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NFL: Dramatic Final Day As Steelers And Packers Playoff Bound

football

The 2014 NFL regular season is now done. We know who the twelve playoff sides are, as well as who is on the clock first for the 2015 draft (think very carefully, Tampa Bay Buccaneers). It was a tumultuous final day of the season, with every side playing and the teams jockeying for position in the playoffs changing constantly. The wild card round of the playoffs begins next Saturday, but for now let’s go back and examine the action on the final day of the regular season.

Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers (20-30)

The Green Bay Packers continue to prove unstoppable at home, securing the NFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs with the win here. It was not without tension, as Aaron Rodgers left the field injured while still managing to throw a touchdown pass in the first half. In his time off the field, Calvin Johnson brought in two touchdowns to tie the game, and leave the Packers fans on the edges of their seats. Rodgers re-emerged on the second drive of the second half, and proceeded to pick apart the opposition defense. Green Bay displayed the offensive cohesion and precision that their divisional rivals could only dream of, and Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and a huge effort on the ground from Eddie Lacy was enough to win out. The defense made big plays at crucial times, in particular recovering a fumble on the next play after suffering a blocked field goal attempt of their own, which was a huge momentum swing. They also forced Matt Stafford into an intentional grounding penalty that became a safety and two crucial points, earning their team and quarterback a much needed week off.

The Detroit Lions seem to have all the offensive pieces you would need for a great attacking unit, but that just isn’t the way it has panned out for them this year. Matt Stafford continues to be violently erratic throwing the ball, completing less than 50% of his passing attempts. Nobody broke fifty receiving yards for the Lions, with Calvin Johnson particularly quiet, aside from his two touchdown catches. The Lions are 0-16 on the road against winning teams during Matt Stafford’s time at quarterback, a damning indictment and one that offers little confidence ahead of a road trip to Dallas next week. They may also be without Ndamukong Suh, who will be investigated for an alleged stamp on Aaron Rodgers.

Cincinnati Benagls at Pittsburgh Steelers (17-27)

The hotly contested AFC North crown belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers, after a rousing home victory clinched them the third seed in the AFC and a home game next weekend against the Baltimore Ravens. That they achieved this despite a Ben Roethlisberger illness, LeVeon Bell injury, the absence of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor as well as a farcical botched fake punt pass that was intercepted speaks to the dominance the Steelers had throughout. Brice McCain, who was in for the missing veterans in the secondary, became the defensive hero by picking off Andy Dalton twice. With the Steelers breaking even on turnovers and Antonio Brown returning a punt for a touchdown, it would be very hard for any road team to turn them over. They were gashed in run defense, which will surely be a worry with the juggernaut Justin Forsett up next, but even more concerning is the potential loss of Bell, who took a hard shot to the knee in the third quarter and did not return. But with Antonio Brown breezing past defenders left, right and centre, the Steelers have a chance against anyone.

The Cincinnati Bengals have to settle for a wild card berth and a road game against the Indianapolis Colts after getting brushed aside here. Andy Dalton threw two interceptions, but this time it would be hard to blame him, with AJ Green clearly at fault for both. Green was playing hurt, and it seemed to impact him throughout, missing the catch for the second interception and losing a fumble too. Taken out to undergo the concussion protocol, he may even be out for next week, which would be a huge loss. With Jermaine Gresham also hurt, the Bengals will have to lean on Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, who had a glorious touchdown hurdle here, even more than usual. The Bengals defense has continued to disappoint though, failing to generate any pressure yet again. That unit has underperformed all year, and it may cost the Bengals when we come to the crunch next week.

San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs (7-19)

The Kansas City Chiefs gave themselves a chance to make the playoffs by winning here, but it was always a long shot. Chase Daniel played a solid game throughout, doing enough through the first three quarters to keep the game out of reach, and allowing Justin Houston to focus on bringing down Philip Rivers for the day. He did so four times, finishing just a half sack behind the all-time record of Michael Strahan for the season. Houston not only helped the Chiefs win big here, but also guaranteed himself a lot of money next season via free agency, the franchise tag or a new deal in Kansas. Jamaal Charles made a number of tough plays, while Travis Kelce had another big game. Daniel almost did what Alex Smith has failed to do all season long in throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver, but Dwayne Bowe fumbled at about the six inch line. Luckily for the Chiefs, Kelce was on hand to recover the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. This Chiefs team has a lot of pieces in place to make a big run next year, but surely need more production from the wide receivers.

We finally found the hole that Philip Rivers couldn’t help his team escape from in this one, as the San Diego Chargers fell behind early here, and rarely looked like generating the momentum they had in drives that sealed huge wins against the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco Forty-Niners. The injuries to his offensive line caught up to them here, with a half-fit crew of guards and tackles no match for Justin Houston, Dontari Poe and Tamba Hali. Branden Oliver showed well again, rushing 14 times for 71 yards and a touchdown but, as the Chiefs added field goal after field goal, it was the passing attack that was required. Rivers was picked off twice in desperate attempts to get something going, and the defense had no answer to the short passes and run game that was eking the clock down one play at a time, so no post-season games for the Chargers this year.

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons (34-3)

A blowout road win for the Carolina Panthers made them the first team to ever repeat as winners of the NFC South, and earns them a home playoff tie against the Arizona Cardinals next week. The Panthers comprehensively won the battle in the trenches, proving far too physical for an opposition who spent the off-season looking to toughen up. Carolina’s runners took it in turns to cut through the defensive front, while Cam Newton threw for a quietly effective 10/16 for 114 yards and a touchdown. The defense notched six sacks of Matt Ryan, grabbing two interceptions  that were returned for touchdowns and recovering a Roddy White fumble too, meaning Carolina were one of the most comfortable week 17 winners, in one of few encounters where both sides had something to play for. They may have finished with a 7-8-1 record, but the Panthers have every chance of beating the Cardinals in the wild card round, coming in hot on a four game winning streak.

The Atlanta Falcons were simply overwhelmed in this one, and not for the first time this season. In what may well have been head coach Mike Smith’s last game with the home team, the Falcons were beaten in all areas of the field. Atlanta clearly boasts plenty of dynamic and enviable talent on offense, where Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White are all superstars. But the team has failed to put in adequate foundations, with an offensive line incapable of protecting Ryan or opening holes to run through, and a defense who played one good game all season in week 16 against the similarly deficient New Orleans Saints. Five of Atlanta’s six wins came within the division which is easily the worst in football and, although a sixth would have sent them to the playoffs, a fresh approach is needed.

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco Forty-Niners (17-20)

In Jim Harbaugh’s last game in charge of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, his players sent him off with a win that ensures he never recorded a losing record in all his time in the Bay Area. Frank Gore may also ride off into the sunset with a huge swansong of his own, taking twenty-five carries for 144 yards. Gore will be a fascinating free agent this off-season, as he can clearly still be a playmaker. Michael Crabtree is a similarly interesting player whose contract is up, with his four receptions for 41 yards proving his second-best performance in the last five games, a very worrying trend for a once-promising wide receiver. The Niners offense still appears disjointed, but Colin Kaepernick was better on Sunday, logging 15 completions for 204 yards and two touchdowns, with 63 yards rushing too. The Niners job is going to be the premier coaching job this off-season, and with a stellar defense loaded with pass rushers, they will likely be a big player in 2015, whoever has the headset.

The Arizona Cardinals couldn’t sneak a bye week on account of the Seattle Seahawks winning anyway, but this was still an interesting pre-playoff run out against a playoff calibre side. Ryan Lindley may well be starting next week against the Carolina Panthers if Drew Stanton has not recovered sufficiently, and at least he finally threw his first touchdown passes, the first coming on a flea flicker of all things! Michael Floyd came down with two touchdowns from Lindley, showing great rapport with eight connections for 153 yards. With a  limited run game and the well documented long list of injuries on both sides of the ball, the Cardinals need something to spark for them. Still, Lindley did throw three interceptions, ensuring Carson Palmer never appeared more valuable to an NFL team. The Cardinals have to take the long road to what they hope will be a place in the Super Bowl in their home stadium. The ultimate underdog will need to ride several strong performances from their outstanding defense if they are to get there. Expect Todd Bowles to be plenty busy.

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