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Here is What Have We Learned from Week 17 of the 2016 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Aaron Rodgers caps brilliant run, Packers beat Lions for NFC North– Aaron Rodgers danced all over the Ford Field turf, avoiding sacks, keeping plays alive and eventually lifting Green Bay to the NFC North title.The Packers’ quarterback certainly looks healthy, and there wasn’t much the Detroit Lions could do to stop him.
Rodgers threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns, and Green Bay beat the Lions 31-24 on Sunday night to edge Detroit by one game for the division. The Packers finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak, and Rodgers threw for 18 touchdowns with no interceptions in the final seven games.
Detroit is also headed to the playoffs as a wild card.
When his team was 4-6, Rodgers said he thought Green Bay could “run the table” — and the Packers did just that for the rest of the regular season.
“That’s what you have to do sometimes as a leader. You have to exude confidence even in a situation where it seems to the outside world that confidence shouldn’t exist, and that’s kind of what I did,” Rodgers said. “I believe in myself and my abilities, but I also believe in this team.”
Rodgers finished the regular season with 4,428 yards passing, with 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s dealt with a sore right calf but showed no ill effects while smoothly eluding Detroit’s pass rush all night.
Green Bay (10-6) will open the playoffs at home against the New York Giants next Sunday, and Detroit (9-7) plays at Seattle on Saturday.
The Lions were trying to win their first division title since 1993 but came up short, losing their final three games and settling for a wild card.
“Obviously, guys don’t like to lose. They’re competitors,” Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said. “But the fact of the matter is though that we have an opportunity. When you look at the alternative, this is 1,000 times better than that.”
Here are a few things we learned from the final game of the NFL regular season:
ON A ROLL
Green Bay’s offense is operating at a very high level. The Packers have scored at least 30 points in four straight games, and they finished with 448 yards and 28 first downs against the Lions. From the second quarter on, it seemed like penalties were the only real obstacle for Green Bay.
A STEP BELOW
The Lions could end up beating Seattle for their first postseason win in 25 years, but it would be an upset. Detroit is the lowest-seeded team in the NFC playoffs and hasn’t measured up against the league’s best. The Lions are 0-5 against other teams that are headed to the postseason.
The Lions and Packers lean on their passing, but there were some hints of more balance Sunday. Detroit’s Zach Zenner ran for 69 yards and a touchdown, and Green Bay’s Aaron Ripkowski had 61 yards on only nine carries. The Packers rushed for 153 yards as a team.
For a second straight game, Detroit fell flat in the second half. Against Dallas, the Lions were tied 21-all at halftime before losing 42-21. Then Detroit led Green Bay 14-10 after two quarters before the Packers scored 21 of the game’s next 24 points.
- Jerry Jones counting on chemistry for top-seeded Cowboys– Dak Prescott smiled widely and playfully shoved Tony Romo after the 10-year starter the Dallas rookie replaced finished his only drive of the regular season with a touchdown pass.Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been bragging all season about the chemistry in a delicate situation between his quarterbacks — along with the closeness of the rest of the locker room — and is counting on those bonds when Dallas opens the playoffs at home Jan. 15.
“You see a camaraderie,” Jones said after the Cowboys lost to Philadelphia 27-13 despite the Romo TD while resting many regulars in the regular-season finale.
“You saw, just to start with, No. 9 and No. 4 and you saw really how genuine it is for them to be working together the way they are and really how exceptional that their situation is and how we’re benefiting from it as a team.”
The Cowboys (13-3) don’t anticipate using Romo in the playoffs. Prescott and fellow first-year sensation Ezekiel Elliott will be the focal point regardless of the opponent in the first divisional game at AT&T Stadium, which opened in 2009.
Prescott played just two series and Elliott not at all against the Eagles. Linebacker Sean Lee sat from start to finish even though getting a few snaps would have allowed him to say he played all 16 games for the first time in an injury-filled career.
Elliott had to settle for third place on the NFL’s rookie rushing list behind Eric Dickerson (Los Angeles Rams, 1983) and George Rogers (New Orleans, 1981).
Prescott’s short stint preserved the highest rookie passer rating in NFL history (104.9), but the loss left him tied with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger for most wins by a rookie at 13.
Not that any of those numbers matter now.
“Eyes are all on the playoff game,” Prescott said. “We will wait to see who our opponent is. But in the meantime, we will get better this week, makes ourselves better in every way that we can. Then when we figure out who it is, continue to get better and ready for that opponent.”
The Cowboys thought they had good chemistry the last time they were in this position nine years ago, with Romo leading the way to the same record after a loss to finish the regular season when the top seed in the NFC, home-field advantage in the playoffs, was already wrapped up.
Romo was criticized for making a side trip to Cabo San Lucas , Mexico, with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson before Dallas lost the first playoff game to the New York Giants.
The crushing loss prompted receiver Terrell Owens to say, tearfully, “He’s my quarterback,” on a day Jones still calls perhaps his worst in 27 years as owner.
A year later, Owens was dumped in the offseason in a move that Jones labeled “Romo-friendly” after reports of a divided locker room following a 9-7 season that kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs.
Tight end Jason Witten was at the center of that controversy because of his close relationship with Romo. He just finished his 14th season, 17 yards from breaking Hall of Famer Michael’s Irvin franchise record of 11,904 yards receiving.
“I think, specifically, this football team has a true identity in how it plays,” Witten said. “You talk about family and togetherness and that is what this team is all about. The spirit of this group is really special. Now we have to recommit to that.”
Coach Jason Garrett was the offensive coordinator in 2007 and kept his job through 8-8 records in his first three full seasons after replacing Wade Phillips.
After guiding Dallas to the NFC East title at 12-4 two years ago, followed by 4-12 mostly without Romo last season, he has the Cowboys back on top with the third 13-3 finish in franchise history.
“It’s not really a time for reflection,” Garrett said. “This is a time to get our eyes forward and get back to work.”
- Healthy Steelers eager for rematch with Dolphins– The last two Januarys, the Pittsburgh Steelers walked into the stadium for a playoff game hoping there were enough warm bodies to go around.Two years ago against Baltimore, running back Le’Veon Bell watched his hyperextended knee all wrapped up as the Ravens pulled off a mild upset in the wild-card round . Last winter in Denver, Bell was joined in sweatsuits by backfield mate DeAngelo Williams and Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, all of whom looked on while a game effort by their backups wasn’t enough to overcome one last fourth quarter comeback by Peyton Manning.
That won’t be the case on Sunday when the AFC North champions host Miami. The Steelers (11-5) enter the postseason with a luxury they’ve lacked since their last Super Bowl run six years ago: options. Lots of them.
“We got a lot of guys healthy,” wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We’ve got a lot of guys out there that haven’t played (in the playoffs). Le’Veon Bell’s never played in the playoffs. We’ve got guys going to be hungry for this game.”
Perhaps no one more than Bell. Pittsburgh’s seven-game winning streak to end the regular season coincided with the versatile Bell’s emergence as one of the league’s most dynamic players. He led the NFL in average yards from scrimmage, the ever-patient, ever-potent yin to Brown’s dazzling yang.
Yet the Steelers have proven in recent weeks they’re far deeper than their high wattage stars. Wide receivers Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers all made an impact over the final month.
Rogers made pivotal plays in the final stages of a Week 16 victory over Baltimore that locked up Pittsburgh’s second division title in three years. Ayers, a rookie who spent the first 13 weeks on the practice squad, caught the first touchdown pass of his career in Sunday’s regular season finale against Cleveland, a game the Steelers won when Hamilton made a diving grab in the back corner of the end zone with 2:57 left in overtime to extend Pittsburgh’s winning streak to seven.
The list goes on and on. Coates — who led the NFL in yards per reception through the first five weeks before breaking two fingers on his left hand then compounded it by tweaking his hamstring in practice just before Christmas — is hopeful to be back on the field Sunday. Tight end Ladarius Green could make it back after missing the last two games with a concussion. And wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey hauled in a 46-yard catch against the Browns and also made a spectacular hustle play to prevent a touchdown when he knocked the ball out of Cleveland cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun’s hands as the defensive back reached for the goal line.
There might not be enough hats to go around. The best kind of first-world NFL problems for a team that looks like a legitimate threat to top-seed New England if it can keep its bold-faced players on the field, and maybe some of the not-so bold faced ones too.
“With all the guys we have in the receiving room, if we can find a way to make it easier for AB, make it easier for Bell (that’s good),” Ayers said. “If all of us get going, we can make a run.”
The offense isn’t the only group that’s found a way to stay out of the trainer’s room. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt said Monday he will “definitely” be ready to face the Dolphins after sitting out the final two games with a sprained knee.
“I’m stronger than ever,” Tuitt said. “I believe I can make an impact on the game and do that by being on the field.”
Pittsburgh struggled against the run in Tuitt’s absence, surrendering 122 yards on the ground to the Ravens and 231 to Cleveland. It’s not exactly the best way to go into the rematch against Miami, who piled up 222 yards on the ground behind Jay Ajayi in a 30-15 romp on Oct. 16 that sent the Steelers into a month-long swoon that nearly derailed their season completely.
Yet Pittsburgh steadied itself behind Bell and a defense rejuvenated by the rapid maturation of rookies Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave. All three will be among 19 Steelers making their playoff debuts. It’s a stage Coates found himself thrust into in Denver, when he caught two passes for 67 yards against the Broncos while trying to fill the massive void left by Brown. It wasn’t quite enough to propel the Steelers to the AFC Championship game. Still, it also provided tangible evidence of how dangerous Pittsburgh can be even when it’s not at full strength.
That won’t be a problem on Sunday.
“We’ve got a great team, we’ve got great players in the wide receiver room,” Coates said. “If some guys can’t go, another guy step up and do the job. That’s what we work for. The big moments. The big opportunities.”
- Raiders, Texans not first to start playoffs with QB problems- Connor Cook is an untested rookie. Brock Osweiler may have a feeling he’s been here before.The Raiders and Texans square off Saturday in a playoff game that might be called The Quarterback Bowl. As in, both these teams are on uncharted roads with their QBs, and neither heads into the week of practice knowing exactly who is going to be taking snaps.
Cook entered for Oakland in Sunday’s 24-6 loss against Denver after second-stringer Matt McGloin left with a shoulder injury. If McGloin, who was starting for the already injured Derek Carr, can’t go next week, Cook would become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first NFL start in a playoff game.
Osweiler could make his first playoff start, a development that seemed improbable a short year ago when he led the Broncos to the brink of the playoffs. So much has changed. On a roll after taking over for an injured Peyton Manning, he got benched for Manning in Denver’s season finale last year, never to return. Osweiler signed with Houston in the offseason, but got benched there, too. And just when the Texans appeared settled on Tom Savage, Savage left Sunday’s game with a concussion and Osweiler took over.
Who goes when the playoffs start?
“We’ll talk about that tomorrow and the next day,” coach Bill O’Brien said after Sunday’s 24-17 loss to the Titans.
By those standards, the Dolphins seem stable, even though Matt Moore is also set to make his first playoff start when Miami travels to Pittsburgh for Sunday’s game. Moore took over for the injured Ryan Tannehill in Week 14. He is 2-1 as a starter this year, including Sunday’s 35-14 loss to New England.
So, while it looks like this season’s playoffs will go down as some of the strangest ever in the quarterbacking department, it’s hardly the first time. A look at some unusual situations from years past:
KAEPERNICK REPLACES SMITH: Let’s start with a success story. In 2012, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith went down in midseason with a concussion, to be replaced by a not-yet-famous second-year quarterback named Colin Kaepernick. The league hadn’t seen a quarterback quite like Kaepernick to that point and it showed. He led the Niners to a 5-2 record down the stretch and into the playoffs on a roll. He ran for 181 yards in his playoff debut and took San Francisco all the way to the Super Bowl, where he joined Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to pass for 300 yards and rush for 50 in the title game. The Niners lost to Baltimore, and nothing has been the same since. Kaepernick has struggled ever since and Smith is now a (healthy) member of the Kansas City Chiefs, who won the AFC West this year.
LINDLEY FOR STANTON FOR PALMER: Ryan Lindley spent a good portion of the 2014 season on San Diego’s practice squad. The Cardinals, who had originally drafted Lindley in 2012, picked him back up after their top two quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, each went down. That left Lindley at the controls for a playoff game against Carolina. It didn’t go well. Lindley threw two interceptions in a 27-16 loss. The Panthers allowed 78 yards, the fewest given up in a playoff game. Arizona coach Bruce Arians on his QB’s play: “I thought he did great up until the first interception.”
SPEAKING OF PALMER: Though Jon Kitna doesn’t get credit for a start in the 2005 playoffs, he played virtually the entire game for Cincinnati. Steelers nose tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into Palmer’s knee on his first pass of the playoffs and knocked him from the game. Kitna took over and threw for 197 yards and two interceptions and the Bengals lost 31-17.
AND SPEAKING OF HOUSTON: T.J. Yates became the Texans starter in 2011 after both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down. Yates actually led Houston to its first playoff victory, then its first playoff loss the next week. Maybe most significant about that season and those changes is that the Texans haven’t had stability at the quarterback position since. Osweiler was supposed to bring that (at a cost of $72 million over for years), but his benching in Week 15 of this year scuttled that plan.
PEYTON MANNING, A BACKUP: Which brings us full circle. On Jan. 3, 2016, Peyton Manning suited up as a backup quarterback for the first time in his NFL career. That lasted barely more than a half. The Broncos were trailing San Diego 13-7, and though Osweiler wasn’t particularly the problem, coach Gary Kubiak went with his gut and inserted Manning . The Broncos rallied for a win, got home-field advantage in the playoffs and Manning was no longer the backup. He led the Broncos to the title, and Osweiler moved on to Houston.
- 49ers look to rebuild from historically bad season– The wish list for the San Francisco 49ers will be long this offseason, even after they find a fourth head coach in four years and a new general manager.What just a few years ago was one of the NFL’s most talented roster when San Francisco went to three straight NFC title games and one Super Bowl from 2011-13 was exposed as one of the league’s weakest in 2016.
The offense got inconsistent quarterback play from Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick, who showed signs of regaining his dynamic form of 2012-13, but struggled to sustain it for an entire game. The quarterbacks got little help on offense from a receiving group that lacked a big-play target.
The defense might have been the worst in franchise history, setting marks for most points, yards and yards rushing allowed in a single season.
It all added up to the Niners (2-14) matching the worst record in franchise history and firing coach Chip Kelly after just one season, along with longtime general manager Trent Baalke.
“We were 2-14,” CEO Jed York said after announcing the firings. “I think that speaks for itself. We didn’t do a lot of things right this year, but if we’re going to reset and re-establish, that’s where it starts is with the head coach and the general manager.”
Some things the team will deal with in the offseason:
GET ALONG: York used the word culture 16 times at his 26-minute news conference as he made clear that finding a coach and general manager who can work well together will be paramount. Tensions between Baalke and Jim Harbaugh led to the departure of the team’s only successful coach in the past 15 years following the 2014 season. York hinted there were major issues between Kelly and Baalke as well.
“It can’t be, you know, ‘I have the 53-man roster and you need to go back to your office.’ We can’t have that,” York said. “It’s got to be these two guys on the same page, and when we disagree on a player we need to know what to do when we disagree on a player, and know how to move forward and move beyond it. That’s very important to me. So, whether the head coach is in control or the general manager is in control, they need to be accountable to each other.”
KAP’S FUTURE: One of the first big roster decisions will be at quarterback, where Kaepernick has the option to opt out of his restructured contract and become a free agent. Kaepernick did not rule out a return to San Francisco, but it will likely depend on whether his running style fits what the new coach wants to do. Kaepernick showed improvement from his struggles the past two seasons, but still was often inaccurate and quick to run instead of going through his progressions.
BOWMAN’S HEALTH: The defense took a major hit when inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman went down with a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in Week 4. His absence allowed opposing teams to almost run at will against the Niners. While it’s unlikely Bowman will ever regain the form that made him one of the league’s top defenders before two major injuries, his leadership will be key for the defense.
“It’s been tough for me to watch,” he said. “Part of that is I put that on me, because guys look at me as a person to handle certain things and get us on the right pace out there. Hopefully we’re going to get out of this slump and get back to 49ers football.”
PLAYMAKERS: The quarterbacks had little help from the wideouts as Baalke’s unwillingness to use high draft picks on skill position players hurt the team. Jeremy Kerley was the leading receiver but is more of a possession guy than a big-play threat. Torrey Smith was expected to fill that role; he hasn’t lived up to that and could be cut this offseason. Signing or drafting a No. 1 receiver will be key to building the offense.
BUILDING BLOCKS: The Niners have found a few good young pieces to build around on defense, led by last year’s top pick DeForest Buckner, who had six sacks. Rookie cornerback Rashard Robinson, defensive lineman Arik Armstead and defensive back Jimmie Ward also showed promise.
- Browns crawl from 1-15 wreckage, hope to build on bad season– The worst season in Browns’ history, sometimes laughable, often painful, and totally deplorable, ended without any significant changes.In Cleveland, that qualifies as change.
Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, whose four-years-plus tenure has been overloaded with losing and turnover, vowed to keep things intact at the beginning of the season. They kept their word as Sunday’s finale in Pittsburgh was followed by calm and commitment.
Although the Browns went 1-15 and slid even deeper into the NFL’s abyss, coach Hue Jackson hung on to his job. A revamped analytic-focused front office led by vice president Sashi Brown and strategy director Paul DePodesta went as far on Monday as to claim the team made progress in 2016.
“There’s a belief in the building we’re heading in the right direction, so that’s extremely important and a cornerstone of the foundation we needed to lay this year,” Brown said.
Baby steps at best.
The Browns did show some improvement in the final weeks, and never stopped fighting, a credit to Jackson and his staff. But that didn’t come close to washing away the ugliness of 14 straight losses, the 31st-ranked scoring offense, 30th-ranked scoring defense, giving up a team record 66 sacks and 35 touchdown passes.
Incredibly, Cleveland has sustained 14 double-digit loss seasons and is 88-200 since its 1999 expansion rebirth.
But after choosing not to re-sign any of their own free agents, purging the roster and filling it with rookies, the Browns are expected to take a different approach this offseason in a rebuilding project with no known completion date.
As always, much of the focus will be on finding a franchise quarterback. With the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the Browns, who made a short-term investment in Robert Griffin III , will have an opportunity to land a player that has almost taken on mythical proportions. Cleveland has gone through 26 starters in 18 years and will continue to sputter and spin without an offensive leader.
Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas senses that the turnaround, albeit a slow one, is under way.
“We’ve got the right head coach in place and we’ve got the right management team and we have a lot of young guys that are only going to improve,” he said. “You put all those things together and I think there’s a good sense of excitement around the building.
“Things are definitely looking up for the Cleveland Browns.”
From the bottom, that’s the only view.
Here are a few more things to consider as the Browns enter perhaps the most significant offseason in the club’s 67 years:
RG3 AND OUT?: Griffin feels he proved his critics wrong by making five starts, including four in a row to end the season after he recovered from a broken non-throwing shoulder. While he showed some flashes of the old RG3, the Browns have to decide if he’s worth keeping around. Jackson gave him a luke-warm review on Monday, saying he wanted to look at more film before making an evaluation.
Griffin and 37-year-old veteran Josh McCown are due $750,000 bonuses if they’re on the roster March 11. Rookie Cody Kessler did some good things when he was forced into the lineup, but he projects as a No. 2 QB.
ALL FOR ONE: The Browns will have the pick of the litter in the NFL draft and they really can’t go wrong. Well, they are the Browns, so of course they could.
At this point, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett is widely regarded as the can’t-miss top pick, but that could change several times in the months ahead. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen will also be in the mix for No. 1.
Cleveland also has the Nos. 12 and 33 picks, and could use one of them on a quarterback such as North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky or Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer.
PRYOR COMMITMENT: Terrelle Pryor’s transition from quarterback to 1,000-yard wide receiver was one of the league’s best stories this season. An unrestricted free agent, Pryor wants to return and the Browns would like to have him back — at the right price. Pryor has told agents Drew and Jason Rosenhaus to get a deal done with Cleveland.
Brown said signing Pryor and linebacker Jamie Collins, who played well after coming over in a midseason trade, are priorities. The team does not intend to use franchise tags on either.
STAFF SHAKEUP: While Jackson survived a 1-15 season, some of his assistants may not.
He plans to evaluate his staff and did not rule out making changes. A possible alteration could come on defense as the Browns struggled under coordinator Ray Horton, who is in his second stint with the team.
- Bengals’ Pacman Jones accused of head-butting cops, spitting– Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones was jailed Tuesday on charges he head-butted police and spit on a nurse after being arrested for disorderly conduct in his latest brush with the law. Authorities said he was so combative that he had to be placed in a restraint chair.A lawyer representing Jones at his initial court appearance told a judge he “vehemently denies” the allegations against him. The Hamilton County judge set bond at $37,500 for Jones and ordered that he submit to a blood test.
The Hamilton County sheriff’s office said Jones would remain jailed until the blood test can be performed Wednesday morning. Sheriff Jim Neil said Jones was “disorderly and combative” throughout his booking just after midnight Tuesday and had to be put in restraints.
“Whether someone is a professional athlete, a blue collar worker or homeless, our staff will treat them with respect and we expect the same,” Neil said in a statement. “Regardless of who they are, if they endanger my deputies, our medical staff or themselves, we will take action.”
Court records show Jones, who has a history of trouble with the law during his NFL career, is accused of pushing and poking a man in the eye, then struggling with Cincinnati police officers by head-butting, kicking and refusing to get into the police car. He then spit on a nurse’s hand while being booked into the jail, police said.
The spitting, following his arrest on misdemeanor charges of assault, disorderly conduct and obstructing official business, resulted in a felony count of harassment with a bodily substance, authorities said.
A prosecutor said the altercation began when Jones started pounding on doors at the Millennium Hotel, near the Bengals’ stadium in downtown Cincinnati. He then pushed and poked a security guard, authorities said.
Public defender Lauren Staley said he “vehemently denies” that he assaulted anyone and will hire an attorney to contest the charges.
She said Jones, who stood next to her in court nodding in agreement, has witnesses for his defense and had waited for police to arrive to explain what happened.
“They essentially didn’t hear his side of the story before placing him under arrest,” Staley said.
Bengals spokesman Jack Brennan said the club is aware of the incident but by policy doesn’t comment on unresolved legal matters.
Jones will be subject to potential NFL discipline after the case is resolved. Jones’ agent didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
Jones, who played in Sunday’s season-ending home victory over Baltimore, has had legal issues since making his NFL debut with Tennessee in 2005 after playing for West Virginia University.
He was suspended as a Titan by the NFL throughout the 2007 season, then was suspended again during the 2008 season as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
The Atlanta native was acquitted in 2013 on an assault charge in Hamilton County after a woman accused him of punching her in a nightclub. Earlier that year, he paid a fine for disorderly conduct after police accused him of making offensive comments at a traffic stop. He also pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in January 2012 after an arrest at a Cincinnati bar.
Earlier, Jones pleaded an equivalent of no contest to a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct in a 2007 Las Vegas strip club melee. Jones was blamed for instigating violence that led to the shooting by someone else of two club employees, one left paralyzed from the waist down. He was ordered to pay more than $12.4 million in damages.
The Titans made Jones the sixth overall pick in the 2005 draft, and he started 28 games in his first two seasons. Arrests and suspensions nearly scuttled his career before the Bengals signed him in 2010 and he became a regular starting defensive back and punt returner.