The final week of the regular season is in the books and, while the obvious choices secured their places, there was plenty of late drama – most notably in Pittsburgh where events were out of their hands.
Staving off their first losing season since 2003 despite their woeful start, the Steelers were still in the playoff hunt – they just needed a miracle.
So too did the San Diego Chargers and, after four quarters of struggle against the Chiefs’ back-ups, it was they, not the Steelers (who would have made it in San Diego’s place had the Chargers lost), who squeaked into the post-season action for the first time since 2009.
Helped by the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins, who both lost, the Chargers’ 27-24 overtime win has ensured that they will face the Cincinnati Bengals before, potentially, facing the Denver Broncos who, like New England, will be enjoying a bye-week in preparation.
It could have been so different though, had luck not played such a huge part.
Firstly Chiefs’ kicker, Ryan Succop, missed a 41-yard attempt with only four second to play as Kansas’ back-ups proved they’re more than capable deputies.
Secondly, on a fake punt, Eric Weddle was stripped of the ball as the Chiefs crashed in around him before it came lose. Run back for, what would have been the game-winning score, the officials ruled Weddle had found his way across the first down marker, ensuring San Diego kept the ball.
But, they’re in and that’s what counts. However, against a Jekyll & Hyde Bengals team, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they make it through – but the improbability of them reaching this stage has shown they shouldn’t be counted out.
New faces, new places
The Browns, Lions, Texans, Vikings, Buccaneers and Redskins are all looking for new coaches – with the exception of the Cleveland Browns, none of these decisions came as a surprise.
Beginning in Washington, Mike Shanahan’s impending dismissal had become something of a weekly storyline. With news each week suggesting his relationship with Robert Griffin III had deteriorated further, the writing was on the wall. However, whoever steps into the breach will have their work cut out although, with their salary cap woes now a thing of the past, they should be able to rely on Dan Snyder’s wallet once more. (Not that that’s always a good thing, remember Albert Haynesworth.)
In Tampa, Greg Schiano’s firing will see his replacement step right into a playoff calibre team, albeit one with questions over the quarterback position.
The Vikings parted with Leslie Frazier, arguably a victim of his surprise run to the playoffs last year, after a season full of quarterback issues. Christian Ponder isn’t the answer, neither is Josh Freeman, and Frazier has paid the price but, for a team scheduled to play outdoors for the next two years (while their new home is built) and a host of issues, this may be the least appealing job of the lot.
The Texans have a far better team than their record suggests and the first pick in the draft. With a good owner and a stable core-group of talent, expect them to perform much better next year.
Cleveland’s decision to rid themselves of first year coach Rob Chudzinski was expected, but still a little odd. Supported by his players, Chudzinkski was unable to prevent a late season collapse and walks away having pocketed a cool $10.5million. The perennial quarterback woes continue though and expect the new head coach to address this in the draft.
Finally, and easily the most talented of all the teams to find themselves in this position, the Detroit Lions parted company with Jim Schwartz after he failed to guide his team to the playoffs. Aided by injuries to Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, opening up the race in the NFC North, the Lions collapsed. Undisciplined, the Lions are a work in progress and their roster is full of talent but Matthew Stafford will need guidance if they are to improve.
From 4-12 last year to 10-6 this year, the Eagles have been transformed since hiring Chip Kelly.
Kelly, who needed to be convinced to take the job, has ensured that the rebuilding phase many expected following last season’s train-wreck has been quietly effective and, after securing the NFC East title on Sunday with a 24-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys, has guided his team to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season.
That quest came to an end when Michael Vick was intercepted in the end zone in the games’ last minute as they lost 21-16 to the Packers.
This time however, the Eagles are entering the first round as 2½ point favourites over the New Orleans Saints – a team who have struggled mightily on the road this season.
They deserve it too, under his guidance, the Eagles offence has become a dominant force and has set countless franchise records this season. Nick Foles has the best touchdown to interception ratio in NFL history, the third highest passer rating in NFL history and the club’s best ever completion percentage (64.04%). Alongside that they also boast the league’s rushing champion, LeSean McCoy who finished with 2146 all-purpose yards, 1607 of which came on the ground.
With a mouth-watering tie against Carolina awaiting the winner of Saturday’s game, expect it to be a lively game as both sides pin their hopes on their offenses.