What Have We Learned from Week 17 of the 2017 NFL Season

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Jordan Poyer

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) shows the ball after he intercepted a pass late in the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Bills defeated the Dolphins 22-16. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 17 of the 2017 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Bills reverse tank talk by ending 17-year playoff drought-It took four months and a dramatic turn of events on one of the final plays of the NFL’s regular season for coach Sean McDermott and the Buffalo Bills to finally — and succinctly — put to rest any suggestion the team had any intention of tanking last summer.

    “I’ll let you guys handle that,” McDermott said, referring to reporters on Monday. “We’re moving on after today to the first round of the playoffs.”

    And that’s all that matters to the first-year coach, who took the high road rather than an “I told you so” approach some 18 hours after the Bills clinched the AFC’s sixth and final playoff berth and ended a 17-year postseason drought — the longest in North America’s four major professional sports.

    McDermott never gave into the doubters and instead preached a simple “Trust The Process” message that resonated with his players.

    “Every season’s a little bit different. Every season you go through tests and challenges,” McDermott said.

    “It’s going to try to pull you apart. It’s going to test you, and it’s going to test your mental toughness,” he added. “And our players hung in there.”

    Rather than packing up, as 17 of Buffalo’s preceding teams did on the day after the regular-season finale, these Bills returned home to a jubilant reception early Monday.

    They were greeted at Buffalo Niagara International Airport by some 400 chanting fans , who braved 2-degree temperatures after Buffalo beat Miami 22-16 and clinched its playoff berth once Baltimore gave up a last-minute touchdown in a 31-27 loss to Cincinnati.

    McDermott is even considering sending the Bengals a gift — chicken wings, perhaps — as a thank you for Andy Dalton hitting Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds left.

    And now, Buffalo (9-7) is moving on in preparing to play at AFC South champion Jacksonville (10-6) on Sunday.

    McDermott rewarded his players by giving them the next two days off, before the team returns to practice Wednesday.

    They earned it.

    Buffalo overcame exceedingly low expectations following a major yearlong roster overhaul which led to the departures of numerous high-priced stars.

    Among the players traded were receiver Sammy Watkins (to the Los Angeles Rams) and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (Jacksonville).

    The Bills’ secondary was retooled as was their group of receivers, leaving the team to open the season with 24 holdovers from 2016.

    On the field, the Bills overcame the elements by beating Indianapolis 13-7 in overtime amid white-out conditions on Dec. 10.

    And the team failed to unravel when McDermott’s decision to start Nathan Peterman backfired after the rookie quarterback threw five interceptions in the first half of a 54-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Nov. 19.

    Buffalo could face even more adversity with running back LeSean McCoy’s status uncertain after hurting his right ankle against Miami.

    What stood out to McDermott was how the Bills responded to the loss to the Chargers the following week by snapping a three-game skid with a 16-10 win at Kansas City.

    “If you’re going to put a landmark moment for this first year, that was probably one of them,” he said of a win that improved Buffalo’s record to 6-5.

    “That goes back to the resiliency of this football team and really what this city is all about … that no matter what people say about us, we’re going to compete like crazy.”

    McDermott needed no more validation of how his team has captured the imagination of its supporters than witnessing the scene at the airport. Fans waved Bills flags and placards, sang the team’s “Shout!” song and chanted “Let’s Go Buffalo.”

    “I’ve been around a couple of playoffs or two in my 20 years around the NFL, and that was unmatched,” he said. “This type of welcome home just speaks volumes about our city and our fans.”

    Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said the staff and players couldn’t initially see the fans while de-boarding the plane, but could hear them.

    “We were like, ‘This is incredible.’ It just kind of brings home what this means to Buffalo, to western New York,” Frazier said. “It just pushes you on to want to keep it going and just show them how much we appreciate their support.”

    Rookie tackle Dion Dawkins was stunned by the reception,

    “It’s 2 degrees out here and they’re screaming their tails off,” Dawkins said. “This is just flat-out unbelievable.”

    Funny, some were saying the same about the Bills’ playoff chances four months ago, too.

  • Hopes high as Vikings take bye, franchise scars to playoffs-The Minnesota Vikings have begun another postseason adventure, backed by an often-burned fan base carrying several scars from flameouts of playoffs past.

    There’s already a dose of modesty embedded in state culture that contributes to regulated expectations, and the memories of Darrin Nelson’s drop, Gary Anderson’s miss and Brett Favre’s misfire naturally make the purple-clad people more hesitant to get their hopes up this time.

    Well, these Vikings will calmly tell them to forget about all those infamous flops on some of football’s biggest stages over the 57-year history of the franchise. This team didn’t play in those games.

    “I’ve got a crystal ball, and I’ve got a wood spirit hanging in my office,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “So there’s no damn curse.”

    After finishing 13-3 , their second-best record in 40 seasons since the NFL implemented a 16-game schedule in 1978, the Vikings were rewarded with a first-round bye and a home game on Jan. 14 in the divisional round.

    If Los Angeles beats Atlanta at home, the Vikings will host the Rams. If the Falcons are victorious on Saturday, the Vikings will face the Carolina-New Orleans winner. The Saints host the Panthers on Sunday.

    Nine of the past 10 teams to reach the Super Bowl did so with the first-round bye. The only outlier was the Baltimore Ravens, the AFC’s No. 4 seed in 2012.

    That’s a fact that Zimmer made sure to share with his players last week, prior to completing their pursuit of the bonus rest time and automatic advancement to the quarterfinals of the tournament that conveniently concludes this time on their home turf.

    As for whether the first matchup comes against the Rams, Saints or Panthers?

    “Don’t care at all,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “They’ve got to come to U.S. Bank Stadium, and we’re going to be ready for them.”

    Robison is the only player remaining on the roster from 2009, when Favre joined his former rival. He steered the Vikings at age 40 to the NFC championship game, only to throw the off-balance interception late in the fourth quarter following the 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty that lowlighted the overtime loss at New Orleans.

    Anderson’s wide-left field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship against Atlanta following the 15-1 finish in 1998 was the even more stunning miscue in modern Vikings history, leading to the overtime loss at the Metrodome.

    Then there was the 1987 team that sneaked into the playoffs after the strike and notched two upsets on the road, before falling by seven points at Washington when Nelson didn’t hang on to the potential tying touchdown catch at the goal line in the NFC championship game.

    The Vikings played for the 2000 NFC title, too, falling 41-0 to the New York Giants in embarrassing fashion. Then there are those four Super Bowl defeats between the 1969 and 1976 seasons that laid the foundation for a half-century of January failure.

    The way the Vikings have progressed through 2017, though, has produced a different feel.

    The teams that head coaches Brad Childress, Dennis Green and Jerry Burns took to the NFC championships were more reliant on high-octane offenses and high-profile stars at the skill positions.

    Zimmer’s group, albeit with multiple Pro Bowl players, is a defense-first creation that has exhibited more discipline, humility and harmony than the other elite teams the franchise has fielded.

    “We not only respect each other, but we like each other too,” quarterback Case Keenum said.

    “And I think that goes a long way. Outside of the X’s and O’s, we fight for each other, and I think you go up and down the row in there and everybody feels the same. I think that’s pretty rare.”

 

  • Steelers enter playoffs with depth and momentum-JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t catch a snap of the 2017 AFC championship game.

    Life out in Los Angeles was just a little too hectic as the wide receiver prepared for the NFL draft.

    Martavis Bryant skipped out on it too, in part because of the pain of missing out while serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy was a bit too acute.

    Tyson Alualu and Joe Haden’s viewpoints were the same as they’ve always been during their respective careers: watching the NFL playoffs go on without them.

    Not anymore.

    A year removed from New England’s clinical domination of the Pittsburgh Steelers on their way to the Super Bowl on that snowy night in Foxborough last January, all four find themselves playing vital roles in Pittsburgh’s effort to finally unseat Tom Brady and company.

    With their Pro Bowl teammates taking the afternoon off in Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cleveland to rest up for the playoffs, all four showcased why they’ll be needed over the next month if the Steelers (13-3) want to end New England’s long run at the top.

    Smith-Schuster piled up 265 all-purpose yards, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and caught Landry Jones’ pass for another score in Pittsburgh’s 28-24 victory .

    Bryant tied a season high with six receptions to cap a resurgent stretch in which he caught 29 passes and a pair of touchdowns over the final six weeks.

    Haden returned from a fractured fibula that threatened to disrupt his season by providing Pittsburgh’s secondary with a steadying presence while Artie Burns struggled in his second season.

    Haden embraced change when he signed with the Steelers in August after seven years in Cleveland, and the Steelers repaid his respect by making him the lone game captain on Sunday while facing his former team.

    Alualu had the first multiple sack game of his eight-year career against the Browns, including the one that gave the Steelers 56 on the season, a franchise record.

    The giddy celebration after Alualu took down Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer early in the fourth quarter provided Alualu with a reminder on why he signed with Pittsburgh after seven seasons in Jacksonville.

    “Just being around these guys, this atmosphere, I knew I wanted to be around these talks just so that it kind of changes my mentality of where I came from,” Alualu said.

    “I’m not saying I’m used to being a loser or anything like that, but it was definitely different being around this group and I just wanted to feed off of that. Hopefully we can keep going and get that ring.”

    That’s been the mission since the second the Patriots finished off their 36-17 dissection of the Steelers 49 weeks ago.

    Pittsburgh limped through that game with a depleted wide receiving group, a secondary that looked overmatched at times and a pass rush that did little to disrupt Brady.

    That won’t be the case when the Steelers open the playoffs on Jan. 14. Bryant’s return and Smith-Schuster’s arrival have given the Steelers a complement to star Antonio Brown they didn’t have last season.

    While Brown is recovering from a left calf injury suffered in a close loss to the Patriots on Dec. 17, he appears to be close to returning. The NFL’s leading receiver posted video on Instagram Monday showing him walking briskly on a treadmill.

    Pittsburgh’s best chance at reaching the Super Bowl in Minneapolis next month is with Brown’s No. 84 on the field.

    Yet the past two weeks have shown the Steelers have the versatility to survive and perhaps even thrive even if he’s limited.

    Smith-Schuster and Bryant were spectacular against New England and kept it going against Houston and Cleveland.

    “I wish everybody had a JuJu in their life,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said.

    The 21-year-old Smith-Schuster is the league’s youngest player and he’s spent most of his rookie season documenting his acclimation to life in the NFL, episodes that include putting together some of the league’s most entertaining touchdown celebrations , losing his bicycle, having Villanueva teach him how to drive and adopting a French Bulldog named Boujee.

    It makes for a good time to be sure, but it’s Smith-Schuster’s precocious talent and not his outsized personality that has given Pittsburgh the biggest boost.

    The contributions of Haden, Bryant and Alualu have been less dramatic but in many ways no less important. The Steelers will need their stars to be stars.

    “We expect our guys to win,” Heyward said. “They’re drafted here and they’re picked because (general manager) Kevin Colbert and (coach) Mike Tomlin decided they should be here … Now we have to get back to this tournament we’re going to go into.”

    A tournament in which Pittsburgh’s many bold-faced names will need to play up to their pedigree if the Steelers want to win.

    Yet if they falter, Pittsburgh has the kind of depth it lacked a year ago while eyeing a rematch with the Patriots that only an upset can prevent.

    “There’s no difference (in expectations) whether the starters are playing or the backups are playing,” Villanueva said.

    “Everybody has a standard they have to meet. It speaks volumes of what Coach Tomlin and the organization have done with everybody on the roster.”

Middle

  • Lewis, Urlacher, Moss among 15 Hall of Fame finalists-Star linebackers Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher are among four first-time eligible former players selected among the 15 modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.

    Receiver Randy Moss and guard Steve Hutchinson also made the cut to the finals as first-year eligibles.

    They join center Kevin Mawae, tackles Joe Jacoby and Tony Boselli, receivers Isaac Bruce and Terrell Owens, safeties John Lynch and Brian Dawkins, guard Alan Faneca, running back Edgerrin James, cornerbacks Ty Law and Everson Walls for consideration.

    The seniors committee has nominated guard Jerry Kramer and linebacker Robert Brazile. The contributor’s nominee is Bobby Beathard, a former general manager and administrator for five franchises. The finalists were announced Tuesday.

    Voting by the Hall of Fame selectors will be Feb. 3 in Minneapolis. Inductions will be in August at the Canton, Ohio, shrine.

    The modern-era finalists were determined by a vote of the selection committee from a list of 108 nominees that was earlier reduced to 27 semifinalists during a year-long process.

    Kramer was a mainstay of the great Green Bay offensive lines from 1948-68 and is famous for his block that led Bart Starr into the end zone for the winning touchdown in the Ice Bowl 50 years ago. Brazile was an outstanding linebacker with the Houston Oilers from 1975-84.

    Beathard helped build championship winners and contenders in Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami, Washington and San Diego from 1966-1999.

    This is the second year as a finalist for Bruce, Boselli, Dawkins, James, Law and Mawae. In their third try are Faneca, Jacoby and Owens. Lynch is in his fifth year as a finalist. Walls made the final round for the first time in his 20th year of eligibility. Jacoby is also in his 20th year.

Downs

  • Ravens sent packing after ‘heartbreaking’ season finale-The Baltimore Ravens never expected to spend New Year’s Day saying farewell to teammates and tossing the contents of their lockers into green trash bags.

    “Heartbreaking,” receiver Mike Wallace said Monday morning. “We definitely had a team to make a run, so it hurts.”

    The Ravens needed only to beat Cincinnati on Sunday to advance to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

    Poised to make it happen, Baltimore yielded a back-breaking, 49-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left in a 31-27 defeat.

    That left the Ravens with a 9-7 record and a whole lot of angst over how their late-season surge ended with a shocking thud.

    “Fifteen years as a Raven, I would have to say this one is the most devastating (loss),” linebacker Terrell Suggs said within a silent locker room Sunday night.

    “I will remember this one forever. It is very unfortunate. We just have to be better. We can’t put ourselves in this situation anymore.”

    Suggs, 35, intends to return next season. He will play under a different defensive coordinator, because 68-year-old Dean Pees told the team Monday he will retire from the NFL.

    Rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey expressed regret over the fashion in which the unit ended Pees’ six-year run as defensive coordinator.

    “I just remember the last time he was up in front of the team he told us about finishing, and how proud he was of us,” Humphrey said. “For us to not finish for him, definitely that hurts.”

    Pees directed a defense that forced 34 turnovers, but for the second straight year the Ravens faltered in the waning minutes of a big game.

    In 2016, the defense allowed 31 points to Pittsburgh — including 21 in the fourth quarter — in a defeat that ended Baltimore’s playoff chances.

    This season, the Ravens started 2-0, dropped to 4-5 and then won five of six before Cincinnati shut the door after Baltimore made up a 14-point, second-half deficit.

    “The game, I think, epitomizes, a little bit, how the season went,” coach John Harbaugh said. “To battle our way back the way we did and then not finish the game is about as tough as it can be.”

    Harbaugh’s contract runs through next season, and his 94-66 record in the regular season is impressive. But the Ravens have gone 5-11, 8-8 and 9-7 over the past three seasons without a sniff of the playoffs.

    Owner Steve Bisciotti will decide in the next few weeks whether to bring his coach back for an 11th season.

    During that time, the Ravens will lament how a team with the potential to go deep in the playoffs ending up clearing their lockers far ahead of schedule.

    “We’re not the first team to go through this, and we’re not the last team that’s going to through this,” Wallace said. “There are going to be people next week, the week after.”

    True enough, but Baltimore was definitely counting on playing well into January.

    “We’ve gone to battle on the football field together for the last 17 weeks, and you try to create something special and get yourself into the playoffs and make a nice little run and have something that you’ll remember forever,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “So obviously … it’s tough on us all.”

    And so, the Ravens are left to hope 2018 with be a healthy New Year. Despite losing standout guard Marshal Yanda and cornerback Jimmy Smith to season-ending injuries, placing 15 players on injured reserve and playing the final two games without receiver Jeremy Maclin (knee), Baltimore remained in contention until the final minute.

    “We would love to be playing next week, tomorrow going to practice and doing meetings. But I guess that’s not in the cards,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said.

    Safety Eric Weddle, who finished tied for third in the NFL with six interceptions, summed it up this way: “I think we’ve gotten progressively better since my two years of being here. The next step is making the playoffs — winning the division and making the playoffs next year.”

 

  • Seahawks spend New Year’s lamenting what went wrong-An unfamiliar situation played out inside the Seattle Seahawks headquarters on Monday with packing boxes being filled and memorabilia getting autographed far earlier than any season in recent memory.

    For five straight seasons, the Seahawks didn’t just play in January. They won at least one playoff game in each of those seasons.

    It made Monday’s site of clearing out lockers at the conclusion of the regular season jarring for those who became accustomed of only knowing playoff football during Seattle’s five straight years in the postseason.

    “At the end of the day it’s just disappointing. I think everybody is disappointed,” Seattle tight end Luke Willson said.

    “The locker room we thought we had was pretty special. But it didn’t work out and I think everyone is at a loss for words.”

    Only five Seattle players on the active roster from Sunday’s finale were around the previous time the Seahawks didn’t make the postseason in 2011. At that time, Seattle was an ascending franchise.

    The tweaks and changes made by Pete Carroll and John Schneider were starting to take form by the end of the 2011 season, and the drafting of Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner before the start of the 2012 season was a catalyst in Seattle’s rise to being a mainstay in the postseason.

    So is this 9-7 season and missing the playoffs the start of a backslide and the first step in a major rebuild?

    “We want to obviously get better because the trend that we are on right now is not good,” Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin said.

    Universally the Seahawks believe they’re not that far away from still being among the elite in the NFC. Three of their losses were by a combined eight points and in part were due to kicking woes from Blair Walsh, including his missed 48-yarder in the final minute on Sunday in the 26-24 loss to Arizona.

    The 42-7 blowout loss to the division champion Rams was the only game Seattle lost by more than one possession.

    Seattle also dealt with injuries to critical pieces unlike any season in the past, most notably Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor being lost for the season because of injuries suffered in Week 9.

    “This just feels bad because we’re a quality team and we’ve got experienced guys, we’ve got tons of Pro Bowlers, a great franchise quarterback and so we don’t want to be in this position when you’re team is so talented,” said Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright, one of the few holdovers on that 2011 team.

    “It feels much, much worse this time because in 2011 we had no business being in the playoffs.”

    The occasional struggles on defense this season could be explained in part due to injuries. The offensive inefficiency — especially in the first half of games — was a puzzling issue that clouded Seattle all season.

    Russell Wilson led the NFL in touchdown passes with 34, including 19 in the fourth quarter, but in many games was awful in the first half. Wilson’s first-half passer rating was 78.1 — compared to 111.9 in the second half — and in 10 games this season Seattle scored seven or fewer points in the first half.

    Much of the blame for the first-half problems has fallen on offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Baldwin launched into an impassioned defense of Bevell on Monday. While not dropping any names, Baldwin made clear the issues with Seattle’s offensive were not on the play caller.

    “It’s not play calling. It’s not play calling. We go into a game knowing what the defense is going to give us, situations we’re going to be in. We don’t execute as a team,” Baldwin said.

    “Offensively that’s what we’ve seen time and time again is we do not execute the way that we should. That’s on us as players. You guys can blame (Bevell) as much as you want to. Truth is (Bevell) is not the problem. Yeah, (I) probably already said too much.”

    Schneider and Carroll will be facing difficult choices moving forward because some of Seattle’s older stars are also among the more expensive on the roster. Seattle was open about possibly trading Sherman last offseason.

    Earl Thomas will be going into the final year of his contract. Michael Bennett signed an extension before the end of last season, but is 32 and played most of this season with a foot injury.

    “It’s always tough to play with injuries but I had injuries I could play through. You just do what you can when you can,” Bennett said. “Every year you have some kind of injury, nobody in the NFL is 100 percent and it’s those who can play with those injuries who can play the longest.”

 

  • Eagles have plenty to fix during bye week-The Philadelphia Eagles have plenty to fix during their bye week.

    A slumping offense missing NFL MVP candidate Carson Wentz scored only 13 points in the last five quarters with Nick Foles and the starters playing.

    That won’t cut it when the Eagles (13-3) host the Saints (11-5), Panthers (11-5) or Falcons (10-6) to kick off the divisional round of playoff games on Jan. 13.

    Fans are panicking and many media members are predicting an early exit, but the team is confident the offense will get back on track.

    “There’s no reason not to be confident,” Foles said. “We have an amazing group of guys, an amazing group of athletes that you know we can do some special stuff.”

    It was only two weeks ago Foles tossed four touchdown passes and led Philadelphia to a 34-29 win at the Giants. Since then, he’s 23 for 49 for 202 yards with one TD and two interceptions against the Raiders and Cowboys.

    “I think there is a lot of positive because you can build off the Giants game and some of the success we have had in the last couple weeks and find that continuity again,” coach Doug Pederson said. “We just have to get back to the same rhythm.”

    The mood surrounding the Eagles could be different if Torrey Smith hadn’t dropped a pass on the opening drive in Sunday’s 6-0 loss to Dallas.

    Foles hit Smith in stride going across the middle on third-and-7 from the Cowboys 39. Smith had a chance to outrun the defenders into the end zone, but let the ball slip through his hands.

    “If I caught it, I probably would have housed it,” Smith said. “That messed our momentum up and then we only played a short time after that and we kept getting penalties and shooting ourselves in the foot.

    “I’m confident that if we stayed in the game we would have gotten it back on track, but we have two weeks of practice and I’m very confident we’ll be ready to roll.”

    Pederson went for it on fourth down after Smith’s drop and Foles had to rush an incomplete pass. The next three drives included two three-and-outs and one interception.

    “I know who I am as a player and I also know that throughout my career and my life, I haven’t always played great games,” Foles said.

    “I’ve been in games where execution hasn’t gone like we wanted it to. And the key is you remain confident because you know who you are. You know that you’re going to prepare every day to do everything to the best of your ability. I’m confident in myself and I’m confident in my teammates because I know what we’re capable of doing and that’s great things.”

    Nate Sudfeld played the final three quarters against the Cowboys and was 19 of 23 for 134 yards in his first career game. But Sudfeld isn’t replacing Foles unless he gets hurt.

    Pederson might want to rely on the NFL’s third-ranked rushing attack in the playoffs. Jay Ajayi (408 yards), LeGarrette Blount (766 yards) and Corey Clement (321) had a lot of success running behind an offensive line that features two Pro Bowl picks on the right side: tackle Lane Johnson and guard Brandon Brooks.

    “You get into the postseason and have to play great defense and be able to run the football,” Pederson said.

    “That’s been our formula pretty much all season long. We have to get back to that, and I’ve got a lot of confidence moving forward.”

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