It seems like only yesterday that the NFL regular season was getting started, yet here we are.
Week 17. For 20 teams, the end of the line this year.
Those teams include the Baltimore Ravens. For the second straight season, the defending Super Bowl champion failed to qualify for the playoffs, with the Ravens bounced by virtue of their loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
In a week where four teams battled for the final playoff spot in the AFC, there were sure to be no shortage of compelling storylines.
Here's what caught the collective eye of the NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report.
For the past three decades and change, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome has been the unsightly home of the Minnesota Vikings.
When the Vikings were winning, it could be deafening, but mainly it was a cold and drab concrete monstrosity.
In Week 17, the Vikings played their last game in the building, and that has Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey waxing nostalgic.
Week 17’s 14-13 win against the Detroit Lions seemed like an exercise in futility by two teams with zero in the way of playoff chances, but it was also a footnote in history as the last game to be held at Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
As many in the NFL media noted after the last regular-season home game at Candlestick in San Francisco, that place was a dump. By comparison, the Metrodome was just as much of a dump—just a much colder dump with far less meaningful history having ever taken place within those walls.
For a couple of years, before covering the NFL was even on the radar of what I wanted to do with my life, I covered both the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Twins for local radio. I’ve also coached a game on that hateful excuse for turf as a graduate assistant for a small Division III school in southern Minnesota.
Needless to say, I’m acquainted with the dreary and dreadful lump of concrete located in Minneapolis, and if any stadium could ever be rightfully described as depression-inducing, it was the Metrodome.
Doctors have a scientific name for “the winter blues”—Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD). If SAD had a mascot, it would be an anthropomorphized drawing of the Metrodome, with its dimly lit corners, inability to see the game (at all) from the concourse and multiple lower-level hallways that unintentionally seemed to welcome strange folks.
I might be one of the very last people in the media space to triumph the latest and greatest stadiums—especially when funded by tax dollars. The arm-twisting done by billionaires over local governments is greed-driven at best and seems awfully sinister in many circumstances.
That said, the Vikings needed a new home. The Metrodome was as terrible as the Vikings’ effort for much of this season (maybe even more so). It was past time for the Metrodome to go, and the good people of Minnesota should not mourn its passing.
The Detroit Lions were on the losing end of that last game at the Metrodome, with a 14-13 loss to the Vikings sticking a fork in the Lions' 7-9 season.
In the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter, it also stuck a fork in Jim Schwartz's tenure as the head coach in Motown:
The final game of the Detroit Lions’ 2013 season—and likely the final game of the Jim Schwartz era—provided fitting closure to both.
A listless, lifeless Detroit Lions offense had no Calvin Johnson, no answer for the Minnesota Vikings pass rush and no fire.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford, perhaps finally stung by criticism of his risk-taking style, seemed bound and determined to check down at every opportunity. His 33 pass attempts for 217 yards were season lows in both categories (excluding the snowblind game at Philadelphia). He didn’t throw an interception, but he didn’t make many plays.
The Lions defense held the Vikings to only two touchdowns. The bar was low for Stafford and the Lions offense, but as they often did, they found a way to stumble under it. Despite holding a fourth-quarter lead for the ninth consecutive game, the Lions lost.
Incredibly, that drops their record in those nine games to 3-6.
Though some, including Schwartz, might point to that record as evidence that they’re close, it’s instead the most damning proof of his failure. This Lions team has been doing far too little with far too much talent; leading the same nucleus that went 10-6 in 2011 to an 11-21 mark since is unacceptable.
If this performance was the Lions’ last-ditch attempt to save Schwartz’s job, it’s poetic justice that they fell just a little short.
The New York Jets made like Dr. Seuss in Week 17. Gang Grinch stole the playoffs out from under the Miami Dolphins, and this time Cindy Lou Tannerwho isn't getting her tree back.
While the Jets were taking the Dolphins' postseason dreams, AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz points out they were also giving their head coach a very special gift:
Jets head coach Rex Ryan has failed to develop a quarterback. His best accomplishments were achieved with a roster assembled before he arrived. His team has missed the playoffs for three straight years.
Yet the Jets have overachieved in 2013, and as a result, Ryan is being brought back for another go-around as the head coach. That’s straight from the horse's mouth, as it was announced by owner Woody Johnson shortly after the game.
Ryan could have ended up being a victim of his own success. The Jets started 5-4 and were in the playoff discussion entering Week 11. A 1-4 skid knocked them to the bottom of that discussion, and the Jets began to look like the team everyone expected to see all season.
If the season had ended after that, Rex might have been doomed. After beating the Cleveland Browns the following week, Ryan said the Jets are a team on the rise; he has a bit more evidence now.
The Jets now end the season on a two-game winning streak, the first winning streak of the season and the first since Weeks 13 and 14 of the 2012 season.
Who knows how long this vote of confidence will last. He has one year left on his contract, but there’s already been a report from Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News that the two sides have an understanding to work out a contract extension. Although Ryan would like to avoid a “lame-duck year,” he would also probably still need to show some signs of progress.
The best way to show progress is for Geno Smith to continue his development. Over the last four games, Smith has thrown four touchdowns and run for three. Most importantly, he’s only thrown two interceptions in that time. A lot of things could help Ryan keep his job, but most of all would be continued development at quarterback. That’s something the Jets haven’t had in Ryan’s tenure.
Ryan’s Jets may not have accomplished anything of significance this year, but exceeding the expectations set of them prior to the season was enough for Ryan to keep his job for one more year.
It's been a long time since the Oakland Raiders were a winning football team.
After losing to the Denver Broncos Sunday, the Raiders fell to 4-12, the team's 11th straight season at .500 or under.
As the Silver and Black enter another uncertain offseason, AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen ponders the plight of besieged owner Mark Davis:
Judging from the smoke signals rising from the ashes of another lost season in Oakland, I believe both general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen will return for their third seasons. For the sake of continuity—and considering the lack of talent and rebuilding project the regime started two years ago—it’s the right move.
Judging from the way the team got obliterated on Sunday and for almost the entire second half of the season, it’s tough to say Allen deserved to be retained. Unfortunately, the whole situation puts owner Mark Davis in a tough spot.
Davis’ hand-picked general manager, McKenzie, hasn’t had a chance to spend money, and the jury is still out on his first full draft class. It’s not fair to fire McKenzie, and he likely favors retaining Allen. Davis doesn’t want any internal discord, so the only way he could make a change is to fire both of them.
There are indications that Davis knew this all along. The whole notion of Allen being fired was overblown, according to Vic Tafur of The San Francisco Chronicle (via Sulia). It was overblown because the only way Davis could save face and not become his father by making a move would be to hire ESPN analyst Jon Gruden and give him full control of the franchise.
Davis may have tried to lure Gruden, but few believed he was going to leave his cushy job with ESPN and return to coaching in 2014. Davis may keep trying in the future, because the current regime still has a lot to prove. With $60 million or more in salary-cap space in 2014, Allen will not have the talent excuse if the team doesn’t win a lot more games next season.
The Baltimore Ravens may not have made it back to the playoffs, but the team the Ravens beat in Super Bowl XLVII isn't having any of that nonsense.
With their 23-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, the 49ers head into the playoffs winners of six straight.
As the Niners prepare for a trip to Titletown, NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller expounds on the league's hottest team:
With a 12-4 finish on the season, only two teams had more wins in the NFL. That they finished one game back from the Seattle Seahawks means they’re the No. 5 seed in the NFC, though. They’ll head to Green Bay in a Week 1 rematch against Aaron Rodgers and co., but will anyone take the home team in this one?
With a stout defense, a game-breaking run game and a passing attack that’s much-improved since the return of Michael Crabtree, the 49ers are the team no one wants to play right now. And they proved that with a win over a very good Arizona Cardinals defense in Week 17.
You can also bet on Jim Harbaugh unleashing Colin Kaepernick now that the regular season is over. The handcuffs will come off, and Kap will be freed to run and make plays outside the pocket—similar to what he did last season against Green Bay in the playoffs.
If you’re considering the Packers as your pick this week, I’ll point you to Kaepernick’s playoff-record 181 yards rushing against Dom Capers’ defense last year. Harbaugh and Kaepernick know how to beat up this suspect Green Bay defense, and they’ve proven that in the postseason and in the season opener this year.
If there’s one team to fear, it's coming out of San Francisco.
There were a pair of winner-take-all games in Week 17, including in Chicago, where Aaron Rodgers returned to lead the Packers to a come-from-behind win over the Bears.
In the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, it was a simple lack of execution on the game's pivotal play that cost the Bears a division title:
I loved the call from Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to bring pressure versus Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on a 4th-and-8 situation late in the fourth quarter with under a minute to play.
Sit in Cover 2? No thanks. Be aggressive, bring pressure and go win the division title.
Hey, I know it’s easy to second-guess after a ballgame, but given the situation and the 28-27 lead, I would have done the same thing.
Force the ball to come out and drive downhill on the receivers. If they throw a slant, hitch or any other blitz read, then make a tackle to win the game.
The Bears brought seven-man pressure, lost contain on the edge rush and busted in the secondary when they failed to carry the seam with no safety help to the deep middle of the field.
That allowed Rodgers to move outside of the pocket, hit a wide-open Randall Cobb and punch Green Bay’s ticket to the postseason dance.
From the Bears' perspective, this was just another example of poor defensive execution. Even with the injuries this unit experienced at multiple levels this season, the inability to execute the call (or play with the proper technique) has been a common issue in critical game situations.
And sooner or later, your defense has to make a play if you want to win a division title—regardless of all the talent you might have on the offensive side of the ball.
Of course, while the Bears were left dejected in Chicago, the mood was quite a bit less somber on the visitor's side of the field.
As NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse reports, Sunday's wild finish to the game was a fitting way to end an even wilder season for the Pack:
So many cumulative factors went into the Green Bay Packers making the 2013 postseason as an eight-win division champion.
The Detroit Lions needed to lose six of their last seven games to finish at 7-9. The Chicago Bears had to lose a clinching game against a team with nothing to play for. Three different backup quarterbacks needed to keep the Packers afloat. And Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb were both asked to return from significant injuries and win a Week 17 road game.
All the stars somehow aligned, and the Packers even got incredible breaks to sneak past the Bears at Soldier Field Sunday.
Rodgers' first-half fumble was run in for a touchdown when no Chicago defender went after the live football. Chris Conte had a late interception go right through his arms. A questionable late-hit penalty allowed Green Bay to kick a field goal instead of punt.
On the Packers' game-winning drive, the offense picked up three different fourth downs, including the final conversion that ended with Cobb in the end zone. This was another improbable win to cap off a volatile and unpredictable season in the division.
A "team of destiny" is a phrase thrown around a lot in the NFL, and there's certainly a measured probability of the 12-win San Francisco 49ers handling the Packers next Sunday in the Wild Card Round. But sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, and that's where the Packers are right now.
It certainly didn't follow the script, but the 8-7-1 Packers are somehow division champions for a third straight year.
After a miserable 2012 season the team would just as soon forget, the New Orleans Saints are headed back to the playoffs this year.
As the Saints prepare for a trip to Philadelphia, NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen writes the Saints can make it all the way to the Meadowlands and Super Bowl XLVIII if Drew Brees plays like he did in Week 17:
A perfect passer rating in the NFL is 158.3. Don’t ask me how to calculate that figure or what goes into it, just know 158.3 is perfection.
Drew Brees’ passer rating Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was 157.4.
The New Orleans Saints won easily, 42-17, over the Buccaneers and secured a playoff spot. They’ll travel to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs to take on the Eagles. If Brees plays next week like he did Sunday, New Orleans should lay waste to Philadelphia.
Brees led the Saints on three 80-plus-yard drives in the first half, connected on four touchdown passes (three of 40 yards or more) and held a perfect passer rating in the halftime locker room. He finished just a click shy of perfection and had 381 yards through the air. Brees even ran the ball over the goal line for a touchdown.
The Saints’ heart and soul finished the season with 5,162 yards passing and 39 touchdown passes. With Brees’ game on Sunday to finish the regular season, he gave a blueprint for running roughshod over any playoff opponent.
Now Brees just has to replicate that success on the road. And that’s been a problem this season.
Despite losing their first four games in 2013, the Pittsburgh Steelers came THIS close to making the playoffs.
The Steelers went 6-2 over the second half of this season, and AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst points to that strong finish as something the Steelers can build on moving forward:
After eight weeks into the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2013 season, they were 2-6 and left for dead, surely not in contention for the postseason after such a disappointing start. Instead of giving up, however, the Steelers fought, reaching an 8-8 record and dropping only two of their final eight games.
Because of the ever-changing tides in the AFC, that 8-8 record could have been enough to give Pittsburgh a playoff berth. Indeed, the pieces began to fall together for the Steelers to earn the conference’s sixth playoff spot—a pair of wins in their final two games, a number of key losses by other teams in contention, and they found themselves just one Kansas City Chiefs win away from doing what seemed impossible just last month.
Though it didn’t work out, the Steelers’ second-half rebirth bodes well for their chances to be true Super Bowl contenders in 2014. Their turnaround on offense, in particular, was impressive. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 42 times on the season. However, in his final seven games, he was sacked only seven times.
The run game, too, improved as the season wore on, with the Steelers rushing for over 100 yards in each of their last three games and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell posting the team’s first 100-yard rushing performance in 22 games, in Week 16.
All of this happened behind a cobbled-together, injury-plagued offensive line and amid rumors that Roethlisberger was going to request a trade in 2014 and that he and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were at odds. Whether or not this was a motivating factor in the offensive surge in the second half, it certainly helped quiet the talk of tumult in Pittsburgh.
Though changes are certainly coming in Pittsburgh considering its salary-cap situation and the expensive contracts due to be paid out to aging veterans on defense, this was at least a strong enough finish to the year to build optimism that the streak of 8-8 seasons ends at two. This seems like a much less disappointing 8-8 than in 2012, which is a huge step in the right direction for the Steelers.
It was a disappointing day in the desert Sunday.
By virtue of the Saints win, the Cardinals were eliminated from playoff contention, a bitter pill to swallow for a 10-win team.
However, NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland feels the Redbirds and their fans have plenty of reasons to hold their heads high:
The Arizona Cardinals may have missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, yet optimism is in the air.
There’s no question head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim have the Gridbirds headed in the right direction. They won five more games than they did in 2012, finished with the sixth-best defense in the NFL and won seven of their final nine games.
They also have loads of young talent at various positions. Wide receiver Michael Floyd eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in his second season, running back Andre Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 118 attempts and defensive back Tyrann Mathieu was arguably the team’s best defender before his ACL injury.
When Arians was hired back in January, the thought of an immediate turnaround was laughable. Few believed in quarterback Carson Palmer, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles or Arizona’s offensive line.
The naysayers had every right to be skeptical. Palmer had been awful in Oakland, Bowles didn’t have the greatest track record as a coordinator and the offensive line was atrocious the year prior.
Yes, Palmer and the offensive line could have played better at certain points throughout the season, yet you have to tip your hat to the job Arians did. He returned Palmer to relevancy, and the offensive line exceeded expectations. That says a lot about the 61-year-old head coach.
Without his leadership, Arizona would have been an average team at best.
Cardinals fans should be happy with the franchise’s near-miss this season. The arrow is pointing up, and this team is only going to get better when additional talent is added to the roster during the offseason.
The future is awfully bright in the desert.
The 2013 regular season concluded the same way that 2012 did—the Dallas Cowboys losing their last game and missing the playoffs.
As the postmortem begins on another disappointing season in Big D, NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon gets things started:
Tom Keifer sang it with Cinderella in the 1980s, and it’s hitting close to home for Dallas Cowboys fans right now: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, franchise quarterback Tony Romo isn’t gone for good. He should be back under center at the start of the 2014 season.
But unfortunately for the Cowboys, Romo was gone in Week 17, out after undergoing back surgery days prior to a do-or-die Week 17 meeting with the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s not as though backup Kyle Orton played poorly in a 24-22 home loss to Philly, but Romo’s presence might have been worth at least an extra field goal.
Maybe his timing with Dez Bryant would have been better on that two-point conversion effort in the fourth quarter. Maybe he’d have completed the pass Orton had swatted away on a crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter. Maybe he wouldn’t have thrown that game-clinching interception.
Those are all maybes. There’s a chance the Cowboys would have lost this game with Romo. But this should send a message to those who like to blame Romo for every loss this team suffers in big games.
This is a poorly coached, banged-up football team that had no business playing de facto NFC East championship games each of the last two years. Over and over again, it's lost despite Romo, not the other way around.
Sunday night, in another crushing late-season effort, the Cowboys lost without Romo. Maybe it’s time to stop pinning everything that is wrong with this limping franchise on a man who has led a league-high 11 fourth-quarter comebacks since 2011.