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Here is What Have We Learned from Week 16 of the 2014 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers have used another strong December push under fourth-year coach Ron Rivera to reclaim the NFC South division lead.
Yes, the 6-8-1 Panthers.
Despite going more than two months without a victory this season, Carolina enters Week 17 in first place and needing a win or tie Sunday at Atlanta to repeat as division champions after climbing back into the playoff hunt with a 3-0 December.
“Believe me, I always said it — we’re in it,” Rivera said. “Again, I’m making no apologies for being in it.”
Strong finishes have become commonplace since Rivera’s arrival.
The Panthers are 14-3 in December games since Rivera took over as coach in 2011. Only Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have a better record (15-2), according to STATS.
Rivera attributes Carolina’s strong finish to incorporating younger players into the lineup late in the season, and his players putting in extra work on the field after practice.
In the midst of a seven-game winless streak, the Panthers decided to begin playing younger — and in many cases, faster — players. They got rid of veteran wide receiver Jason Avant and cornerback Antoine Cason and benched safety Thomas DeCoud.
The result is a team that looks different than the one that lined up opening day.
The Panthers started a franchise-record seven rookies on Sunday against Cleveland.
Philly Brown started alongside Kelvin Benjamin, giving the Panthers more speed at wide receiver. Guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner have helped shore up the offensive line.
Defensively, the Panthers start two rookies in the secondary in cornerback Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston. Rookie outside linebacker Adarius Glanton got his first start Sunday in place of the injured A.J. Klein.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Rivera placed an emphasis on winning in his first season in 2011. Rivera inherited a team that went 2-14 in the year before and the Panthers got off to a rocky 3-8 start. Instead of writing off the season, Rivera talked about building a foundation for the future. The Panthers, with nothing to play for, went 3-2 in December that season.
That momentum seems to have carried over. The Panthers have won 10 of their past 11 December games, including a 17-13 victory at home against Cleveland on Sunday. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said the players never stopped believing they could win the division.
- HOUSTON (AP) — Just a year after going 2-14, the Houston Texans are still in the playoff hunt entering the final week of the regular season.
Houston (8-7) has to beat Jacksonville and have Baltimore lose to the Browns and the Chiefs beat the Chargers to secure the third postseason berth in franchise history.
“I said at the beginning of the year, I thought we could contend for the playoffs and that’s what we’re doing,” team owner Bob McNair said. “But very few other people felt that way, so yeah it’s a big change.”
After the struggles of last season left the Texans with the NFL’s worst record after they made the playoffs the previous two seasons, this success is especially sweet.
Coach Bill O’Brien, who is in his first season in Houston and first as a head coach in the NFL, is excited for his team’s opportunity this week.
They beat the Ravens 25-13 with fourth-string quarterback Case Keenum and a defense led by J.J. Watt which forced three turnovers.
Keenum, whom the Texans released in training camp, was signed from the St. Louis practice squad on Monday when Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage were both injured a day before with Ryan Mallett already on injured reserve.
Houston players and coaches were impressed with Keenum’s performance with less than a week to prepare for the start.
O’Brien said Keenum will benefit from having a little more time to prepare this week, but that the extra time won’t help that much since preparing for Jacksonville is completely different than getting ready for the Ravens.
He’s also focused on making sure his team doesn’t take the Jaguars lightly despite their 3-12 record.
Quarterback isn’t the only place where Houston has dealt with injuries. Top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, expected to boost Houston’s pass rush, missed most of the season because of a knee injury, top cornerback Kareem Jackson missed three games with a sprained knee and linebacker Brian Cushing sat out two games because of a knee problem.
Houston’s defense has played its best two games of the season in the past two weeks and allowed a season-low 33 yards rushing on Sunday. Watt said he thinks the group is starting to excel now that it has had some time to adjust to defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s new system. The unit has been helped by forcing a franchise-record 34 takeaways this season, which are the most in the NFL. Those takeaways have resulted in 123 points, which are also the most in team history.
- SAN DIEGO (AP) — The San Diego Chargers know how lucky they are to have Philip Rivers as their quarterback.
Otherwise, they almost certainly would have lost at San Francisco on Saturday night and been eliminated from the playoff chase.
Playing through rib and back injuries, Rivers brought back the Chargers from a brutal first-half performance to lead a rally that resulted in a 38-35 overtime victory.
If the Chargers (9-6) win at Kansas City on Sunday, they’re in the playoffs.
Rivers overcame three interceptions and a 21-point halftime deficit to finish with 356 yards passing and four touchdown passes.
Rivers threw three touchdown passes in the second half, including an 11-yarder to Malcom Floyd with 29 seconds left that tied the game at 35. Nick Novak won it with a 40-yard field goal in overtime.
The Chargers still won’t say how severe Rivers’ injuries are. He’s reportedly battling a bulging disc in his back.
Rivers sat out practice twice last week and could be rested again at some point this week.
The Chargers were off Monday. They practice Tuesday and Wednesday before talking off Thursday for Christmas and practicing again on Friday.
Rivers’ teammates are impressed with what he’s done.
McCoy said the Chargers’ play in the first half was “pathetic,” and he also described it as being “a nightmare” and “a disaster.”
The Chargers allowed 182 yards rushing in the first half and Rivers had an interception returned for a touchdown.
- With five of the six playoff slots in both conferences decided, some would think much of the drama of the schedule’s final week has been removed.
Nine of the 10 teams already qualified for the Super Bowl chase have something to play for on Sunday.
Start with the defending league champion Seahawks (11-4). Excluding any Week 17 ties in the multitude of scenarios, Seattle not only will get the NFC West title by beating St. Louis, but also home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Not a pleasant thought for its opponents.
New England (12-3) doesn’t need to show up against visiting Buffalo on Sunday; it already owns the top seed in the AFC. The Patriots already are the first team since the current postseason format was adopted in 1990 to get five consecutive first-round byes.
Everyone else is still scrambling.
Denver (11-4), after losing Monday night’s game at Cincinnati (10-4-1), has the AFC West secured. But their home game with Oakland (3-12) has significance because a loss could force the Broncos to play in the wild-card round.
The Bengals grabbed a playoff berth by beating Denver. They travel to face already-qualified Pittsburgh (10-5) on Sunday for the AFC North crown.
Indianapolis (10-5) has the AFC South title and will be either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed. The Colts are at Tennessee (2-13), which has the inside track for the top overall draft pick through 15 games.
The remaining AFC wild-card spot could go to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, barring winning the North division; San Diego (9-6); Baltimore (9-6); Houston (8-7); or Kansas City (8-7). The Chargers have the easiest task: win at KC and advance.
But all of them remain alive heading to the weekend, with Jacksonville (3-12) at Houston, and Cleveland (7-8) at Baltimore.
The sixth NFC spot will go to the survivor in the South, where Atlanta (6-9) hosts Carolina (6-8-1). Yes, a losing team will not only make the postseason, but will be the No. 4 seed and host a game on wild-card weekend.
With Seattle, Arizona, NFC East champ Dallas, Green Bay and Detroit all at 11-4, byes are up for grabs. The Cowboys have the most difficult road to get the top seed because the Packers host the Lions and both own the tiebreaker over Dallas. The Cowboys need a victory at Washington (4-11), an Arizona loss and a tie at Lambeau Field.
Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to throw draws into the mix, but in that case it’s essential.
For Green Bay to get the No. 1 spot in the conference, it must win and have Seattle lose. Detroit must win and have both Seattle and Arizona lose.
As for earning a bye, the winner of Detroit-Green Bay gets one.
- OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens’ effort to reach the postseason now includes this undesirable exercise: scoreboard watching.
An unexpected 25-13 loss in Houston on Sunday left Baltimore (9-6) in need of help to get into the playoffs.
Had the Ravens handled the Texans and defeated Cleveland at home this Sunday, Baltimore would be in the postseason for the sixth time in seven years.
The scenario now is far more difficult.
For the Ravens to get in, beating the Browns is only the first step. San Diego must also lose at Kansas City on Sunday afternoon.
That’s it. Baltimore’s only other option, beating Cleveland and having Cincinnati lose twice, disappeared when the Bengals topped Denver on Monday night.
The key for the Ravens, according to coach John Harbaugh, is to expend all their energy on the first part of the equation.
“Our emphasis is completely and squarely on the Cleveland Browns,” Harbaugh said Monday. “That’s what we’re going to be doing. I’m sure they’ll flash the score up there and I’m sure we’ll see it.
“But we’re not going to be immersed in any other game. That’s a recipe for disaster. We will be wholly and fully engaged on the task at hand.”
By losing to the Texans, Baltimore not only relinquished control of its destiny, but lost any chance of winning the AFC North. The Ravens are also assured of opening on the road if they do reach the postseason.
It was a devastating defeat, especially because Houston was starting fourth-string quarterback Case Keenum.
Coming in as a five-point favorite, the Ravens fell behind 16-0 at halftime and never mounted a rally in the second half.
Joe Flacco went 21 for 50 for 195 yards and three interceptions, Justin Forsett ran 10 times for 19 yards and Baltimore finished with a meager 211 yards on 68 offensive plays.
The Ravens intend to look at that game as they would a dropped pass — shrug your shoulders, get back in the huddle and try to do better next time.
A year ago, the Ravens traveled to Cincinnati needing a win and some help to get into the playoffs. Baltimore lost 34-17.
That, or go home. Before losing to the Texans, the Ravens had won four of five. The one defeat in that stretch was a 34-33 misstep at home against San Diego, and that is why the Chargers (9-6) own the tiebreaker over Baltimore.
Earlier this season, the Ravens squeezed past Cleveland 23-21. But the Browns (7-8) have lost four straight and haven’t won in Baltimore since 2007.
- You can win for losing in the NFL. The Tennessee Titans are proving it.
Thanks to a nine-game slide, the Titans (2-13) are in line for the top overall pick in next spring’s draft. They hold the edge, according to the latest NFL calculations, on equally inept Tampa Bay because of strength — uh, make that weakness — of schedule.
Not even close.
Under first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Titans have compiled their awful record against opponents with a 108-115-1 mark. That gives their schedule a .484 rating, barely easier than Tampa Bay’s .489 under its first-year coach, Lovie Smith.
Unless they both win home games Sunday — the Titans against AFC South winner Indianapolis, the Bucs vs. New Orleans — one of them will own the top selection.
But which one remains uncertain, because every game must be played across the league to fully determine strength (weakness) of schedule.
That means results in contests not involving the Titans or Bucs could affect who winds up No. 1. Or No. 32, that is.
Since the NFL went to all divisional matchups on the final weekend of the schedule, in theory the impact of those games not involving the bottom teams would be minimized.
This season, the AFC South, where the Titans are the tail-enders, played the entire NFC East and AFC North. That means interconference matchups with the surprisingly strong Cowboys and surprisingly weak Giants, and four games against teams over or close to .500 from the AFC North.
Tampa Bay’s NFC South faced off with the AFC North, too, but took on the NFC North.
Should both Tennessee and Tampa Bay win Sunday, Jacksonville, Oakland and the New York Jets, all 3-12, are next in line.
Clearly, though, the odds favor the Titans and Bucs as leadoff hitters at the draft.
- KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs seemed so determined to break one of the most bizarre streaks of this NFL season last Sunday that they pulled off an audacious field-goal fake to help them out.
The fake worked to perfection. It still didn’t do any good.
After getting a fresh set of downs and Jamaal Charles was stuffed for a 2-yard gain, Alex Smith threw a pass to Dwayne Bowe in the end zone.
At the last moment, Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake knocked the ball from the wide receiver’s grasp.
Smith wound up getting sacked on third down. The Chiefs had to kick a field goal anyway. And another series ended without a wide receiver catching a touchdown pass.
Bowe once caught 15 touchdown passes in a single season. He’d give just about anything for one right now.
That’s because the Chiefs head into Sunday’s regular-season finale against AFC West rival San Diego without a single wide receiver having caught a touchdown pass.
That has never happened before in a 16-game season.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has continually discounted the dubious streak, pointing out that Smith has still thrown 18 touchdown passes.
Who cares if they have mostly gone to tight end Travis Kelce or running back Charles? The whole point is to score, regardless of how it happens.
The Chiefs, after all, are still in the middle of the pack in points this season.
“We’re all about wins,” said wide receiver Jason Avant, who joined the team midway through the season. “Stats really don’t matter in this league. We really don’t care about that.”
Especially this week.
To reach the playoffs for the second straight year, the Chiefs need to beat the Chargers and hope Cleveland can beat Baltimore and Jacksonville can upset Houston, a pair of games that will be transpiring at the same time things are unfolding at Arrowhead Stadium.
In other words, the Chiefs need a lot of help. But they insisted Tuesday that they are only focused on what they can control, and that’s beating the Chargers.
That would be easier to do if a wide receiver caught a touchdown pass or two.
The fewest touchdown catches by a group of wide receivers in a 16-game season is two, set by the 1981 Saints and matched by the 2004 Giants. Neither of those teams went to the playoffs.
In fact, the most recent team to go an entire season without a wide receiver catching a touchdown pass was the 1964 Giants, who went 2-10-2, according to STATS LLC. But that distinction is a bit fuzzy because Frank Gifford, listed some places as a flanker, caught three touchdown passes.
Delving further into history yields other teams, including the ’60 Redskins and ’50 Steelers, who didn’t have a “wide receiver” catch a TD pass. But they did have “ends” catch TD passes.
So set aside history for a moment. Perhaps a better way to put into perspective just how crazy the Chiefs’ streak is would be to consider this season.
The Cowboys’ Dez Bryant has 14 touchdown catches. And of the 15 players with at least 10 TD catches, 11 of them play wide receiver, including rookies Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr.