NFL Week 16: Five things we learnt

A look back at Sunday's action

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The 2014 NFL season is just one week away from its conclusion. Week 16 saw many teams secure their play-off spots along with a few headliners miss out. Zander Swinburne examines who sneaked in, who is done for the year, and who still has something to play for.

Who’s in

Week 16 of the NFL season saw lots of teams secure their play-off positions, allowing their seasons to continue into January. With the Colts, the Patriots, and the Broncos having already done so last week, several other teams were fortunate enough to jostle their way in this week.

For the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers return to the post-season for the first time since 2011 with a 20-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The NFC saw much more movement, with the Packers amongst the first to guarantee a playoff spot.

Their 20-3 win over the Buccaneers allows Aaron Rodgers to breeze into the post-season, and following Detroit’s 20-14 win over Chicago, the two NFC North teams will compete for the division next week. Dallas secured their division when they beat the Indianapolis Colts 42-7. Coupled with a Philadelphia loss to Washington on Saturday, Dallas won the NFC East for the first time since 2009.

These two results subsequently gave both the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks guaranteed playing time in January before they even faced each other on Sunday night. With nine of the twelve play-off spots taken, several teams now find themselves on the outside looking in and even fewer still have a chance to play next month

Who’s out... and who can get back in.

The NFL can be a harsh league when it comes to deciding who makes the play-offs and who doesn’t. Sunday saw the hopes and aspirations of several teams completely dashed, the cruellest of which was most certainly the Miami Dolphins. Despite a fantastic 37-35 comeback win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Dolphins were still eliminated on account of their seven losses and poor tiebreaker match-ups.

Another AFC East team in the form of the Buffalo Bills was also denied any opportunity of playing next month when they lost 26-24 to the Oakland Raiders. Perhaps the biggest upset was the Philadelphia Eagles. After their 27-24 loss to the Redskins, the Eagles were praying on a Dallas loss which was subsequently denied less than a day later.

Even the once dominant New Orleans will be forced to enjoy a long off-season after losing to the Atlanta Falcons 30-14. Despite the omissions, there is still hope for a few teams. The San Diego Chargers mesmerizsngly rescued their season with a 38-35 overtime win over the San Francisco 49ers. All they need next week is a at the Chiefs win and they’re in. The same goes for both the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. Having knocked out the Saints from play-off contention, the Falcons need only a victory on home soil against the Panthers to claim the division.

Although many spots have already been claimed, next Sunday will see several teams battling it out for a play-off berth and many others fighting to see who’ll they play the following week. Once again in the NFL, the season's not over until it’s over.

Dallas show they are Super Bowl contenders

Having just secured their first play-off berth since 2009, Dallas have now topped the NFC East after thrashing the Indianapolis Colts 42-7. With the win they not only claimed the division title but also eliminated the Philadelphia Eagles from play-off contention, a significant feat for team that was widely written off before the season started. Sunday’s victory was a show of force from the Cowboys, a signalling that they intend to compete at the highest level. The game was finished by the third quarter and this was largely because of Tony Romo.

The quarterback who had looked slow and groggy going into this season was clinical through the air. Romo was benched as soon as the game reached unattainable levels for the Colts, and he finished with just two incompletions and four touchdowns. With three consecutive wins, it seems that the Cowboys have hit a hot streak, and this could not have come at a better time. Dallas will continue to jostle for position next week but come January, America’s team is one that can certainly go the distance.

It’s the Panthers and the Falcons for the NFC South

It has been clear for some time; the NFC South represents the worst division in the NFL. Not a single team within this division will end the season with a winning record and as at least one team must represent their division in the play-offs, there is no alternative but to have a representative of the NFC South.

Sunday’s set of games extinguished any chance of New Orleans making the play-offs and so left just two teams to compete in the final week. Barely eight weeks ago the Atlanta Falcons lost what seemed like a must-win game in London; fast forward four wins and three losses and Atlanta need only a victory on home soil to sneak in.

Head Coach Mike Smith is fighting for his job and will need his star players, Matt Ryan, and Julio Jones to make an impact. Conversely, the Carolina Panthers have almost nothing to lose going into the final game of the season. To show just how far from a play-off spot the Panthers were, it was not until December that Carolina recorded only their fourth win. A three-game streak has elevated the team from zeros to heroes in next to no time. Both of these teams stand little chance in the post-season, but for their fans at least, the play-offs start next week.

Is Jay Cutler on the way out of Chicago?

To add more turmoil to Chicago’s season, the Bears management opted to bench their veteran quarterback Jay Cutler this week in favour of Jimmy Clausen. The move represents the final nail in coffin for Chicago’s 2014 season but it also creates a number of headaches for the franchise moving forward.

Although Cutler has expressed a desire to remain in Chicago, there now appears to be a developing market for the nine-year pro, with Tennessee the frontrunner to establish a trade at the season’s end. Cutler has had mixed success in Chicago over his last six seasons with the team. Although statistically solid in certain areas, Cutler has only made the post-season once with the franchise and this year will be the fourth consecutive season the Bears miss out on a post-season berth.

As up and down Cutler has been, it is still difficult to see Jimmy Clausen as Chicago’s future following their 14-20 loss to the Detroit Lions. Cutler’s omission does nothing to help his potential trade value and the last two games of the season certainly won’t allow Clausen to secure his spot as the future of the franchise. For Chicago, the seasons end clearly can’t come soon enough.