What a wild week in the NFL. With so many games that were relevant to the playoff picture, there were multiple last-minute finishes, some surprise games (like the Chiefs, who knew back-ups could give a playoff team such a run for their money), disappointing finishes, and all-around great football. Coaches started losing their jobs almost immediately, and it continued through Monday. In order to compensate for the amount of information that will be used for each game, and each team's season, I will be breaking this post up into three pieces.
Now to start with one of the games with the least intrigue...
Houston Texans 10 - Tennessee Titans 16
The Texans and Titans were both out of the playoffs, the Texans were playing for the first pick in the draft, and if they had won, they'd be number two. Wade Phillips has been the interim head coach since the firing of Gary Kubiak. The revolving door, also known as their running backs, opened up strong, scoring the first points of the game. Jonathan Grimes (who doesn't have a player page on his own team's website) and Ray Graham, received the go ahead for Week 17. Grimes actually ended up being the most productive offensive player for Houston in the game, rushing 16 times for a touchdown and only 50 yards, but also catching six passes for 76 yards. On Houston's only touchdown for the game, Grimes was handed the ball on what looked like the four-yard line, found a small hole on the right side of the line, and lowered his shoulder to push into the end zone. He lost a fumble as well. Graham was only given four carries, and gained 8 yards. Matt Schaub got the start for the Texans, and he went 22 of 34 for 229 yards, with two interceptions, including the game-ending pick by Michael Griffin. J.J. Watt recorded the Texans only sack, and he has had an awesome season for Houston. Watt has 10.5 sacks, as a 3-4 defensive end, deflected seven passes, recorded 80 total tackles, and forcing four fumbles, with two recoveries. It isn't on par with what his numbers last season, but that's a great season, especially when it is done on a team like the Texans. Brice McCain was responsible for the Texans only takeaway, picking off Ryan Fitzpatrick late in the second quarter, but Antonio Smith did the work on the play, bull rushing Andy Levitre and forcing Fitzpatrick to throw the ball up for grabs.
Tennessee was second in the AFC South to only the Colts, but they didn't have a very good season. Alterraun Verner emerged as a very good cornerback, and the defense was in the middle of the pack for most statistics. They only allowed 23.8 points per game, but their offense only scored 22.6 points, which doesn't really give a team a chance for many wins. One of the many problems with the Titans offense, has been the success, or lack, of for Chris Johnson. Johnson averaged less than four yards per carry, for the first time in his career, and barely eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark, while scoring only six touchdowns. In Week 17, however, Johnson rushed for 127 yards on 27 carries and scored Tennessee's only touchdown, with an 11 yard score in the third quarter, to make the score 13-7. Following great blocking, Johnson accelerated through a hole on the right side, and ran through a tackle at the goal line. Harvard grad, Ryan Fitzpatrick, has been the starting quarterback for much of the season, with multiple injuries to Jake Locker. In the final game of the season, Fitzpatrick completed 15 of 24 passes for 166 yards, and threw an interception. The Titans defense only had one sack, from Derrick Morgan, but they forced four turnovers in the game. Bernard Pollard tipped a deep pass, which Schaub overthrew, and Akeem Ayers dove for the ball, securing the catch before he hit the ground, for the first interception of the game. There is speculation going on about whether Mike Munchak will be keeping his job, but my thinking is that they should keep him as head coach.
Carolina Panthers 21 - Atlanta Falcons 20
After a less than stellar performance from Cam Newton and the offense, Carolina squeaked past the Falcons to hold on to the division crown and the second seed in the NFC. One-third of the Panthers' points were scored on a pick six by Melvin White, midway through the second quarter, who stumbled the eight yards needed to get into the end zone. The interception was set up when DeAngelo Williams took a screen pass, and took off downfield, gaining 58 yards, before Robert Alford caught him from behind and stripped the ball on the 16 yard line. The ball bounced down to the four yard line before Desmond Trufant could cover it up for Atlanta. Greg Hardy set a Panthers' franchise record, with four sacks, while Carolina totaled nine sacks on the game. Hardy led the Panthers with 15 sacks this season. Charles Johnson had two of his own (for 11 on the season), and five Panthers finished the game with at least one sack, and the Panthers led the NFL in sacks with 60, and were second in the NFL in points allowed. Newton did throw two touchdowns in the game, completing 15 of his 27 passes for 149 yards, and he threw an interception that bounced off Domenik Hixon's hands, and was caught by a diving William Moore, early in the second quarter. Newton also rushed for 72 yards on 12 carries. The Panthers relied largely on their defense to win this season, but Newton played well, throwing 473 passes and completing 292 for 3,379 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He ran for 585 yards and six touchdowns, on 111 carries. DeAngelo Williams gained only 33 yards on 10 carries, one of which was a 24 yard run, and he caught two passes for 72 yards, but after a 58 yard catch he fumbled. Williams only scored three touchdowns this season, gaining 843 yards on 201 carries. Steve Smith was out for the final game with a knee injury.
Atlanta ended an extremely disappointing season, which is most likely going to be Tony Gonzalez's last year as an NFL player. Gonzalez will end with 1,325 catches for his career, which is second to only Jerry Rice, 111 receiving touchdowns, sixth all-time, and 15,127 receiving yards, good for fifth in NFL history, but for tight ends, Gonzalez is tops in all three categories. In his final game, he caught four passes for 56 yards, to cap off a season with 83 receptions, for 859 yards and eight touchdowns, all while being double and triple teamed in the majority of Atlanta's games. Roddy White had eight catches for 91 yards and a 39 yard touchdown, on a beautiful throw from Matt Ryan. Ryan threw for 280 yards, and completed 28 of his 40 pass attempts, for two touchdowns and Melvin White's pick six. Ryan's second touchdown went to Jason Snelling, who got nailed as he hauled in the seven yard pass. Snelling with only one other catch, for 15 total yards and five carries for 36 yards. Steven Jackson carried the ball 13 times, but only gained 41 yards. The replacement for White and Jones all season, Harry Douglas, caught seven passes for 58 yards, and had his first thousand yard season, catching 85 passes for 1,067 yards, but only two touchdowns. He should be a great third receiver for Atlanta next season. The Falcons will have a high draft pick this year, and they need some help on defense and the offensive line.
Green Bay Packers 33 - Chicago Bears 28
The Packers not only got Aaron Rodgers back from his fractured collarbone, Randall Cobb also returned from a broken tibia. This would be a huge boost in a game they needed in order to reach the playoffs. In his return, Rodgers had some rust, throwing two interceptions (one in the end zone), but he also threw two touchdowns and completed 25 of 39 passes for 318 yards. Cobb only caught two of Rodgers' passes, but they were both for touchdowns, including the game winning 48 yard score, on fourth down when he blew past the Bears defense, and a scrambling Rodgers launched a pass to Cobb, wide open on the 10 yard line, and he ran it in from there. Eddie Lacy scored a touchdown and had 21 carries, but the leader on the ground was James Starks, who gained 88 yards on only 11 carries, including a 41 yard burst through a huge hole in the middle of the line, before he made Chris Conte miss and was finally dragged down on the 12. Lacy's rookie season was wildly successful, and he finished with 284 carries for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading all rookie running backs. Jordy Nelson had the most catches, 10, and the most yards, 161, that he's had in any game this season. Green Bay will need this offense in the playoffs because there are some great defenses waiting for them. The Packers' defense allowed 28 points, but they forced two turnovers and didn't allow Chicago to score on their final two drives. With the win, Green Bay won the NFC North and earned a spot in the playoffs, where they will face the 49ers.
Chicago blew the division, and their defense is to blame for many of their problems and losses this season. The Bears had problems stopping the run all year, and the pass was also successful. They were able to record 31 sacks, with Julius Peppers taking down the quarterback 7.5 times, but that wasn't enough. They lost Lance Briggs for most of the season, Henry Melton, D.J. Williams (was supposed to be the replacement for Brian Urlacher), and Kelvin Hayden were the biggest names on the injured reserve list, and Charles Tillman was hurt most of the season, but it doesn't excuse the poor performances. Jay Cutler hasn't looked great since returning from his injury, but against the Packers, he completed 15 of 24 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns, but also threw another interception. Cutler threw 12 of Chicago's 13 interceptions, with 224 completions for 2,621 yards and 19 touchdowns. Alshon Jeffery gained 80 yards on three receptions, including a 67 yard catch on which he burned Sam Shields, and barely missed scoring a touchdown. Brandon Marshall's touchdown put the Bears on top 28-20 at the start of the fourth quarter, and he made a great spin and over the shoulder dive to catch the ball and get his body down in the end zone, and he ultimately would catch six passes for 74 yards. Marshall and Jeffery both had great seasons for Chicago. In Jeffery's second season, he caught 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. Marshall scored 12 touchdowns, and caught 100 passes for 1,295 yards. Matt Forte scored two touchdowns and rushed 22 times for 110 yards. He also caught four passes for 47 yards and scored his first of three total touchdowns on a four yard catch in the first quarter. Forte had a great season of his own, rushing for 1,339 yards and nine touchdowns on 289 rushes, and catching 74 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns. Tim Jennings picked off Rodgers in the end zone to end a scoring chance for Green Bay, on their first drive.
Baltimore Ravens 17 - Cincinnati Bengals 34
Baltimore was playing for the sixth seed in this game, but they couldn't capitalize on mistakes made by the Bengals. They picked Andy Dalton off four times, including the first play of the game. The Ravens settled for field goals after both interceptions, and went in to the half down 17-6. Their only touchdown was also the last time they scored, midway through the third quarter, when Joe Flacco hit Marlon Brown for eight yards. Flacco threw 50 passes and completed 30 of them, for just 192 yards, and he threw three interceptions. All three picks were thrown in the fourth quarter. Ray Rice gained only 15 yards on six carries, ending a very disappointing season, in which he gained only 3.1 yards per carry, with just four touchdowns on 214 carries. He did catch 58 passes for 321 yards, but he scored no touchdowns. He'll be looking to bounce back next season. Dennis Pitta was the leading receiver for Baltimore, catching eight passes for 63 yards. Corey Graham made a great play, on an underthrown ball, when he picked off the first play of the game. Jimmy Smith picked off Dalton in the end zone, on a terribly thrown pass to A.J. Green running a fade. The Ravens defense played better as the season went on, but the offense couldn't catch up this year, and it made games far too difficult.
The Bengals don't normally play well in big games, but they played a great game in Week 17. They gave themselves a shot at the number two seed, although had they won a couple of weeks ago they wouldn't have even had to worry about it. The Patriots beat Buffalo and are the second seed in the AFC, but Cincinnati will be going into the playoffs on a high note, which should bode well for them. Dalton threw four picks, and they all came on terrible passes, but he accounted for three of the Bengals' touchdowns, throwing two, and running one in on a QB Sneak. He completed 21 of 36 passes for 281 yards, and ends an up and down season in which he threw the ball a ridiculous 586 times and completed 363 for 4,296 yards and 33 touchdowns, but he also threw 20 interceptions, with five games of multiple interceptions. A.J. Green scored his one touchdown on a 53 yard reception, after he ran past Matt Elam and was wide open when Dalton's pass got to him. Green only had 61 yards on his four catches, but it was at the end of a season in which he made the Pro Bowl and caught 98 passes for 1426 yards and 11 touchdowns. Marvin Jones came up huge this season and has made some crazy catches, including his touchdown in the second quarter. With tight coverage by Lardarius Webb, Jones dove in the end zone and pulled the ball in with one hand and bobbled it, but held on when his other hand came over and he rolled under the ball. Jones went from relative unknown when the year started, to catching 10 touchdown passes and 712 yards on 51 total receptions. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a good game on the ground, gaining 66 yards on 11 carries, and running hard all game. Giovani Bernard has been exciting and explosive, but Green-Ellis has set the tone in the running game all season, carrying 220 times with seven touchdowns, although he only gained 756 yards for the year. Cincinnati's defense has been the backbone of this team all year. The Ravens only scored 17 points, against a defense that only allowed 19.1 points per game for the season. The Bengals had 43 sacks and 20 interceptions, and the defense was led by a player who went undrafted in 2012 because of "character concerns", and now calls plays from the outside linebacker position and Vontaze Burfict led the NFL in tackles with 171, recorded three sacks and three takeaways, while scoring a defensive touchdown. Now they go into the playoffs with a good chance of winning their first playoff game in 23 years.
Jacksonville Jaguars 10 - Indianapolis Colts 30
The Jaguars finished a lackluster season with a shoddy performance against the AFC South winner. Maurice Jones-Drew, the ever reliable running back, missed most of last season with an ankle injury, and calling this season a down year, would be an understatement. He carried the ball 234 times this season, gaining only 803 yards, and scoring five touchdowns. He only rushed for 39 yards in the final game of the year, but he did catch five passes for 51 yards. Jones-Drew didn't get a lot of help from the rest of the team, and was supposed to be the focal point of the offense, especially without top wide receiver Justin Blackmon, but his offensive line was mediocre for most of the season, and Jones-Drew didn't have a lot of holes to run through. Chad Henne had an average year for Jacksonville, after replacing incumbent starter, Blaine Gabbert, in Week 7. Against Indianapolis he threw the ball 51 times, which should be unheard of for a Jaguars team with a lack of talent at receiver, bur it was the fifth time in the season that Henne attempted more than 40 passes. He completed 30 of those attempts, for 331 yards, threw a touchdown and an interception. Henne threw more interceptions than touchdowns this season, 14 picks and 13 touchdowns, but he completed 60 percent of his passes. Jacksonville's top two receivers missed time this season, Blackmon was suspended indefinitely, after playing in just four games because he was suspended for the first four games of the year, because he violated the league's substance abuse policy again, and will have to apply for reinstatement. Cecil Shorts, who came out of nowhere last year to be the Jaguars best receiver, suffered a groin injury early in the season, but he wasn't shut down until Week 14. Shorts had surgery on a sports hernia, and is expected back next season. The Jaguars' defense wasn't better than the offense, ranking in the bottom of the league in points allowed, and yards. They gave up 20 touchdowns on the ground, and they couldn't stop teams through the air either, although their rankings against the pass were slightly higher.
The Colts already had the playoffs locked, but with the win they had a chance to jump into the two seed, or the third seed, depending on the outcomes of the Bengals and Patriots' games. Both teams won, which leaves Indianapolis as the fourth seed, and preparing for a first round match up with a Chiefs team they have already beaten. The Colts' offense lost a lot of production after an injury to Reggie Wayne, in a win over the Denver Broncos. The running game never really picked up all season, but they also lost four running backs to injury, including Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw (both were starters when they were injured). They traded for Trent Richardson and they didn't get the value expected from him. In Richardson's first two seasons, he has averaged 3.3 yards per carry, he only averaged 2.9 in his 14 games with Indianapolis, and he lost his starting spot to Donald Brown. There have been high expectations for Richardson over his first two years, but failing to live up to them doesn't mean he never will. Donald Brown came on strong for the Colts this season, although in the final game of the season him and Richardson combined for just 56 yards on 20 carries. Brown's fifth season in the NFL was also his best, rushing for a career high of 5.3 yards per carry, with six touchdowns, but he only carried the ball 102 times.
With 155 yards on 11 receptions against the Jaguars, T.Y. Hilton recorded his first thousand-yard season, with 1,083 yards on 82 receptions. Hilton took up some of the slack when Wayne went down, but he only scored three touchdowns over the second half of the season, and all three came in the game immediately after Wayne's injury. Hilton's numbers were pedestrian outside of three games that saw him break 100 yards. Andrew Luck played an efficient game, as he did most of the season, completing 27 of his 36 passes for 282 yards and a touchdown. Luck actually attempted fewer passes than he did in his rookie season (something that I think is for the better), and he threw the same number of touchdowns (23), while cutting his interception total in half, he only threw nine picks this season. Luck is good at moving around in the pocket, and he makes smart decisions to run when needed, which led to many "experts" becoming enamored with his ability to run. He held together an offense that wasn't performing as well as they had when the season started off, although he was prone to his own mistakes as well, including a three interception game against St. Louis.
The Colts' defense played really well for the first half of the season, but they weren't at the same level over the second half. They were still a good defense, as evidenced by Robert Mathis' career year. Mathis finished with 19.5 sacks to lead the NFL, and forced eight fumbles, most of which he forced while sacking the quarterback. There were questions when the season started about whether Mathis could be successful without Dwight Freeney on the other side of the line, and as a rush linebacker in the Colts' 3-4 defense, but those questions seem to be answered now. Vontae Davis had one of the best seasons of his career, only one interception, but he locked down many of the best receivers in the NFL, including a great performance against Demaryius Thomas, in which Thomas had four catches for 82 yards, but only one catch came in the first half, and he was targeted nine times.
San Francisco 49ers 23 - Arizona Cardinals 20
San Francisco was in the playoffs whether they won or lost, but a win gave them a chance to win the division, if Seattle also lost to the Rams. The 49ers have played solid football all season, and they have gotten hot as we enter the playoffs. Colin Kaepernick and Anquan Boldin came together to form a top-notch combination. Against Arizona, Boldin picked on the Cardinal's secondary to the tune of 149 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions. Boldin, who helped the Ravens beat San Francisco in last season's Super Bowl, put together his sixth career thousand-yard season, catching 85 passes for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns.
Kaepernick was talked about all season, most of it referring to the "sophomore slump" he was supposed to be suffering from. To end the season, he threw 34 passes, completed 21 of them, and threw two touchdowns, with no interceptions. Kaepernick only completed 58.4 percent of his passes, but he also threw only eight interceptions, and scored 21 touchdowns through the air. He ran the ball 92 times, for 524 yards and four touchdowns. Frank Gore carried the load on the ground, although he only managed 14 yards on 13 carries against Arizona. For the season, Gore had 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, on 276 rushes.
The 49ers offensive line blocks well, especially in the running game, and their running backs consistently have large holes to run through. Joe Staley, their left tackle for the past seven years, caught the second pass of his career, when he ran a fade route up the sideline and gained 14 yards.
San Francisco's defense is the main reason for their success, and that defense is headed by two of the best middle linebackers in the NFL. Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are fearsome in the middle of that defense, and they make their presence known game in and game out. Bowman had a sack, an interception, and a fumble recovery (which he also forced) against Arizona. He had two interceptions (both in the last two weeks, and his first pick of the season won them the game against Atlanta), five sacks, 118 tackles, and forced four fumbles, on the season. Willis' numbers have dipped with the emergence of Bowman, but he is one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL and rarely has a tackle broken. He finished this year with three sacks and 82 tackles, while forcing two fumbles. With Aldon Smith missing time this season because of alcohol related issues, Ahmad Brooks stepped up, recording 8.5 sacks and 52 tackles, to go along with one interception and seven pass deflections. Brooks made many big plays this season, and he's one of two former Bengals contributing in a big way to this defense. Justin Smith is the workhorse defensive end, and despite his primary job being to take up blockers so Aldon and Brooks can rush the passer, he added 6.5 sacks to his career total.
Arizona was playing for their playoff lives in this one, but they needed the Saints to lose, and even if the Cardinals had pulled this game out, they'd have missed the post season. The Cardinals were overlooked most of the season, even though they have a defense that ranks right up there with the best in the NFL, including two from their own division in Seattle and San Fran.
Carson Palmer is still getting used to his receivers and the offensive scheme, but they were able to come together well in the second half of the season. Palmer completed 28 of 49 passes for 407 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception, against the 49ers. Palmer threw far too many interceptions, although 14 of his 22 picks were thrown in the first eight games of the year, but he had one of the better seasons of his career, completing 63 percent of his passes for 4,274 yards and 24 touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald had a six catch, 113 yard game in Week 17, but he failed to break 1,000 yards receiving for just the fourth time in his career. He caught 82 passes for 954 yards, and scored 10 touchdowns. Michael Floyd had 91 yards on six catches, and almost doubled his yards from his rookie year. He caught just 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns in his second year.
Arizona's running game was mostly ineffective, with their top runner, Rashard Mendenhall, carrying the ball 217 times for 687 yards and eight touchdowns. Back-up André Ellington, had almost 100 fewer carries, ending up with 118, but he gained 652 yards for a 5.5 yard per carry average, and scored three touchdowns. Ellington also caught 39 passes for 371 yards and a touchdown.
The defense was the real story this season, led by Karlos Dansby, Calais Campbell, and Patrick Peterson. Peterson is one of the best young corners in the NFL, but he still has significant room for improvement. He picked the quarterback off three times, and recovered two fumbles, while consistently being in man coverage against the best receiver on the opposing offense. Peterson is also the punt returner, and caught six passes, and carried the ball four times, for Arizona. Dansby keeps getting better as he gets older. The 32-year-old had the best statistical season of his career, recording 113 tackles (according to , only eight of his 113 tackles were assisted), had four interceptions (two for touchdowns), and 6.5 sacks. The 27-year-old Campbell, had his best season, with nine sacks, two fumble recoveries, and 45 tackles, including one safety. Arizona is in a great spot to compete next season, but they are, unfortunately, in what looks to be the best division in football.