NFL Week 17: Five things we learnt

A look back at the final weekend of the regular season

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The 2014 NFL regular season has concluded and the play-off bracket has finally been confirmed. Zander Swinburne evaluates just who got in, the notable absentees and who the Super Bowl contenders are.

Only 12 remain to fight for the Super Bowl

It took 17 long weeks, but the NFL has cut the number of Super Bowl contenders from 32 to just 12. Only two play-off spots were able to be decided in week 17, both of which were done so with little drama or dispute.

For the AFC, the final wildcard spot was granted to the Baltimore Ravens who were able to hold off the Cleveland Browns 20-10. With some help from the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens now complete a trio of AFC North teams to have taken a spot in the play-offs. Baltimore will now compete with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis in the Wild card round whilst New England and Denver wait in the divisional round having been given a first round bye.

The NFC saw both the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons compete for their division whilst other jostled for better seed positions. The Panthers completely demolished the Falcons 34-3, securing the NFC South and a place in the post-season despite a losing record.

The Seattle Seahawks extended their four game winning streak to champion their division with a 20-6 win over St Louis, and the Green Bay Packers were also able to achieve the same objective, beating the Detroit Lions to claim the NFC North. With Green Bay and Seattle both winning to secure first round playoff byes, it has been left to Dallas, Detroit, Carolina, and Arizona to compete in the wild card round.

There are several notable playoff absentees

For every winner in the NFL, there is also a loser and as the 2014 regular season concludes there are a few noteworthy absentees from the playoffs this season. Among the most surprising to have started their off-season early are the New Orleans Saints.

This team was not even able to make it to the final week to be eliminated, and there humiliation was made complete as not only did they fail to make the post-season with a 7-9 record, but they did so losing out to a Carolina Panthers side whose record was only one draw better than theirs. For the San Diego Chargers their goal was simple, win and they’re in, yet their chances of making the playoffs were scuppered following an abysmal 19-7 loss to Kansas City Chiefs.

San Diego have now missed the play-offs four times in the last five seasons and for a team that made the post-season in four of the previous five years before that run, clearly plenty has gone wrong for a team so used to playing in January. The Philadelphia Eagles have also surprisingly failed to book their place in a match-up next week. Despite a 10-6 record that usually grants a play-off spot, the Eagles were unlucky to miss out due to an unusually strong conference that saw surprise teams such as Arizona and Detroit steal the wildcard berths. T

he Eagles represent the best of the league not to make the play-offs and they will no doubt already be counting down the days to the start of the 2015 season.

The NFC boasts the most Super Bowl contenders

As the regular season concludes, the post-season emerges and soon the Super Bowl will be in sight. No longer is it correct to discuss play-off contenders; the focus should now be on who can win the next two or three games to make it to Arizona in February.

The two notable AFC contenders are the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, both of whom are led by stellar quarterbacks who have plenty of experience in post-season football. The Colts represent the conference's dark horse, and although they have shown inconsistencies in their 11-5 season, look for Indianapolis to pull off an upset win should all go right for them when it matters most.

The NFC is by far the more competitive of the two conferences and it wouldn’t be surprising to see any number of scenarios emerge in the weeks before the Super Bowl. Green Bay and Seattle once again look incredibly strong at this time of year and both have home field advantages that can completely subdue an opposition. However, there is an aura of positivity flowing from Dallas that shows this team may just surprise all next month. Dallas have shocked all this season with their 12-4 record and even now continues to have doubters. With Tony Romo playing his best football in years, behind an unbreakable offensive line, it would not be a revelation to see Dallas’ four game win streak continue next week and beyond.

What should be recognised is that the post-season has no memory and each week is a clean slate for every team. Anything goes in the play-offs and the emergent winner in February could very well be the most unlikely of contenders.

Numerous head coaches are out of a job

Following the conclusion of the season’s final week, some head coaches will be gearing up for the play-off week ahead, others will be planning for the following year. There are a few coaches however that by the end of this week will be out of a job.

‘Black Monday’ is here the NFL and there have already been some high profile casualties - four head coaches and two GMs at the time of writing.

Following four straight seasons without reaching the play-offs, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is looking for a new job. Loved by his players, Ryan enjoyed a semi-successful six-year tenure in New York, reaching the AFC Championship game twice; but following a 4-12 record, the Jets have pressed the reset button with both Ryan and GM John Idzik shown the door.

On the other side of the country, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh (above) has completed his divorce with the 49ers. The embattled coach, whose team have missed the play-offs after three straight NFC Championship appearances, has agreed to coach the University of Michigan.

Marc Trestman and Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery have both been fired after a 5-11 season, as has Mike Smith after a disastrous 34-3 home loss to the Carolina Panthers cost the Atlanta Falcons a play-off spot.

The Buccaneers secure the first pick in the Draft

Whilst the possibility of Super Bowl glory remains for some teams, others will be glad that their season is done for. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers represent the league’s worst team after finishing their 2014 campaign with just two wins out of 16.

Head Coach Lovie Smith will no doubt be wishing his first season in charge of the outfit would have gone better, however the Bucs’ 20-23 loss to the Saints on Sunday has given Tampa Bay a small consolation prize.

With the first pick in the 2015 Draft now confirmed to be Tampa Bay’s, the Florida based team is free to grab the best college talent available. The quarterback position is most notably Tampa Bay’s biggest area to address as both Mike Glennon and Josh McCown have failed to impress this year.

With the Buccaneers already boasting a highly productive wide receiver corps, an effective quarterback may just make Tampa Bay a competitive franchise come September 2015. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is the favourite at this stage to go, but the first pick gives Tampa Bay significant trade value should Mariota’s stock drop suddenly. Who they decide to go with or not to go with will be closely followed by the rest of the league over the next few months.