• The Star Staff

What we learned from Week 17 of the NFL season


By Benjamin Hoffman


The Green Bay Packers secured the top seed in the NFC playoffs, while making an excellent argument for Aaron Rodgers as the NFL’s MVP. The Buffalo Bills got the No. 2 seed in the AFC, while effectively ending the Miami Dolphins’ season. And the Cleveland Browns, after 17 seasons that ended in frustration, are back in the playoffs. It was an exciting Sunday even by Week 17 standards, and the playoff field is now set.


Here’s what we learned:


— The road through the NFC playoffs goes through Green Bay. Perhaps the finest regular season of Rodgers’ career — one that has included two MVP awards — finished with a 35-16 win over the Chicago Bears and an NFC-best record of 13-3. That gives the Packers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, forcing opponents to come to Lambeau Field, which won’t have its raucous fans but will still have the frigid weather in which Rodgers has always thrived


Rodgers added four more touchdown passes Sunday, giving him a career-high of 48, which is tied with Dan Marino for the fifth-most in a season. Over the past three seasons, Rodgers, who seemed miffed when the Packers drafted his potential replacement in April, has 99 touchdown passes and just 11 interceptions.


— The Bills weren’t taking any chances — and the Dolphins suffered for it. The Bills had already clinched the AFC East title — their first since 1995 — two weeks ago, while Miami would have guaranteed itself a wild-card spot with a win Sunday. Despite that, the Bills began the day with Josh Allen at quarterback, let the MVP candidate power them to a 28-6 lead at halftime, and then had their defense and backup quarterback Matt Barkley take care of the rest of the game in a 56-26 laugher that never felt remotely close. The Bills captured the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a 13-3 record — their best finish since 1991 — while the Dolphins were eliminated from playoff contention thanks to their own loss and Indianapolis’ victory over Jacksonville.


— You can’t end a 17-season playoff drought without a little drama. Despite topping 10 wins for just the second time since 1995, the Cleveland Browns entered the final day needing a win, or some help from other teams, to reach the postseason for the first time since 2002. Pittsburgh’s decision to rest Ben Roethlisberger was helpful, but some doubt was introduced when a coronavirus outbreak closed Cleveland’s facilities and left the team without three of its four starting defensive backs. The Browns took a 24-9 lead early in the fourth quarter, but then had to sweat after Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph threw two touchdown passes to close the gap. An onside kick attempt after the second touchdown nearly succeeded, but the Browns, shaking off years of bad breaks, recovered and held on for a nail-biting 24-22 win. The teams face off again on Sunday in Pittsburgh, with Roethlisberger expected to return.


— The Titans are far from a one-man show. Derrick Henry rushed for 250 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. But it was a few crucial plays from quarterback Ryan Tannehill late in the game that finished off a thrilling 41-38 win over the Houston Texans and gave Tennessee the AFC South title. With the Titans trailing by 4 with less than two minutes to play, Tannehill sold a play-fake to Henry before running in a 5-yard touchdown. Houston tied the game with a field goal, but Tannehill got the ball back with just 18 seconds remaining and immediately completed a 52-yard pass to A.J. Brown that, along with a 4-yard run by Henry, set up Sam Sloman’s game-winning 37-yard field goal.


— The NFC East was bound to end in a weird way. Washington’s 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles clinched a division title for the Footballers despite the team’s fairly pathetic 7-9 record. But there was plenty of mediocrity along the way. The day started with the New York Giants pushing their way past the Dallas Cowboys, 23-19, by way of a brutal Andy Dalton interception in the game’s final two minutes. That opened the possibility of Big Blue making the playoffs with a 6-10 record, but the Eagles effectively handed the Footballers the division by benching quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second half despite Philadelphia trailing by just three points at the time. The Eagles had already been eliminated from playoff contention, but using a game with major playoff implications for a division rival to get backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld some playing time did not seem to be popular among Eagles players, many of whom looked remarkably frustrated on the sideline.


The game was effectively decided by a neutral zone infraction on a fourth down play with two minutes left in the game, a perfect ending to a season in which none of the NFC East’s four teams seemed to have any interest in winning.


This Weekend’s Playoff Matchups


SATURDAY


Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Buffalo Bills (13-3), 1 p.m., CBS

The Colts only qualified for the playoffs because the Bills throttled the Miami Dolphins. Now they have to travel to Orchard Park, N.Y., for their own turn against the Bills’ well-rounded juggernaut. (Early line: Bills -6.5)


Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4), 4:40 p.m., Fox

The Rams are desperate to get Jared Goff back at quarterback following the surgery he had on the thumb of his throwing hand. John Wolford did a nice job filling in for Goff on Sunday against the Cardinals, but he’s not a solution on the road in Seattle. (Early line: Seahawks -4.5)


Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Washington Football Team (7-9), 8:15 p.m., NBC

Home teams always need to be taken seriously in the playoffs, even if it’s the sub-.500 Footballers, who only got here because every division gets a playoff team. (Early line: Buccaneers -10.5)


SUNDAY


Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (11-5), 1:05 p.m., ESPN and ABC

With powerful running games and quarterbacks who can take advantage of a stacked box to stretch the field, these teams are more similar than you might guess. (Early line: Ravens -3.5)


Chicago Bears (8-8) at New Orleans Saints (12-4), 4:40 p.m., CBS, Nickelodeon and Prime Video

Chicago should be thankful for the NFC East, as without that division’s ineptitude, people would probably be focusing on the Bears making the playoffs without a winning record. (Early line: Saints -9.5)


Cleveland Browns (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4), 8:15 p.m., NBC

Cleveland was able to hold on for a win over Pittsburgh this week in Cleveland, but Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh could look significantly different with Ben Roethlisberger back under center for the Steelers. (Early line: Steelers -3.5)


WEEK 17’S TOP PERFORMERS


Top Passer: Aaron Rodgers

Did Rodgers do enough to pass Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in the MVP race? Both quarterbacks led their teams to the best record in their respective conferences, with Rodgers having the edge in touchdown passes (48 to 38) and Mahomes having the edge in passing yards (4,740 to 4,299). Rodgers will also finish with better marks in traditional passer rating and QBR, but still likely trails Mahomes, who went 14-1 before sitting out Sunday’s game. Other top candidates for the award include Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry.


Top Runner: Derrick Henry

Jonathan Taylor of the Colts narrowly edged Henry for the top rushing mark of the day, but not by enough to stop Henry becoming the eighth player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and the first player with back-to-back NFL rushing titles since Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson did it in 2006 and 2007. It seemed like it would be hard for Henry to follow up his breakout 2019 season, but he ended up with career highs in every major rushing category.


Top Receiver: A.J. Brown

Detroit’s Marvin Jones and Houston’s Brandin Cooks both put up bigger numbers, but it’s impossible to ignore the impact Brown had with a 52-yard reception in the game’s final minute that set up a game-winning field goal. Brown followed up his promising rookie season with sophomore effort that included career highs in receptions (70), receiving yards (1,075) and touchdowns (11).


One* Sentence About Sunday’s Games


*Except when it takes more.


Browns 24, Steelers 22: It came in a game in which Pittsburgh played without defensive stalwarts Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt, but Cleveland still impressed on the ground, racking up 192 yards on 31 carries, letting the team’s biggest strength carry it to the playoffs.


Bills 56, Dolphins 26: Miami was hopeful that Tua Tagovailoa could take care of things himself, since Ryan Fitzpatrick — the NFL’s equivalent of an ace reliever — was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. It didn’t work out. While Tagovailoa threw for 361 yards and a touchdown, the rookie was also intercepted three times, including a pick-six, and never mounted much of a challenge to Buffalo’s dominance on both sides of the ball.


Packers 35, Bears 16: The beeping sound you hear is Chicago backing into the playoffs. The Bears came into the day with control of their own fate, but needed help to earn a wild card after quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was largely ineffective and running back David Montgomery was limited to 3.1 yards a carry.


Colts 28, Jaguars 14: Indianapolis appeared to be teetering on the edge of a second consecutive brutal second-half collapse, but some terrific play by the team’s defense, and Jonathan Taylor’s 45-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, powered the Colts to victory.

Taylor entered the season as a backup to Marlon Mack, but his 253 yards rushing and two touchdowns Sunday gave him 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns in a terrific rookie year.


Titans 41, Texans 38: There were plenty of good things to say about Tennessee after it clinched a hard-won AFC South title, but Houston’s players could hold their heads up high after a terrific second half by quarterback Deshaun Watson made the division rival Titans fight for it.


Buccaneers 44, Falcons 27: Antonio Brown (11 catches, 138 yards, two touchdowns) and Chris Godwin (5-133-2) both had terrific games for Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers will be holding their collective breath awaiting an update on the health of wide receiver Mike Evans, who injured his knee on an incomplete pass in the end zone. Evans had 46 yards receiving before the injury, giving him 1,006 for the season — he is the first NFL wide receiver to have 1,000 or more yards in each of his first seven seasons.


Ravens 38, Bengals 3: J.K. Dobbins showed why many people believe he is Baltimore’s top running back going forward, rumbling for 160 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries. But Lamar Jackson was nearly as effective, rushing for 97 yards on 11 carries, which left him with 1,005 for the season. He now owns the No. 1 and No. 3 rushing seasons by a quarterback in NFL history.


Seahawks 26, 49ers 23: San Francisco was leading by 9-6 after three quarters, but Russell Wilson took over in the fourth, throwing two touchdown passes to Tyler Lockett. Alex Collins ran in a score as well and the game would not have been as close if not for a garbage-time score by San Francisco’s Jeff Wilson Jr.


Saints 33, Panthers 7: COVID-19 protocols led to New Orleans being without nearly all of its running backs, but that did not slow the team down in the slightest. Ty Montgomery, who plays some wide receiver but also has experience at running back, filled in admirably, carrying the ball 18 times for 105 yards. That, combined with Drew Brees’ three passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown from Taysom Hill, was more than enough against Carolina.


Rams 18, Cardinals 7: It might not work in the playoffs, but Los Angeles was able to end Arizona’s season with an offense led by quarterback John Wolford, who came into the day with zero career passing attempts and left it with 231 yards passing, a team-leading 56 yards rushing and his first career victory.


Footballers 20, Eagles 14: It was far from Washington’s best effort, but the Footballers got wide receiver Terry McLaurin back on the field after an ankle injury kept him out the previous week and their defense generated three takeaways, so it wasn’t all bad.


Giants 23, Cowboys 19: In what may be the perfect encapsulation of the NFC East this season, the New York Giants’ victory came down to running back Wayne Gallman recovering his own fumble in the closing minutes, just two plays removed from Dallas’ Andy Dalton virtually handing Big Blue the win with an interception.


Vikings 37, Lions 35: Justin Jefferson recorded 133 yards receiving, which put him at 1,400 for the season. He broke Randy Moss’ franchise record for a rookie receiver, and finished less than 100 short of the 1,473 Bill Groman had for the AFL’s Houston Oilers in 1960.


Minnesota’s skill players were undoubtedly happy to pad their statistics, but they should keep in mind that Detroit’s defense was so bad this season that it allowed 6,716 total yards and 519 points, breaking franchise records set during the Lions’ winless season in 2008.


Chargers 38, Chiefs 21: It came against Kansas City’s backups, but Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was awfully impressive in throwing for 302 yards and three touchdowns in a win that has the potential to save coach Anthony Lynn’s job. Herbert was not even expected to start this season, but after being forced into duty in Week 2, he finished with 4,336 yards passing and a rookie record 31 passing touchdowns.


Raiders 32, Broncos 31: This game did not have any playoff implications, and it was often fairly ugly, but it had plenty to offer. Denver took a late lead with a 92-yard touchdown pass from Drew Lock to Jerry Jeudy. Las Vegas took it back with a 1-yard Josh Jacobs touchdown run and a 2-point conversion with just 24 seconds remaining. After swings like that, the game finished in the only logical way: Maxx Crosby of the Raiders blocked Brandon McManus’ attempt at what would have been a 63-yard game-winning field goal.


Patriots 28, Jets 14: In what was coach Adam Gase’s last game with the club, and might be Sam Darnold’s last as its starting quarterback, the New York Jets went into the fourth quarter tied 14-14 and then fell apart, allowing Cam Newton to throw a pair of game-sealing touchdown passes. New England came into the day with an NFL-low eight touchdown passes this season, but managed four — including one by a wide receiver — against the Jets.

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