NFL Week 17 promised excitement going in, with 13 of the 16 games having playoff or seeding implications, and two de facto playoff games for division titles. Sunday didn’t disappoint, with an incredibly exciting finish to the 2013 regular season and fittingly, the two games with the highest stakes were the best.
Green Bay 33 Chicago 28: This one is going to take a long time for Bears fans to get over, and when the day comes that Aaron Rodgers gets inducted to the Hall of Fame, the decisive play will be at the top of the list of the highlights shown.
The Packers’ game-winning drive had three fourth-down conversions, the last of which is Rodgers connecting with Randall Cobb on 4th-and-8 from the Chicago 48-yard line, with the quarterback under pressure from Julius Pepper, falling away from the play and throwing off his back foot.
Rodgers’ heroics shouldn’t obscure how well Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler played, going 15/24 for 266 yards, including a perfectly thrown ball on 3rd-and-17 with his team ahead 28-27 that Alshon Jeffrey should have caught. If Jeffrey makes that play, the storyline is different. But such is life, and the reality is that for as well as Cutler played, he’s not Rodgers and being in the same division is always going to haunt the Chicago quarterback. Sunday underscored that yet again.
The other thing that shouldn’t be obscured is that the excitement from this game was a byproduct of the mediocrity of both teams. Coverage in the secondary was questionable on both sides and each team made silly mistakes. It’s fitting that the other play people are talking the most about is one where Rodgers’ fumbled, while bringing his arm back and the ball went forward, resulting in a fluky touchdown for Green Bay.
Every player—on both sides—stood still staring at the football until the Packers, only because the play was near their sideline and they could hear their coaches screaming that it was live, picked it up and walked into the end zone. If Rodgers’ decisive pass can be part of his legacy, the stupid non-fumble play and 22 players staring at a live ball will be the legacy of the 2013 NFC North Division race
Philadelphia 24 Dallas 22: I’ve often felt throughout my life as a sports fan that we overrate the role of the quarterback. So think about this—if you had been tuned out on news all week, and I told you that the Dallas Cowboys lost a huge game for the NFC East because even though their quarterback put up flashy numbers, they didn’t execute at key points and finally had a killer interception when there was a chance to win, you would surely have assumed that Tony Romo had done it again.
Of course you do know that Romo was out with a back injury, but this game was simply Kyle Orton dropped in and the same old Cowboys showing up. They recovered a fumble in the red zone while trailing 17-13 in the third quarter and promptly went three-and-out, settling for a field goal. They failed to convert a two-point conversion that would have tied the game with three minutes left. Finally, Orton threw an interception when Dallas got the ball back with inside two minutes to play and plenty of time to get a field goal.
Dallas’ defense came up with some big stops, and that’s surely the first time anyone has written that sentence all year. The Cowboys had a goal-line stand in the third quarter and forced Philly into a three-and-out that set up the last, futile offensive drive.
Philadelphia won the turnover battle 3-1, and it’s because the Eagles can run the ball and get yardage in low-risk ways. LeSean McCoy carried 27 times for 131 yards and won the rushing title, as he carried his team to an NFC East title.
Other key NFC games…
Carolina 21 Atlanta 20: Carolina didn’t play well, but they survived and clinched the NFC South and #2 seed in the playoffs. The critical play was a pick-6 thrown by Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan from his own end zone with Atlanta ahead 10-0 in the first half.
Seattle 27 St. Louis 9: The Seahawks lock up the NFC West and #1 seed by getting back to their brand of football. They shut down the Ram running game and Zac Stacy. Seattle got their own rush game rolling behind Marshawn Lynch, who had 97 yards, and that allowed Russell Wilson to be smoothly efficient.
The one thing the Seahawks didn’t do was protect the passer—the mobile Wilson was sacked four times, but there are no defensive lines in the playoffs as good as the one St. Louis brings.
New Orleans 42 Tampa Bay 17: As expected, Drew Brees playing at home in a must-win spot was too much to handle. Brees was 24/31 for 370 yards and he spread the ball around to everyone. Tampa Bay hung in for most of the first half, but the Saints pulled away and clinched a wild-card spot.
San Francisco 23 Arizona 20: San Francisco already had a wild-card spot, and Arizona was playing in the hopes that New Orleans might lose. As it turns out, this was a good game that meant very little by the time all was said and done, and the 49ers kicked a late field goal to win after blowing a 17-0 lead.
Colin Kaepernick continues to play very well, going 21/34 for 310 yards and no interceptions against one of the best and most aggressive defenses in the league.
Now we move on to seven notable games in the AFC, starting with the choke jobs that were completed by Baltimore and Miami. The Ravens and Dolphins each lost their final two games, opening the door for San Diego and Pittsburgh to have hope.
Cincinnati 34 Baltimore 17: Can the notion that Joe Flacco is some kind of franchise quarterback simply because the Ravens won the Super Bowl last year, be finally put to rest. With a big new contract and more responsibility on his shoulders, Flacco floundered all year and it hit its climax in a poor performance on Sunday with the season on the line.
Flacco went 30/50 for 192 yards and three interceptions. The quarterback’s defenders will say that it was about the bad offensive line. I would agree, but after Flacco made such a production about demanding—and getting—money that put him on a par with the game’s elite, I feel like someone needs to tell him that elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning sling their teams to 10-11 wins and playoff relevance every year, not just years where the supporting cast is good.
NY Jets 20 Miami 7: The Dolphins couldn’t force Geno Smith into mistakes, while Ryan Tannehill threw three picks of his own. In blowing two winnable games (at Buffalo, and this home game with the Jets), the Dolphins clearly lack toughness. I guess all the locker room bullying isn’t working.
Pittsburgh 20 Cleveland 7: Le’Veon Bell rushed for 90 yards and the Steelers churned out a win that kept them alive into the late afternoon. All they needed was a San Diego loss.
San Diego 27 Kansas City 24 (OT): Kansas City rested starters, including quarterback Alex Smith, to get set for next week’s first-round games. The Chiefs still had a 24-14 lead, and were in position to win the game with a field goal that was blocked. Replays showed San Diego should have been whistled for a penalty for too many men in a down position, but the penalty was overlooked.
What saved the Chargers in this game, as it has throughout their stretch run, is running the ball. Philip Rivers played well, but whether he plays well in victory or defeat depends on Ryan Mathews. In this game, Mathews ran for 144 yards and San Diego gets the final playoff spot in the AFC.
Denver 34 Oakland 14: Peyton Manning was locked in, going 25/28 for 266 yards as the Broncos roll to an easy win and wrap up the #1 seed in the AFC.
New England 34 Buffalo 20: With all the injuries at receiver, New England has become a good running team and it’s what saved them in a game against a feisty Bills’ team that was 27-20 late into the fourth quarter. LeGarrette Blount rolled up 189 yards and finally broke off the clinching touchdown with 2:31 to play, as the Patriots secured the #2 seed.
Indianapolis 30 Jacksonville 10: This one was of marginal significance to begin with—the most the Colts could do was move up from #4 to #3 in the AFC bracket and Cincinnati’s win took even that away. Andrew Luck is playing some sharp football right now, going 26/37 for 282 yards and hooking up with T.Y. Hilton 11 times for 155 of those yards.
And the three games from outside the playoff picture…
Tennessee 16 Houston 10: Chris Johnson ran for 127 yards, as the Titans get to 7-9, not a bad finish in a year where they had to play Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback most of the way.
Minnesota 14 Detroit 13: It wasn’t enough to save Leslie Frazier’s job, but the Vikings concluded a nice second half to the season with 115 rush yards from Matt Asiata. It was the final game in the Metrodome, to which we can only say good riddance.
NY Giants 20 Washington 6: I watched this game, played in a pouring rain in a stadium mostly attempt and quiet. It reminded me of some of the youth football games I covered this past fall, with the exception being that in the latter, at least the parents were proud of the effort. I don’t think the same can be said of the Redskins. Any hope of getting a decent draft pick for Kirk Cousins was gone, as he went 19/49 for 169 yards, threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.