick pulled Brady and Rob Gronkowski with two minutes remaining when his team went down 20-10. It was the right decision, but an alarming one at the same time. The Patriots are in serious trouble because they can't block whatsoever.
Getting some players back will help New England a bit, but it might not be enough, and they may not be 100 percent anyway. Brady needs someone to throw to besides Gronkowski, who had just two catches for 18 yards on seven targets. Danny Amendola returned to the field this week, but he was very ineffective, snagging two grabs for 17 yards. Amendola just isn't a very good player, while Julian Edelman still wasn't healthy enough to play this week, which has to be discouraging.
The Patriots can't run the ball either. Steven Jackson was the team's leading rusher, and he was very underwhelming, mustering only 35 yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts. Brandon Bolden (9-31) was mixed in, but wasn't any better.
As for the Dolphins, Ryan Tannehill actually had a solid game, unlike the last time he battled the Patriots. Thanks to poor tackling by New England, Tannehill went 25-of-38 for 350 yards and two touchdowns. He had only a couple of misfires, including one pass where he missed an open Jordan Cameron downfield. He also had a dropped interception that Jamie Collins let slip through his hands. However, Tannehill ended the year on an excellent note. The Dolphins need to improve his blocking this offseason.
Another positive sign for the Dolphins: DeVante Parker went off, catching five balls for 106 yards and a touchdown. His best reception was a 46-yard grab he made over Logan Ryan. Jarvis Landry (6-72) also had a solid game.
The Patriots' greatest issue is their blocking, but run defense is a big concern as well. Lamar Miller had a big opening drive and ultimately finished with 60 yards on 19 tries despite running behind a line missing its top three players.
Bengals 24, Ravens 16
The Bengals didn't necessarily need to win this game, but a victory could have potentially given them a bye going into the playoffs. However, they didn't appear as though they wanted it early on, as they played sluggishly to start the contest. They made numerous mistakes early on. Jeremy Hill dropped a pass. A.J. McCarron was nearly picked throwing the ball into double coverage. The defense allowed Ryan Mallett to convert numerous third downs. The defenders dropped some potential Mallett interceptions. The Ravens actually led 9-7 going into halftime, as Cincinnati didn't appear to have any sort of energy.
I don't know what Marvin Lewis said to his team during intermission, but they were sharper and way more energetic following the break. It helped that the Ravens began making mistakes, but the Bengals looked like a different squad. A.J. McCarron barely let any of his passes hit the ground (7-of-10 in second half), though A.J. Green definitely helped him out. Green made two spectacular catches on the same drive, both of which involved improbably tapping his toes onto the field of play right near the sideline. The second catch resulted in a touchdown.
McCarron finished 17-of-27 for 160 yards and two touchdowns overall, while Green snatched four passes for 34 yards and the score. Green barely did anything outside of that one drive, but that's all the Bengals needed from him.
McCarron's other score was thrown to Tyler Eifert, who hauled in all four of his targets for 51 yards. Outside of Eifert and Green, the only other Bengal with more than 20 receiving yards was Marvin Jones (5-38).
Jeremy Hill looked great for the second week in a row. He just missed the century mark, gaining 96 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries. His dropped pass was his only blemish. Giovani Bernard (6-36) wasn't much of a factor.
As for the Ravens, they definitely wanted to see what they had in Ryan Mallett, as they asked him to throw 56 times despite taking a lead into the third quarter. Mallett had a mixed outing overall. He was sharp early with the aforementioned third-down conversions. He fired an absolute laser to Jeremy Butler for a 12-yard gain on a third down, and then he converted a third-and-10 to Kamar Aiken for 18 yards.
Mallett went 30-of-56 for 292 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The good news is that Mallett should've had another score, but the ball barely hit the ground when Butler appeared to catch it. The bad news is that Mallett's two-pick performance could've been way worse. The Bengals dropped two routine interceptions. Only one of his turnovers was consequential, however, as the first pick was a lazy toss on a screen play. The second came in desperation time, and the Ravens stupidly tackled the Cincinnati defender to end the game.
Overall though, Mallett looked good. There are reports that he has turned his life around, so he deserves a chance to be Joe Flacco's backup. However, I don't trust Mallett to stay clean. We'll see if he has a positive offseason, but I'm not optimistic.
Mallett spread the ball around, as five players saw at least as many targets. Those were: Aiken (5-76), Butler (6-57), Maxx Williams (6-53), Chris Matthews (4-51) and Buck Allen (6-32). Matthews was guilty of a crucial drop late in the game.
Speaking of Allen, he wasn't very effective on the ground, mustering only 38 yards on 15 carries.
Colts 30, Titans 24
The Colts needed a billion things to happen for them to reach the playoffs. Perhaps the most improbable was New England losing to Miami, which actually occurred. However, the Texans also needed to lose to the Jaguars, but Houston was able to prevail.
Given the fact that Indianapolis was such a long shot to reach the postseason, the team opted to sit Andrew Luck. With Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst out, the Colts had to decide between Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley as their starting quarterback in this contest. As it turns out, they chose incorrectly.
Freeman started and immediately was picked off. The ball went through Daniel Herron's hands, but the throw was a bit too hard. Freeman later fired a perfect touchdown strike to Coby Fleener, but struggled after that. He was benched for a while in favor of Ryan Lindley, who proceeded to pick apart the Titans. Lindley ultimately threw a score to Andre Johnson, who impressively caught the ball while falling out of bounds, yet he was able to reach it across the goal line for the touchdown.
Despite this, Freeman was inserted back into the game after that, which was puzzling. Freeman went 15-of-28 for 149 yards, one touchdown and the aforementioned interception, while Lindley finished 6-of-10 for 58 yards and a score. Freeman did some damage on the ground, picking up 24 rushing yards on eight scrambles.
Only four Colts players had more than three receiving yards: Fleener (7-88), Johnson (4-46), T.Y. Hilton (4-44) and Phillip Dorsett (4-28). Donte Moncrief saw two looks, but the one reception he reeled in was a 2-yard loss. He left early with a toe injury, which was why Dorsett was on the field.
Frank Gore was expected to have a big game, but couldn't even eclipse the century mark. Gore gained just 76 yards on 19 carries.
As for the Titans, they also started the wrong signal-caller. Zach Mettenberger scored an early rushing touchdown off of Freeman's early interception. However, he struggled mightily after that. He went 5-of-13 for 38 yards and a pick-six, which occurred when his pass was tipped as he was pressured. It was apparent how bad Mettenberger was, given that he was passing against a secondary that lost Vontae Davis and Greg Toler to injury.
Mettenberger was yanked in favor of Alex Tanney, who actually looked pretty good. He went 10-of-14 for 99 yards and a touchdown, which was a perfect throw to Dorial Green-Beckham. It's a shame the Titans didn't make the switch earlier. Actually, never mind, as it may have cost them the No. 1 pick in the draft, where they will likely select Laremy Tunsil, as you can see in my 2016 NFL Mock Draft.
The Titans' only semblance of offense before Mettenberger was pulled came on a Statue of Liberty play, which Delanie Walker executed for a 36-yard carry. Walker nearly capped off the drive with a touchdown, but was tackled inches shy of the goal line. Walker still had a big game though, catching nine of his 14 targets for 94 yards.
Only two other Tennessee players registered more than three receiving yards: Green-Beckham (2-21, TD) and Harry Douglas (2-19).
With Antonio Andrews barely used because of his previous fumbling issues, David Cobb handled most of the workload. He gained 73 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. His score was set up by the Walker trick play.
Redskins 34, Cowboys 23
My picks podcast co-host Matvei pointed out that this was serious revenge for the Redskins. The Cowboys humiliated them in an inconsequential Week 17 game last year, and the Redskins were clearly aiming to do the same thing. Despite being unable to move out of the No. 4 seed, the Redskins played their starters for nearly a half, and the result was a 24-0 advantage when many of the first-stringers left the field.
The Cowboys had no chance against Kirk Cousins. He did whatever he wanted to against their defense, going 12-of-15 for 176 yards and three touchdowns. In doing so, Cousins broke the team's single-season passing yards record. There was a scary moment where Cousins took a big hit in the red zone, but he turned out to be OK. In fact, the Redskins, as a whole, escaped without any major injuries, which is the goal of any team heading into the playoffs in Week 17.
Cousins' touchdowns went to Jamison Crowder (5-109), Pierre Garcon (3-49) and Ryan Grant (3-18). Garcon made a great, one-handed, diving catch near the end zone, but was out of bounds. Fortunately for him, he was able to score a bit later. DeSean Jackson did not play.
To my surprise, Alfred Morris was on the field for most of the game. He gained an even 100 yards on 19 carries. Matt Jones was sidelined, but still, the decision was curious. Chris Thompson, expected to handle a big workload, was given just seven attempts for 19 yards.
I'm not going to spend much more time on this game, as more than half of it was Colt McCoy versus Kellen Moore. McCoy went 7-of-11 for 128 yards and a touchdown, which was a 71-yard bomb in which the Cowboys forgot to cover someone named Rashad Ross.
Moore, meanwhile, was 33-of-48 for 435 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, but don't be fooled by those numbers. With Washington's first-stringers on the field, Moore was just 6-of-10 for 55 yards anda pick. Moore did a great job of picking up garbage time in meaningless action to perhaps keep his NFL career alive.
Darren McFadden picked up a nice incentive bonus check by eclipsing the 1,000-yard barrier, gaining 92 yards on just 12 tries.
Terrance Williams led Dallas with eight catches for 173 yards. Jason Witten (6-58) scored once.
Lions 24, Bears 20
This game was a lot closer than it should've been. The Bears were missing both Alshon Jeffery and Zach Miller, meaning the only legitimate play-makers Jay Cutler had to work with were his running backs. Detroit, meanwhile, had motivation here, as the team has discussed finishing strong this season to catapult them into a potential hot start in 2016. Despite these two factors, this contest went back and forth in the second half, but the Lions ultimately prevailed.
The Lions were able to win because Matthew Stafford simply had more to work with. Calvin Johnson, who appeared to be playing on one leg a couple of Monday nights ago, completely dominated this contest. The Bears had no answer for him, as he secured 10 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown. Stafford and Johnson connected on a beautiful back-shoulder connection in the first half.
Stafford, meanwhile, went 28-of-39 for 298 yards and three touchdowns. The Bears couldn't do anything to stop him, especially during the latter stages of the second half. They need to improve their linebacking corps and pass rush this offseason. Adding another cornerback wouldn't hurt either.
With Megatron dominating all of the targets, no other Lion registered more than 49 receiving yards. Thus, it was a disappointing showing by Golden Tate (4-34). Stafford's other touchdowns went to Eric Ebron (5-25) and Tim Wright.
Ameer Abdullah handled most of the workload, gaining 44 yards on 10 carries. He appeared to fumble early on, but the officials ruled that his forward progress had been stopped.
As for the Bears, Cutler had the performance of a lifetime. I'm not being facetious. With Jeffery and Miller out of the lineup, Cutler went 17-of-23 for 245 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions despite the fact that his top targets were people named Marc Mariani (6-80), Josh Bellamy (3-49, TD), Cameron Meredith (2-19) and Deonte Thompson (1-45). Sounds like four players that the Madden random name generator came up with.
Cutler was great, and none of the three interceptions were his fault. The first came on a tipped pass, while the other two occurred because he released the ball as he was getting hit. The offensive line is something else Chicago needs to upgrade this spring.
Perhaps playing his final game at Soldier Field, Matt Forte ran well, gaining 76 yards on 17 carries. He also did some damage as a receiver out of the backfield, catching three balls for 34 yards and a score. Jeremy Langford (5-14) didn't do much, but he'll probably be the starter next year.
Eagles 35, Giants 30
The Eagles fired Chip Kelly - click the link for the grade - and it appears as though they should've done that much earlier, based on this result. Of course, the Giants said goodbye to their own coach as well, as Tom Coughlin's family was brought in to occupy all of the empty seats at MetLife Stadium.
Sixty-five points would indicate an offensive explosion, but I wouldn't say the scoring units were all that great in this contest. This was more of the defenses being terrible. The Eagles missed numerous tackles, as Mychal Kendricks was one of the primary culprits. Fletcher Cox, meanwhile, didn't appear to be showing much effort, perhaps because he was looking forward to his free trip to Hawaii. On the Giants' side, Brandon Meriweather had an absolutely ghastly performance, taking some of the worst angles I've ever seen. Meriweather eventually got hurt, which actually helped New York's defense. However, the Giants had absolutely no clue that they had to cover Zach Ertz.
The Eagles opened up with a 54-yard DeMarco Murray touchdown run. It was hilarious, as Murray actually went north-south instead of east-west, which Kelly took criticism for. Kelly had absolutely no clue how to utilize his high-priced free-agent signing, and it took just one play for the other Philadelphia coaches to figure it out. The Giants did a better job on Murray for the rest of the afternoon, as Murray was restricted to 69 yards and that touchdown on 12 carries, thanks to some poor blocking. Darren Sproles (3-24) also found the end zone.
As for Philadelphia's aerial attack, I mentioned that the Giants had no idea how to cover Ertz. The young tight end converted all nine of his targets for 152 yards, and he was wide open on most of his receptions. New York has struggled against tight ends all year, so this was hardly a surprise. The Giants need to make some serious upgrades to their defense this offseason. Check out my 2016 NFL Mock Draft to see whom I have them taking.
Thanks to the Giants' inept secondary, Sam Bradford was nearly perfect, going 30-of-38 for 320 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that was tipped. Bradford's stat line would've been even better had Jordan Matthews not dropped what would've been a 40-yard reception on an early third down.
Speaking of Matthews, he secured both of Bradford's touchdowns. He caught seven balls for 54 yards otherwise. Aside from Matthews and Ertz, no other Eagle besides Brent Celek (2-38) logged more than 25 receiving yards.
Moving on to the Giants, it appeared as though they were in complete control of this game in the third quarter. They were up 27-21 and had possession in the red zone. Eli Manning was hit as he released the ball, and the pass appeared to be pick-sixed as a result, though it was later ruled to be a fumble returned for a score. Not that it mattered very much, as the Giants relinquished control of the game because of that error.
Manning went 24-of-43 for 302 yards and two touchdowns. He had issues connecting with Odell Beckham Jr., as the Eagles had someone named E.J. Biggers cover him. Biggers inexplicably played extremely well. Beckham was limited to just one catch in the opening half and finished with five grabs for 54 yards.
Manning's touchdowns went to Rueben Randle (4-79) and Will Tye (5-67). Shane Vereen was also a factor in the passing game, catching six balls for 72 yards.
Rashad Jennings handled most of the workload on the ground. He gashed the Eagles for 170 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. It's a shame that Coughlin figured out that he had to use Jennings primarily when it was too late. Coughlin spent way too much time messing around with Andre Williams and Orleans Darkwa earlier in the year.
EDITOR'S NOTE: What a big disappointment. The Jaguars' offense, which had been so explosive recently, mustered just six points at Houston. I guess J.J. Watt is still pretty good despite breaking his hand?
Great players rise to the occasion in big games, and that is what J.J. Watt did as the Texans clinched the AFC South Championship with a win over the Jaguars. Watt was absolutely dominant, and the Jaguars' weak offensive line was incapable of blocking Watt. Houston's defense was utterly suffocating against a Jacksonville offense that has been a steady point-machine this season.
The Jaguars finished 5-11 in 2015, and Blake Bortles showed great improvement under new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, but improving the offensive line and defense are critical for 2016 with Gus Bradley entering the season on the hot seat. Luke Joeckel was the No. 2-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he is a liability for the Jaguars' offense. Going against Joeckel, Watt and Whitney Mercilus combined for five sacks (two strip-sacks). Joeckel looked pathetic trying to block them.
The Texans' second possession produced a field goal as they got close to the end zone thanks to a completion to DeAndre Hopkins and a 20-yard pass to rookie Jaelen Strong. On their next drive, they moved methodically down the field before Hoyer connected with Jonathan Grimes for a 14-yard touchdown.
The Jaguars answered as blown coverage by Brian Cushing let Allen Robinson get open and take off down the field for a gain of 36 yards. That led to a Jacksonville field goal. Denard Robinson soon fumbled the ball away, and Watt recovered it in Jacksonville territory. A 25-yard run by Akeem Hunt set up a first-and-goal before Grimes scored his second touchdown on a short run to give the Texans a 17-3 lead. Just before the half, Andre Hal intercepted Blake Bortles with a great diving catch, and that set up a 51-yard field goal from Nick Novak and the Texans took a 20-3 lead into the half.
Late in the third quarter, Hoyer had a bad pass off the mark that was deflected to Davon House for an interception. That set up the Jaguars inside the Texans' 20-yard line. On third down though, Watt beat Joeckel for a sack to force Jacksonville's other field goal.
In the fourth quarter, Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis took a screen pass for 45 yards to get into Houston territory. However, Watt beat Joeckel for a strip-sack and Mercilus caught the fumble in air to keep the Jaguars from getting back into the game. Alfred Blue ran the ball well to set up another Novak field goal from 50 yards out. Kareem Jackson then jumped a route to get a 27-yard pick-six to pad Houston's victory.
Brian Hoyer returned to the field after missing two games with a concussion and completed 25-of-40 passes for 249 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He had a decent outing.
Hopkins caught seven passes for 89 yards. Strong (6-56) is showing progress for the Texans.
Blue rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries. He had a run of 65 yards called back by a holding. Akeem Hunt looked good for the Texans with three carries for 28 yards and a catch for 27 yards. Hunt also had a 50-yard pass reception taken back by an incorrectly called penalty.
Bortles completed 17-of-32 for for 239 yards with two interceptions. He had no chance with the awful performance of his offensive line. The Jaguars had zero running game as Jonas Gray led them with 23 yards on nine carries.
Allen Robinson logged five receptions for 108 yards to conclude his excellent second season.
The Texans' defense was absolutely tremendous. Johnathan Joseph led a strong game from the secondary. Mercilus had five tackles, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
Playing without a cast on his broken hand, Watt had an insane performance and stat line. He totaled eight tackles, three sacks, two batted passes, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two tackles for a loss in the ground game. He also drew some holding calls. It was the epitome of a defensive lineman dominating a game from start to finish.
There was a huge loss that hit Houston in this game, though. At the end of the first quarter, the Texans suffered a devastating injury as left tackle Duane Brown was hit hard and had to be carted off the field with what looked like a serious leg injury. That injury could be huge in the postseason.
Saints 20, Falcons 17 By Pat Yasinskas - @PatYaz33
EDITOR'S NOTE: It's amazing to me that Matt Ryan and the Falcons have been so bad in the red zone for three years now. I don't get how they can be so efficient in between the 20s, yet come up short when it matters most.
This game had absolutely no playoff implications for either team. But you couldn't tell that by watching what transpired.
This turned out to be a typical game in a matchup of the NFC South's two biggest rivals. Both teams were sharp throughout. But the Saints, who could have been ending an era, came out on top.
New Orleans safety Jamarca Sanford came up with an interception of a Matt Ryan pass with just under two minutes left in the game. That cleared the way for a game-winning field goal by Kai Forbath.
This might have been coach Sean Payton's last game with the Saints. There have been multiple reports that several teams could be interested in trading for Payton. Where there is smoke, there usually is fire, and there has been a lot of smoke surrounding Payton.
It might be time for a fresh start for Payton, but the Saints shouldn't let him go without getting a nice package of draft picks. The Saints (7-9) need rebuilding. But Payton already rebuilt this franchise once and he can do it again.
There also have been plenty of rumors about the future of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. He has a $30 million salary-cap figure for next season and will be 37 years old. But Brees still has something left in the tank.
The Saints need to sign Brees to a contract extension and spread out his cap hit.
The New Orleans defense played relatively well against the Falcons. But this defense struggled throughout most of the season. It's clear that the Saints need to improve on defense. They have to look for help in the 2016 NFL Draft.
A pass-rusher to go with Cam Heyward is desperately needed, and that's the direction the Saints should look in the draft. Penn State defensive end Carl Nassib could be a perfect fit.
The Saints also need to use the 2016 NFL Draft to upgrade their wide receiver corps. Veteran Marques Colston is near the end of his career. Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks are good as second or third receivers, but the Saints need a true No. 1 receiver going forward.
New Orleans running back Tim Hightower continued to be a nice late-season fantasy pickup. He had 16 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown.
For the Falcons, they finished 8-8, which was a huge disappointment after a 5-0 start. Coach Dan Quinn is safe, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff could be on the hot seat. Dimitroff hasn't drafted well or found much in free agency in recent years.
Despite drafting Vic Beasley, the Falcons didn't have much of a pass rush this year. They entered the game last in the league in sacks. That means the Falcons almost have to use their first-round pick on a pass rusher. Nassib could also be a target for the Falcons.
One position the Falcons don't have to worry about in the 2016 NFL Draft is running back. Devonta Freeman had 24 carries for 81 yards and went over 1,000 rushing yards on the season.
Although a pass-rusher is the biggest need, the Falcons should use a second- or third-round pick on a wide receiver. They have the best receiver in the game in Julio Jones, but they need someone to complement him. Roddy White is well past his prime and might not be back next season.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Congratulations to the Steelers for claiming the sixth and final playoff spot. And congratulations to every square bettor who wagered on Pittsburgh in Week 17.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had a playoff spot gift-wrapped for them two weeks ago, but a loss to the Ryan Mallett-led Ravens set up a nail-biting Week 17 for the Steelers and their fans, who needed to dispense of Cleveland in Cleveland and also have the Buffalo Bills beat the New York Jets, who just needed to win to get a playoff berth.
Both those things happened, as you probably know, but neither came easily. The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger again did not look sharp, but the Browns had Austin Davis at quarterback, and that was the biggest difference.
Even though the Browns routinely lived in Pittsburgh territory on Sunday, all they could muster were four Travis Coons' field goals. Davis started two games for the Browns this season and was unable to lead them to a touchdown in either.
Davis threw two interceptions and fumbled away another, while completing 24-of-46 passes for 240 yards - a poor 52-percent completion rate. He also was sacked seven times.
But amazingly, this game was a one-score affair into the fourth quarter, even with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown putting up big numbers once again. An early fumble by Brown and two interceptions by Roethlisberger kept this one close.
By halftime, Brown had 10 receptions for 150 yards and a touchdown, which is a career game for most wide receivers. There was inkling at that point, that Brown could make a push for Marvin Harrison's reception record, which Brown was 20 behind coming into the game. He managed just three more receptions, but for the season, a year in which Landry Jones and the other backup were his quarterbacks for a time, Brown finished with 136 receptions for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers broke his own Steelers' records.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were up just five points, 17-12. The Browns had the ball on their own 20-yard line, when Lawrence Timmons sacked Austin Davis, dislodging the ball so teammate Arthur Moats could recover. The very next play was an 8-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton, making the score 25-12 after a successful two-point conversion. Then, as you read in the Bills-Jets wrap-up, Harvard's own Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an interception in the end zone, when the Jets just needed a field goal to take the lead. Then, he threw another interception to seal their fate and push the Steelers into the playoffs.
The Browns, on the other hand, had nothing but pride to play for and their coach knew he was a "dead man walking." It was also reported after the game that general manager Ray Farmer had been sacked. Add in the antics of Johnny Manziel, and you have a team with little hope to reach for.
The Steelers' defense is still a mess, but their offense can overcome when they're on, but over the last two weeks, they have not been sharp, and in the playoffs, they won't be facing the Browns. Pittsburgh will need to step up its game if there is any hope to go deep into the playoffs.
Seahawks 36, Cardinals 6 By Chet Gresham - @Chet_G
EDITOR'S NOTE: Wow. Did not see this one coming. I guess the Cardinals didn't either. I have to wonder though if the Seahawks shot their wad in a completely meaningless game for them. They gave the Cardinals some serious film to look at, and I have to believe that Bruce Arians is going to have a great game plan prepared for Seattle the next time he sees them. The Seahawks should've just sat their starters.
The Seattle Seahawks didn't have much need to win this game as far as playoff implications, but they were coming off a loss to the St. Louis Rams at home, but going quietly into that good night isn't Pete Carroll's modus operandi.
The Seahawks started fast and never let up, as the Cardinals looked overmatched and under-motivated. Arizona needed the Carolina Panthers to lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to have a shot at moving up in the playoff seeding, but with that unlikely and the Seahawks straight dominating from whistle, head coach Bruce Arians threw in the towel at halftime, when he sat Carson Palmer so he could live to play another day.
How much of this dominating performance was due to lack of motivation on the Cardinals' part is hard to know, but Arizona got punched squarely in the mouth and backed down. Those first punches were a flurry of body blows, as Seattle marched down the field for a 12-play, 7-minute drive for 88 yards, ending in a Bryce Brown 1-yard touchdown run, setting the tone for the day.
The Cardinals did manage to strike back in the second quarter, as Carson Palmer hit Larry Fitzgerald for a 17-yard touchdown pass, making it 10-6 Seattle, but that's when the Cardinals let their guard down and the blows started landing squarely on their face, as Russell Wilson tossed three touchdowns in the last six minutes before halftime, making it 30-6 Seattle.
If they gave out MVP awards for the second half of the season, Russell Wilson would be hard to beat. After tossing three touchdowns on Sunday, he's now thrown 24 touchdowns to just one interception over his last seven games. Those 24 touchdowns are the same or more than Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler and a host of others have been able to accumulate for the entire season. Wilson has been utterly dominant.
This week, that domination was even more pronounced, as he threw touchdowns to the least of his teammates, Chase Coffman, Will Tukuafu and Jermaine Kearse. Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett have been amazing, but Wilson has proven, much like Cam Newton has, that he doesn't need the best receivers in the league to be able to dominate at his position.
Carson Palmer sat early in this matchup, but he was not on his game this week, completing just 12-of-25 passes for 129 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His receivers made a few bad drops, but Palmer and this team as a group were not prepared for the intensity the Seahawks brought.
Besides Wilson's accuracy and poise, Tyler Lockett was a one-man wrecking crew as a punt returner, reeling off returns of 66, 49 and 42 yards and finishing with a franchise record 139 punt-return yards in a single game.
Lockett's presence on special teams, along with his skills as a receiver, coupled with Doug Baldwin's great route running in the slot and even Christine Michael, who looked strong on Sunday, rushing for 102 yards against Arizona's good run defense, and of course, Wilson's ability to run heaped on top of his his aerial attack of late, and you have yourself a Super Bowl contender raging against the dying of the light, just at the right time.
Panthers 38, Buccaneers 10 By Pat Yasinskas - @PatYaz33
EDITOR'S NOTE: The scoreboard operator at Carolina's stadium needs to be fired because he must not have informed anyone that the Cardinals were getting blown out. Why Cam Newton was on the field and taking hits in the fourth quarter, I have no idea. The Panthers would have been completely screwed had Newton sustained an injury in meaningless action.
The Carolina Panthers got help from the Seattle Seahawks, but, as it turned out, they didn't need it.
The Panthers (15-1) took care of their own business by blowing out Tampa Bay. At the same time, Seattle was beating the Arizona Cardinals. Either scenario was enough to give the Panthers the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera decided to ignore what was happening between Seattle and Arizona and played his starters most of the game. That worked out just fine as the Panthers never were in danger of losing.
Cam Newton did nothing to hurt his case for the Most Valuable Player award. Newton completed 21-of-26 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed six times for 10 yards and two touchdowns. He took some big hits early from Tampa's pass rush, but he basically did whatever he wanted to in the second half.
With running back Jonathan Stewart sitting out another game due to injury, the Panthers turned to rookie Cameron Artis-Payne as their feature back. He responded with 44 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. But all indications are that Stewart will be ready to return for the first playoff game.
The Panthers don't have many glaring needs, and they won't be drafting until late in the first round during the 2016 NFL Draft. But it's pretty obvious that the Panthers need to add a wide receiver even though Kelvin Benjamin will be coming back from injury. That position could be Carolina's target in the first round of the draft.
Success comes with a price, and you have to wonder if the Panthers will pay for this season. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Mike Shula could be candidates for head-coaching jobs elsewhere.
For Tampa Bay, the Bucs ended the season by losing their final four games. Coach Lovie Smith's job is safe for now. But it's clear Smith will enter next season on the hot seat.
Any chance Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin had at winning the rushing title went out the window when the Bucs fell behind early. Martin carried only 15 times for 48 yards.
Smith is a coach with a defensive background. But his defense hasn't been very good in his first two seasons with the Bucs. Tampa Bay has drafted only one defensive player in the last two years. That needs to change. The Bucs need to add a pass rusher, and Penn State's Carl Nassib could be a very nice fit. The Bucs also need some help in the defensive secondary, and that likely will come in the second or third round of the draft.
There's no question the Bucs made the right call with the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Quarterback Jameis Winston surpassed 4,000 passing yards. Only Andrew Luck and Newton have done that in the past as rookies.
Kudos for FOX Sports for not showing a replay of the play where Tampa Bay fullback Jorvorskie Lane suffered a leg injury. That was too gruesome to watch again.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For this note, I personally can't top what Matvei texted to me following the end of this game: "After four years of this, I'm making an executive decision: Jeff Fisher is demoted to Commander .4375."
This game had no meaning aside from 2016 NFL Draft positioning. Todd Gurley was out, so that killed the entertainment value. Both teams were playing for pride, and San Francisco was looking to avoid its first winless season in the NFC West since 1978. The 49ers fired head coach Jim Tomsula, but at least he enjoyed one more victory before returning to position coach status with another team.
In the first quarter, Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt ran by man coverage for 54 yards to get into San Francisco territory. That set up a St. Louis field goal. Late in the first quarter, the 49ers got moving with a screen pass to DuJuan Harris for 31 yards.The first play of the second quarter saw Anquan Boldin out-fight Janoris Jenkins to catch a pass and coast into the end zone with a 33-yard score after Jenkins fell down. San Francisco added a field goal and the Rams answered with one of their own. The 49ers tried to set up a screen, but Aaron Donald tipped the pass. Eugene Sims picked it off and ran it 42 yards to San Francisco's 4-yard line. Tre Mason then ran the ball into the end zone for the score. The Rams quickly got the ball back, and Benny Cunningham ripped off a 40-yard run. That set up one more field goal, and St. Louis took a 16-10 lead into the locker room.
In the third quarter, Bruce Ellington got open running deep and Blaine Gabbert hit him for 44 yards. The 49ers settled for another Phil Dawson field goal. In the fourth quarter, Gabbert connected with Torrey Smith for 31 yards and then Harris for 21 yards. That set up another San Francisco field goal to tie the game at 16 with about four minutes remaining. The 49ers got the ball back and has two passes to Boldin that totaled 37 yards, but the drive stalled, and San Francisco decided to punt rather than attempt a 54-yard field goal. After the Rams went nowhere, the game went to overtime.
In the extra session, Case Keenum moved the ball across midfield with a completion to Britt for 18 yards. However, Dontae Johnson blocked a 48-yard field goal to keep the 49ers alive. San Francisco took advantage with a 15-yard pass to Torrey Smith, a roughing the passer penalty, and a 33-yard screen to Quinton Patton. That set up a short field goal for Phil Dawson to mercifully end this game.
Blaine Gabbert was 28-of-44 for 354 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He didn't play poorly, but he spent most of the afternoon checking the ball down.
DuJuan Harris had a nice game for the 49ers with 67 yards on 16 carries and 86 yards on eight receptions. Torrey Smith (5-61) and Boldin (5-71-1) led San Francisco's receivers.
Case Keenum was 22-of-37 for 231 yards. Kenny Britt led the St. Louis receivers with three catches for 81 yards.
Tre Mason, starting for Gurley, totaled 44 yards on 18 carries with a score.
The 49ers' defense received nice games from Gerald Hodges (13 tackles) and NaVorro Bowman (9 tackles). Surprisingly, San Francisco's offensive line kept the Rams' defense to only one sack courtesy of Chris Long. The 49ers held Aaron Donald to just two tackles, although he was disruptive as usual.
Chiefs 23, Raiders 17
The Chiefs needed a victory and a Denver loss to win the AFC West. They failed to do claim the division because of the Broncos' victory, but it's still remarkable that they concluded their year on a 10-0 run after beginning the season with a sluggish 1-5 start.
Having said that, there's still definitely cause for concern for the Chiefs, and that's because of Alex Smith. The limited quarterback struggled once again to throw the ball. He heaved two interceptions, which would've killed his team against a better opponent. The first was a poor decision, which was a hurl into double coverage. The second was more about his limitations, as a pass of his was pick-sixed, thanks to his noodle arm being unable to connect on an outside throw.
Smith didn't play poorly overall, going 14-of-24 for 156 yards, two touchdowns and the pair of interceptions. He also picked up 61 rushing yards with his nine scrambles, albeit with some help from the officials who missed some obvious holding calls. However, this performance in general was a reminder of why Kansas City will have incredible difficulty advancing deep into the playoffs. Smith can't make all of the throws, and his team will be punished as a result.
There was a scary moment in this game when Jeremy Maclin had to be taken into the locker room for tests on what appeared to be a hip injury. Fortunately for the Chiefs, he was able to re-take the field after missing only a bit of action. Maclin led the team in receiving, catching three balls for 54 yards and a touchdown.
Aside from Maclin, no Kansas City player accumulated more than 24 receiving yards. Travis Kelce was barely used; he saw just two targets and caught one pass for only 10 yards.
Charcandrick West shouldered a bigger workload than Spencer Ware last week, but things were different in this contest. West mustered only 34 yards on 13 carries, most of which came on a 13-yard burst. Ware was much better, tallying 76 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts. The Raiders' woeful run defense had trouble tackling him.
Before I move on to Oakland, I need to give Andy Reid a shoutout for trying a fake field goal up 23-10 with a few minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The attempt failed, and Oakland was able to score a back-door touchdown as a result, helping me win four units.
Derek Carr did not have a good game, going just 21-of-33 for 194 yards, one touchdown and an interception in which he stared down his receiver after having all day to throw. Carr's great pass protection on that particular play was a rare instance, however, as the Chiefs constantly swarmed him. He just didn't have much of a chance, but it's worth noting that his mechanics have declined as the season has progressed.
Amari Cooper's injury hasn't helped matters. Cooper hasn't been anywhere 100 percent late in the year, and he struggled again in this contest, catching just two of his five targets for only 20 yards.
Carr threw to Michael Crabtree more than anyone else. Crabtree snatched three balls for 34 yards and the back-door touchdown. Crabtree was robbed of a great catch along the sideline. It appeared as though he had both feet in, but the refs, who appeared to have an anti-Raider bias for some reason, ruled him out.
Latavius Murray didn't get much on the ground because of Kansas City's stalwart defense. He was limited to 31 yards on 11 carries. However, he was also able to reel in four catches for 25 yards.
Bronos 27, Chargers 20
I suppose I have to begin with Peyton Manning, don't I? The narrative per the media will be that Manning stepped in for a struggling Brock Osweiler and saved the day to claim the division. That's not exactly what transpired, despite the fact that Phil Simms gushed so much about Manning that he probably sent roses to Manning's house, leaving Manning's wife wondering why a mysterious substance wasn't delivered instead.
Let's break down this incredible misconception. First of all, Osweiler didn't struggle. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, but neither of the picks were his fault. The first occurred because Jordan Norwood let the ball slip through his hands. The other came to fruition because Osweiler was hit as he threw. Osweiler ended up going 14-of-22 for 232 yards, one touchdown and the three turnovers.
Second, Manning barely did anything aerially. He tossed some checkdowns, and that was about it. In fact, he had an open Emmanuel Sanders for a downfield touchdown, but completely missed him. Manning went just 5-of-9 for 69 yards. Not terrible, but not great. Simms gushed about Manning's ability to set up correct runs, but the Chargers have been surrendering big gains on the ground all season, and they didn't even have their top defender, Eric Weddle, on the field for this game. It's not exactly impressive that Manning was able to help his team run on the Chargers.
Speaking of the rushing attack, Ronnie Hillman both had 15 carries and touchdowns. They both posted terrific numbers, with Hillman outgaining Anderson, 117-95. Anderson lost a fumble deep in his own territory, prompting the Broncos to make the switch from Osweiler to Manning for some reason. I don't know what Anderson's fumble had to do with Osweiler, but I'm sure Simms and his 1800Flowers.com disagrees.
Demaryius Thomas led the Broncos in receiving, catching five balls for 117 yards and a touchdown. Most of his production came with Osweiler, as the young quarterback found Thomas for a 72-yard score on the opening drive. The Chargers missed a whopping four tackles on the play.
More than half of Emmanuel Sanders' production came occurred with Osweiler as well. Sanders (5-99) made a big mistake early on, losing a fumble inside San Diego's 5-yard line at the end of a big gain. Sanders could've scored a touchdown later, but as mentioned, Manning overthrew him.
Meanwhile, the Chargers only have themselves to blame for this loss. They were able to force five turnovers, yet they turned the first four into just three points. They blew it, but then again, perhaps it was for the best as the loss helped their draft position. Unfortunately for them, Laremy Tunsil figures to be off the board, as you can see in the 2016 NFL Mock Draft.
So, why couldn't San Diego take advantage of all the Denver give-aways? Philip Rivers simply didn't have much of a chance, as his pass protection was awful. It was bad going into the game, yet backup Chris Hairston hurt his abdomen, only making matters worse.
Rivers, also working with a depleted supporting cast, was able to go 21-of-35 for 228 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. That may look like a decent stat line, but keep in mind that a big chunk of it - an 80-yard bomb to Tyrell Williams - came on just one play, thanks to a busted coverage. Rivers killed his team by throwing way behind Danny Woodhead on a fourth down late in the game.
Speaking of Woodhead, he was the team's leader in receiving yardage after Williams. Rivers checked down to him early and often, and Woodhead caught eight balls for 51 yards as a result. Antonio Gates (3-34), who hauled in Rivers' other touchdown, was next. Malcom Floyd, who didn't log a reception, was knocked out with a concussion - a sad way to finish his NFL career.
The Chargers normally don't run well, so it was surprising to see that Donald Brown tallied 81 yards on 21 carries.
Vikings 20, Packers 13
The Vikings hadn't won a big game all year. They had the arch-rival Packers in Lambeau at night to claim the NFC North. I'd say this constitutes as a big win.
Minnesota prevailed, but the prominent story will be the Packers, who continue to struggle. Green Bay got destroyed at Arizona last week, and yet the Cardinals were smoked just seven days later. The Packers have struggled ever since the blowout victory over the Chiefs on Monday night, and it doesn't appear as though things will get any better.
Pass protection continues to be a major problem for Green Bay. Multiple offensive linemen are banged up, and Aaron Rodgers doesn't have much time as a result. Rodgers is also hurt, as he clearly isn't himself. Making matters worse, his receivers can't get open, as he threw primarily to James Jones and Richard Rodgers, who are both incredibly slow, as well as Randall Cobb, who is laboring through an injury of his own.
Rodgers went 28-of-44 for 291 yards, one touchdown and an interception. He was also strip-sixed, which was forced by Everson Griffen. The pick came late on a fourth down in desperation time. Rodgers suffered through some drops from his receivers, but as I wrote earlier, he still doesn't seem like himself. One pass that stands out was a horrible miss to Jones that a healthy Rodgers would've hit 10 out of 10 times.
To illustrate how inefficient some of the Packer receivers were, Jones caught four passes for 102 yards, but it took him 13 targets to get there. Meanwhile, Cobb logged six catches, but for only 37 yards. He dropped a pass.
Green Bay's leading receiver aside from Jones, was Richard Rodgers (7-59), who scored a touchdown despite looking like the slowest person of all time. Davante Adams (4-54) didn't really suck for once.
The Packers didn't run the ball very well, with Eddie Lacy mustering only 34 yards on 13 carries. He had a tough run negated by a penalty, but was sluggish overall. James Starks (8-24) looked better, but he can't be fully trusted because of his fumbling issues.
As for the winning side, it seemed like the Vikings won in spite of Bridgewater. The second-year signal-caller went 10-of-19 for 99 yards and an interception, which was one of the most impressive picks I've ever seen. Bridgewater attempted to throw the ball away under pressure. He heaved the ball with his left hand, which Micah Hyde was able to secure with a back-handed, one-armed interception. It was ridiculous.
Bridgewater definitely left some points off the board. He missed some throws he should've converted, including a deep attempt to Jerick McKinnon, who was wide open for what should've been a 70-yard bomb touchdown. Bridgewater will need to play better to beat Seattle next weekend.
There was a scary moment in this game when Adrian Peterson went into the locker room to get his lower back checked out. Peterson missed numerous drives, but returned to the field on the team's final offensive drive. Peterson actually fumbled his first touch back, but the Vikings were able to recover. Peterson managed 67 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries versus a Green Bay rush defense that played well.
McKinnon, who took Peterson's place, led the team in receiving with three catches for 33 yards. Mike Wallace was next with just one reception for 22 yards. Stefon Diggs logged just one catch for eight yards.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.