The NFL had a wild Week 17 set up, with 11 teams fighting for seven playoff spots and most of the playoff seedings up for grabs.
Five AFC teams entered the day with a 10-5 record with only four playoff spots up for grabs, and the Dolphins drew the short stick. The Titans, Ravens, Browns, and Colts took care of business, while the Dolphins got blown out in Buffalo, making them the first 10-win team to miss the playoffs since the 2015 Jets.
In the NFC, legendary quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady all got the job done, while one of the last playoff spots came down to a battle of backup quarterbacks, and not one, but two teams without a winning record (Chicago, Washington) made the playoffs, which hadn’t been done by any team since the 2014 Panthers.
Here is an Instant Analysis of the playoff picture:
▪ Dolphins coach Brian Flores didn’t have his Ryan Fitzpatrick safety blanket on Sunday after Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19, and Tua Tagovailoa simply wasn’t up to the task in the 56-26 beatdown by the Bills. Tagovailoa threw three picks, and the fact that the Bills jumped out to a 28-6 lead makes it even more curious that Flores was planning to start Tagovailoa even after benching him for Fitzpatrick in the win over the Raiders last week.
It’s a shame that the Dolphins didn’t make the playoffs. Their defense was nasty — they were the only team to force a turnover in all 16 games this year — and they would not have been a fun opponent in the playoffs, especially had they started Fitzpatrick instead of Tagovailoa.
Instead, Flores and the Dolphins have all offseason to stew over early-season losses to the Patriots and Broncos that kept them out of the playoffs and Sunday’s blowout by the Bills. And the Dolphins have to decide if Tagovailoa deserves to be the franchise quarterback next year.
▪ The Bills, meanwhile, improved to 13-3 and wrapped up the No. 2 seed with the win. It was their sixth in a row and ninth out of 10 games — and their one loss came on a Hail Mary to the Cardinals. Josh Allen looked like vintage Rodgers in the first half, throwing for 224 yards and three touchdowns and showing total command of the game. He probably won’t win the MVP, but he’s making a heck of a closing argument.
The Chiefs have been the best team in the AFC all year, but they better be worried about Buffalo. The Bills are on fire and have the look of a Super Bowl team.
▪ The Dolphins still had a pulse around 6:30 p.m. Sunday as the Colts allowed the Jaguars to score two straight touchdowns and get back in the game. But Jonathan Taylor’s 45-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter sealed it (he finished with 253 yards, ninth-most in NFL history), and the Colts wrapped up the final playoff spot with a 28-14 win over Jacksonville.
The Colts finished with the No. 7 seed and will play at Buffalo. Great storyline: Colts coach Frank Reich going against the team he quarterbacked to the biggest comeback win in NFL history.
▪ The Titans clinched the AFC South title and the No. 4 seed with a come-from-ahead, 41-38 win over the Texans. Derrick Henry rushed for 250 yards to become the eighth player in NFL history to crack 2,000 yards (2,027), but the Titans blew a 31-15 third-quarter lead and needed a late Ryan Tannehill touchdown and a 54-yard pass to A.J. Brown with six seconds to go to set up the winning field goal.
The Titans will host the Ravens next Sunday. The Titans beat the Ravens, 30-24, in overtime in Week 11 in Baltimore but the Ravens have been rolling on offense the last five weeks and the Titans’ defense has been suspect all year.
▪ The Ravens, who romped all over the Bengals, 38-3, secured the No. 5 seed and a visit to Nashville next Sunday. Lamar Jackson is now 5-0 career against the Bengals, and the Ravens rushed for 404 yards, which was the fourth-most in NFL history and the most since the Bengals went for 407 in 2000.
The Ravens finished the season with the league’s best point differential (plus-165) and averaged 37.2 points over their final five games. They are dangerous.
The Browns earned their first playoff berth in 18 years after escaping with a 24-22 win over the Steelers and backup quarterback Mason Rudolph. The 11-5 Browns locked up the No. 6 seed, made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and finished with their best record since re-entering the NFL in 1999.
The Browns’ reward for their win? A visit to — yup — the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in a rematch next Sunday night. This time, they’ll face a rested Ben Roethlisberger.
▪ In the NFC, the 13-3 Packers locked up home-field advantage with a 35-16 win over the Bears, and Aaron Rodgers made his final case for MVP with four more touchdowns and no interceptions. The Packers have won six in a row, and now with home-field and a first-round bye, may be tough to beat.
▪ The Bucs will play on the road all postseason, but they are the second-best team in the NFC right now. They won their fourth in a row, 44-27, over the Falcons, and secured the No. 5 playoff seed with an 11-5 record. Brady had another huge day, throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns. And he’s getting hot with two of his receivers — Antonio Brown had 11 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns, while Chris Godwin had five catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bucs secured the ideal wild-card spot — getting to play 7-9 Washington next Saturday night in prime time. But the win may have come at a price. Star receiver Mike Evans went down with a non-contact knee injury in the first half and left the stadium to get an MRI. You couldn’t help but think of Brady losing Wes Welker to a torn ACL in Week 17 of 2009. Hopefully it turns out better for Evans.
▪ The 12-4 Saints wrapped up the No. 2 seed with an easy win over the Panthers and will host the Bears next Sunday afternoon (in a game that will be simulcast with slime effects on Nickelodeon). The 12-4 Seahawks earned the No. 3 seed with a 26-23 win over the 49ers, but the Seahawks have not looked sharp in the last few weeks and struggled against the 49ers’ third-string QB on Sunday.
The Seahawks better get their act together for a tough playoff game Saturday afternoon against the division-rival Rams. The teams split the season series this year, with the home team winning each time.
▪ A Rams-Cardinals showdown for a wild-card spot turned into a battle of the backups, with the Rams’ John Wolford “outdueling” the Cardinals’ Chris Streveler in an 18-7 win.
Wolford, filling in for Jared Goff (broken thumb), threw for a respectable 231 yards and an interception, and most importantly didn’t throw the game away. Cardinals starter Kyler Murray injured his ankle on the first series, and Streveler threw for just 105 yards, a touchdown, and a pick-6 that proved to be the crucial score.
Murray did his best Willis Reed impersonation and returned to the game in the fourth quarter, but wasn’t able to lead the Cardinals back.
The Cardinals started the season 6-3, but finished 8-8 and lost out on the playoff tiebreaker to the Bears. There are going to be some questions this offseason about Kliff Kingsbury and whether he is getting the most out of his team.
▪ The Bears’ three-game win streak was snapped with their loss to the Packers, but it ultimately didn’t matter because of the Cardinals’ loss. The Bears are the first team to make the playoffs at 8-8 or worse since the 2014 Panthers went 7-8-1, and the first 8-8 wild-card team since the 2006 Giants (when the playoffs only had 12 teams).
▪ And in the NFC Least, er, East, the Giants held off the Cowboys, 23-19, but it ultimately didn’t matter thanks to Washington’s 20-14 win over the Eagles on Sunday night. Washington started the season 1-5 but finished 7-9 and NFC East champs thanks to switching to veteran QB Alex Smith in Week 10. Washington becomes the third team to win a division title with a losing record (2014 Panthers, 2010 Seahawks), and its reward is hosting Brady and the Bucs on Saturday night. A Washington loss would have given the NFC East title to the 6-10 Giants
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Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.