NFL playoff picture in focus

Published 10:32 am Monday, December 29, 2008

By The Associated Press

Far from the imperfect abyss into which the Detroit Lions have fallen, the NFL’s latest playoff qualifiers are celebrating.

Shockingly, those party-goers include the Miami Dolphins.

Email newsletter signup

Hours after the Lions became the first team to go 0-16 in a season, the Dolphins, who were 1-15 a year ago, completed a memorable turnaround and won the AFC East at 11-5. That alone should give hope to all of the league’s tailenders.

‘‘I don’t think words can describe it,’’ running back Ronnie Brown said Sunday after a 24-17 win over the New York Jets. ‘‘Earlier in the season, we could only imagine being in this situation.

‘‘It’s a great accomplishment. With it comes more motivation to keep winning games. Obviously, now we’re in a situation where each one counts and if you lose, you go home.’’

That begins next Sunday when the Dolphins host the Baltimore Ravens, who earned a wild-card berth with a 27-7 victory over Jacksonville.

‘‘We have an opportunity to prove we’re the best team in the NFL,’’ said Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, like Miami’s Tony Sparano a rookie head coach. ‘‘That’s what we’re going to try to do.’’

Of course, there are 12 teams looking to prove just that. The playoff qualifiers in the NFC on the final day of the schedule were Minnesota and Philadelphia, joining previous entrants Carolina, Arizona, Atlanta and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

In the AFC, San Diego also got in with a 52-21 romp past Denver to take the West. Already in were Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.

The other games next weekend are Atlanta at Arizona and Indianapolis at San Diego on Saturday, and Philadelphia at Minnesota on Sunday.

On Jan. 10, Tennessee and Carolina will be the hosts. The next day, it will be New York and Pittsburgh.

In other finales, it was Green Bay 31, Detroit 21; Minnesota 20, New York Giants 19; Carolina 33, New Orleans 31; Philadelphia 44, Dallas 6; New England 13, Buffalo 0; Oakland 31, Tampa Bay 24; Atlanta 31, St. Louis 27; Houston 31, Chicago 24; Pittsburgh 31, Cleveland 0; Arizona 34, Seattle 21; San Francisco 27, Arizona 24; Indianapolis 23, Tennessee 0; and Cincinnati 16, Kansas City 6.

Dolphins 24, Jets 17

Chad Pennington, cut in the offseason by the Jets to make room for Brett Favre, threw two touchdown passes at the Meadowlands. Miami joined the 1999 Indianapolis Colts as the only teams in NFL history to make 10-game improvements. Miami, which has won five straight and nine of 10, made the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. It’s also the Dolphins’ first AFC East title since 2000.

The Jets (9-7) lost four of their last five.

Ravens 27, Jaguars 7

At Baltimore, Le’Ron McClain ran for two touchdowns in the first half and Baltimore (11-5) never let up against the stumbling Jaguars (5-11), who committed four turnovers and were held scoreless over the final 45 minutes. The seven points were a season low for Jacksonville.

A year ago, Baltimore went 5-11 and finished last in the AFC North. This season, with a first-year coach, a dynamic defense and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens finished with nine wins in their last 11 games.

Packers 31, Lions 21

At Green Bay, the Lions earned a distinction no team wants: worst in NFL history.

Facing one last chance to avoid their dubious destiny, the Lions lost for the 23rd time in 24 games. The 1976 expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) were the last NFL team to complete a full season without a victory.

Coach Rod Marinelli has gone 10-38 in three seasons. His future has not been announced, but team owner William Clay Ford has decided the leaders of the front office, Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand, will be back in some capacity.

The Packers wound up 6-10.

Vikings 20, Giants 19

Ryan Longwell’s 50-yard field goal as the game ended lifted the host Vikings to the NFC North title for their first postseason appearance in four years.

New York (12-4), the NFC East winner with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, was on cruise control for much of the second half with backups on the field. The Vikings (10-6), who pulled within two points on a 54-yard touchdown pass by Tarvaris Jackson to a wide-open Bernard Berrian after third-string cornerback Terrell Thomas fell down, took advantage.

Derrick Ward, who last week rushed for a career-high 215 yards in a win over Carolina, gave the Giants a pair of 1,000-yard rushers — only the fourth running back tandem in NFL history — by finishing with 77 yards on 15 carries. Brandon Jacobs got there earlier this month.

Chargers 52, Broncos 21

At San Diego, LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers led a romp to the AFC West title, becoming the first team to go from 4-8 to the playoffs. Mission Valley turned into Mediocre Valley for the evening as the Chargers became the first team to win a division at 8-8 since the Cleveland Browns in 1985.

Tomlinson, who didn’t return after straining an abdominal muscle in the third quarter, had his first three-touchdown game of the season. Rivers threw his 33rd and 34th touchdown passes to break Hall of Famer Dan Fouts’ 1981 team single-season record.

Denver (8-8) completed a monumental collapse, becoming the first team since division play began in 1967 to miss the playoffs after having a three-game lead with three weeks to go. Needing just one win to wrap up the division, the Broncos lost at Carolina, at home to Buffalo and then to the Chargers.

The Chargers were 5-1 in the division but 3-7 outside it, and had zero wins against playoff teams.

Eagles 44, Cowboys 6

At Philadelphia, the Eagles overcame daunting odds to capture an NFC wild-card spot with a dominating victory.

In a game that become do-or-die for both teams shortly before kickoff when Tampa Bay and Chicago lost, the Eagles (9-6-1) thoroughly outplayed the error-prone Cowboys (9-7). Donovan McNabb threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, and Brian Dawkins forced two fumbles that were returned for scores.

Dallas QB Tony Romo came up way short in another crucial game, dropping his record to 5-8 in December. Terrell Owens was a nonfactor despite six catches for 103 yards.

Patriots 13, Bills 0

A nasty wind strong enough to tilt the goal posts didn’t make the visiting Patriots flinch.

LaMont Jordan scored on a 2-yard run set up by Matt Cassel’s 12-yard completion into the gusts on fourth down, and Stephen Gostkowski hit a pair of field goals.

New England is the first team since Denver in 1985 to go 11-5 and not make the postseason.

The Bills wrapped up a season at 7-9 for the third straight year under Dick Jauron. His status as coach won’t be determined until end-of-season meetings with team owner Ralph Wilson.

Raiders 31, Buccaneers 24

At Tampa, Oakland third-stringer Michael Bush rushed for a career-high 177 yards and scored on a 67-yard fourth-quarter jaunt that helped the Raiders rally to end the Buccaneers’ season.

Even with a win, the Bucs (9-7) would have needed help to make the playoffs and avoid one of the biggest collapses in franchise history. They were 9-3 and tied for first heading into December but finished with four consecutive losses, two at home after going 6-0 at Raymond James Stadium.

The Raiders (5-11) overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win for the second straight week and make their final case for interim coach Tom Cable to retain his job. They were 4-8 since Lane Kiffin was fired four games into the season, winding up with their most wins since going 5-11 under Norv Turner in 2004.

Panthers 33, Saints 31

At New Orleans, John Kasay’s 42-yard field goal with a second left locked up the NFC South title and the second seed in the conference for the Panthers (12-4). Carolina is the only team to go 8-0 at home this season, and this was the first road win by any team in an NFC South game this season.

Jake Delhomme was 14-of-20 for 250 yards, including his 8-yard scoring pass to Muhsin Muhammad. Kasay hit four of five field goal attempts. He connected from 45, 26 and 34 yards in the first half, but needed the winner to redeem his miss from 41 yards in the third quarter. The Saints (8-8) turned a 30-10 deficit into a brief 31-30 lead after Drew Brees’ 13-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore with 3:11 left.

Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams rushed for 178 yards to set the franchise single-season record. His 1,515 yards eclipsed Stephen Davis’ 1,444 in 2003.

Brees came up just short in his bid to eclipse Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season NFL record of 5,084 yards passing. Brees needed 402 yards to set the mark. He finished with 386, which made him only the second player to pass for more than 5,000 yards.

Falcons 31, Rams 27

At Atlanta, Jerious Norwood ran for two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 45-yarder with 3:41 left, and the Falcons held off the Rams (2-14) to clinch the No. 5 seed in the NFC. The Falcons improved to 11-5, completing their improbable run to the playoffs after a 4-12 finish in 2007.

Atlanta overcame three turnovers, including two in the fourth quarter, to give the Rams their 10th straight loss under Jim Haslett, who replaced Scott Linehan an 0-4 start.

Michael Turner fumbled into the end zone after a 70-yard run to spoil a scoring opportunity early in the final quarter. Turner had 25 carries for 208 yards and a touchdown to counter Steven Jackson’s 30 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns for St. Louis.

Texans 31, Bears 24

At Houston, Andre Johnson had two touchdowns for the Texans, who finished 8-8 for the second straight year.

The Bears (9-7) needed a win to keep any postseason hopes alive. The Vikings beat the Giants to take the NFC North title, but Chicago could have gotten in with a wild-card spot by winning and getting help. They blew a 10-0 lead.

Johnson had touchdown catches of 43 and 3 yards and rebounded from last week’s two-catch performance with 10 receptions for 148 yards. It was the eighth 100-yard game of the season for the NFL’s leading receiver.

Steelers 31, Browns 0

At Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger gave the playoff-bound Steelers a major scare by sustaining a concussion during what likely was Romeo Crennel’s last game as Cleveland’s coach.

Roethlisberger lay on the turf for nearly 15 minutes after being leveled by Willie McGinest and D’Qwell Jackson late in the second quarter. Unless follow-up tests unexpectedly reveal additional problems, the injury probably won’t sideline Roethlisberger for the No. 2-seeded Steelers’ first AFC playoff game.

For the Browns (4-12), it wasn’t supposed to end this way in a season that began with so much hope after they went 10-6 in 2007, causing owner Randy Lerner to give Crennel a $12 million extension through 2011. Lerner will meet with Crennel in Cleveland on Monday, almost certainly to fire him, and general manager Phil Savage was let go on Sunday.

Cardinals 34, Seahawks 21

Kurt Warner threw four touchdown passes, his most in seven years, then sat out the fourth quarter as the Cardinals spoiled the final game of Mike Holmgren’s decade as Seahawks coach.

Two of Warner’s TDs went to Larry Fitzgerald, who caught five passes for 130 yards.

The Cardinals (9-7), blown out twice since clinching the NFC West title, finished the regular season with a winning record for the first time in a decade and only the second time since 1984.

Steve Breaston caught five passes for 91 yards, the last a 7-yarder in the waning seconds, to join Fitzgerald and Boldin as 1,000-yard receivers. It was the fifth time in NFL history three teammates passed the 1,000-yard mark.

Seneca Wallace threw two touchdown passes and was intercepted twice for the Seahawks (4-12). Arizona finished 6-0 against the NFC West.

Holmgren has a 174-122 career NFL record, 90-80 with Seattle.

49ers 27, Redskins 24

At San Francisco, Joe Nedney’s game-ending field goal was followed by confirmation that coach Mike Singletary will be back next year. Nedney kicked a 39-yard field goal as time expired, and the 49ers dramatically finished their late-season surge under their no-longer-interim coach. A few minutes after Nedney’s kick sneaked inside the upright to cap a cool 60-second drive led by Shaun Hill, the 49ers officially announced Singletary will keep his job.

San Francisco (7-9) won five of its final seven games and went 5-4 overall under Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker who took over for Mike Nolan on Oct. 20.

Washington (8-8), which finished coach Jim Zorn’s rookie year with four losses in five games, tied it with 1:09 to play on Shaun Suisham’s extra point after a 3-yard TD run on fourth down by Jason Campbell, who led an impressive 55-yard drive — but left too much time for Hill.

Colts 23, Titans 0

At Indianapolis, the Colts yanked starters early and still managed to win a ninth straight. It was the sixth straight season Indy has won at least 12 games, and that wasn’t the only big achievement for the Colts (12-4).

Peyton Manning hit 4,000 yards for a ninth straight season, three more than Dan Marino’s previous NFL mark. Marvin Harrison moved into second place on the career receptions list, and Dallas Clark broke John Mackey’s single-season franchise record for most yards receiving by a tight end, a mark that had stood since 1966.

The Titans (13-3) took a similar approach by using most starters sparingly after locking up the AFC’s No. 1 seed. They were held to only one first down in the first half, and Indy got its first shutout since Dec. 14, 1997.

Bengals 16, Chiefs 6

At Cincinnati, Cedric Benson ran for 111 yards and a touchdown and Cincinnati completed its late-season surge.

The Bengals (4-11-1) will most likely stay the course after their latest losing season. Coach Marvin Lewis has two years left on his contract, and there is no general manager to replace — owner Mike Brown makes the important decisions.

Cincinnati closed out the season with three straight wins. They had little trouble with the lackluster Chiefs, who crossed midfield only once in the first three quarters.

The worst season in Kansas City’s 49-year history (2-14) ended with another disjointed performance under coach Herm Edwards, who urged the franchise to plunge headlong into a rebuilding mode. His rookie-filled team has lost 23 of its past 25 games, and has at least one major change ahead.

General manager Carl Peterson is leaving after 20 years with Kansas City. His successor will have a say in whether they replace Edwards, who insists that the Chiefs’ future isn’t as glum as it looks.