What Have We Learned From Week 17 of the 2014 NFL Season

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Marshawn Lynch

Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, front right, scores a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

 

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 17 of the 2014 NFL Season going the 2015 Playoffs/Wild Card Weekend, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

                                                                                      Ups

  • RENTON, Wash. (AP) — Even when the Seattle Seahawks were slogging along at 3-3 and 6-4 around the midpoint of the season, finishing on top of the NFC still remained the goal

    That’s exactly where the Seahawks ended up after closing the season on a dominant six-game win streak. And now they get their reward: A needed week of rest and a guarantee that they will not have to leave the Pacific Northwest throughout the NFC playoffs.

    “The rest is important but we’re playing fast at the end of the year right now. Our energy is there and we look like we’re in midseason form in that regard,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on Monday. “I don’t have any problem with that. But for the injury factor and we’ll be a little bit fresher. And that is really a plus this time of the year so of course it works out really well.”

    Seattle clinched the NFC West title and home-field advantage with Sunday’s 20-6 win over St. Louis. Turned out the season finale against the Rams was a microcosm for Seattle’s entire season. The first half was a struggle, just as the first-half of the regular season was tough at times as the Seahawks adapted to being defending Super Bowl champions.

    But the finish against the Rams was nearly flawless — the Seahawks closed out the season on a six-game win streak. Seattle’s defense — best in the NFL for a second straight season — again came through with critical, game-changing plays.

    The Seahawks forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter, scoring on one when Bruce Irvin returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown and denying another touchdown when Earl Thomas karate-chopped the ball free from Benny Cunningham at the 1-yard line when it appeared St. Louis was going to score.

    Statistically, the Seahawks led the NFL in total defense (267.1) and pass defense (185.6), and were third in run defense (81.5). Seattle was the only team in the NFL to give up less than 300 yards per game for the season.

    What Seattle accomplished in its finishing push really stands out. Over the final six games, the Seahawks allowed three total touchdowns, 39 total points and kept five of six opponents to 7 points or less. None of the six gained more than 250 yards of offense and only San Francisco in Week 15 gained more than 64 yards on the ground. Seattle’s averages allowed during the six-game streak: 6.5 points per game; 202.2 total yards per game; 66 yards rushing; and 136.2 yards passing.

    But the statistic that might trump them all: Seattle did not allow an opponent to score in the fourth quarter in any of the six games. While that might not seem like a major accomplishment, it’s a rarity in NFL history. According to STATS, the Seahawks were the first team since Tampa Bay in 1996 to hold six straight opponents scoreless in the fourth quarter in the same season. Throw in that Seattle won all six games and it was the first team since Washington in 1940 to accomplish that feat.

    Seattle played from ahead in all of the games, with the exception of Sunday’s win over St. Louis. In the previous five, Seattle held the lead going to the fourth quarter. Carroll said playing with a lead has taken the worry of the run game out of the defensive plan and allowed Seattle to be more precise in its pass defense.

    The Seahawks have also forced six fourth-quarter turnovers during the win streak.

    “I think that’s a really cool stat. I love that stat. Fourth quarters of these games haven’t been able to score,” Carroll said. “It’s about finishing and that’s something we take great pride in.”

  • IRVING, Texas (AP) — Tony Romo took all but one snap for a regular-season finale that had little chance of meaning anything for the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys.

    DeMarco Murray got his 20th carry late in the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, not long after Dez Bryant made his final catch of the day.

    Sure enough, a 44-17 win over Washington didn’t change Dallas’ postseason position. Not that coach Jason Garrett cares.

    “We have been playing well as a football team the last few weeks and that’s certainly an important part of it,” Garrett said. “But I think as much as anything else is to take advantage of an opportunity to get better as a football team. Guys embraced the opportunity to play. I think we saw that in the spirit and demeanor we played with.”

    The team that couldn’t win big games in December went 4-0 this time, zooming past Philadelphia to win the NFC East and earning a first-round home game against Detroit (11-5) on Sunday.

    Now the question is whether keeping to the routine over resting Romo’s surgically repaired back will make a difference against the Lions, or if matters that Murray missed a chance to ease up at the end of by far the NFL rushing leader’s busiest season as a pro.

    Two things have already broken the Cowboys’ way.

    They got a Sunday playoff slot — and extra day for Romo after even he admitted that the much shorter Thanksgiving week was a problem. And Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who figured to be the most important player in trying to control Murray, will not play against the Cowboys after he was suspended for stepping on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ leg Sunday.

    Needless to say, players were on board with Garrett’s plan to play to win.

    “I think everybody was serious and just to hear that come out of his mouth, it motivated us even more,” Bryant said. “We know what we have to do and we did exactly what we wanted to do. We just have to keep fighting, have to keep playing together.”

    Here are some tangible things that Sunday’s dominating win did for Dallas:

    The Cowboys are one of five teams that tied for the best record in the NFL at 12-4. They averaged more than 40 points per game in their December victories and won four straight by double digits. Dallas last did that in the first four games of 2007, finishing the season as the top seed in the NFC.

    “This game’s about momentum and how you go into the playoffs,” tight end Jason Witten said. “We didn’t want to come in here and get beat and then try to go into the playoffs and turn it on.”

    Dallas’ last two trips to the playoffs offer glimpses of each approach. Seven years ago, they pulled the starters in an uninspiring loss at Washington to finish the regular season, then had the bye before losing to the New York Giants in the divisional round.

    Two years later, the Cowboys had to beat the Eagles in the finale to win the NFC East and secure a home game, then turned around and beat them again in the first round. That’s the only playoff win for Dallas since 1997.

    “I don’t think ’07 really was (a comparison), just because we had the bye and worked hard to get to that position,” Witten said. “I know in ’09 we played well, finished the season and then come back in the playoffs and kind of that momentum, you kind of ride that into the playoffs. I think that’s good.”

    If nothing else, the Cowboys get ready for the Lions feeling like they’re playing as well as any team in the NFL.

    “I just think we’re gelling,” said Murray, who finished with 1,845 yards rushing, broke all-time NFL leader Emmitt Smith’s franchise record from 19 years ago and tied for the league lead in touchdowns rushing with 13. “We’re executing the pass game and running it well. I think we’re playing good, situational football. Our defense is playing good, our specials teams is playing well.”

    Garrett simply didn’t want any of that to change.

    NOTES: Garrett essentially ruled out DT Henry Melton against Detroit because of a right knee injury sustained against Washington.

  • FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Dont’a Hightower has extra time to prepare for his top-seeded team’s playoff game.

    Meanwhile, he’ll be rooting for another No. 1 seed.

    The New England Patriots linebacker plans to watch his college team, Alabama, face Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal Thursday night.

    “I’m definitely going to catch that one,” Hightower said Tuesday while wearing an Alabama pullover as he stood at his Patriots locker.

    He might even work out a small wager with safety Nate Ebner, the only Ohio State player with New England.

    “Me and Nate have talked,” he said. “We haven’t set it yet. I’m pretty sure that he’ll come up with something good.”

    Running back LeGarrette Blount, safety Patrick Chung and rookie center Bryan Stork also have a special interest in the college games. Blount and Chung attended Oregon, seeded second, while Stork snapped the ball last season to Jameis Winston, who leads third-seeded Florida State against the Ducks in the other semifinal Thursday.

    “Oregon’s going to win,” Blount declared before pulling his school’s jacket from his locker.

    With a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots (12-4) have a lighter work week than usual. They can’t concentrate on preparing for their opponent until they find out who it is.

    Hightower and Blount plan to watch both wild-card games in the conference: Baltimore at Pittsburgh on Saturday night and Cincinnati at Indianapolis on Sunday.

    A Baltimore win sends the Ravens to Gillette Stadium on Jan. 10. If the Ravens lose, the Patriots will host the winner of the Bengals-Colts contest.

    This week, the Patriots welcome having more time off than usual.

    “I’m one of the first ones to agree about that,” Hightower said. “It’s good that we’ve got a slower pace and make sure that we understand things and let some guys get healed up. But we’re definitely taking advantage of it all the way around.”

    Hightower was one of six starters inactive for last Sunday’s game against Buffalo that had no bearing on New England’s playoff position. The Bills won 17-9.

    Hightower and Blount, who played, were on the injury report for that game with shoulder problems.

    “I’m injured, but it’s football,” Hightower said. “I’m going to play through it.”

    He became the Patriots’ defensive signal-caller when Jerod Mayo suffered a season-ending right knee injury in the sixth game. Mayo also was limited to six games last season by a torn pectoral muscle.

    “I’ve got a lot of guys around me that help make me feel a lot more comfortable. So it’s been a lot easier this year,” Hightower said. “I was always one that talked, trying to be a nerd about things, and (linebacker coach) Pat Graham’s really done a better job than what we did last year as far as just talking about situational things.”

    Blount spent the first 11 games this season with Pittsburgh but was cut on Nov. 18, less than 24 hours after jogging off LP Field with the clock still running in a 27-24 win over Tennessee.

    The Steelers might have needed him now that running back Le’Veon Bell is dealing with a hyperextended right knee that could keep him out of Saturday’s game.

    Asked if he saw the play on which Bell was injured last Sunday against Cincinnati, Blount paused, then said, “Man, I’m just focused on the Patriots. Obviously, he’s a friend of mine and I was concerned, but I’m just focused on the Patriots.”

    So much so that he claims he has no special interest in the Steelers wild-card game.

    “I’m going to watch them the same as I watch everybody else,” he said. “I’m going to watch college, too.”

  • HOUSTON (AP) — J.J. Watt had a season for the ages to help the Houston Texans make a seven-game improvement from last year’s 2-14 record.

    It wasn’t quite enough to get Houston to the playoffs, but plenty to leave the Texans encouraged entering the offseason.

    “Nine and seven is progress, but progress isn’t good enough,” first-year coach Bill O’Brien said. “The mission here is to win. I think our players understand that and they know there is a lot more out there for us as we head into the future.”

    Watt, who won NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, had the best season of his four-year career. He had 20 1/2 sacks to become the first player in NFL history with two seasons with 20 or more sacks after also making 20 1/2 in 2012.

    But the defensive end’s sacks were only a small part of what Watt did in 2014. He finished with 78 tackles and led the league with 29 tackles for losses and 50 quarterback hits. He also forced four fumbles and swatted down 10 passes.

    And those statistics don’t even address his scoring.

    Watt had a fumble return and an interception return for a touchdown and surpassed the 20 sack plateau with a safety in Houston’s season-ending win over Jacksonville. His other scores came on offense, where the 6-foot-5, 289-pound Watt showed his huge hands weren’t just good for batting down passes by grabbing three touchdown receptions.

    So where does O’Brien think Watt’s season ranks in NFL history?

    “It’s got to be one of the best of all time,” O’Brien said.

    His dominant season has him in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player, an award that hasn’t been won by a defensive player since Lawrence Taylor won it in 1986.

    Watt insists he doesn’t think much about the possibility of becoming the third defensive player to be MVP.

    “I left everything I had out there on that field trying to help my team win, doing whatever I could to be the best football player that I could be,” he said. “However they want to vote, whatever they want to write, they can write whatever they want, but I know that I left it all out there.”

    The winner will be announced Jan. 31.

    When pressed on what it would mean to him to be voted MVP, Watt said he prefers to think about how teammates, coaches and fans feel about him rather than worrying about awards.

    “You can quantify greatness however you want, but for me it’s knowing that somebody’s in their living room watching the game that I’ve never met and they’ll never meet me, but they get a smile when I make a play,” Watt said. “And that’s one of the best feelings in the whole world.”

                                                                                         Downs

  • NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Zach Mettenberger thinks he is the answer to the Tennessee Titans’ quarterback problem, not Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston.

    The Titans have four months to decide if they agree before going on the clock with the second overall pick in the 2015 draft.

    “It’s an important decision for us, for the organization going forward, and I think that that’s one that we have time to make that decision,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We’re going to go through that process and look at it. I’m sure in time we’ll come to the right one.”

    Whisenhunt wrapped up his first year with a 2-14 record that is this franchise’s worst since 1994. The Titans tried one last time to see if Jake Locker might be their quarterback. He didn’t get the chance to return after his second injury in five games before the Titans turned to Mettenberger, a sixth-round draft pick out of LSU.

    Mettenberger started six games before hurting his right, throwing shoulder, and the season slipped away with 10 straight losses, including 14 of the final 15.

    Mettenberger finished with 1,412 yards passing, becoming the eighth quarterback to lead the Titans in passing in eight seasons. Tennessee now has struck out on two quarterbacks selected with a top eight draft pick or better since 2006. The Titans also extended their playoff drought to six seasons.

    “We didn’t get it done, so we’ve got work to do to get to that point,” Whisenhunt said. “Whenever you have a season like we did, there’s going to be changes. You’re going to get better. We’ve got work to do. We understand that.”

    Whisenhunt brought in both a new offense and had defensive coordinator Ray Horton switch the Titans from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. Neither produced, with the Titans ranking 29th in total offense and 27th in total defense. They couldn’t run, scoring only six touchdowns on the ground all season, a franchise-low in a 16-game season. They also couldn’t defend against the run, ranking ahead of only Cleveland.

    Titans president and CEO Tommy Smith insists he is sticking with general manager Ruston Webster and Whisenhunt despite fans wanting both fired. Whisenhunt knows he’s on the clock.

    “It better get better than this, or you’ll be talking to somebody else next year,” Whisenhunt said.

    Here are a few things to know about the Titans:

    THE METT SHOW: The rookie quarterback played in seven games, starting six, and was 107 of 179 for 1,412 yards, averaging 7.89 yards per attempt. He was sacked 18 times and posted a passer rating of 83.4 with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Mettenberger said he will be sticking around Nashville for the offseason working to improve and get stronger a year after spending his time rehabilitating a torn ACL.

    “Mettenberger has a bright future ahead of him,” safety Michael Griffin said.

  • SAN DIEGO (AP) — Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers twice had their playoff destiny in their own hands. They still ended up missing the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons.

    Losing at home to New England and Denver on consecutive weeks was one thing, although it proved the Chargers couldn’t hang in there with the AFC’s elite teams.

    Getting handled by the division rival Kansas City Chiefs on the final day of the regular season was another thing, because all the Chargers (9-7) had to do was win and they would have been in the postseason.

    “What we have is a pretty good team,” star tight end Antonio Gates said. “We are a playoff team. Everybody knows that. Teams that had an opportunity to play against us, they know. Denver knows. Those games are coming down to one or two plays. We’ve just got to be able to make those plays. We’ve got to be a better situational football team.”

    The Chargers’ final stretch was at times riveting and at times illustrated how much work they still have to do.

    Rivers brought the Chargers back from a 10-point deficit in the final six minutes for a win at Baltimore. He rallied the Bolts to an overtime win at San Francisco after the Chargers fell behind by 21 points in a dismal first half.

    In between, though, were the home losses to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The Chargers scored only one offensive touchdown in each of those games, as they did in the 19-7 loss at Kansas City that saw the Bolts fail to repeat the playoff trip they made last year.

    “It’s tough, because you’ve got to constantly build on what you have,” Gates said. “We have a great foundation, great players, great coaching staff. It’s just up to us to build on it. Obviously this year didn’t go the way we liked. We were one game away from making the postseason. I’ve got all the confidence in the world that the foundation has been put in place and will eventually succeed in due time.”

    Earlier, the Chargers won five straight games, including against defending Super Bowl champion Seattle. They then lost three straight, including a 37-0 pratfall at Miami.

    “It was a heck of a year in a lot of ways,” Rivers said. “A lot of highs, some lows, and ultimately it ends on a low, and that’s disappointing. But we fought like crazy. At the end it wasn’t good enough. But the effort and fight and togetherness and the team was there every Sunday.”

  • FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Woody Johnson was tired of all the losing, the four straight seasons without going to the playoffs.

    So, the New York Jets owner decided to completely clean house.

    Johnson fired coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik on Monday, one day after completing one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

    “We’re in the win business, and we’re not winning,” Johnson said at a jam-packed news conference at the team’s facility. “So, I thought this was something I had to do.”

    With the Jets (4-12) sitting home for the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, Johnson chose to start fresh with a new coach and GM — and said the team already contacted the top candidates on his short list. He wouldn’t immediately reveal who they are, but the Jets are scheduled to meet with Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn — a former New York assistant — in Seattle on Saturday for the coaching position.

    Johnson made it clear he wants a head coach who is a presence in all three aspects of the team — offense, defense and special teams — which was a frequent criticism of the defensive-minded Ryan. He also indicated that the next general manager should have a strong background in personnel, which was regarded as one of Idzik’s shortcomings.

    “It became pretty apparent during the season as we progressed that the team was not getting better,” Johnson said. “It was kind of obvious that we had to make change. It was obvious to me, anyway.”

    He met with Ryan and Idzik on Monday morning after “extensive thought and reflection” and informed them they would not be returning.

    Ryan was 50-52, including 4-2 in the postseason, in his six seasons with the Jets. His first few years were filled with guarantees, strong statements and two consecutive trips to the AFC title game.

    “It was a long run and I think he had a tremendous impact,” Johnson said. “He made the team relevant in some respects.”

    But, in the end, there were not enough wins to back up all the big talk.

    “Rex was fully prepared,” Johnson said. “He was fine with it.”

    Ryan met with his players for a final time and showed them a video of highlights of the team, and then thanked them for their efforts.

    “I think everybody had the same emotion,” left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson said. “A feeling of sadness, a feeling of loss.”

    Idzik lasted just two seasons after replacing the fired Mike Tannenbaum in 2013. Johnson credited Idzik for helping the Jets get out of a tough salary cap situation, but the former GM was heavily criticized this year for questionable draft and free agency decisions. In a statement issued by the team, Idzik thanked Johnson “for the opportunity to work with so many fine individuals” and wished the Jets well.

    “That was a tough decision,” Johnson said. “Only two years, but I had to make it.”

    Now, the Jets will be looking for a general manager and coach for the first time since Johnson promoted Tannenbaum and hired Eric Mangini in 2006.

    Charley Casserly, a former NFL GM and current NFL Network analyst, and former NFL GM Ron Wolf are being hired by Johnson as consultants. Johnson called them “respected football experts” and they will assist him in making the new hires.

    Ryan was retained after last season despite an 8-8 finish, and the fact that he wasn’t Idzik’s hand-picked coach when the GM was hired. It was an unusual union, widely criticized in NFL circles, since a condition set by Johnson during the interview process was that the new GM would have to keep Ryan as his coach.

    The outgoing Ryan and tight-lipped Idzik made for an odd couple, but they worked through their personality differences to try to put a winning team on the field. Idzik signed Eric Decker, Michael Vick and Chris Johnson last offseason, but whiffed on a few others in his two seasons such as Mike Goodson and Dimitri Patterson.

    His trade of cornerback Darrelle Revis when he was hired, and the team not actively pursuing him last offseason was a point of contention among fans, especially as the Jets struggled mightily in the secondary this season.

    Idzik’s draft picks have also been widely criticized since only six of his 19 selections in his two years — Sheldon Richardson, Geno Smith, Oday Aboushi, Calvin Pryor, Jace Amaro and Trevor Reilly — have played regularly this season. Five are no longer even on the team.

    The Jets won their season opener against Oakland, but then lost eight straight and Smith was benched after struggling mightily to start his second NFL season. A midseason trade for Percy Harvin came a bit too late as the team dropped out of the playoff picture.

    Fans began to grow increasingly frustrated — with a lot of their criticism aimed at Idzik. The general manager’s midseason news conference in which he rambled at times during a 19-minute opening statement did little to win over disgruntled fans.

    A few flew banners above the team’s practice facility, urging Johnson to fire the GM. Others started a website and received donations to put up billboards near MetLife Stadium and distribute yellow towels in hopes the Jets would make wholesale changes.

    They got their wish.

    “I work for the fans, but I don’t listen to the fans,” Johnson insisted.

    Ryan helped make the Jets one of the most talked-about teams in the NFL. Now, Johnson will try to make them a winner again — with a new coach and general manager.

    “This is very, very critical right now,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to make good decisions.”

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