Week 16: Playoff picture takes shape

Sunday's results helped clear up many playoff scenarios, especially in the NFC.

The Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers joined the Arizona Cardinals as five of the NFC's playoff teams. The winner of next Sunday's NFC South play-in game between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers will be the NFC's fourth seed and the sixth team. Eliminated were the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles.

The AFC remains a little fuzzy but is taking shape. The Pittsburgh Steelers qualified for the playoffs with a 20-12 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. They joined division winners New England, Denver and Indianapolis. San Diego's victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night moved the Chargers ahead of the Baltimore Ravens for a wild-card spot. Monday night's Denver-Cincinnati game will determine if the Bengals go into next Sunday's AFC North showdown against Pittsburgh ahead or trailing in the division. Baltimore and Kansas City are in tough spots because of losses.

This is the first time in 12 years no team has risen from worst to first in a division. But another streak remains a possibility: This could be the 19th year in which at least five new teams are in the playoffs. Dallas, Detroit, Arizona and Pittsburgh are new teams, compared to the previous year. Atlanta could be the fifth if it beats Carolina.

Here is what we learned in Week 16.

1. Cowboys get over hump: The most sentimental scene from Sunday was watching Dallas beat Indianapolis 42-7 and win the NFC East title. There was emotion in the voices of head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo afterward. When Romo finishes a season healthy, his final games usually determine whether the Cowboys are in the playoffs. In past three years, the Cowboys lost their last game or their last two to fall short of the playoffs.

Unfairly, Romo was labeled a choker, which isn't the case. After the game, Garrett and Romo talked about the journey that got this team to 11-4 and the division title.

"Tony is obviously a great quarterback and has been a great quarterback for a long time," Garrett said. "We have done a good job of making the team better around him."

The talent is better. Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in football. The offensive line is perhaps the best in football. Tight end Jason Witten came into the league as a rookie with Romo and has been his best ally through the years. DeMarco Murray has had a special year and led the league in rushing and attempts. Garrett made a point to bring up the character and leadership on this team. Murray played, despite having a surgery this week on his left hand. He had 22 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown.

"When leaders show everyone how important it is for them, that's special," Garrett said.

That type of determination, Garrett said, carries over to a team. It's taken a long time, but the Cowboys finally finished a season in a strong way.

2. Red zone decision stalls Chiefs: Because of Andy Reid's coaching and QB Alex Smith's efficiency, Reid has squeezed every point out of the Chiefs' offense this season. Entering Sunday, the Chiefs were second in red zone scoring (27 touchdowns in 40 trips) and No. 1 in red zone defense (18 TDs in 47 trips).

Still, Reid's decision to go for a fourth-and-1 at the Steelers' 12-yard-line with 27 seconds left in the first half might have cost Kansas City the game. The Steelers led 10-6, and it was evident both offenses had the ability to sustain drives and eat up the clock.

"You score," Reid said afterward. "That's what we were trying to do. In hindsight, you say we probably should have kicked it, but I knew a couple things there, and I felt like we had a lot [of effective plays] on the game sheet."

Sorry, Andy, you should have kicked it. The Steelers' run defense played well enough to turn the Chiefs' running offense into a passing offense. The Chiefs had 51 pass plays and only 14 runs for 39 yards in the 20-12 loss. After a timeout, Alex Smith handed off to Jamaal Charles on that fourth-down play, and the Steelers stopped him for no gain.

"It was unbelievable," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "The crowd gets into it. The defense was fired up. We want to go answer the bell because the defense stood up for us, so we want to stand up for them."

Thanks to the momentum shift, the Steelers never felt they weren't in control, but the three points would have helped Smith in the final minutes. Smith was at the Steelers' five with 1:40 left in the fourth quarter and trailing 20-9. Had the deficit been eight instead, the Chiefs could have gone for a touchdown and two-point conversion. Instead, Reid settled for a field goal, failed on the onside kick and all but ended the Chiefs' playoff run.

The win put the Steelers in the playoffs and gave them the chance to win the AFC North if they beat Cincinnati in Week 17.

3. Another strange turn for NFC South: Officially, the NFC South became the second division to offer the NFL a playoff team with a losing record. The 2010 NFC West produced a 7-9 Seahawks team that actually beat the Saints in the first round of the playoffs.

To be eliminated from a division that is now led by the 6-8-1 Panthers and 6-9 Falcons, the Saints had to lose five straight home games. They obliged by capping their home schedule with a horrible 30-14 loss to the Falcons. Drew Brees threw two interceptions. The Saints scored only one offensive touchdown. A Saints team favored to win the NFC South continues to be the most baffling and disappointing team in the league.

"I don't want to say an expectation, but there is a standard, and this is something that we haven't been up to this year," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I use that term -- puzzling and head-scratching."

The Saints went from being an 8-0 home team in 2013 to 3-5 this year. The Saints felt so good about their chances this year they spent $9 million a year to sign safety Jairus Byrd. Now they are a team with an older quarterback, an old offensive line and a porous defense. They entered the season with the second easiest schedule in the NFC and exited with a potential top-10 draft choice.

4. Cooling off coaching hot seats: The Miami Dolphins' 37-35 win over the Minnesota Vikings seemed like a typical game in the Joe Philbin era. Baffling is the word. The Dolphins seemed to have the game in control and led 28-20 with 6:39 left in the fourth quarter. A defense that has been slipping for four weeks let Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater lead a touchdown drive. Then Dolphins rookie Jarvis Landry handed the Vikings a 5-yard touchdown by fumbling the ensuing kickoff.

These are the types of mistakes that have this franchise stuck in the 7-9, 8-8 rut. The Dolphins came back to win, and before you can get the name Jim Harbaugh out of his month, owner Steve Ross announced Philbin will coach the team next year. For the second time, Ross is out of the Harbaugh sweepstakes.

"I've looked at the whole situation as I've looked at it all year,'' Ross said. "He's got a year under his contract, and we're bringing him back. We're building something great, and he's the right guy. I'm very frustrated [we're not] going to be in the playoffs. That's the most frustrating thing. But we have a lot of talent here."

Wow. Ross took plenty of criticism for giving former coach Tony Sparano and former general manager Jeff Ireland one year too many. He could be making the same mistake again. His decision creates huge shifting in the coaching carousel. Harbaugh, expected to be unloaded by the 49ers, is left to think about jobs at the University of Michigan, Oakland and maybe the Jets.

The Falcons' win over the Saints took a little of the heat off head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, though the Falcons probably need to make the playoffs to keep those jobs safe.

It's impossible to know if Chicago Bears coach Mark Trestman helped his cause in a 20-14 loss to Detroit, but he will have an interesting conversation with ownership after the season. Trestman benched Jay Cutler for Jimmy Clausen, who had a respectable day in completing 23 passes and being competitive against a tough Lions defense. The Bears had only one turnover, a Clausen interception. Trestman might argue last year's offense was better when Josh McCown was running it than Cutler, and that's it is time to move Cutler out of Chicago. Still, his seat remains very warm.

Finally, Tom Coughlin's finish, including Sunday's win at St. Louis, should allow him to get another year as the New York Giants' head coach.

5. Unexpected Ravens meltdown: A year ago, the Ravens were sitting at 8-6 and in control of their playoff destiny. Then they lost their last two games. Part of the problem was the opponents. They lost to New England and Cincinnati. As baffling as Philadelphia's loss to Washington on Saturday was, the Ravens pulled off a bigger stunner Sunday by losing to the Houston Texans 25-13 and quarterback Case Keenum, who was signed only last Monday.

"We got our butt kicked,'' Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's really simple.''

Flacco had one of the worst games of his career. He completed 21 of 50 passes for 195 yards and threw three interceptions. The Texans destroyed him with relentless pressure. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Flacco completed only four of 16 passes for 26 yards when he was under duress. Two of the three interceptions occurred while he was under pressure. Nothing went right for the Ravens.

Keenum controlled the ball for 81 plays and 34 minutes, 58 seconds. In the first half, the Ravens had the ball for only 10:13 because Flacco could barely complete a pass. He was 3-for-19 and 0-for-7 on third down. All the Ravens had to do was beat the Texans and Cleveland Browns, get to 11 wins and get back to the playoffs. Now, they could be out for a second consecutive year.

"Very disappointing,'' linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We needed two games to win to get in. We better fight like hell next week.''


Wins by San Diego and Miami enabled the AFC to win the interconference title 33-30-1. ... The Colts might now realize they have major problems with their running offense. They had 10 carries for 1 yard in the loss to the Cowboys. ... The NFC South finished 10-29-1 against the rest of the league, the worst mark ever for a division. ... Before hurting his hamstring, Cleveland's Johnny Manziel continued to look like a quarterback who wasn't ready to start. He was 3-of-8 for 32 yards and put up only three points. ... If you are wondering how DeMarco Murray did running to his left with a broken left hand, ESPN Stats & Information had him at 22 yards on 11 carries.