The NFL’s regular season is officially in the books, and what a monumental way to end the season.
Four division champions were crowned Sunday and superstars across the league helped rewrite the record books. Before we look ahead to the postseason, let’s look back at Week 17.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from the final regular-season weekend:
Four division champions crowned
Carolina, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Seattle all won their respective divisions Sunday in winner-take-all showdowns.
The Panthers routed the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, 34-3, forcing Matt Ryan and Co. into three turnovers. It marked the Panthers’ fourth consecutive win, which provided a shocking twist in the NFC South race after it looked like the team was ready to pack up their lockers after Thanksgiving Weekend.
Cam Newton threw for a touchdown and rushed for another to lead Carolina over its division rival, perhaps saving his coach’s job and forcing Mike Smith out of his. The loss in the finale was likely the dagger that ended Smith’s tenure in Atlanta.
Packers fans thought not only the division title was lost, but perhaps the season when Aaron Rodgers was carted into the locker room in the second quarter. But the MVP candidate returned in the third to help lead Green Bay to a 30-20 win over the Lions, earning a first-round bye and fourth consecutive NFC North crown.
In the middle of all this, Ndamukong Suh, who has had a stellar 2014 season but rather quiet on the “dirty player” front, finally showed his true colors. Suh stepped on Rodgers’ left leg in the fourth quarter, earning the attention of Packers coach Mike McCarthy and other players. Intentional or not, a punishment could be coming for Suh.
The Seahawks captured the top seed in the NFC and the division title for a second consecutive season after taking care of business against the Rams and while Cardinals slipped up against San Francisco. This was almost expected, as the Seahawks defense has been rolling, leading the team to a sixth straight win, while Arizona received a three-interception game from third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley.
Yet again, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC must go through Seattle, while the Cards must battle the red-hot Panthers on Wild Card Weekend.
Over in the AFC, the Steelers beat the Bengals for a second time in a month, this time 27-7 at Heinz Field to lock up the AFC North title and claim the No. 4 seed in conference. This means the Steelers will host AFC North rival Baltimore on Wild Card Weekend, while Cincy takes on Indianapolis.
The biggest concern for Pittsburgh is the possible loss of Le’Veon Bell, who left in the second half after the back hyperextended his knee. Bell was forced from the game, and his status for the playoffs remains up in the air.
Ravens sneak into final AFC Wild Card spot
John Harbaugh should send a box of chocolates to former colleague Andy Reid, as the Chiefs stifled the Chargers to allow Baltimore to grab hold of the final Wild Card spot in the AFC.
Making the start for the injured Alex Smith, Chase Daniel became the first Chiefs quarterback to complete his first nine passes of a game since Tyler Thigpen did so back in 2008. In his second career start, Daniel led the Chiefs to a 19-7 victory over Philip Rivers and the Chargers, who played themselves out of the final AFC Wild Card spot.
Taking advantage was the Ravens, who, despite a slow start, overcame a fourth-quarter deficit and managed to explode for 17 points in the final frame to take the 20-10 victory to bank, cashing in on the playoff berth.
The Ravens will head up to Heinz Field for the first round of the playoffs to take on the Steelers. The two rivals split their season series in 2014.
Since 2010, Baltimore owns a 5-6 mark against Pittsburgh, with the teams 1-1 in two playoff meetings.
Turn down for Watt, the MVP front-runner?
J.J. Watt made his presence felt during the Texans’ win against the Jaguars, sacking Blake Bortles for a safety in the fourth quarter to solidify the win. That was Watt’s 20th sack of the season, becoming the first player with 20 or more sacks in two different seasons since it became a statistic in 1982.
In doing so, Watt became the first player in NFL history with a receiving touchdown, fumble recovery touchdown, pick-six, and a safety in the same season.
Rodgers, the other leading candidate, had a Willis Reed type of moment, getting carted off the field against Detroit in the second quarter, then returning after the half to help Green Bay capture the NFC North. Rodgers finished the season with 4,381 yards passing, eighth-highest in the NFL, with a very impressive 38 touchdowns compared to five interceptions, not to mention a 112.2 passer rating, second only to Tony Romo.
Other MVP candidates include the aforementioned Romo and DeMarco Murray, who set Cowboys records in career passing yardage and single-season rushing yardage, respectively, in the team’s rout of rival Washington. The road warriors that are the Cowboys moved to 8-0 away from Jerry’s World, only the sixth team in NFL history to ever accomplish that feat.
Tampa Bay is now on the clock …
Three quarters into the early afternoon games, it looked like the Titans were primed to leapfrog the Buccaneers to grab hold of the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Suddenly, reality struck.
Tampa Bay was blanked in the second half while New Orleans scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to pull off the comeback victory in the regular-season finale. With the loss — Tampa Bay’s 14th of the year — the Bucs are officially on the clock.
Collapse? On purpose? Maybe. Maybe not.
Now Tampa Bay is in line to draft highly regarded Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota if the team so chooses. They could also be in the mix for 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston, who played his college ball not too far away at Florida State. The Bucs are expected to watch both quarterbacks in person leading up the 2015 NFL Draft.
Here’s the top five picks: Tampa Bay (1), Tennessee (2), Jacksonville (3), Oakland (4), Washington (5).
The Chiefs managed a win over AFC West rival San Diego, but it didn’t translate into a playoff berth. Still, linebacker Justin Houston may have finally received the attention he deserved with a four-sack effort. Houston broke the Chiefs’ single-season sack record set back in 1990 by Derrick Thomas and upped his season total to 22.5, just shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season mark. Only nine other players have had 20 or more sacks in a season. Not too shabby for a player that’ll be on the free-agent market this spring.
Odell Beckham Jr. has emerged as the clear front-runner for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and his magical first professional season continued against Philadelphia as he posted his ninth consecutive 90-yard effort in as many games. That was good for the longest single-season streak since Michael Irvin did it. Beckham finished with 12 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown on the day, surpassing Billy Howton’s record for most receiving yards in a player’s first 12 games in NFL history.
Neither the Jets nor Dolphins will be playing in January, but Lamar Miller offered a glimmer of hope to the fans in South Florida. Miller ripped off a 97-yard run, the longest in Dolphins history and tied for the third-longest in NFL history. His quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, eclipsed 4,000 yards passing, joining Dan Marino as the only other player in Miami history to do so.
On the opposite end of the field, Geno Smith has Jets fans bewildered as he put forth a career effort as well. Smith threw a 74-yard touchdown pass, the longest of his career, and finished with a perfect passer rating. Eric Decker pieced together a 221-yard receiving day, a career-best mark and the first Jets wideout to do so since 1972 when Rich Caster did it. Decker’s Week 17 performance will go down as the second-highest receiving total in Jets single-game history behind only Don Maynard (228 yards).
The Bears were among the most disappointing teams of 2014, but Matt Forte sure did carry his own. Forte became the second player in NFL history with at least 250 rushes and 100 receptions in a single season. The other: none other than LaDainian Tomlinson. Forte also snapped Larry Centers’ record for most receptions in a season by a running back (102).
Buffalo won’t be playing postseason football, but they did end the year on a high note. The Bills snapped a 13-game losing streak against New England, while also ending their AFC East rivals’ streak of 35 straight home victories against AFC opponents.