As unpredictable as the NFL is from week-to-week, Sunday's results showed that the old postseason standbys remain reliable.
Peyton Manning's comeback victory ensures an opportunity to go out with bang, not a whimper. For the fourth year in a row, Manning's Broncos and Tom Brady's Patriots own the AFC's top two playoff seeds.
At this time a year ago, the Panthers became the first team ever to win back-to-back NFC South titles. Now they boast three straight division crowns en route to the NFL's best record.
The playoff field offers new stories this year as well, but the classics never go out of style.
- Same Old Jets. New York had the opportunity to qualify for the postseason for the first time in five years with a win, but they came out tight and never held a lead. They committed penalties, dropped passes, got called for personal fouls and burned timeouts. In short, they made Rex Ryan's chronically sloppy Bills team look civil and disciplined by comparison.
And just when the Jets appeared poised to take control in the second half, Ryan Fitzpatrick fell apart. The veteran quarterback -- who set the team's touchdown record earlier in the day -- threw a trio of fourth-quarter interceptions that decided the game. The crusher came early in the fourth quarter, an end-zone pick with the Jets trailing 19-17 and in field-goal position. It will be a throw that lives in infamy in Jets history.
- Rex Ryan's first season in Buffalo was a failure, but he can always hang his hat on knocking his old team out of the playoffs. The Bills swept the Jets this season, ended New York's five-game winning streak and knocked Todd Bowles' team out of the playoffs. Cue the "Rex is still keeping the Jets out of the playoffs" jokes.
- Like DeAndre Hopkins before him, Sammy Watkins made Darrelle Revis look bad in a loss for the Jets. Watkins had no trouble creating space and Tyrod Taylor found his top wideout 11 times for 136 yards, with many of those catches coming with Revis in coverage. Revis remains a great corner, but we saw enough this season to conclude he can be exposed by certain playmakers. Revis is an all-timer, but he's also 30 years old.
-- Dan Hanzus
- The Patriots' offense enters the playoffs a complete mess. We'll see if a bye week and getting a few healthy players back makes the difference. Tom Brady only threw five passes in the first half -- the lowest single-half total of his career. The entire offense was runs by Steven Jackson, James White, Brandon Bolden and throws to the same guys. When Brady did drop back to pass, he was buried. New England lost four of their final six games to finish 12-4.
- Ryan Tannehill deserves credit for having a solid afternoon, including a few nice throws down the field. He ended with 350 yards and two scores on 38 throws. The Dolphins smartly picked on Patriots replacement cornerback Leonard Johnson. DeVante Parker (106 yards) made a tough catch down the field on a tipped pass that set up the Dolphins' go-ahead score and even Greg Jennings got deep on the Patriots.
- New England's longest pass to a receiver or tight end was a 12-yard throw to Rob Gronkowski. Its only throw over 20 yards was a screen to James White. The Patriots' offensive line is the team's biggest problem heading into the offseason. It's questionable whether just getting offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer back will fix everything.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- The left wrist sprain sustained by AJ McCarron in Week 16 didn't hinder the Cincy quarterback. McCarron was a caretaker on Sunday, avoiding back-breaking mistakes. The flip side of that, though, is that the Bengals didn't convert a single third down all day. McCarron will have to find receivers after the play breaks down if he's going to trade blows with Ben Roethlisberger and the dynamic Steelers offense next week.
- Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green and Jeremy Hill each scored versus Baltimore, leaving Cincinnati as the only NFL team with three skill-position players to score at least 10 touchdowns. The trio has accounted for 68 percent of Cincinnati's 50 touchdowns this season. Eifert's return is huge after missing three of the past four games with injuries. He has been one of the league's most reliable red-zone threats in a breakout campaign.
- That trio is complemented by a defensive threesome of Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict. Houston's J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus (28) are the only tandem with more sacks than the 24.5 generated by Atkins and Dunlap. Burfict turned in his best game of the season, racking up 12 tackles, an interception, two passes defensed and two quarterback hits. He hasn't lost a step after undergoing microfracture knee surgery in the offseason.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Pittsburgh needed a win on Sunday paired with a Jets loss to Buffalo to nab an AFC wild-card berth. They got both, vaulting the Steelers into the postseason as the AFC's No. 6 seed. Give coach Mike Tomlin all sorts of credit after this team overcame the loss of Le'Veon Bell and five missed games by Ben Roethlisberger. This isn't a perfect team, but they can play with anyone when their offense is hot. If they can overcome some of the sloppy mistakes that plagued them over the past two weeks, the Steelers are a threat to make an impact in January.
- Antonio Brown hurt the Steelers with a fumble on Pittsburgh's opening drive, but the All-Pro wideout caught fire from there, piling up 10 catches in the first half alone en route to 187 yards off 13 grabs. Worthy of MVP consideration, Brown joins Hines Ward as the only Steeler with consecutive seasons of 10-plus touchdown catches during a campaign that saw him log an outrageous 136 receptions -- just seven behind Marvin Harrison's single-season record. Still, this was not an easy game for Roethlisberger, who lashed the Browns for 349 yards at 9.7 yards per throw but also lobbed a pair of picks that kept this game too close for comfort until Cleveland imploded. Big Ben, though, always finds a way to beat the floundering Browns, who mustered just four field goals with Austin Davis under center.
- The Steelers got a scare when DeAngelo Williams was ruled out with an ankle injury. Without their veteran running back, Pittsburgh asked Fitzgerald Toussaint (13/23) to finish the game, but all eyes will be on Williams heading into next week's wild-card tilt. He's been a sensational fill-in for Bell and they'll need him in January.
-- Marc Sessler
- Credit the Texans' defensive line for the division championship. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus destroyed the Jaguars' offensive line. Watt, playing without a cast for the first time in weeks, couldn't be blocked. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year whipped every blocker who attempted to slow him down. He was in Blake Bortles' grill all game, compiling three sacks, eight tackles -- three for loss -- two passes defensed, four QB hits, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Mercilus was nearly as impressive racking up 3.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and two tackles for loss. Watt took over the NFL sacks lead with 17.5 (Khalil Mack enters his afternoon game with 15). The pass-rushing duo will be devastating for any playoff opponent.
- Brian Hoyer returned from his second concussion of the season and was solid for the Texans. As he has for much of the season, Hoyer consistently makes the correct reads, spreads the ball around (eight receivers with a catch) and mostly avoids disastrous drives. He smartly targeted DeAndre Hopkins heavily -- seven receptions on 12 targets for 89 yards. Hoyer's worst throw of the game was wildly behind Hopkins that was tipped and picked. It's a play he'll have to avoid against good teams in the postseason.
- Gus Bradley's squad didn't show up early (again) and were buried. Jacksonville looked like a team playing out the sting of another lost season. It's not a game owner Shad Khan will be thrilled with after giving the coach a vote of confidence last week. Perhaps the play that defined the Jags' game was on a late first-half possession when Bortles uncorked a heave to Allen Robinson. The stud receiver didn't make a play on the ball, which was picked off. The Texans took the turnover for a last-second field goal at the half.
-- Kevin Patra
- Before kickoff, the game -- likelyGiants coach Tom Coughlin's last -- started off well enough. His entire family was in attendance and he walked out of the tunnel to a round of applause. But fast forward to the end of the third quarter and his staff was, again, enduring a round of boos for their conservative play calling. Eli Manning had just thrown a game-changing pick six and the Giants' defense, down to just one healthy safety, continued to bend against an Eagles team that fired their head coach less than a week before. If anything, it illustrates how brutal the NFL can be, and how rare it is to go out with a happy ending. Coughlin was able to provide that opportunity for so many players, like Michael Strahan, but unfortunately he could not write one for himself.
- A second thought on Coughlin: Even if he wasn't able to go out with a win, he had a very good football career. Coughlin had the opportunity to build an expansion franchise from the ground up in Jacksonville, then coached for more than a decade in New York with the Giants. The job is often looked at by people inside the business as one of the best in the game, if not all of sports. He won two Super Bowl titles, and got to employ his son in law as a starting guard for almost a decade, which meant that his kids and grandkids were never more than an arm's length away. Few coaches have it this good, and Coughlin will likely bring this up should his retirement press conference take place on Monday.
- The Eagles' offense under Pat Shurmur didn't look bad. DeMarco Murray broke out with a 54-yard touchdown run and Sam Bradford threw for more than 320 yards. There were noticeably less sweep runs and less designed run option fakes out of the shotgun. This is not saying that Shurmur had the answer all along, but it does help to play an NFL defense that narrowly missed setting a record for the most passing yards surrendered in a single season.
-- Conor Orr
- If Sunday was Calvin Johnson's final game wearing Honolulu Blue, he went out with a bang. Megatron hauled in 10 passes on 15 targets for 137 yards and a touchdown. Johnson feasted on the Bears' secondary. His only two 100-yard receiving games of the season came against Vic Fangio's defense. Megatron's future is in question, with a $24 million cap hit coming in 2016. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported early Sunday that the Calvin-decision would be a priority for the Lions' new general manager. While he's no longer the mismatch that got him a groundbreaking contract, Sunday was a reminder of how big of a crutch he can be for Matthew Stafford.
- Matt Forte likely played his final game in Chicago. Rapoport reported that the 30-year-old back expects to leave in free agency this offseason. Like Megatron, if it's the end, Forte went out well. He was the workhorse Sunday, carrying 17 times for 76 yards and a touchdown catch. Rookie Jeremy Langford only earned five carries for 17 yards and Ka'Deem Carey had just one tote. Forte remains a reliable, three-down, high-volume ball carrier with pass-catching skills and can pick up a blitz. The epitome of a pro, if he leaves Chicago there shouldn't be a shortage of suitors for Forte on a short-term deal at the right price.
- Jim Caldwell made a case to keep his job down the stretch. While the new GM will have ultimate say, it's clear the Ford family likes the coach and his 6-2 run down to close the season bodes well for him. Perhaps more importantly for the Lions is keeping offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in town. Stafford has flourished since Cooter took over. Sunday the quarterback completed 28 of 39 passes for 298 yards, three touchdowns and 119.4 passer rating. Stafford is clearly comfortable with Cooter's style, plays and field-stretching calls. The Lions have employed better misdirection plays under JBC, which has helped opened up the ground attack as well.
-- Kevin Patra
- Kirk Cousins' confidence is soaring. He now holds the single-season records for total touchdowns (34) and passing yards (4,166) for a Redskins franchise that opened up shop in 1932. Cousins has thrown for 11 scores in his last 10 quarters. To put that feat into perspective, Robert Griffin III threw 11 touchdowns in his last 14 games over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Cousins finishes the regular season as the NFL's leader in completion percentage (69.8) while generating a sterling 101.6 passer rating. The Redskins are not going to be a pushover in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
- Looking as dynamic as he has all season, Darren McFadden broke the 1,000-yard mark for just the second time in his eight-year career, triggering a $300,000 bonus. It's quite an accomplishment for a running back who didn't start a game for Dallas until late October. As much as the Cowboys botched the backup quarterback situation this season, they nailed the decision to pick up McFadden on the cheap as DeMarco Murray's replacement.
- Terrance Williams went over 100 yards for just the second time in three years, generating a career-high 173 yards on eight receptions against an injury-ravaged Redskins secondary protecting a big lead in the second half. Kellen Moore moved the offense with 435 passing yards, three touchdowns and a pair of cringe-worthy interceptions. Even with those gaudy numbers, the Cowboys are almost certain to upgrade behind Tony Romo in the coming offseason.
-- Chris Wesseling
- This was a statement game by the two-time defending NFC champions. The Seahawks were intent to avoid a two-game skid entering the playoffs and showed more focus than the NFC West champions. They dominated the line of scrimmage, had their way with Arizona's secondary and ran circles around the Cardinals' special teams units. Although the defense hasn't been lights out this year, they finished a fourth consecutive season with the fewest points allowed in the NFL.
- Despite Bruce Arians' insistence that the Cardinals were approaching this matchup as if it was "Game 1 of the season," his team played as if nothing was on the line. Carson Palmer had his first truly bad game of the season. His wide receivers dropped passes. The special teams unit missed a slew of tackles. The secondary appeared overmatched without Tyrann Mathieu. Arians told FOX's Erin Andrews at halftime that he wouldn't pull any of his starters except Palmer because he wanted to see more effort the rest of the way. This was a sloppy performance -- and the first time all season that Arizona was severely outplayed.
Arians stated after the game that this was a valuable lesson for players and coaches reading the press clippings all week. This game film will give him plenty of ammo as he motivates and re-focuses the troops for the next two weeks.
- Russell Wilson has rivaled Cam Newton as the NFL's best player since the last time these two teams met in Week 10. He leads the league with 24 touchdowns versus just one interception during that span, finishing with a 110.1 passer rating -- the 15th best figure in history. He became the first player ever to throw for at least 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns while also running for 500 yards. Along the way, he set franchise records for touchdown passes (34) and passing yards (4,024). Wilson's offense is peaking at the ideal time. Nobody wants to face this buzzsaw in January.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Cam Newton locked up league MVP honors with a supremely productive, mistake-free game in a season full of them. Newton finished 21 of 26 for 290 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He added two more scores on the ground. He completes his fifth pro regular season 296 of 495 (59.8 percent), 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He added 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on 132 carries. Carson Palmer and Tom Brady -- Newton's closest competition -- both had excellent seasons, but this isn't a fair fight. We're calling it.
- This game illustrated just how deep and dangerous this Panthers offense has become under Mike Shula. Carolina put 38 points on the board playing without their top wide receiver (Kelvin Benjamin) or running back (Jonathan Stewart). The team topped 500 points for the first time in franchise history and scored 30 or more points eight times. Add a league-leading 39 takeaways by the defense, and it's little surprise this team flirted with perfection this season.
- Jameis Winston didn't end the season with a strong performance, but there's still plenty of reason for optimism for the Buccaneers heading into 2016 and beyond. Winston threw every pass by a Buccaneers quarterback and became only the third rookie QB in NFL history to surpass 4,000 yards through the air. Bottom line: He made the Bucs look smart for taking him with the first pick. It wasn't long ago that many pundits saw him as an erratic prospect doomed to fail.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Denver's win over the Chargers kept the Chiefs from taking the AFC West, but Kansas City's season is far from over with a wild-card showdown scheduled for next week in Houston against the Texans. Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense came roaring out of the gate to build a 14-0 lead before the veteran quarterback tossed a pair of interceptions -- including a pick six to David Amerson -- which helped the Raiders pull within four at the half. The uncharacteristic turnovers aside, Smith deserves more credit for capping a season that saw him throw for a career-high in yardage (3,486) and run for a personal-best 498 yards on the ground. Smith knows that a playoff win can do plenty for his often-unfair game-manager image.
- A wild sequence of events turned this seemingly out-of-reach contest into a wild one in the final quarter. After the Chiefs botched a wacky fake punt attempt with 3:23 left, the Raiders took over trailing 23-10. Carr then hit Michael Crabtree on a 31-yard touchdown strike before Oakland shut down Kansas City to get the ball back down 23-17 with 1:34 remaining. While time ran out against a smothering Chiefs defense, it was another example of how this season's Raiders were a different breed than the dead-on-arrival Oakland teams of old.
- Pro Bowl safety Charles Woodson's first game as a pro came at Arrowhead Stadium in a Week 1 tilt back in 1998. His sensational 18-year career closed Sunday in the same venue amid a flock of players who were still building Legos when Woodson entered the NFL. Raiders rookie wideout Amari Cooper was four years old when Woodson logged his first pro snaps while Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Peters was just five. Woodson showed good range on Sunday and looks like he could easily play another year if he so desired.
-- Marc Sessler
- Gary Kubiak made the surprising decision to bench Osweiler after one drive in the third quarter of a close game. Osweiler had three turnovers, and the team had five turnovers at the time. But Osweiler's two interceptions came off a dropped pass and a play where he was hit as he threw. Osweiler also lost a fumble when he was sacked from behind on a blind side blitz. Take away the turnovers and the Broncos were dominating the game. Osweiler had 232 yards on only 22 attempts. But the move to Manning certainly worked.
- Manning's numbers were not flashy, finishing with 69 yards on nine attempts. But the team undoubtedly rallied when Manning entered the lineup. The running game especially took off and Manning deserves some credit for calling audibles into better situations. The Broncos scored 20 points after halftime, aided by field position and a late interception by the Broncos' defense. Kubiak said after the game he was looking for "leadership" and believed Manning provided it. While he wouldn't name a starter for the playoffs, it's hard to imagine Manning will be on the bench again.
- When Philip Rivers held the ball in a tie game with five minutes left, the Broncos' playoff fate was completely in doubt. Denver could have fallen all the way to the five seed if they lost. Instead, they clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Broncos gained 503 yards Sunday, with 210 yards on the ground. The Broncos look like the best team in the AFC when they have a strong running game paired with the league's best defense.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- In a matchup between two NFC West cellar-dwellers going nowhere fast, it was fitting that neither the Rams (7-9) and 49ers (5-11) played like they wanted to win in their season finale. San Francisco rightly played conservative ball in Jim Tomsula's final game as head coach, but Jeff Fisher wouldn't be out-mediocred down the stretch; both teams scored 23 combined points in the second quarter, but combined for just nine points from then on.
Special teams played a big factor down the stretch, as the Rams and Niners traded punts in the fourth quarter and Greg Zuerlein's game-winning field-goal attempt in overtime was blocked by Dontae Johnson. With only three-and-a-half minutes to spare, Phil Dawson nailed a 23-yard field goal -- his fourth of the game -- robbing America of its first and last tie of the season and robbing the Rams of a peak-Jeff-Fisher 7-8-1 record.
- Give it up for Blaine Gabbert. Written off as a punchline when Tomsula penned him to replace Colin Kaepernick mid-season, the former first-round pick finished off his 2015 campaign with back-to-back impressive performances. The 49ers backup tossed for 354 passing yards Sunday, spreading passes to nine different receivers and leading San Francisco on a five-play, 69-yard game-winning drive in OT. Gabbert, under contract in the Bay through 2016, may have just played himself into a starting job.
- Every week, another member of the Rams' front seven does something reel-worthy. The highlight from Sunday's game came from defensive end Eugene Sims, who set Levi's Stadium ablaze with a glorious 42-yard interception return. On his near-pick-six in the second quarter, Sims juked out of three tackles and showed some Next Gen speed for a big man before mercilessly falling down at the two-yard line.
-- Jeremy Bergman
- Was this the final time we'll see quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton paired together in New Orleans? With Payton's name being floated for a handful of potential vacancies, we can't help but wonder if Brees might also be on the way out. It's highly unusual to see a team part ways with a franchise passer, but Brees, at 36, will likely be asked to trim his $30 million cap hit for 2016. Still, the signal-caller we saw Sunday should not be allowed to leave under any circumstance. He tore through the Falcons for 323 yards at 7.7 yards per throw in a bizarre and entertaining tilt that came down to a killer pick by Matt Ryan that set up a game-winning field goal by the Saints with time running out.
- Ryan missed a wide-open Julio Jones on the game's opening drive, a deep misfire that certainly would have been a touchdown. He overthrew tight end Jacob Tamme a few plays later, forcing the Falcons to opt for a field goal. Atlanta's veteran quarterback made up for it with a dump off to tight end Tony Moeaki, who rumbled 42 yards for the score. Still, Ryan's late-game interception ended this game and Atlanta's season. His off-kilter campaign has been overstated, but the Falcons passer (24-of-36 passing for 334 yards and two scores) should be fine with another full offseason in a Kyle Shanahan-led scheme that saw Devonta Freeman on Sunday cross the 1,000-yard barrier on the ground.
- Julio Jones didn't snap Marvin Harrison's regular-season record of 143 catches, but his nine grabs for 149 yards caps an amazing season that saw the Falcons wideout haul in 136 grabs. For the Saints, how about the late-season surge we saw from Tim Hightower, who piled up 107 total yards and his fourth touchdown of the year after not playing since 2011.
-- Marc Sessler
The former first-round pick didn't put up an impressive numbers, but his 149 passing yards and one touchdown were just enough for Indianapolis. Backup QB Ryan Lindley also threw a TD pass of his own in the first half to give the Colts a 20-14 lead that they didn't relinquish.
Not to be outdone, the Colts trotted out Alex Tanney and Zach Mettenberger in the backup quarterback contest.
- Chuck Pagano won what could possibly be his final game in Indianapolis. Pagano has been on the hot seat all season and owner Jim Irsay is rumored to be looking for a change. Irsay is scheduled to meet with Pagano on Monday morning.
- Delanie Walker had 94 of the Titans' 137 receiving yards (69 percent), the highest percentage of a team's receiving yards for any tight end in the last two seasons. The Titans need to get Marcus Mariota some help outside of Walker if they want to improve offensively next season.
-- Tyler Dragon
- In improbable fashion, the Vikings have wrestled the NFC North away from the Packers for the first time since 2009. While Green Bay faltered dramatically down the stretch, losing their final two games by 37 points combined, Minnesota sped to the finish line. Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings played their best football late, dominating the Bears, Giants and Packers to close out the campaign. Minnesota will host the sixth-seeded Seahawks during Wild Card weekend, while the Packers head to Landover to take on Kirk Cousins and the surging Redskins.
- Skol, Adrian! The Vikings running back secured the league rushing title for the third time with a 67-yard performance. Buccaneers running back Doug Martin only ran for 48 yards in his finale, leaving A.D. with a 17-yard cushion heading into Sunday night. Peterson finished with 1,485 yards on the season and also scored a bruising touchdown before heading to the locker room with a back injury.
- The turning point of the game was guided by the Vikings' Captain. Minnesota cornerback Captain Munnerlyn scooped up an Aaron Rodgers fumble and raced by the unsuspecting Green Bay offensive line for a 55-yard TD. There was initial confusion in Lambeau as to whether Rodgers' arm was coming forward, rendering the loose ball an incomplete pass. However, replay confirmed the refs' inital ruling and silenced Lambeau and the Packers' division hopes.
-- Jeremy Bergman