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  • Monday, December 22, 2014
    Seahawks-Cardinals: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Beast Mode is back, this time with a flourish.

    • Running back Marshawn Lynch rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns in Seattle's record-setting 35-6 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, enabling the Seahawks to take a giant step toward their second consecutive NFC West title.

      Lynch ran over one Cardinals defender and through several more on a decisive 79-yard touchdown run around the right side for a 28-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. He punctuated the run with a backward flip into the end zone, complete with a crotch grab.

      "He's really just showing the world that he is a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, continue to say bad, man," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said.

      "I haven't seen that since Dominique Dawes," Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett said of the landing, referencing a former U.S. gymnastics star. "That's the best run I've ever seen. He ran like he was running for his freedom or something."

      The Seahawks (11-4) swept the season series against the Cardinals (11-4) and would win the division with a victory over the St. Louis Rams next Sunday or an Arizona road loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Both Seattle and Arizona have clinched playoff berths.

      Quarterback Russell Wilson completed 20 of 31 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on six carries to help the Seahawks post a franchise-record 596 yards of total offense.

      "Well, that's about as much fun as you can have playing NFL football in the regular season," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "I've never seen a better run than Marshawn's. It reminded me of O.J. Simpson against Ohio State, I think. Cutting back and finishing and all that stuff. Then Russell was just ridiculous tonight. He was so good in so many ways."

      Seattle also got big receiving games from tight end Luke Wilson (three catches, 139 yards, two touchdowns) and wide receiver Doug Baldwin (seven receptions, 113 yards).

      The Seahawks own a five-game winning streak during which their opponents produced a total of 33 points and 978 yards.

      Seattle would get the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs if it beats the Rams on Sunday, which would guarantee home-field advantage. The Seahawks are trying to become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since the New England Patriots in 2003-04.

      The Cardinals, meanwhile, are limping toward the postseason. They finished with 216 total yards while permitting their highest yardage total in a game since 1958.

      "Obviously, not the outcome we were looking for," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "We put our defense out there too long too many times."

      Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley completed 18 of 44 passes for 216 yards and an interception in his first start since Dec. 13, 2012. He replaced Drew Stanton, who sprained his right knee in a 12-6 victory at St. Louis on Dec. 11.

      "They're the No. 1-ranked defense in the National Football League," Lindley said. "They're the cream of the crop. At the same time, you have to go out, and you have to execute. The buck starts and stops here."

      The Cardinals, who gained only 15 yards in the first quarter, got all of their scoring on two field goals from placekicker Chandler Catanzaro.

      Arizona has only offensive touchdowns in its past 23 quarters since a 14-3 victory over the Detroit Lions, the Cardinals' first game after No. 1 quarterback Carson Palmer sustained a season-ending knee injury.

      Seahawks placekicker Steven Hauschka missed all three of his field-goal attempts after missing only three of his previous 32 tries this season.

      The Cardinals led 3-0 before Wilson's 80-yard pass to Willson midway through the second quarter.

      Lynch scored on a 6-yard run on the next series for a 14-3 lead, and after Catanzaro's second field goal, the Seahawks scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns -- a 20-yard pass to Willson, Lynch's long run and a 5-yard run by Wilson.

      The Super Bowl will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1, and the scoreboard has a count-down display to the day.

      "Same thought process as last year when we played in New York," said safety Earl Thomas, whose Seahawks shut out the Giants on Dec. 15 before winning the Super Bowl there.

      What the Seahawks said:

      "Any time you win, it's a good night, but the fashion that we won against a very good football team ... We have so much respect for the Arizona Cardinals and the way they play. They played us so physical, across the board, and we were able to make plays." -- Quarterback Russell Wilson.

      "Thank you for asking." -- Running back Marshawn Lynch, giving that answer or slight variations to the eight questions that were directed toward him after his 113-yard, two-touchdown game.

      "I think to a degree, because it simplifies what they are able to do. If you have a great defense and an intelligent defense like we (are), you recognize formations. You recognize what they are trying to do, even if they switch formations. You recognize when (wide receiver Larry) Fitzgerald is at the point and the 'bunch' is to the boundary, they are going to run a big wheel to the field. So we know the plays." -- Cornerback Richard Sherman, on the effect of going against an inexperienced quarterback such as the Cardinals' Ryan Lindley.

      What the Cardinals said:

      "Frustrated is the biggest thing. I expect more from myself. For me to get this opportunity and go out there and not play the way I wanted to, you're frustrated by that. But at the end of the day, there is another opportunity next week." -- Quarterback Ryan Lindley, after his first start since Dec. 23, 2012.

      "I'm trying to put this to bed as soon as possible. I just want to erase it from memory. We're a playoff team. We're going to be in the tournament, but we have to get this taste out of our mouths." -- Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

      "When you are playing for a (division) championship and you have a chance to clinch it, it's obviously more disappointing when you don't, especially when you don't play we well as you needed to play." -- Coach Bruce Arians.

      What we learned about the Seahawks:

      1. Seattle is taking "peaking at the right time" to Space Needle levels. The Seahawks have come to look like the team that dominated the Denver Broncos in the 2013 Super Bowl the last five weeks, limiting opponents to 33 points and 978 yards while running off a five-game winning streak. They moved into the No. 1 spot in the NFL in total defense.

      2. In or out of the pocket, Russell Wilson is a dangerous man. Wilson became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 in an earlier victory over the New York Giants this season, and he almost made it a double Sunday. He passed for 339 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 88 yards and another score.

      --TE Luke Willson had three catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns, his first career 100-yard game and his first career two-touchdown game. He got behind S Rashad Johnson on an 80-yard score for a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter, using the stadium video board as an aid. "I was looking up at the screen and I was like, 'Whoa, there's someone catching me right now,'" said Willson, who stepped away from an attempted shoe-top tackle. "I always take a lot of pride when I'm in the open field not getting caught."

      --RB Marshawn Lynch had his fifth 100-yard game of the seasons despite missing the first quarter because of an upset stomach, producing 113 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 carries. Lynch has 1,246 yards rushing this season, and he has 55 touchdowns since 2011, the most in the NFL.

      --WR Doug Baldwin had seven receptions for 113 yards, tying his season high in catches in his second 100-yard game of the season. He had seven catches for 123 yards in a 28-26 loss to St. Louis on Nov. 19. The Seahawks finish the regular season against the Rams in Seattle next Sunday.

      --WR Jermaine Kearse sustained a hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return, but Seattle coach Pete Carroll said he did not believe the injury was serious. "He didn't pop it," Carroll said. "He felt banged up, and we shut it down right then. That's all I know."

      What we learned about the Cardinals:

      1. The next man up after the next man up, third-team quarterback Ryan Lindley, is no match for an elite defense. He completed 18 of 44 passes for 216 yards and an interception against Seattle. Lindley was in a no-win situation while making his first start since Dec. 23, 2012, following an ankle injury to Drew Stanton in a 12-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Dec. 11. Lindley, cut in training camp, was re-signed after starter Carson Palmer sustained a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 9.

      2. After an early-season stretch of good showings based on the success of its blitz, the Cardinals' defense took a step backward. The Seahawks gained a franchise-record 596 yards in total offense, the second-highest total against the Cardinals in their history. Both Arizona's run defense and pass defense were skewered.

      --CB Patrick Peterson got his hands on an errant Russell Wilson pass intended for Paul Richardson early in the third quarter when the score was still 14-3, but he could not hold the potential interception with an open field in front of him. "I saw the receiver on my back end so I tried to spin out on him," Peterson said. "I caught the ball, but I didn't squeeze it. That's how the ball got away from me. I believe that could have changed the game."

      --RB Stepfan Taylor led the Cardinals with 19 rushing yards on 11 attempts. His long gain was 4 yards; the team's long gain was 6, by second-team RB Marion Grice. "Eleven guys need to be on the same page and go out there and execute and make plays," Taylor said. "We didn't do that." Taylor started the past three games since No. 1 RB Andre Ellington sustained a season-ending hip injury.

      --LB Alex Okafor recorded the Cardinals' only sack on Seattle QB Russell Wilson, and he also batted down one pass and had two tackles for loss, one of the few bright spots on a defense that gave up 596 yards total offense. "We studied them hard," Okafor said. "We knew what was coming, and when the plays came, we didn't make them."

  • Monday, December 22, 2014
    Redskins' Jackson comes up big against former team
    By The Sports Xchange

    ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden and receiver DeSean Jackson have a hard time disguising their moods.

    • As Washington prepared last week for its NFC East rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that shockingly cut Jackson in March after his third Pro Bowl appearance in six seasons, Gruden goaded his banged-up, slumping big-play threat who was still leading the NFL with 19.1 yards per catch.

      "The last couple weeks (DeSean's) been dealing with an injury and he hasn't been quite the same," Gruden said of Jackson, who had just three catches for 15 yards in the Week 15 loss at the New York Giants after missing Week 14 with a badly bruised right shin. "I'm a 'what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' kind of guy, and lately we haven't seen the DeSean we need to see."

      This from the coach who after Jackson had nine catches of at least 40 yards in Weeks 3-9 raved, "The guy gets downfield and can adjust to the ball like nobody else. What we've seen is what we've gotten: a dynamic playmaker. That's why as soon as he came available, we went after him full throttle."

      Jackson, who was pumped for the Week 3 matchup in Philadelphia in which he caught an 81-yard touchdown, said publicly last week that he didn't really care about the Eagles anymore.

      It was a different story in the locker room before Saturday's game, though.

      "D-Jack gave us a speech that they're kind of laughing (at us)," Redskins fullback Darrel Young said. "They knew they won the game before (37-34). You don't need extra motivation to play, but if ... people don't respect you, you know?"

      A motivated Jackson caught four passes for 126 yards, including grabs of 51 and 55 yards that set up touchdowns, as the Redskins ended a seven-game skid and dealt a fatal blow to the playoff hopes of the faltering Eagles.

      "D-Jack brings a big spark," said embattled Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, who hadn't won a game from start to finish in 10 tries dating to Week 10 of 2013. "He can make some plays that no one else can."

      Jackson's two long bombs from Griffin came when the receiver was left in single coverage against cornerback Bradley Fletcher.

      "They're very naïve, and they play how they play, so they care less who's at wide receiver," said Jackson, who joined Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, Henry Ellard, Laveranues Coles and teammate Santana Moss as the only Redskins with 1,000 receiving yards in their first Washington season. "Things didn't go the way we wanted it to go this year, but ... I'm happy to be here in Washington."

      Griffin helped convince Jackson, perhaps the NFL's top big-play receiver while in Philadelphia, to sign a three-year, $24 million contract with Washington five days after his uneven relationship with Eagles coach Chip Kelly prompted his release despite a career year with 82 catches, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns at age 27.

      When Griffin was struggling in early November, the usually media-shy Jackson decided to go public with his support, saying, "I've been through a lot, and I understand how things can be portrayed. I wanted to stand up and let (Robert) know I'm supporting him, and hopefully everyone else can support (him), too. (I told Robert), 'You have people around you to help you. Don't feel like you have to put everything on your own shoulders.'"

      However, a week later, after Griffin's poor performance in a home loss to lowly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the moody, grumpy Jackson whom the Eagles dispatched seemed to rip the quarterback on Instagram, writing, "You can't do epic (expletive) with basic people," apparently in response to Griffin's postgame comment that a quarterback can't win if his teammates don't play well.

      All was forgiven on Saturday as Jackson mocked the Eagles by swooping off the field and into the locker room like a bird with outstretched wings.

      "Guys in that locker room have a lot of passion for this game, and every time you suit up, it's an opportunity," Griffin said. "That's the way you have to view it, no matter what your record is. I can tell it meant a lot to a lot of guys in that locker room to get this win, obviously, D-Jack being the happiest of us all."

      And Gruden was happy with Jackson, who raised his season totals to 54 catches, 1,083 yards, a 20.1-yard average and five touchdowns after being healthy again against his old team.

      "He's been great," the coach said. "I've gained a lot of respect for DeSean. Whatever happened in the past in Philadelphia, I don't know, but since he's been a Washington Redskin, he's been solid to be around. He's been a good worker. We've had the revolving door at quarterback which hurt some of the receiver production from time to time, but he's a big-time threat. I'm very happy that we got DeSean. He's a huge play waiting to happen."

      REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES

      --PASSING OFFENSE: C -- Robert Griffin III previously had much more electrifying games, but the quarterback did display fine touch on the completions of 51 and 55 yards to WR DeSean Jackson that set up touchdowns. He also made a smart choice on his short pass to Pierre Garcon that the receiver turned into a 23-yard gain to jump-start Washington's game-winning drive. Griffin completed 13 of his other 20 attempts but for just 91 yards as he continues to take baby steps in becoming a passer not an athlete. Third WR Andre Roberts couldn't hold a nicely thrown deep ball from Griffin on third-and-19, but he did snag a 14-yard catch that put the Redskins in the red zone before Kai Forbath's field goal that opened the scoring. The blockers, who had been like a sieve in recent weeks, allowed two sacks in 25 drop-backs. One came against LT Trent Williams, who was basically playing one-armed since he came in with a badly strained right shoulder, an injury that worsened during the game. Jordan Reed's two catches for just 5 yards gave the usually more productive tight end eight receptions for only 43 yards the last three weeks.

      --RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Alfred Morris gained 7 yards on his first carry but just 2 more on his next four attempts before he motored down the Washington sideline for the 28-yard touchdown just before the end of the first quarter. Morris also carried four times for 12 yards after Garcon's big catch to put Forbath in position for the game-winning 26-yard kick. FB Darrel Young produced a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs. Griffin gained just 11 yards on five scrambles. The blocking was OK, especially considering that at times, RT Tom Compton was at left tackle and RG Chris Chester was at center because Williams and Kory Lichtensteiger (stinger) were hurt, forcing Tyler Polumbus and rookie Spencer Long into the action.

      --PASS DEFENSE: D -- Mark Sanchez isn't going to be enshrined in Canton, but he completed 37 of 50 attempts for 374 yards and two touchdowns against Washington's beleaguered pass defense before rookie CB Bashaud Breeland beat Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin to the quarterback's last non-Hail Mary throw for the interception that set up Forbath's game-winner. The Redskins had no answers for Eagles TE Zach Ertz, who set a Philadelphia record with 15 catches (for 115 yards). CBs David Amerson and E.J. Biggers were each beaten for touchdowns by WR Riley Cooper, while Maclin and Jordan Matthews each had grabs of at least 22 yards. RBs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles left Washington defenders grasping at air on 18-yard catch-and-runs. Ryan Kerrigan raised his career-high sacks total to 13.5, while fellow linebackers Jackson Jeffcoat and Trevardo Williams, pressed into service because of injuries to Keenan Robinson, Gabe Miller, and against the Eagles, Trent Murphy, each recorded his first.

      --RUSH DEFENSE: C -- McCoy and Sproles dipsy-doodled their way to 112 yards and a touchdown (by the former) on 26 carries, and the usually slow Sanchez ran five times for 22 yards. However, S Ryan Clark rose up with 15 tackles, the same number credited to LB Will Compton, filling in for the ailing Robinson. Clark and Compton each left the game briefly when shaken up, as did reserve DE Kedric Golston and Breeland. ILB Perry Riley was credited with a dozen tackles. Phillip Thomas, starting for injured S Brandon Meriweather, was effective against the run. RDE Stephen Bowen stopped McCoy cold on third-and-1, forcing a field-goal try that missed.

      --SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- Forbath hit field-goal tries of 25 and 26 yards, the latter the game-winner that improved him to 23-for-26 this year. Only three of his five deep kickoffs were touchbacks, but Washington's coverage team fared well on kickoffs and punts, the latter against the dangerous Sproles. However, Forbath's squib attempt with five seconds left was corralled by Philadelphia at midfield, allowing the Eagles a Hail Mary that failed. P Tress Way had another excellent day, averaging 44.3 yards gross and 41 net while placing all three of his punts inside the 20. Roberts didn't return either of the two balls punted his way, but he did have a 42-yard kickoff return after three poor ones.

      --COACHING: A-minus -- The Redskins clinched last place in the NFC East with the previous week's loss at the Giants, their seventh straight. Seemingly half the crowd at FedEx Field was wearing Eagles green. Philadelphia needed the game to stay in the playoff race. Washington lost three more defensive starters -- Hatcher, Robinson and Meriweather -- to possible season-ending injuries. And yet, first-year coach Jay Gruden and his staff kept things together even when the Eagles twice grabbed leads, and Washington tied the game after trailing 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, then pulled off the 27-24 upset. Gruden, the play-caller, stuck with the run for a change. Ben Kotwica's special teams units got the job done, and coordinator Jim Haslett's struggling defense forced the critical turnover with 91 seconds remaining.

  • Monday, December 22, 2014
    Seahawks crush Cards, take command of NFC West
    By The Sports Xchange

    GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Beast Mode is back, this time with a flourish.

    • Running back Marshawn Lynch rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns in Seattle's record-setting 35-6 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, enabling the Seahawks to take a giant step toward their second consecutive NFC West title.

      Lynch ran over one Cardinals defender and through several more on a decisive 79-yard touchdown run around the right side for a 28-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. He punctuated the run with a backward flip into the end zone, complete with a crotch grab.

      "He's really just showing the world that he is a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, continue to say bad, man," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said.

      "I haven't seen that since Dominique Dawes," Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett said of the landing, referencing a former U.S. gymnastics star. "That's the best run I've ever seen. He ran like he was running for his freedom or something."

      The Seahawks (11-4) swept the season series against the Cardinals (11-4) and would win the division with a victory over the St. Louis Rams next Sunday or an Arizona road loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Both Seattle and Arizona have clinched playoff berths.

      Quarterback Russell Wilson completed 20 of 31 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on six carries to help the Seahawks post a franchise-record 596 yards of total offense.

      "Well, that's about as much fun as you can have playing NFL football in the regular season," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "I've never seen a better run than Marshawn's. It reminded me of O.J. Simpson against Ohio State, I think. Cutting back and finishing and all that stuff. Then Russell was just ridiculous tonight. He was so good in so many ways."

      Seattle also got big receiving games from tight end Luke Wilson (three catches, 139 yards, two touchdowns) and wide receiver Doug Baldwin (seven receptions, 113 yards).

      The Seahawks own a five-game winning streak during which their opponents produced a total of 33 points and 978 yards.

      Seattle would get the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs if it beats the Rams on Sunday, which would guarantee home-field advantage. The Seahawks are trying to become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since the New England Patriots in 2003-04.

      The Cardinals, meanwhile, are limping toward the postseason. They finished with 216 total yards while permitting their highest yardage total in a game since 1958.

      "Obviously, not the outcome we were looking for," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "We put our defense out there too long too many times."

      Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley completed 18 of 44 passes for 216 yards and an interception in his first start since Dec. 13, 2012. He replaced Drew Stanton, who sprained his right knee in a 12-6 victory at St. Louis on Dec. 11.

      "They're the No. 1-ranked defense in the National Football League," Lindley said. "They're the cream of the crop. At the same time, you have to go out, and you have to execute. The buck starts and stops here."

      The Cardinals, who gained only 15 yards in the first quarter, got all of their scoring on two field goals from placekicker Chandler Catanzaro.

      Arizona has only offensive touchdowns in its past 23 quarters since a 14-3 victory over the Detroit Lions, the Cardinals' first game after No. 1 quarterback Carson Palmer sustained a season-ending knee injury.

      Seahawks placekicker Steven Hauschka missed all three of his field-goal attempts after missing only three of his previous 32 tries this season.

      The Cardinals led 3-0 before Wilson's 80-yard pass to Willson midway through the second quarter.

      Lynch scored on a 6-yard run on the next series for a 14-3 lead, and after Catanzaro's second field goal, the Seahawks scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns -- a 20-yard pass to Willson, Lynch's long run and a 5-yard run by Wilson.

      The Super Bowl will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1, and the scoreboard has a count-down display to the day.

      "Same thought process as last year when we played in New York," said safety Earl Thomas, whose Seahawks shut out the Giants on Dec. 15 before winning the Super Bowl there.

      NOTES: Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald started Sunday after missing the first game between the teams with a sprained left knee. He finished with four catches for 33 yards. The Cardinals lost both games in which Fitzgerald did not play, at Seattle and at Atlanta. ... Seattle QB Russell Wilson entered the game with 754 yards rushing, the 15th-best total among all NFL players. His 7.1-yard average was the highest among any player with as many as 125 rushing yards. ... Seattle won for the 31st time in its past 39 games. ... Arizona had a season-high seven sacks in the Seahawks' 19-3 victory in Seattle on Nov. 23. The Cardinals sacked Wilson just once Sunday.

  • Monday, December 22, 2014
    NFL playoff picture: 3 divisions to be settled head to head
    By The Sports Xchange

    There is only one playoff spot to be determined in the NFC, and the sixth entry comes down to a pair of six-win teams in a win-or-else finale in Atlanta next week.

    • Multiple division championships and playoff positioning will be on the line in Week 17.

      Five NFC teams, all with 11-4 records, are in the postseason, but in what order they will fill out the conference bracket is very much in question.

      The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) beat the Kansas City Chiefs to clinch a postseason berth and can claim the AFC North title by beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale.

      In the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers (11-4) and Detroit Lions (11-4) will settle the championship at Lambeau Field, where Detroit has just one victory in the past 22 years. The Lions held off the Chicago Bears on Sunday to reach 11 wins for the first time since 1991, and Detroit is 5-0 in the division.

      Seattle (11-4) took another step toward reclaiming the NFC West perch Sunday night, overtaking the Arizona Cardinals with a 35-6 rout. The Seahawks earned their fifth consecutive win and their eighth in the past nine games. The Cardinals (11-4) fell for the third time in five games.

      The final NFC spot and the automatic No. 4 seed is up for grabs at the Georgia Dome.

      The Atlanta Falcons (6-9) will host the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) with the NFC South championship hanging in the balance. The winner gets a home game in the wild-card playoff round, and the loser is eliminated. The Falcons took a 19-17 decision in the first meeting Nov. 16.

      Houston, with castoff quarterback Case Keenum re-signed and at the controls, shocked the Baltimore Ravens 25-13. That outcome, coupled with the Chiefs' loss at Pittsburgh, gives the San Diego Chargers (9-6) renewed optimism. A Week 17 win at Kansas City (8-7) would put San Diego in the playoffs after the same teams battled in the regular-season finale for the No. 6 seed in the AFC last December.

      Two possible AFC playoff teams face off Monday night, when the postseason picture could become even more defined. A Cincinnati win over Denver would leave the Ravens (9-6) in big trouble and lock the New England Patriots (12-3) into the No. 1 seed.

      The Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday. Miami won but was eliminated on potential tiebreakers based on head-to-head results.

      AFC

      Who's In:

      New England Patriots (12-3) -- AFC East champion, clinched first-round bye

      Denver Broncos (11-3) -- AFC West champion, at Cincinnati on Monday

      Indianapolis Colts (10-5) -- AFC South champion

      Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) -- clinched playoff spot

      Contenders:

      Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1) -- vs. Denver on Monday

      San Diego Chargers (9-6)

      Baltimore Ravens (9-6)

      Houston Texans (8-7)

      Kansas City Chiefs (8-7)

      NFC

      Who's In:

      Seattle Seahawks (11-4) -- clinched playoff spot

      Arizona Cardinals (11-4) -- clinched playoff spot

      Detroit Lions (11-4) -- clinched playoff spot

      Green Bay Packers (11-4) -- clinched playoff spot

      Dallas Cowboys (11-4) -- NFC East champion

      Contenders:

      Carolina Panthers (6-8-1)

      Atlanta Falcons (6-9)

      What we Learned Week 16

      Lions 20, Bears 14

      Improved? Sure. But the new and polished Detroit Lions are still susceptible to sloppy performances that cast doubt on their potency entering Sunday's NFC North championship game at Lambeau Field. Matthew Stafford's decision-making was troubling and the Lions' three first-half giveaways kept the inept Bears in a game that should've been a blowout. The Lions can save face by beating the Packers, but that hasn't happened in Green Bay in 22 years. And even a win would not shake all of the naysayers wondering what kind of product the team will put on the field in January.

      Panthers 17, Browns 13

      The Panthers are willing to allow quarterback Cam Newton to move the ball on the ground even amid a season that has involved injuries at the onset and during the late stages. Newton's 63 rushing yards came at critical times against the Browns in his first game back after missing a game because of an automobile accident. He had 12 carries in the game, including a couple that picked up yardage for first downs on the game's opening possession. By the end, his rushing output marked the third-largest total of the season. With Jonathan Stewart running strong as well, the Panthers have a diverse rushing attack.

      The years-long drama at quarterback continues to the Browns, who lost rookie Johnny Manziel to a hamstring injury in the first half. Brian Hoyer replaced him and could start against the Ravens next week.

      Dolphins 37, Vikings 35

      Head coach Joe Philbin is coming back. It's a bit of a surprise because the Dolphins have been eliminated for the playoffs for the sixth straight year. The Dolphins went 8-8 last season (and 7-9 in Philbin's first year in 2012), and owner Stephen Ross, when he announced that Philbin was coming back for 2014, said he wanted to see progress. Well, the Dolphins are now 8-7 and out of the playoffs with one more game to go. Even if the Dolphins beat the lowly New York Jets next week, that would not represent much progress.

      Progress is not as much of a question for the Vikings, at least not where quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is concerned. Bridgewater completed 19 out of 26 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on Sunday against Miami. Bridgewater is now 5-6 as a starter, but he has passed for more than 250 yards in each of his past three games.

      Packers 20, Buccaneers 3

      The Buccaneers are going into Week 17 battling not for more victories, but for the No. 1 overall pick. Those who expected a quick rebuilding under coach Lovie Smith did not see the season-long struggles on the offensive line -- $30 million free agent left tackle Anthony Collins was inactive Sunday, if that helps paint the picture -- or of running back Doug Martin when the preseason ballots were cast.

      "We do see the light at the end of the tunnel," Smith said. "There are a lot of positives. But you can't really talk about it until we start winning football games. That day will come. We're not there now."

      The Packers are putting their foot down on defense but with the Lions up next, there is some worry about Green Bay's offensive production. Detroit held the Packers to seven points in Green Bay's Week 3 loss at Ford Field. As prolific as this group can be, they only managed 13 points against the Bills last week and 20 against the Bucs on Sunday. It will help to have quarterback Aaron Rodgers healthy, if he's recovered from his calf strain by then. There were encouraging elements in Sunday's performance, particularly in how well balanced Green Bay's game plan was. Eddie Lacy ran 17 times for 99 yards and a touchdown, and Rodgers completed 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown despite his illness and injury. Randall Cobb caught 11 balls on 14 targets and racked up 131 yards. Jordy Nelson caught all nine of his targets for 113 yards. Most teams would take a 100-yard rusher, a 300-yard passer and two 100-yard receivers, obviously. But the Lions have one of the NFL's top defenses, particularly up front, and the Packers know they'll have to be on top of their game to claim the NFC South title. "It's exciting," Rodgers said. "Detroit's playing really good. They're already in the playoffs. They've got a great defense, one of the best in the league if not the best."

      Steelers 20, Chiefs 12

      A young Steelers defense that was so porous and undisciplined throughout the first three months of the season is starting to finally pick up veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's schemes.

      "We've been doing what teams need to do this time of year which is ratcheting it up and being a more difficult team to beat. We're beating ourselves less which is good," coach Mike Tomlin said.

      The Steelers were at their best on that side of the ball Sunday as they stuffed running back Jamaal Charles, sacked quarterback Alex Smith six times and held the Chiefs without a touchdown. That sets up next week's showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that couldn't keep up with the Steelers in a 42-21 Pittsburgh win on Dec. 7.

      Falcons 30, Saints 14

      Ranked dead last in the NFL after allowing nearly 410 yards per game through 14 games, the Falcons made all the difference against the league's second-best offense.

      The Falcons entered the game with a league-low 16 sacks, but they got to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times, harassed him consistently, intercepted him twice and forced two fumbles.

      The last fumble came on the game's final play -- a strip sack by defensive end Kroy Biermann in the final seconds that defensive end Osi Umenyiora picked up and returned 86 yards for a score.

      On his way to the end zone, Umenyiora turned to wave goodbye to the Saints, who were eliminated from the playoff picture.

      "That's about as bad a feeling as you could ever have," said Brees, who threw for 313 yards but was picked off twice, including a pick by cornerback Robert McClain with 2:28 left with the Saints trailing 20-13 to kill any chance for a comeback. "It's disappointing to know that with two games left we controlled our own destiny."

      Texans 25, Ravens 13

      Quarterback Case Keenum really does have a functional command of the offense, despite being released just prior to the season. Keenum, who lost all eight of his starts last season with the Texans, was re-signed Monday and played admirably in leading the Texans to victory. Keenum posted only a 50.2 passer rating, but he kept his mistakes to a minimum (one interception) and managed the offense well enough for the Texans to record five red-zone field goals. "I really can't put words on it," Keenum said of his first victory. "It's very special."

      The Texans sacked Flacco only twice, but they hit him 10 times and recorded three interceptions and nine pass deflections. Flacco rarely appeared comfortable in the pocket, the constant duress leading to hurried throws and an inefficient performance. "They did some things up front, they got me on my back foot and had good coverage," Flacco said. "They took away the main two guys. They did a lot of things. They were disruptive. Nothing came easy."

      Patriots 17, Jets 16

      The Patriots will be sitting home on wild card weekend watching teams beat each other up for the opportunity to face them -- again. New England clinched its fifth straight first-round bye with Sunday's 17-16 win over the Jets. But the Patriots still have plenty to play for: A win next Sunday against the Buffalo Bills will assure the Patriots home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

      The Patriots can also clinch home field if Denver loses to Cincinnati on Monday night. But even if that happens, expect Bill Belichick to approach the season finale as if it's the Super Bowl.

      "Every game is important," Belichick said. "You're always playing for something."

      Cowboys 42, Colts 7

      December doldrums had dogged coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo in Dallas, where they finally found sunshine and spent the Winter Solstice celebrating their first NFC East title since 2009. Dallas could be a dangerous out in the postseason. The Cowboys are 7-0 on the road entering the season finale at Washington next week.

      There is no reason to question DeMarco Murray's toughness. Injuries have been an issue for Murray in his young career, but the Dallas Cowboys running back suited up a week after breaking his left hand and six days after undergoing surgery. The NFL's leading rusher said he was going to play and lived up to his word, gaining 58 yards on 22 carries.

      Raiders 26, Bills 24

      The NFL is unpredictable, and the Buffalo Bills are proof positive that highs and lows travel in tandem.

      Rookie quarterback Derek Carr threw two touchdown passes, running back Latavius Murray rushed for 86 yards, and the Raiders (3-12) earned a third consecutive home win in their home finale.

      "I can't said enough good things about this team," said Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano, who is vying to keep the job next season. "They're fighters. Every time someone counts them out, they bounce back."

      The Bills (8-7) were coming off a 21-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers, but they lost for the second time in three games.

      "It just really breaks your heart, you know?" Bills quarterback Kyle Orton said. "You just sit there and put it all into it for a really long time, and you don't do it for anybody but yourselves and for the guys next to you in the locker room."

      Giants 37, Rams 27

      The Rams again showed a lack of poise that has marked their efforts over the last three seasons. Too often, they confuse late hits and trash-talking with real toughness. They gave up three first downs via penalty, all of which led to scores. For this team to take the step from promising team to winning team next year, the Rams will have to lay off the borderline stuff and play a more disciplined game.

      St. Louis also looked like a tame defense after not getting to Eli Manning other than a well-timed blitz by T.J. McDonald.

  • Monday, December 22, 2014
    Raiders-Bills: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Buffalo Bills had their playoff hopes on the line Sunday when they faced the Oakland Raiders at the O.co Coliseum.

    • The Raiders, who won two of their first 14 games, were playing for nothing but pride, but that fueled them to a 26-24 victory that eliminated the Bills from playoff contention.

      "It shows what kind of team we are," said Raiders rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, who had a sack, five tackles, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. "We have a lot of heart. We have a lot of pride in this locker room. That speaks for the veterans and the younger guys. We go out every day. We work hard, we practice hard, and we play for each other."

      Rookie quarterback Derek Carr threw two touchdown passes, running back Latavius Murray rushed for 86 yards, and the Raiders (3-12) earned a third consecutive home win in their home finale.

      "I can't said enough good things about this team," said Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano, who is vying to keep the job next season. "They're fighters. Every time someone counts them out, they bounce back."

      The Bills (8-7) were coming off a 21-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers, but they lost for the second time in three games.

      "It just really breaks your heart, you know?" Bills quarterback Kyle Orton said. "You just sit there and put it all into it for a really long time, and you don't do it for anybody but yourselves and for the guys next to you in the locker room.

      "Still got one game to go. We'll play as hard as we can and try to get a win. But, certainly, when you've gone this long and you're right there with a chance and you put it all on the line and you don't come through, it hurts."

      What the Raiders said:

      "We're trying to change a culture, and we are changing a culture here. We know if we keep fighting and working hard, eventually it's going to get there." -- QB Derek Carr

      What the Bills said:

      "I think at the end of the day, they got after us up front and they kicked our butt up front. When you do that, it's difficult to run, pass, do a lot of things. We weren't able to do a lot of things because of that. I just felt a little handcuffed during the game, offensively, with what we were trying to get accomplished." -- Coach Doug Marrone.

      What we learned about the Raiders

      1. They have a rising star in running back Latavius Murray. In just his second career start, Murray rushed for 86 yards on 23 carries against the Bills, helping slow down Buffalo's vaunted pass rush. Murray has rushed for 387 yards on 72 carries overall, and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. He's big -- 6-foot-3, 225 pounds -- strong, fast and can catch. The question is this: What took the Raiders so long to give him the ball? "Latavius, he makes our job a lot easier," Raiders guard Austin Howard said. "He's had a great year. The times that he's been in there he's been able to get a lot of good yards for us. And hard-earned yards. He makes a lot of plays. He's going to be a great back in this league."

      2. Unlike some Raiders teams of the past, this team refuses to quit. They won their final three home games, beating Kansas City, San Francisco and Buffalo -- three teams that had playoff hopes when they came to Oakland. "It says a lot," Raiders free safety Charles Woodson said. "This team has never really gotten down to the point where we were ready to give up. It's always been an upbeat attitude with the guys on this team, and it shows out there each week."

      --FS Charles Woodson had his 60th career interception Sunday against Buffalo, picking off a Kyle Orton pass in the first quarter. Woodson became the 11th player in NFL history with at least 60 career interceptions. He has 22 interceptions as a Raider, tying him with Warren Powers for 10th on the franchise list.

      --QB Derek Carr became the 13th rookie in NFL history to pass for more than 3,000 yards. Carr passed for 217 yards Sunday against Buffalo, giving him 3,112 for the season. Carr completed 17 of 34 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

      --OLB Khalil Mack had his fourth sack of the season Sunday against Buffalo, dropping Bills QB Kyle Orton for a 10-yard loss early in the second half. Mack is tied with DE Justin Tuck for the team lead. Mack had three quarterback hits, one tackle for loss and five total tackles.

      What we learned about the Bills:

      1. Their offense needs a serious offseason upgrade, especially up front. The Bills rushed for 13 yards

      on 13 carries against the Raiders. "We're all grown men. We work very hard, we dedicate ourselves to this game," Bills tight end Lee Smith said. "You get your ass whipped up front for four quarters, it's embarrassing. We take it personal, and there's no excuse for it."

      2. C.J. Spiller probably won't be rust-free until next season. Spiller returned to action after missing seven games with a broken clavicle, and he had a rough day against the physical Raiders. Spiller carried four times for minus-4 yards. He also fumbled but landed on the ball and recovered, avoiding a turnover. "I think it was tough to evaluate anyone who was carrying the ball today," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "There were guys in the backfield, there were guys penetrating. We really didn't have that much."

      --WR Sammy Watkins caught three passes for 75 yards Sunday against the Raiders and his first touchdown since Oct. 26 vs. the New York Jets. The rookie caught Kyle Orton's 42-yard scoring pass, giving Buffalo a 7-0 in the first quarter of a 26-24 loss to Oakland. Watkins has 62 catches for 925 yards and six touchdowns for the season.

      --RB C.J. Spiller returned to action Sunday against Oakland after missing seven games with a broken clavicle. Spiller, who had been on the injured reserve/designated for return list, carried four times for minus-four yards. He fumbled once but landed on the ball, avoiding a turnover.

      --CB Stephon Gilmore sustained a concussion with 7:23 left in the third quarter Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and did not return to the game. While tackling Raiders wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, Gilmore banged the back of his head on the ground. Gilmore, who made his 14th start Sunday, has three interceptions and 46 tackles.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Steelers-Bengals game moved to prime time
    By The Sports Xchange

    The Pittsburgh Steelers' home game against the Cincinnati Bengals will be played in prime time next Sunday, the NFL announced.

    • The Steelers (10-5) beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday to clinch a postseason berth, and they would wrap up the AFC North title if they beat the Bengals (9-4-1) in the regular-season finale.

      The game will kick off at 8:30 p.m. ET and air on NBC.

      Cincinnati plays host to the Denver Broncos on Monday night, and the Bengals would clinch a playoff spot with a win.

      The remainder of the Week 17 time and television schedule will be announced following the Monday night.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Harbaugh's 49ers run like Big Ten team in loss to Chargers
    By The Sports Xchange

    SANTA CLARA, Calif -- The San Francisco 49ers ran four reverses to wide receivers and watched as their quarterback took off downfield another seven times Saturday night against the San Diego Chargers.

    • One might have thought head coach Jim Harbaugh mistakenly brought his game plan for the University of Michigan's 2015 season opener to Levi's Stadium.

      Alas, maybe it was a glimpse into the 49ers' future, whether Harbaugh is the coach or perhaps somebody general manager Trent Baalke plucks out of college or elsewhere. FOX Sports' Jay Glazer did in fact report Sunday that the 49ers and Harbaugh are expected to cut ties within 24-48 hours after the regular season ends.

      The 49ers, eliminated from playoff contention before this week's game, rushed for a college-like 355 yards in Saturday's 38-35 overtime loss to San Diego. It's just something you don't see very often in an NFL game.

      Helping bloat that total was Colin Kaepernick, who recorded the third-highest rushing total for a quarterback in NFL history when he ran for 151 yards. Kaepernick (151 yards rushing) and running back Frank Gore (158 yards) were the first teammates to rush for at least 150 yards in the same NFL game since 1976.

      Kaepernick's 90-yard touchdown run was the longest by a quarterback in 49ers history and second-longest ever in the NFL, trailing only a 93-yarder by Oakland's Terrelle Pryor last season.

      The total result was obviously something never previously seen in a 49ers game. The 355 yards was an all-time franchise record by 27 yards. Only 23 NFL teams since 1940 have topped that mark. That's about three a decade.

      How did it happen? Gore pointed to the fact that offensive tackle Anthony Davis was back in the lineup, giving the 49ers four of their regular five starters for one of the few times this season.

      "For the first time in a long time, we had our whole group together," Gore said after his turn-back-the-clock, 158-yard effort. "All year, we missed one guy here, one guy there. I think that is what the problem has been. My O-line dominated their D-line tonight."

      The total might have been unforeseen, but surely the means was something 49ers fans had envisioned all season. Time and again, a public cry had gone up for more running. But more often than not, it fell upon deaf ears.

      Gore was getting old. Kaepernick couldn't be subjected to the punishment. The offensive line was banged up.

      Every week, there seemingly was a new excuse as to why a team that had accumulated the third-most rushing yards in the league last season resided only in the middle of the pack this year.

      For one night, everything seemed right. Even in a loss. In fact, it could be said that the 49ers never trailed during the game. They scored first and were never behind until San Diego's Nick Novak nailed a 40-yard field goal to end the game with 10:11 showing on the clock in overtime.

      Yet despite never trailing until the clock ticked its final tick, the 49ers made plenty of mistakes.

      --The 49ers had three turnovers and nine penalties in Saturday's 38-35 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers.

      Not every miscue was critical, but some were as costly as any all season.

      --A fumble by fullback Bruce Miller at the San Diego 1-yard line denied the 49ers an opportunity to take a 14-0 lead on their second possession of the game.

      The 49ers took Sunday off and did not announce any updates on injuries.

      --A holding penalty on offensive tackle Joe Staley nullified a 21-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin later in the first period.

      --An illegal chop block by running back Frank Gore in pass protection negated a 63-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the third quarter.

      --A fumble by quarterback Colin Kaepernick on a sack was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown by Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget late in the third period.

      --A fumble on a run by wide receiver Quinton Patton on the second play of overtime set up San Diego's game-winning field goal.

      REPORT CARD VS. CHARGERS

      PASSING OFFENSE: C -- Normally a 114-yard performance with just one touchdown in a loss would rate lower than a "C." But why throw the ball when the team is rushing for a franchise-record 355 yards? Colin Kaepernick's yardage total would have been significantly greater if not for penalties that negated 63- and 21-yard touchdown passes to tight end Vernon Davis and wideout Anquan Boldin, respectively.

      RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- The 49ers hit the Chargers from just about every angle in the run game, with running back Frank Gore (158 yards) finding room up the middle, quarterback Colin Kaepernick (151 yards) scampering around San Diego defenders and wide receiver Bruce Ellington (12 yards) fooling the Chargers on three reverses. Alas, an "A-plus" became an "A" when the team's final run -- a reverse by wideout Quinton Patton -- resulted in a fumble that set up San Diego's game-winning field goal in overtime.

      PASSING DEFENSE: C-minus -- The 49ers intercepted Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers three times, but needed one more on either of San Diego's final two possessions of regulation that resulted in touchdowns that erased a 14-point deficit. The most disturbing aspect of Rivers' 356-yard performance was that 79 of it came via seven hook-ups with backup wideout Dontrelle Inman, who was replacing injured Chargers star Keenan Allen. Inman entered the game never having made an NFL catch.

      RUSHING DEFENSE: C-plus -- The 49ers caught a break with top Chargers rusher Ryan Mathews out with an ankle injury. They held San Diego to a modest 76 yards in regulation, but then couldn't stop backup Ronnie Brown in overtime as he advanced the ball 22 yards on six plunges up the middle, shortening the length of Nick Novak's game-winning field goal.

      SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Special teams played almost no role in the defeat, but could have had Phil Dawson connected on an improbable 60-yard field goal attempt on the final play of regulation. The kick came up well short, but Dawson had an excuse. It was his first field goal attempt of the game, and he hadn't as much as left the bench since the 49ers' fifth and final touchdown late in the third quarter.

      COACHING: A-minus -- Say this for Jim Harbaugh: He said his team, eliminated from the playoff race one week earlier, would come to play, and it did. It even returned to its roots of running the football, which it did better than any team in 49ers history during a 355-yard rushing effort. Alas, the coaches once again couldn't script a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter or a way to get to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers more than just twice on his 56 drop-backs.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Bills eliminated after stumbling in Oakland
    By The Sports Xchange

    OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Buffalo Bills had their playoff hopes on the line Sunday when they faced the Oakland Raiders at the O.co Coliseum.

    • The Raiders, who won two of their first 14 games, were playing for nothing but pride, but that fueled them to a 26-24 victory that eliminated the Bills from playoff contention.

      "It shows what kind of team we are," said Raiders rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, who had a sack, five tackles, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. "We have a lot of heart. We have a lot of pride in this locker room. That speaks for the veterans and the younger guys. We go out every day. We work hard, we practice hard, and we play for each other."

      Rookie quarterback Derek Carr threw two touchdown passes, running back Latavius Murray rushed for 86 yards, and the Raiders (3-12) earned a third consecutive home win in their home finale.

      "I can't said enough good things about this team," said Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano, who is vying to keep the job next season. "They're fighters. Every time someone counts them out, they bounce back."

      The Bills (8-7) were coming off a 21-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers, but they lost for the second time in three games.

      "It just really breaks your heart, you know?" Bills quarterback Kyle Orton said. "You just sit there and put it all into it for a really long time, and you don't do it for anybody but yourselves and for the guys next to you in the locker room.

      "Still got one game to go. We'll play as hard as we can and try to get a win. But, certainly, when you've gone this long and you're right there with a chance and you put it all on the line and you don't come through, it hurts."

      Oakland placekicker Sebastian Janikowski made four of his five field-goal attempts, and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins caught five passes for 90 yards.

      Carr completed 17 of 34 passes for 214 yards and touchdown passes to wide receiver James Jones and fullback Jamize Olawale. Carr wasn't intercepted, and the Bills, who entered the game with an NFL high 49 sacks, sacked him just once.

      On Dec. 14, the Bills held Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to 17-of-42 passing for 185 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions, one week after Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went 14-of-20 for 173 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions against Buffalo.

      "You see what their defense did to two of the best quarterbacks to ever play this game," Carr said. "You knew it was going to be tough. At the start of the game, it surely was tough."

      The Raiders' offense, however, got untracked after going three-and-out on its first three possessions.

      "They hit the big plays," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "They hit some of those big runs in the gaps, and we did not make those plays."

      Orton completed 32 of 49 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns but was intercepted twice, once each by safeties Charles Woodson and Brandian Ross. Running back Fred Jackson caught nine passes for 93 yards, and wide receiver Sammy Watkins caught three passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.

      The Raiders built a 13-10 halftime lead and increased it to 16-10 when Janikowski drilled a 38-yard field goal with 10:18 left in the third quarter, capping a seven-play, 45-yard drive. Murray carried three times for 46 yards on the drive.

      Janikowski converted his fourth field goal of the game, this one from 49 yards, making it 19-10 with 5:49 left in the third. He capped a 12-play, 49-yard drive.

      Buffalo cut Oakland's lead to 19-17 on Orton's 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Scott Chandler with 14:54 left to play.

      With less than five minutes left to play, the Raiders faced third-and-22 from their 19. Carr launched a deep pass down the right sideline, and wide receiver Andre Holmes made a leaping catch against cornerback Corey Graham for a 51-yard gain.

      "When Derek scrambled out to my side, the corner that was on me kind of slowed down, thinking that I was coming back, and I kept running," Holmes said. "He was sprinting back toward me, so he couldn't really make a play on it."

      Two plays later, running back Darren McFadden gained 25 yards around left end, giving Oakland first-and-goal from the 1.

      On second-and-goal, Carr hit a wide-open Olawale with a 1-yard touchdown pass in the left flat, giving the Raiders a 26-17 lead with 2:51 remaining.

      After Janikowski missed from 48 yards, the Bills drove 80 yards for a touchdown. Orton fired a 30-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Woods with 1:09 remaining, cutting Oakland's lead to 26-24.

      An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck after the PAT allowed the Bills to try an onside kick from the 50, but Woodson recovered for Oakland.

      "Last week, I said was the most fun I ever had as a Bill," tight end Lee Smith said. "The game was awesome, and we came away with the win. This week, we come out here with a lot to play for and we don't come away with the win. I'd say compared to last week, this sure as hell is a low."

      NOTES: Raiders FS Charles Woodson recorded his 60th career interception midway through the first quarter. He became the 11th player in NFL history with at least 60 interceptions. ... Bills starting DT Marcell Dareus, who has 10 sacks this season, sustained a knee injury early in the second quarter and did not return to the game. ... Bills RB C.J. Spiller, who was activated from the injured reserve/designated for return list earlier in the week, returned to action after missing seven games with a broken clavicle. He carried the ball four times for a loss of 4 yards. ... Buffalo starting CB Stephon Gilmore sustained a concussion with 7:23 left in the third quarter and did not return.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Cowboys-Colts: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony Romo came into his postgame proudly sporting a T-shirt reading "COWBOYS RUN THE EAST."

    • The emphatic performance of Romo and the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon was worthy of all caps. Romo threw four touchdowns and the Cowboys clinched the NFC East title by blasting the Indianapolis Colts 42-7 at AT&T Stadium.

      Dallas improved to 11-4 going into next Sunday's regular-season finale at Washington. The Cowboys, in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and in coach Jason Garrett's five-year tenure, are still in the running for a first-round bye as one of the top two seeds in the conference.

      "This is such a long journey and to get to a point to achieve your first goal of winning the division title, a lot goes into that," said Garrett, who received a Gatorade bath on the field. "The way you play in securing that matters and we played really well."

      Romo became the franchise's all-time leader in passing yards, surpassing Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. Romo set the record on a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten in the third quarter.

      "Me and Jason have been through it all together," said Romo, a former undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois with 32,970 career yards. "I literally was on the bus from the airport when we arrived in Dallas together for our first rookie minicamp.

      "He's obviously got a special place in my heart. I want more success for him than maybe anybody else on the planet. He deserves it. I want him to have that. For him to be the guy is just a bonus."

      Romo completed a near-perfect 18 of 20 passes for 218 yards and found four different receivers for scores, including a 19-yarder to Dez Bryant. Romo led the Cowboys to touchdowns on their first four possessions.

      Dallas running back DeMarco Murray played despite having surgery Monday on a broken left hand. The NFL's leading rusher scored a touchdown and finished with 58 yards on 22 carries.

      "The guys are just playing and executing, and doing their job at a high level," Romo said.

      The Colts (10-5) didn't have as much on the line with the AFC South title already sewn away, and little-to-no chance to beat out Denver or New England for one of the conference's top two seeds.

      Indianapolis was also without leading receiver T.Y. Hilton, who was resting a hamstring injury. The Colts are at Tennessee next Sunday in their final postseason tune-up.

      "I'm thinking about Tennessee first," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "We've got to fix this game, focus on Tennessee and then we can worry about the playoffs."

      Without his favorite target, Luck (15-22 for 109 yards and two interceptions) turned in his poorest performance of the season. Luck didn't have a touchdown pass for the first time this season and left the game in the third quarter.

      Luck came into the game leading the NFL in touchdown passes and yards.

      Indianapolis avoided its first shutout since 1993 on running back Zurlon Tipton's 1-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the fourth quarter.

      The Colts managed only 229 yards -- 104 in the first half -- and turned the ball over three times.

      "I guess it is a bit surprising," Luck said of the offensive struggles. "There are high expectations for us on the offensive side of the ball, to go out and score every drive, to get points and to move the ball. When we don't, it's disappointing.

      "It's a pride thing. When you go out and play like this, it's a bad feeling. We managed to get a couple of wins early and survive some of those mistakes, but it's obviously against a good team like the Cowboys you're not going to. We'll improve. We'll get back on track."

      Dallas had the game in hand in the first quarter after jumping out to a 14-0 lead thanks to a long drive and a botched fake by the Colts.

      The Cowboys methodically drove 80 yards on their first possession to go up 7-0. Romo completed 5 of 6 passes on the march for 33 yards, and scrambled twice for another 21 yards.

      Murray carried it seven times (for only 16 yards) before Romo hooked up with receiver Terrence Williams from 9 yards out for the game's first touchdown.

      Indianapolis had stopped the Cowboys on third down, but a taunting penalty linebacker Jerrell Freeman kept the drive alive.

      "Have a foolish penalty and extend the drive," Indy coach Chuck Pagano said. "And from there it never got any better and we couldn't overcome a lot of things."

      After the Colts lost five yards on their first three plays, a fake punt had Dallas totally fooled. Punter Pat McAfee lofted a perfect spiral down the sideline, but wide-open safety Dewey McDonald dropped the pass and gave Dallas great field position on the Colts' 19-yard line.

      Romo took the gift and found Bryant on the ensuing play for a two-touchdown advantage.

      The lead grew to 21-0 early on Romo's third scoring strike. A skinny post plus poor tackling by Indy's secondary enabled receiver Cole Beasley to find the end zone from 24 yards out.

      Murray's 1-yard dive later in the second period capped a 67-yard drive and essentially put the game away. Dallas set a season high for points in the first half by taking a 28-0 lead into the break.

      Dallas backup quarterback Brandon Weeden tossed a 43-yard touchdown pass to Williams in the fourth quarter.

      What the Cowboys said:

      "Statistics are something that are part of the game, but we're all about winning and losing. At the same time, it's always an honor any time you're just mentioned with (Troy) Aikman and (Roger) Staubach or (Danny) White. It's a fraternity of QBs that is special to be a part of." -- QB Tony Romo, on breaking Aikman's team record for passing yards.

      What the Colts said:

      "We'll find a way to get these things fixed. We obviously know we can't play the way that we played tonight and expect to do anything down the road." -- Coach Chuck Pagano.

      What we learned about the Cowboys:

      1. There will be no December collapse this year. Instead of going into the final week needs a win to get into the playoffs, Dallas already clinched the NFC East and remains in play for a first-round bye heading into the regular-season finale at Washington. The Cowboys appear to be peaking at the right time.

      2. There is no reason to question DeMarco Murray's toughness. Injuries have been an issue for Murray in his young career, but the running back suited up a week after breaking his left hand. The NFL's leading rusher said he was going to play and lived up to his word, gaining 58 yards on 22 carries.

      --RB DeMarco Murray was active Sunday despite having surgery on his broken left hand Monday. The NFL's leading rusher finished with 58 yards on 22 carries. Murray needs 29 rushing yards in the regular-season finale to break Emmitt Smith's single-season team record of 1,773.

      --QB Tony Romo set the franchise record for passing yards at 32,970, passing Hall of Famer Troy Aikman. Romo broke the record with a 25-yard touchdown pass to TE Jason Witten in the third quarter. Romo finished 18-for-20 for 218 yards and four touchdowns in the rout of the Colts.

      --WR Dez Bryant caught a touchdown pass for a 12th consecutive game against an AFC opponent. That is the longest interconference streak since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Bryant finished with five catches for 73 yards and a 19-yard score Sunday.

      What we learned about the Colts:

      1. There is not much to take from what appeared to be a preseason game for Indianapolis. The Colts will be playing for seeding and health next week at Tennessee.

      2. Falling behind is an issue, as is matching up against the league's better teams. The Colts are 0-4 against teams that have clinched playoff spots, with losses to Dallas, Denver, Pittsburgh and New England. Indianapolis will have a chance to break that streak in the first round of the postseason.

      --WR T.Y. Hilton (hamstring) didn't play after not practicing all week. He sustained the injury the previous week against Houston.

      --QB Andrew Luck didn't throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season. He completed 15 of 22 pass for 109 yards and two interceptions, and left the blowout in the third quarter.

      --TE Dwayne Allen (knee) left Sunday's game. He will be re-evaluated in Indianapolis.

      --LB Jerrell Freeman (hamstring) left Sunday's game. He will be re-evaluated in Indianapolis.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Giants-Rams: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    ST. LOUIS -- About 30 minutes after Sunday's game, Christmas music wafted through the Edward Jones Dome.

    • The New York Giants and St. Louis Rams spent part of the day wishing each other everything but glad tidings and happy holidays.

      In a game marked by a pair of wild brawls that led to three ejections just before halftime, New York strafed St. Louis' defense for 514 yards and led wire-to-wire for a 37-27 win.

      "We wanted to play a complete game, run the ball and take some pressure off (quarterback) Eli (Manning)," said Giants right tackle Justin Pugh. "They have a good pass rush, but Eli got the ball out quickly and they couldn't get to him."

      The Rams (6-9) came into the game not having allowed a touchdown in 12 straight quarters, but New York (6-9) ended that at the 8:24 mark of the first quarter when Manning threw a 9-yard scoring strike to rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.

      St. Louis took exception to the touchdown celebration of Beckham, Jr., and the officials flagged him for taunting. But that wasn't enough for the Rams, who targeted Beckham, Jr. for the half's remainder.

      Things finally boiled over with 2:10 left in the first half when linebacker Alec Ogletree hit Beckham, Jr. late out of bounds after a 6-yard reception. Beckham, Jr. responded by throwing the ball at Ogletree and things escalated rapidly.

      Giants wide receiver Preston Parker punched a St. Louis player from behind and was ejected, while New York defensive end Damontre Moore and Rams defensive end William Hayes traded punches, knocking over the kicking net. Both were dismissed.

      Asked repeatedly if Beckham, Jr.'s touchdown celebrations were becoming a concern, Giants coach Tom Coughlin finally grew weary.

      "You guys going to ask about the game?" he snapped before walking away from the podium and cutting his postgame press conference short.

      Booed loudly during the third quarter by Rams fans in the crowd of 55,851, Beckham, Jr. offered the perfect silencer. Getting behind the secondary by five yards, he hauled in Manning's 80-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left in the period for a 34-20 advantage.

      It was the highlight play in an eight-catch, 148-yard day for Beckham, who's gained more than 100 yards in six of the last eight games and has 1,120 yards in just 11 games.

      Manning completed 25 of 32 passes for 391 yards and three scores, racking up a quarterback rating of 148.8. Wide receiver Rueben Randle added six catches for 132 yards and a touchdown, while rookie running back Andre Williams finished with 110 yards on 26 rushes.

      What the Giants said:

      "That dirty (stuff) don't make you tough. That's a dirty team. They (stink) as an organization." -- LB Jameel McClain on the Rams.

      What the Rams said:

      "We kind of had a lot of self-inflicted wounds." - RB Tre Mason.

      What we learned about the Giants:

      1. It's time for WR Odell Beckham, Jr. to rein in his TD celebrations a bit. His ball-spinning, torso-gyrating antics led to a 15-yard penalty after his first-quarter score and lit the fuse for a chippy first half, leading to multiple fights just before halftime when he was hit late out of bounds by LB Alec Ogletree. While few want to take the enthusiasm out of his game, Beckham, Jr. isn't making a lot of friends with his post-score maneuvers. Coach Tom Coughlin has noticed.

      2. When their offensive line gives QB Eli Manning time, the Giants can ring up the points. Manning ate just one sack against the Rams' rush line and delivered a great game, going 25 of 32 for 391 yards and three scores. If New York can protect Manning more consistently next year, this will be one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Manning should only improve in the second year of new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system.

      --CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (burner) left the game in the third quarter and did not return. It isn't known if Rodgers-Cromartie, who had two interceptions nullified by penalties, will be able to play in next week's regular-season finale against Philadelphia.

      --LT Will Beatty had a rough game, picking up four holding penalties, one in each period. When he wasn't holding, Beatty did help the offense gain 514 yards and score 37 points on a defense that had allowed just 46 points in its previous five games.

      --WR Rueben Randle's six-catch, 132-yard game was overshadowed by another great performance by rookie Odell Beckham Jr. But Randle made plenty of plays, scoring a TD and routinely beating overmatched Ram CBs in coverage.

      What we learned about the Rams:

      1. The Rams' defense isn't very good if they're not getting a pass rush. They managed just one sack of QB Eli Manning, thanks to a safety blitz by T.J. McDonald, and their cornerbacks couldn't hang with Odell Beckham, Jr. or Rueben Randle, who combined for 280 yards and three TDs on 14 catches. St. Louis may have to consider finding another cover guy in the offseason to compete with CBs Janoris Jenkins, E.J. Gaines and Trumaine Johnson.

      2. The Rams again showed a lack of poise that has marked their efforts over the last three seasons. Too often, they confuse late hits and trash-talking with real toughness. They gave up three first downs via penalty, all of which led to scores. For this team to take the step from promising team to winning team next year, the Rams will have to lay off the borderline stuff and play a more disciplined game.

      --CB E.J. Gaines (head) left in the third quarter after taking an accidental shot from a teammate while trying to break up a pass. He did not return. Gaines, who also injured his shoulder in the first half, had a concussion evaluation. His status for next week's regular-season finale in Seattle isn't certain.

      --QB Shaun Hill bounced back from a subpar showing against Arizona by hitting 24 of 32 passes for 290 yards and two TDs. Hill also had an interception, although WR Tavon Austin clanked the short pass into the arms of DT Kerry Wynn.

      --WR Kenny Britt enjoyed a big game with nine catches for 103 yards, making several tough grabs in traffic over the middle. The former Tennessee Titan is second on the team in receptions with 44 and has been praised as a leader by the coaching staff.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Cowboys crush Colts, claim NFC East title
    By The Sports Xchange

    ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony Romo came into his postgame proudly sporting a t-shirt reading "COWBOYS RUN THE EAST."

    • The emphatic performance of Romo and the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon was worthy of all caps. Romo threw four touchdowns and the Cowboys clinched the NFC East title by blasting the Indianapolis Colts 42-7 at AT&T Stadium.

      Dallas improved to 11-4 going into next Sunday's regular-season finale at Washington. The Cowboys, in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and in coach Jason Garrett's five-year tenure, are still in the running for a first-round bye as one of the top two seeds in the conference.

      "This is such a long journey and to get to a point to achieve your first goal of winning the division title, a lot goes into that," said Garrett, who received a Gatorade bath on the field. "The way you play in securing that matters and we played really well."

      Romo became the franchise's all-time leader in passing yards, surpassing Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. Romo set the record on a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten in the third quarter.

      "Me and Jason have been through it all together," said Romo, a former undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois with 32,970 career yards. "I literally was on the bus from the airport when we arrived in Dallas together for our first rookie minicamp.

      "He's obviously got a special place in my heart. I want more success for him than maybe anybody else on the planet. He deserves it. I want him to have that. For him to be the guy is just a bonus."

      Romo completed a near-perfect 18 of 20 passes for 218 yards and found four different receivers for scores, including a 19-yarder to Dez Bryant. Romo led the Cowboys to touchdowns on their first four possessions.

      Dallas running back DeMarco Murray played despite having surgery Monday on a broken left hand. The NFL's leading rusher scored a touchdown and finished with 58 yards on 22 carries.

      "The guys are just playing and executing, and doing their job at a high level," Romo said.

      The Colts (10-5) didn't have as much on the line with the AFC South title already sewn away, and little-to-no chance to beat out Denver or New England for one of the conference's top two seeds.

      Indianapolis was also without leading receiver T.Y. Hilton, who was resting a hamstring injury. The Colts are at Tennessee next Sunday in their final postseason tune-up.

      "I'm thinking about Tennessee first," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "We've got to fix this game, focus on Tennessee and then we can worry about the playoffs."

      Without his favorite target, Luck (15-22 for 109 yards and two interceptions) turned in his poorest performance of the season. Luck didn't have a touchdown pass for the first time this season and left the game in the third quarter.

      Luck came into the game leading the NFL in touchdown passes and yards.

      Indianapolis avoided its first shutout since 1993 on running back Zurlon Tipton's 1-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the fourth quarter.

      The Colts managed only 229 yards -- 104 in the first half -- and turned the ball over three times.

      "I guess it is a bit surprising," Luck said of the offensive struggles. "There are high expectations for us on the offensive side of the ball, to go out and score every drive, to get points and to move the ball. When we don't, it's disappointing.

      "It's a pride thing. When you go out and play like this, it's a bad feeling. We managed to get a couple of wins early and survive some of those mistakes, but it's obviously against a good team like the Cowboys you're not going to. We'll improve. We'll get back on track."

      Dallas had the game in hand in the first quarter after jumping out to a 14-0 lead thanks to a long drive and a botched fake by the Colts.

      The Cowboys methodically drove 80 yards on their first possession to go up 7-0. Romo completed 5 of 6 passes on the march for 33 yards, and scrambled twice for another 21 yards.

      Murray carried it seven times (for only 16 yards) before Romo hooked up with receiver Terrence Williams from 9 yards out for the game's first touchdown.

      Indianapolis had stopped the Cowboys on third down, but a taunting penalty linebacker Jerrell Freeman kept the drive alive.

      "Have a foolish penalty and extend the drive," Indy coach Chuck Pagano said. "And from there it never got any better and we couldn't overcome a lot of things."

      After the Colts lost five yards on their first three plays, a fake punt had Dallas totally fooled. Punter Pat McAfee lofted a perfect spiral down the sideline, but wide-open safety Dewey McDonald dropped the pass and gave Dallas great field position on the Colts' 19-yard line.

      Romo took the gift and found Bryant on the ensuing play for a two-touchdown advantage.

      The lead grew to 21-0 early on Romo's third scoring strike. A skinny post plus poor tackling by Indy's secondary enabled receiver Cole Beasley to find the end zone from 24 yards out.

      Murray's 1-yard dive later in the second period capped a 67-yard drive and essentially put the game away. Dallas set a season high for points in the first half by taking a 28-0 lead into the break.

      Dallas backup quarterback Brandon Weeden tossed a 43-yard touchdown pass to Williams in the fourth quarter.

      NOTES: Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (broken left hand) was active after being listed as questionable. He wore a protective covering over his hand after having surgery on Monday. RG Zack Martin was also active after not practicing all week. RT Doug Free (ankle) was inactive. ... Colts WR T.Y. Hilton (hamstring) was ruled inactive after trying to test the injury on the field before the game. Hilton leads the team with a career-high 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns but did not practice all week. ... Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck came into Sunday leading the NFL in touchdown passes (38) and yards (4,492), while also committing the second-most turnovers (20).

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Giants win fight-filled game vs. Rams
    By The Sports Xchange

    ST. LOUIS -- About 30 minutes after Sunday's game, Christmas music wafted through the Edward Jones Dome.

    • The New York Giants and St. Louis Rams spent part of the day wishing each other everything but glad tidings and happy holidays.

      In a game marked by a pair of wild brawls that led to three ejections just before halftime, New York strafed St. Louis' defense for 514 yards and led wire-to-wire for a 37-27 win.

      "We wanted to play a complete game, run the ball and take some pressure off (quarterback) Eli (Manning)," said Giants right tackle Justin Pugh. "They have a good pass rush, but Eli got the ball out quickly and they couldn't get to him."

      The Rams (6-9) came into the game not having allowed a touchdown in 12 straight quarters, but New York (6-9) ended that at the 8:24 mark of the first quarter when Manning threw a 9-yard scoring strike to rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.

      St. Louis took exception to the touchdown celebration of Beckham, Jr., and the officials flagged him for taunting. But that wasn't enough for the Rams, who targeted Beckham, Jr. for the half's remainder.

      Things finally boiled over with 2:10 left in the first half when linebacker Alec Ogletree hit Beckham, Jr. late out of bounds after a 6-yard reception. Beckham, Jr. responded by throwing the ball at Ogletree and things escalated rapidly.

      Giants wide receiver Preston Parker punched a St. Louis player from behind and was ejected, while New York defensive end Damontre Moore and Rams defensive end William Hayes traded punches, knocking over the kicking net. Both were dismissed.

      "I wish I hadn't let my team down by getting thrown out, but things happen in the heat of battle," Moore said. "I didn't do my team any good by being in here in the locker room, but we were protecting a brother."

      Asked repeatedly if Beckham, Jr.'s touchdown celebrations were becoming a concern, Giants coach Tom Coughlin finally grew weary.

      "You guys going to ask about the game?," he snapped before walking away from the podium and cutting his postgame press conference short.

      Booed loudly during the third quarter by Rams fans in the crowd of 55,851, Beckham, Jr. offered the perfect silencer. Getting behind the secondary by five yards, he hauled in Manning's 80-yard touchdown pass with 45 seconds left in the period for a 34-20 advantage.

      It was the highlight play in an eight-catch, 148-yard day for Beckham, who's gained more than 100 yards in six of the last eight games and has 1,120 yards in just 11 games. That was just one of many big performances in New York's third straight win.

      Manning completed 25 of 32 passes for 391 yards and three scores, racking up a quarterback rating of 148.8. Wide receiver Rueben Randle added six catches for 132 yards and a touchdown, while rookie running back Andre Williams finished with 110 yards on 26 rushes.

      "Just a frustrating day," St. Louis defensive end Chris Long said. "We knew today would be a good challenge for us with their offense. Our fans deserved better, though. We didn't play well."

      Rams quarterback Shaun Hill hit 24 of 32 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Kenny Britt made nine catches for 103 yards, while rookie running back Tre Mason piled up 76 yards and a score on 13 carries.

      But it wasn't enough to prevent the franchise's 11th straight losing season since winning the NFC West title in 2003.

      "That's not our best performance we put out on the field, period," Mason summed up.

      NOTES: New York starting RB Rashad Jennings (ankle) sat out for the second time in three weeks. Jennings was injured after carrying once for three yards last week against Washington. ... St. Louis' James Laurinaitis made his 95th straight start Sunday, the third-longest streak among NFL linebackers. ... Rams P Johnny Hekker downed three punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line, giving him a league-high 32.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Chargers control playoff fate
    By The Sports Xchange

    SAN DIEGO -- Victory Sunday will turn into Victory Monday after the San Diego Chargers pulled off a miracle of their own, then got a little bit of help from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    • The Chargers needed a miracle rally at San Francisco, where they fell behind 28-7 in the third quarter. San Diego prevailed, 38-35, in overtime and suddenly their year is in overdrive. The Chargers control their own fate and for the second time in as many years, can grab a wild-card berth by beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17.

      This time, it's at Arrowhead, after the Chiefs were decked by the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday. The Baltimore Ravens also lost at Houston and the Buffalo Bills fell victim to the Oakland Raiders.

      Before diving headlong in preparation for a familiar foe, two off days to toast the victory and rest ailing bodies were ordered by coach Mike McCoy.

      "It didn't look too good there for a while and you all saw it," McCoy said. "I don't need to explain all that anymore, but we found a way and that's what teams have to do."

      The Chiefs beat the Chargers, 23-20, on Oct. 19, the first of a three-game losing streak that nearly sealed San Diego's fate. The Chargers lost by 14 to Denver and 37-0 to the Dolphins following the Kansas City game.

      The Chargers have to win on Sunday to guarantee their playoff ticket. And that seemed like such a wild dream with the 49ers pulling away and the Chargers putting the finishing touches on a season.

      Instead they roared back behind Philip Rivers in a game which will go down in Chargers lore.

      "We really had our backs to the wall in this one," said wide receiver Malcom Floyd. "We've got the best quarterback in the league."

      Rivers said the attitude in the Chargers' locker room at halftime is what led to such jubilation afterward.

      "I think at halftime I heard the defensive guys talking and on offense, we just said, 'Look, we don't know if we can win the game or not, but we're going to fight like crazy,"' he said. "That's just what we do and who we are. We're going to go fight like crazy and see what happens.

      "We just kind of kept that mantra the whole second half, and kept looking up and kept getting closer and closer and was able to tie it up there late."

      Now if the Chargers can just win their second game in a brutal four-game stretch, there's at least one game to be played in January.

      "We always believe we can win every game no matter what the score is," left tackle King Dunlap said. "That's what we did."

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    NFL game roundup: Cowboys rout Colts to clinch playoff berth
    By The Sports Xchange

    ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony Romo threw four touchdowns and the Dallas Cowboys clinched the NFC East title by blasting the Indianapolis Colts 42-7 on Sunday.

    • Dallas improved to 11-4 going into next Sunday's regular-season finale at Washington. The Cowboys, in the playoffs for the first time in coach Jason Garrett's five-year tenure, are still in the running for a first-round bye.

      Romo became the franchise's all-time leader in passing yards, surpassing Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman. Romo set the record on a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten in the third quarter. The former undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois has 32,970 career yards.

      Romo completed 18 of 20 passes for 218 yards and found four different receivers for scores, including a 19-yarder to Dez Bryant. Romo led the Cowboys to touchdowns on their first four possessions.

      Dallas running back DeMarco Murray played despite having surgery Monday on a broken left hand. The NFL's leading rusher scored a touchdown and finished with 58 yards on 22 carries.

      The Colts (10-5) didn't have as much on the line with the AFC South title already sewn away, and little-to-no chance to beat out Denver or New England for one of the conference's top two seeds.

      Patriots 17, Jets 16

      EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jonas Gray scored a 1-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter as New England came back to edge the New York Jets and clinch a first-round playoff bye.

      The Patriots (12-3) can clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC by beating the Buffalo Bills next week. The Patriots also could earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if the Denver Broncos lose to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night.

      Tom Brady was 23 of 35 for 182 yards and a touchdown, a 3-yarder to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Wide receiver Danny Amendola had eight catches for 63 yards.

      The Jets, likely playing at home for the final time under embattled head coach Rex Ryan, fell to 3-12. Quarterback Geno Smith was 17 of 27 for 210 yards and a touchdown, a 20-yarder to tight end Jeff Cumberland. He also threw a key interception and took two costly sacks.

      Steelers 20, Chiefs 12

      PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger shook off a knee injury and threw for 220 yards and a touchdown as Pittsburgh clinched a playoff berth with a victory over Kansas City.

      The veteran quarterback completed 18 of 25 passes in helping the Steelers (10-5) to their third straight win. They are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2011 following back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

      The Steelers can win the AFC North title next Sunday when they host the Bengals (9-4-1) in the regular-season finale.

      The Chiefs (8-7) had their playoff hopes severely damaged while losing for the fourth time in their last five games. Kansas City has to beat San Diego Chargers at home next Sunday and also hope for help from other teams in order to reach the postseason.

      Panthers 17, Browns 13

      CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina moved closer to a playoff spot as Cam Newton's 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Jonathan Stewart with 7:07 remaining propelled the Panthers over Cleveland.

      The first-place Panthers (6-8-1) can win the NFC South by avenging a loss to the Falcons in next week's winner-take-all showdown finale in Atlanta.

      Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel left late in the first half with an injury and that left Newton, who is also a Heisman Trophy winner, as the player to come up with a clutch play.

      Newton, who returned after a one-game absence with a back injury suffered in a Dec. 9 automobile wreck, completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards with one interception.

      Cleveland (7-8) lost its fourth game in a row. Manziel finished 3 of 8 for 32 yards, and ran twice for 3 yards.

      Falcons 30, Saints 14

      NEW ORLEANS -- Matt Ryan passed for 322 yards and one touchdown and Matt Bryant kicked three field goals to lift Atlanta over New Orleans and keep its NFC South title hopes alive.

      The Falcons (6-9) will host Carolina next Sunday, with the NFC South championship and fourth seed in the playoffs on the line. Atlanta won the first meeting on Nov. 16 at Carolina, 19-17.

      The game ended in a bizarre fashion, with defensive end Kroy Biermann sacking Brees from behind and defensive end Osi Umenyiora returning the loose ball 86 yards for a touchdown. On his way to the end zone, Umenyiora turned to wave goodbye, sending the Saints to their fifth consecutive home loss and eliminating them from the playoff picture.

      Texans 25, Ravens 13

      HOUSTON -- Kareem Jackson recorded two of three interceptions of Joe Flacco and Houston kept alive its slim playoff hopes with a win over Baltimore.

      The Texans (8-7) dominated Flacco and the Ravens (9-6) from start to finish, limiting Baltimore to 211 total yards and just 3.1 yards per play.

      The Ravens now need some help next week to get into the postseason. Houston needs several teams to lose next week to sneak into the playoffs.

      Flacco finished 21 for 50 for 195 yards, with 135 yards coming in the fourth quarter as the Ravens mounted a futile rally.

      Texans kicker Randy Bullock made a franchise-record six field goals. Bullock rescued an otherwise pedestrian Texans offense, one with their fourth quarterback -- the recently re-signed Case Keenum -- at the helm this season. Keenum, the Texans' third starter this season, passed for 185 yards while completing 20 of 42 attempts.

      Packers 20, Buccaneers 3

      TAMPA, Fla. -- Green Bay's offense bounced back just enough to help the Packers clinch a playoff spot as they beat Tampa Bay.

      The Packers rebounded from a 21-13 loss at Buffalo last week but did so largely behind their defense, which harassed Bucs quarterback Josh McCown all afternoon and allowed only 109 total yards.

      Aaron Rodgers finished the game with 318 yards and a late touchdown on 31-for-40 passing. Receiver Randall Cobb reeled in 11 passes for 131 yards, and Jordy Nelson had nine receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown. Eddie Lacy racked up 99 yards and a 44-yard touchdown on 17 carries as he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the season.

      The Packers (11-4) close the regular season at home against the Detroit Lions (11-4) with the winner grabbing the NFC North crown.

      The Bucs (2-13) have not won a game at home this season.

      Lions 20, Bears 14

      CHICAGO -- Playoff-bound Detroit survived its own mistakes, including three first-half turnovers, to beat Chicago as Joique Bell scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 17-yard run in the fourth quarter.

      The Lions (11-4) secured a playoff spot with the Philadelphia Eagles' loss to the Washington Redskins on Saturday. Detroit will play at Green Bay next Sunday for the NFC North title.

      With quarterback Jimmy Clausen making his first start in four years, replacing the benched Jay Cutler, those Detroit errors helped make the Bears competitive. Clausen completed 23 of 39 passes for 181 yards.

      Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford overcame two interceptions and completed 22 of 39 passes for 243 yards.

      Dolphins 37, Vikings 35

      MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Miami was eliminated from the AFC playoff race despite defeating Minnesota to end a two-game losing streak.

      The winning points were scored on a safety with 41 seconds left. Vikings punter Jeff Locke fielded the snap on one hop, and Dolphins defensive end Terrence Fede blocked the punt out of the end zone.

      Ryan Tannehill passed for 396 yards and a career-high four touchdowns for the Dolphins (8-7).

      Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater completed 19 of 26 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns for Minnesota (6-9).

      Raiders 26, Bills 24

      OAKLAND, Calif. -- Rookie Derek Carr threw two touchdown passes, Latavius Murray rushed for 86 yards, and Oakland beat Buffalo, eliminating the Bills from playoff contention.

      The Raiders (3-12) won their third consecutive home game. The Bills (8-7) lost for the second time in three games.

      Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski made four of his five field-goal attempts, and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins caught five passes for 90 yards. Carr completed 17 of 34 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns.

      Buffalo quarterback Kyle Orton completed 32 of 49 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions.

      Giants 37, Rams 27

      ST. LOUIS -- Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. caught eight passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns as the New York Giants beat St. Louis.

      Beckham also was one of the central figures in a pair of fights in the Giants' bench area, which led to three ejections. With 2:10 left in the first half, Beckham caught a 6-yard pass from Eli Manning and was hit late out of bounds by linebacker Alec Oglegree. Beckham threw the ball at Ogletree and things escalated quickly.

      Giants wide receiver Preston Parker was kicked out for jumping a Rams player from behind and punching him, while New York defensive end Damontre Moore and St. Louis defensive end William Hayes traded punches. Both were ejected.

      Manning was 25 for 32 for 391 yards and three touchdowns, and rookie Andre Williams had 110 yards rushing on 26 carries for the Giants (6-9).

      Shaun Hill completed 24 of 32 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns for the Rams (6-9).

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Texans-Ravens: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    HOUSTON -- After quickly acknowledging that the Texans' defense got the better of him and the rest of the Baltimore offense, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco made a point to address the dismantling again.

    • Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson recorded two of three interceptions of Flacco and the Texans kept alive their postseason hopes with a 25-13 victory over the Ravens on Sunday at NRG Stadium.

      The Texans (8-7) dominated Flacco and the Ravens (9-6) from start to finish, limiting Baltimore to 211 total yards and just 3.1 yards per play. Flacco finished 21 of 50 for 195 yards, with 135 yards coming in the fourth quarter as the Ravens mounted a futile rally. His first touchdown pass materialized only after Jacoby Jones provided the Ravens fantastic field position with a 45-yard punt return early in the third quarter.

      "We got our ass kicked," Flacco said. "It's really simple. We did a lot of things not very well."

      Texans kicker Randy Bullock made a franchise record six field goals, five (35, 25, 30, 20 and 33 yards) in the red zone. Bullock rescued an otherwise pedestrian Texans offense, one on their fourth quarterback, the recently re-signed Case Keenum, at the controls this season.

      Keenum, the Texans' third starter this season, passed for 185 yards while completing 20 of 42 attempts. He was released prior to the season when Houston acquired quarterback Ryan Mallett in a trade with the New England Patriots, but with Mallett (pectoral) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (leg) lost for the season and rookie Tom Savage (knee) unavailable, the Texans signed Keenum off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad this week.

      "At the end of the day these guys have come in here, the latest example being Case, understanding this is pro football," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "The next man has to step up. Even if next guy wasn't in the building a week ago, he showed up Monday and was ready to go.

      "Like I said, he (Keenum) had good recollection. He's a good leader and I thought he managed the offense very well today.

      Texans running back Arian Foster finished with 96 rushing yards and also tossed a 5-yard scoring pass to rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

      Receiver Torrey Smith caught both Ravens touchdowns and finished with five receptions for 59 yards. Baltimore managed just 2.1 yards per rush and punted to conclude its first five possessions of the game.

      What the Texans said:

      "It was weird. I didn't know what to do. You don't have the ball, but you were a part of it, so I didn't really know, like, do I go? Do I not? Do I play it cool? You know what I mean? So I just ran, so it was fun." Running back Arian Foster on the dilemma on how to celebrate his touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

      What the Ravens said:

      "It's a must-win game just like this one was but now we have no control so we've got to win. I don't know what the scenario is but we've got to win and hope folks lose. That's not a really good feeling but we've got a tough game ahead and Cleveland is a great team so we've got to pull it off and hope we get a Christmas present." -- Wide receiver Torrey Smith on Baltimore blowing a chance to win its way into the postseason.

      What we learned about the Texans:

      1. Quarterback Case Keenum really does have a functional command of the offense, despite being released just prior to the season. Keenum, who lost all eight of his starts last season with the Texans, was re-signed Monday and played admirably in leading the Texans to victory. Keenum posted only a 50.2 passer rating, but he kept his mistakes to a minimum (one interception) and managed the offense well enough for the Texans to record five red-zone field goals. "I really can't put words on it," Keenum said of his first victory. "It's very special."

      2. Jared Crick might be emerging as a complementary bookend to All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. Crick was a disruptive force Sunday, recording five tackles (two for losses), two quarterback hits, one pass deflection and one sack against the Ravens. Watt has been otherworldly despite the lack of consistent pressure from his defensive line mates, but Crick provided a dose of his potential.

      --CB Kareem Jackson recorded his first career multi-interception game, picking off Ravens QB Joe Flacco twice to set up a pair of Texans scores. Jackson has three interceptions on the season and 10 for his career, the latter total ranking fifth in franchise history.

      --RB Arian Foster passed for a touchdown for the first time in his career, connecting with TE C.J. Fiedorowicz on a 5-yard pass in the second quarter. Foster has rushed for eight touchdowns and caught four scoring passes this season. He is the first non-Texans quarterback to pass for a touchdown since the franchises inaugural season in 2002.

      --WR Andre Johnson became the 10th player with 1,000 career receptions, reaching the plateau in his 168th career game. Only Marvin Harrison reached that benchmark faster. Johnson finished with six receptions for 65 yards and his 1,002 receptions ranks ninth all-time. "It puts you in an elite group," Johnson said. "I tell people I never thought I would be in this situation."

      What we learned about the Ravens:

      1. Even after guiding Baltimore to a Super Bowl, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco can be rattled. The Texans sacked Flacco only twice, but they hit him 10 times and recorded three interceptions and nine pass deflections. Flacco rarely appeared comfortable in the pocket, the constant duress leading to hurried throws and an inefficient performance. "They did some things up front, they got me on my back foot and had good coverage," Flacco said. "They took away the main two guys. They did a lot of things. They were disruptive. Nothing came easy."

      2. The Ravens' running game, a pleasant surprise this season, can be exploited despite its depth. Baltimore running backs Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 28 yards on 15 attempts, with Forsett departing in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury. The Ravens entered the weekend ranked fifth in total rushing, but their lack of a No. 1 running back might be an issue next week in the regular season finale.

      --LB Elvis Dumervil was held without a sack and limited to one tackle and one quarterback hit despite the Texans trotting out QB Case Keenum, who made his first start of the season. Dumervil was tied for the league lead with 17 sacks and his one hit on Keenum was initially ruled a sack and forced fumble before an official review reversed the call to an incomplete pass.

      --QB Joe Flacco produced a season-low 41.7 passer rating, doing so after posting ratings of 99.4 or better in each of the last four games. Flacco completed just 21 of 50 attempts for 195 yards and two touchdowns and three interceptions. He amassed just 60 passing yards entering the fourth quarter against an aggressive Texans defensive front.

      --P Sam Koch averaged 50.4 yards per punt and contributed to a strong performance by the Rams special teams. Koch recorded a 57-yard punt and placed another inside the 20-yard line. His net of 44.9 yards nearly matched the 45.1-yard average by Texans P Shane Lechler.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    NFL Playoff Picture: Cowboys win NFC East
    By The Sports Xchange

    There is only one playoff spot to be determined in the NFC, and it comes down to a pair of six-win teams in a win-or-else finale in Atlanta next week.

    • Multiple division championships and playoff positioning will be on the line in Week 17.

      The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) beat the Kansas City Chiefs to clinch a postseason berth and can claim the AFC North title by beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale.

      In the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers (11-4) and Detroit Lions (11-4) will settle the championship at Lambeau Field, where Detroit has just one victory in the past 22 years. The Lions held off the Bears on Sunday to reach 11 wins for the first time since 1991 and are 5-0 in the division.

      That final NFC spot and the automatic No. 4 seed is up for grabs at the Georgia Dome.

      The Atlanta Falcons (6-9) will host the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) with the NFC South championship hanging in the balance. The winner gets a home game in the wild-card playoff round and the loser is eliminated. The Falcons took a 19-17 decision in the first meeting Nov. 16.

      Houston, with castoff quarterback Case Keenum re-signed and at the controls, shocked the Baltimore Ravens 25-13. That outcome, coupled with the Chiefs' loss at Pittsburgh, gives the San Diego Chargers (9-6) renewed optimism. A Week 17 win at Kansas City puts San Diego in the playoffs after the same teams battled in the regular-season finale for the No. 6 seed in the AFC last December.

      The Bills, Eagles, Dolphins and Saints were eliminated from the playoffs Sunday. Miami won, but was eliminated on potential tiebreakers based on head-to-head results.

      AFC

      Who's In:

      New England Patriots (12-3) – AFC East champion, clinched first-round bye

      Denver Broncos (11-3) – AFC West champion

      Indianapolis Colts (10-5) – AFC South champion

      Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5) – clinched playoff spot

      Contenders:

      Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1) – vs. Denver, Monday

      San Diego Chargers (9-6)

      Baltimore Ravens (9-6)

      Houston Texans (8-7)

      Kansas City Chiefs (8-7)

      NFC

      Who's In:

      Arizona Cardinals (11-3), clinched playoff spot, vs. Seattle, Sunday night

      Detroit Lions (11-4) – clinched playoff spot

      Green Bay Packers (11-4) – clinched playoff spot

      Dallas Cowboys (11-4) – NFC East champion

      Seattle Seahawks (10-4), clinched playoff spot, vs. Arizona, Sunday night

      Contenders:

      Carolina Panthers (6-8-1)

      Atlanta Falcons (6-9)

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Patriots-Jets: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Rex Ryan arrived as the head coach of the New York Jets in 2009 by declaring he was not intimidated by the New England Patriots or head coach Bill Belichick.

    • Ryan will likely depart the Jets next week feeling the same way the rest of the AFC East head coaching brethren has felt for most of the last 14 years: Closer than ever to dethroning the Patriots and farther away, all at the same time.

      Running back Jonas Gray scored a one-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter Sunday and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork blocked a field goal with 5:21 left as the Patriots hung on to edge the Jets 17-16 at MetLife Stadium.

      "Another game I thought we had a helluva chance to win the game against New England," Ryan said. "But that's been the story four out of the last five times we've played them."

      It's pretty much the story against everybody in the AFC East, which the Patriots have won in each of the last six years and 12 times in the last 14 seasons.

      Of their 28 division wins since 2009, 10 have been by eight points or less. The Patriots have beaten the Jets by three points or less four times since 2012, including in the first meeting of this season on Oct. 16, when Jets kicker Nick Folk's 56-yard field goal was blocked as time expired in New England's 27-25 victory.

      "I just wish we'd play better for 60 minutes -- we just haven't figured out a way to play against these guys as well as we possibly can," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was 23-of-35 for 182 yards and a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski. "Sometimes you've got to grind them out. Tough to win games in the NFL, certainly on the road against a division opponent."

      With the win, the Patriots (12-3) clinched a first-round bye for the fifth straight season. New England can clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC by beating the Buffalo Bills next week.

      The Jets, meanwhile, fell to 3-12 in what is expected to be the home finale for Ryan, who will likely be fired following the season finale against the Miami Dolphins.

      But it looked for much of Sunday as if Ryan might get to enjoy one last win over the Patriots. The Jets sacked Brady four times in the first half and took a 10-7 lead into the locker room.

      As has been the case all season, though, the Jets ended up being done in by their sputtering offense.

      What the Patriots said:

      "We've played a lot of games like this against the Jets." -- Head coach Bill Belichick, regarding the fact that 16 of the 32 games between the Jets and Patriots since Belichick became the Patriots' head coach have been decided by eight points or less.

      What the Jets said:

      "Every loss hurts. It does. This is a team that you think you have to beat going in. I didn't think we'd have to beat them to get our fourth win of the season, but that's where we're at." -- Head coach Rex Ryan

      What we learned about the Patriots:

      1. The Patriots will be sitting home on wild card weekend watching teams beat each other up for the opportunity to face them -- again. New England clinched its fifth straight first-round bye with Sunday's 17-16 win over the Jets. But the Patriots still have plenty to play for: A win next Sunday against the Buffalo Bills will assure the Patriots home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Patriots can also clinch home field if Denver loses to Cincinnati on Monday night. But even if that happens, expect Bill Belichick to approach the season finale as if it's the Super Bowl. "Every game is important," Belichick said. "You're always playing for something."

      2. This is no news flash, but the reason the Patriots have become the dominant team during a salary-cap era intended to erase dominance is because nobody is better at doing the little things in every facet of the game. On defense, the Patriots minimized the damage during the Jets' four trips inside the red zone by limiting New York to one touchdown and three field goals. The Patriots had just two sacks, but the first (a nine-yard takedown by defensive tackle Sealver Siliga) helped force the Jets to settle for a field goal down four in the fourth quarter. The second, a 10-yard sack by linebacker Dont'a Hightower, forced the Jets to try a go-ahead 52-yard field goal attempt -- which defensive tackle Vince Wilfork blocked. After that, quarterback Tom Brady deftly ate up the final 5:16, during which he completed three passes to wide receiver Danny Amendola for 26 yards before third-string running back Brandon Bolden gained 17 yards on third-and-1 with 1:55 left. Add it all up and that's how a 12-3 team beats a 3-12 team twice in a season by a total of three points.

      --WR Julian Edelman (concussion) was inactive for the Patriots' 17-16 win over the Jets on Sunday. Edelman was listed as questionable and as a limited participant in practice last week but didn't even travel to New Jersey for the game. Edelman was injured in the Patriots' 41-13 win over the Dolphins on Dec. 14.

      --RB LeGarrette Blount (shoulder) was inactive for the Patriots' 17-16 win over the Jets on Sunday. Blount was listed as questionable and as a limited participant in practice last week but didn't even travel to New Jersey for the game. Blount has 219 rushing yards and three touchdowns since signing with the Patriots as a free agent on Nov. 20.

      --DL Vince Wilfork blocked a 52-yard field goal attempt by Jets K Nick Folk to preserve the Patriots' one-point lead in the fourth quarter of their 17-16 win on Sunday. The Patriots took over with 5:16 left and burned the remainder of the clock.

      What we learned about the Jets:

      1. Rex Ryan really wanted to go out with one more win over Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Sure, Ryan insisted after the 17-16 loss that he hadn't given any thought to the possibility -- or probability -- that he was coaching the Jets for the final time at home, but his actions during the game and his demeanor afterward told how much he wanted to win and how much his ninth loss to Belichick stung. Ryan joined the group of Jets celebrating and jumping when cornerback Marcus Williams picked off Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to give the Jets -- who were trailing by a point -- the ball at the Patriots' 30-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. Of course, quarterback Geno Smith got sacked on the third play of the subsequent "drive" and kicker Nick Folk missed a 52-yard field goal, which left Ryan despondent and sadly reflective afterward. Six years into his tenure as the Jets' head coach -- and one game away from the end of it -- Ryan is no closer to knocking off Belichick than he was at the beginning. "They usually run away with our division," Ryan said, "The one year we were both 9-2, we got smoked like a sausage in that Monday night game. That was probably the year we could have won the division."

      2. Whomever the new regime is for the Jets, it probably saw enough out of Geno Smith Sunday to know that he's not going to develop into a franchise quarterback, or even a solid game manager. Smith's lack of maturation isn't his fault -- he wasn't ready to start as a rookie coming out of a spread offense at West Virginia -- but the NFL is a win-now league and even a new head coach and/or new general manager will not want to hitch his/their wagon to a player whose progress has continually stalled out. Smith made three costly mistakes that cost the Jets at least 14 points on Sunday. His telegraphed a third-quarter interception -- in which Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins made a leaping pick in front of tight end Jace Amaro -- that led to New England's game-winning touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Smith took two sacks, one of which forced the Jets to settle for a field goal when they were down four points and the other costing them 10 yards the play before kicker Nick Folk had a 52-yard field-goal attempt blocked. If Smith is going to develop into a serviceable starter, it's almost certainly going to take place somewhere else.

      --C Nick Mangold (left ankle) was carted off the field in the second quarter of the Jets' 17-16 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. Mangold was injured when a Patriots player appeared to accidentally roll into him at the end of a 14-yard run out of the Wildcat by RB Bilal Powell. X-rays revealed no break, but Mangold, who was in a walking boot and on crutches after the game, said he will undergo more tests Monday. Mangold, who missed just five snaps all season before getting hurt, has played in all but two games as a pro since the Jets selected him in the first round of the 2006 draft.

      --WR Percy Harvin (ribs) did not return after getting injured in the third quarter of the Jets' 17-16 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. Head coach Rex Ryan had no update on Harvin following the game. Harvin had four catches for 44 yards, two rushes for 1 yard and a 19-yard kickoff return before getting hurt.

      --QB Geno Smith struggled in the second half of the Jets' 17-16 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. Smith oversaw an 87-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter that he ended with a 20-yard strike to a wide-open TE Jeff Cumberland. But the Patriots scored the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter just eight plays after Smith was intercepted by Patriots LB Jamie Collins. Later in the fourth, Smith took two sacks, one of which forced the Jets to settle for a field goal and the other costing the Jets 10 yards the play before K Nick Folk had a 52-yard field goal attempt blocked. Smith finished 17-of-27 for 210 yards.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Falcons-Saints: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    NEW ORLEANS -- They are far from perfect -- and, if truth be told, maybe even far from mediocre -- but the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons, incredibly, have the NFC South title in their sights with one game left in the season.

    • After routing the New Orleans Saints 30-14 Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- completing a season sweep of the Saints, and sending New Orleans (6-9) to its fifth consecutive home loss and eliminating them from playoff contention -- the Falcons can win the NFC South by defeating the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) next Sunday in Atlanta.

      Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 322 yards and one touchdown and Matt Bryant kicked three field goals to provide the offensive spark.

      "We'll enjoy this tonight, but we'll be moving on (to Carolina) pretty quickly," Ryan said. "We'll go ahead and make sure we have a great plan for next week."

      But it was the dormant Atlanta defense -- ranked dead last in the NFL after allowing nearly 410 yards per game through 14 games -- that made the difference against the league's second-best offense.

      The Falcons entered the game with a league-low 16 sacks, but they got to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times, harassed him consistently, intercepted him twice and forced two fumbles.

      The last fumble came on the game's final play -- a strip sack by defensive end Kroy Biermann in the final seconds that defensive end Osi Umenyiora picked up and returned 86 yards for a score.

      On his way to the end zone, Umenyiora turned to wave goodbye to the Saints, who were eliminated from the playoff picture.

      "That's about as bad a feeling as you could ever have," said Brees, who threw for 313 yards but was picked off twice, including a pick by cornerback Robert McClain with 2:28 left with the Saints trailing 20-13 to kill any chance for a comeback. "It's disappointing to know that with two games left we controlled our own destiny."

      When rookie running back Devonta Freeman dashed 31 yards for a touchdown with 5:42 left in the third quarter, the Falcons extended their lead to 20-7.

      The critical play in the game may have come on the Saints' next series. Brees moved the Saints to a first down at the Atlanta 14, and he completed a pass near the goal line to tight end Jimmy Graham that would have put the Saints within 20-14.

      As Graham pushed his way to the goal line, he was sandwiched by safeties Dezmen Southward and Kemal Ishmael, and Ishmael reached in to strip the ball from his grasp and recover the fumble. The turnover call was upheld upon video review.

      Saints coach Sean Payton did not agree.

      "It's something you can't control," Payton said. "There's only one (replay) angle that matters. Do I think it was a score? Yes. The one look we had that they continued to show, it looked pretty clear, but it is what it is. They go back to New York now with that (replay), and it's disappointing."

      Falcons coach Mike Smith said he might have a biased view, but he thought the call was correct.

      "It was a critical play in the ball game," Smith said. "We talked about attacking the ball and winning the turnover battle. That was a big-time play. He went in, raked the ball out and created the turnover. From my view, I didn't think that the ball crossed the plane. I didn't think there was enough evidence to overturn it. I think they got it right."

      Referee John Parry told a pool reporter after the game:

      "We spent the full 60 seconds, and we looked at every replay angle. We primarily focused on the angle that was -- I wouldn't say exactly -- but was pretty close to being down on the goal line to try to determine if it was either a score and or a catch/fumble recovered by Atlanta. There was nothing clear and indisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field. If we would have ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score. If we ruled catch/fumble, recovered Atlanta, nothing enough to change it."

      Brees did get the Saints within 20-14 with 5:48 left, marching 87 yards on 12 plays before hitting Graham with a 4-yard, back-shoulder throw against Ishmael. Brees completed 8 of 11 passes for 80 yards on the drive.

      Trailing by six, the Saints got the ball back at their 10 with 2:40 left. But cornerback Robert McClain undercut Brees' sideline throw for wide receiver Nick Toon for a decisive interception at the Saints' 13. Bryant's third field goal of the game -- from 32 yards -- iced the game, 23-14, with 1:56 left.

      What the Falcons said:

      "That was big-time play. He got a good jump on the route. He got a jump on the quarterback's vision." -- Coach Mike Smith on the interception of Drew Brees in the final 2 1/2 minutes by cornerback Robert McClain.

      "That was a good effort play. Jimmy (Graham) was in the matchup with of our other safeties, and that's a mismatch with anybody. It was just an effort play. I didn't want him to get in the end zone with everything on the line. Whatever it takes to win." -- Safety Kemal Ishmael on stripping Saints tight end Jimmy Graham on the goal line.

      What the Saints said:

      "It's not a head-scratcher. It's pretty clear. There are some things we have to look closely at. I really don't look at it like it's puzzling. The things you need to do to play consistently and win in this league, we haven't done those consistently. We have done it at times, any yet not consistently enough." -- Coach Sean Payton on the mystery of the Saints' 6-9 season.

      What we learned about the Falcons:

      1. The Falcons' defense may be ranked near or at the bottom of the league, but they have made big strides in the last few weeks. The Falcons sacked Drew Brees five times for 42 yards in losses after having recorded just 16 sacks in the previous 14 games. They also played tight coverage, forcing Brees to hold on to the ball much longer than he likes.

      "I'm proud of the guys we have in this locker room," said cornerback Robert McClain, who intercepted Brees with 2:28 left. "We have guys who believe, and we're going to keep fighting, regardless of anybody's numbers -- whether we're top 5 or whatever."

      2. Wide receiver Julio Jones may be the bionic receiver. After missing last week with a severe oblique strain, which stretched from his rib cage to his hip, Jones gutted it out and caught seven passes for 107 yards. No catch was bigger than the 24-yard seam route to the New Orleans' 3-yard line that set up Atlanta's go-ahead touchdown at the end of the half. Jones now has 100 catches for 1,535 on the season.

      "He make it easy to trust him going down the middle," said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. "He's such a freak, such a beast."

      --RB Devonta Freeman showed nifty feet in stepping out of a diving arm tackle by Saints S Kenny Vaccaro on his way to a 31-yard TD early in the second half, giving Atlanta a 20-7 lead. QB Matt Ryan also said the rookie Freeman did an excellent job in pass protection after being forced to play more snaps due to an injury to RB Steven Jackson.

      --WR Eric Weems got a gift score -- a 3-yard shovel pass from Matt Ryan -- on Atlanta's final play of the half. Ryan rolled a few step to his right, looking as though he might throw the ball into the right flat, before flipping it forward to Weems up the middle. Weems went in untouched. "That was a great play call by (offensive coordinator) Dirk (Koetter)," Ryan said. "You need great timing to pull it out. That's one of the ones we practiced all week. We got the coverage we wanted, but you have to sell it."

      --K Matt Bryant has been a Saints' assassin this season. In a 37-34 overtime victory in Atlanta to open the season, Bryant kicked a 51-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. He won it in overtime with a 52-yarder. In the 30-14 victory Sunday, Bryant kicked field goals of 44, 50 and 32. An incredible stat: opposing kickers made every field-goal attempt in the Superdome this season.

      What we learned about the Saints:

      1. The Saints haven't publicized it, but tight end Jimmy Graham has not played at 100 percent this season since injuring his right shoulder in September. Three plays told you everything you needed to know. The first two came when Graham short-armed passes from Drew Brees over the middle that he normally would have vacuumed up. Graham raised his left arm but not his right, a sign he's definitely hurting. Then, on the critical play of the game, Graham allowed safety Kemal Ishmael to strip him of the ball inches away from the goal, a touchdown that would have cut the deficit to 20-14 with more than a quarter to play. Graham caught six passes for 53 yards, but he has been playing tentatively for three months.

      2. The Saints need to seriously address their offensive line in the 2015 draft and/or free agency. When Brees wasn't running for his life, he was being pounded into the ground by the normally toothless Atlanta pass rush. Even when Brees has been able to set his feet in the pocket this season, he has been uncharacteristically off target on several throws that he would have dialed in during previous seasons. Brees deflected criticism of the offensive line after the game, but it's a glaring weakness for an offense that relies on timing and getting the ball out quickly.

      --RB Pierre Thomas missed several games earlier this year with an unspecified chest injury. He went down again in the first half with what was classified as a rib injury. Thomas caught two passes for 24 yards, and he was missed as an option in the Saints' screen game.

      --RB Mark Ingram's rushing production has tailed off in the last month. Ingram still leads the Saints with 907 yards on 212 carries (a 4.3-yard average), but he has gained just 140 yards on 40 carries (a 3.5-yard average) in his last three games.

      --QB Drew Brees made his 200th NFL start Sunday, including 142nd as a Saint. His 313 yards passing marked his 80th 300-yard passing game as a Saint and 85th game overall -- second-most in NFL history. Brees (30 of 47) completed 30 or more passes for the 44th time in his career, extending his own league record.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Panthers-Browns: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers kept believing and now it is almost hard to believe they have surged into first place in the NFC South.

    • "By the time December rolled around, we were a team ready to roll again," linebacker Luke Kuechly said.

      The Panthers moved to the verge of a playoff spot as Cam Newton's 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Jonathan Stewart with 7:07 remaining propelled them to a 17-13 victory against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

      The first-place Panthers (6-8-1), who have won three games in a row, can win the NFC South by avenging a loss to the Falcons in next week's finale in Atlanta.

      "Regardless of what we've been through, we found a way to bounce back," fullback Mike Tolbert said.

      The Panthers enter a type of playoff mindset to end the regular season because it is a winner-take-all matchup with Atlanta.

      "Tell (the guys) to smell the atmosphere," veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "We're playing in December and I love playing in this role."

      Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel departed late in the first half with an injury and that left Newton, who is also a Heisman Trophy winner, as the player to come up with a clutch play.

      Newton, who returned after a one-game absence with a back injury suffered in a Dec. 9 automobile wreck, completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards with one interception.

      "It was somewhat tiring to go through so much," Newton said of the ordeal involving the accident. "For me to come out of an accident like that, all praises go to God."

      Newton also gained 63 rushing yards on 12 carries, keeping the Cleveland defense out of sync.

      "The run game makes him dynamic and he brought that to the table and he made something happen," Browns defensive lineman Billy Winn said. "I honestly didn't think he was going to run because of the whole car accident thing."

      Cleveland (7-8) lost its fourth game in a row.

      The Browns snatched a 13-10 lead on Brian Hoyer's 81-yard pass play to tight end Jordan Cameron with 9:59 left. It also marked Cleveland's first touchdown in nine quarters.

      Carolina bounced back with a go-ahead, seven-play drive of 66 yards that consumed less than three minutes.

      "On the sideline, we believe," offensive tackle Byron Bell said. "We went out there and drove the ball and we scored."

      On the first play after Carolina took a 17-13 lead, Panthers cornerback Josh Norman intercepted an underthrown Hoyer pass. But he fumbled it back on a play that netted Cleveland 9 yards.

      After gaining a first down at the Carolina 47, the Browns lost yards on back-to-back plays and ended up punting. Carolina kept the ball the rest of the game.

      Stewart rushed for 122 yards on 24 carries, including a game-clinching first-down pickup of 30 yards.

      Garrett Hartley kicked field goals of 43 and 31 yards for the Browns. Hoyer completed 7 of 13 tosses for 134 yards.

      The Browns were within 10-6 late in the third quarter after Winn's interception of Newton's pass at the Browns 44 preceded a Cleveland field goal.

      Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, departed with a first-half hamstring injury. He was making his second career NFL start, and his first away from home.

      Manziel, carrying the ball on what looked like a designed scramble, was drilled by Carolina safety Colin Jones and linebacker Luke Kuechly as he was running out of bounds at the 19-yard line.

      Manziel said the injury actually occurred a play earlier when his foot slipped on a throw. One play later, he felt worse.

      "I just felt like something that I hadn't experienced before and felt I needed to get checked out," he said. "You know, pretty frustrating."

      He took a 1-yard loss on the play, which occurred with 1:49 remaining in the first half.

      Manziel was helped to the Browns sideline. Then he headed for additional treatment with a towel draped over his head as he went up a stadium tunnel.

      Manziel, who completed 3 of 8 passes for 32 yards, had two carries for 3 yards. He said he could have re-entered the game in the second half.

      "This was a learning process for me and regardless of what happens moving forward into this last game of the season, this has really been a great thing for me," Manziel said. "I was a lot sharper (this week) and a lot more on top of this stuff."

      The Panthers built a 10-3 lead, with Newton's 2-yard, third-down keeper with 1:55 remaining in the first half.

      The highlight of the 12-play drive was a leaping catch by wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on third down for 18 yards.

      Any questions about Newton's condition should have been answered when he carried the ball for two first downs among the game's first three snaps.

      "I just tried to take what the defense gave me," Newton said. "I didn't take any hits today."

      What the Panthers said:

      "Unfortunately we didn't play up to our abilities the whole season, but right now it is December and all that matters is winning this game (at Atlanta) and getting into the playoffs." -- Running back Jonathan Stewart as the Panthers ride a three-game winning streak into a winner-take-all finale.

      What the Browns said:

      "Everybody hates losing. I know myself, I hate losing and I'm a sore loser. We just have to re-evaluate ourselves and come in ready to work every day and put the pieces together." -- Running back Isaiah Crowell on the Browns' four-game losing streak.

      What we learned about the Panthers:

      1. The Panthers are willing to allow quarterback Cam Newton to move the ball on the ground even amid a season that has involved injuries at the onset and during the late stages. Newton's 63 rushing yards came at critical times against the Browns in his first game back after missing a game because of an automobile accident. He had 12 carries in the game, including a couple that picked up yardage for first downs on the game's opening possession. By the end, his rushing output marked the third-largest total of the season. With Jonathan Stewart running strong as well, the Panthers have a diverse rushing attack.

      2. The Panthers have allowed their defense to set the tone during the stretch run, much like it did throughout the 2013 season. The Panthers have held three consecutive opponents to less than 20 points during their three-game winning streak. Among the rewarding parts in the victory against Cleveland was that the defense had to implement two different plans because the scouting report was vastly different for starting quarterback Johnny Manziel compared to backup Brian Hoyer.

      --QB Cam Newton said there was no definitive point during the week that he knew he would play against Cleveland after missing one game following an automobile accident in which he suffered two fractures in his lower back. He said he wasn't on any special pain killers prior to the game, though he did come in earlier than normal for extra stretching. Newton completed 18 of 31 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown with one interception. He rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries. Next week's finale against the Atlanta Falcons to decide the NFC South champion will be played in his hometown of Atlanta.

      --TE Greg Olsen had a rather tame game by his standards with only three catches for 21 yards after several big outings in a row. He will need 19 receiving yards in the finale to secure the first 1,000-yard receiving season in his eight-year career. He's a prime contender for the Pro Bowl and arguably Carolina's most consistent performer on offense.

      --LB A.J. Klein, who had worked his way into the starting lineup, was on the inactive list for the game against Cleveland with a knee injury that deemed him questionable going into the weekend. Klein, a second-year pro, has been used largely on first- and second-down situations in Carolina's defensive alignment. LB Adarius Glanton drew the start in Klein's spot and made five tackles.

      What we learned about the Browns

      1. The Browns are willing to experiment with some younger players and they are not all at high-profile spots on offense. The secondary might be at the forefront of the defensive scrutiny, with rookie defensive back Pierre Desir drawing a starting assignment at Carolina and matching up with touted rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. "I thought he made some plays," coach Mike Pettine said of Desir. "To me, he had a better week (in practice) and we had a little bit more confidence in him."

      2. The Browns are still trying to figure out their quarterback situation and they have one more game to play before evaluating the setup during the offseason. Johnny Manziel has started two games, and in six quarters has yet to produce a touchdown drive. Brian Hoyer didn't exactly light it up in his relief performance against Carolina. In a little more than one half, Hoyer threw for 134 yards -- though 81 of those came on one play. "He made a couple of throws," coach Mike Pettine said of Hoyer. "I know it was tough for him coming in cold and not getting the majority of the reps this week in practice."

      --QB Johnny Manziel could be in the mix to start the finale at Baltimore based on postgame comments regarding his condition. He said cramping of the hamstring was at the crux of the problem when he left with less than two minutes remaining in the first half at Carolina. He said he's anxious for more opportunities. "I want to be out there with those guys and it's frustrating when you can't," he said, pointing out he was available to return in the second half. Manziel finished 3 of 8 for 32 yards and ran twice for 3 yards.

      --OL Ryan Seymour suffered a first-half hamstring injury at Carolina. His absence along the line was evident in the second half when the Browns had trouble containing the Panthers' defensive front. QB Brian Hoyer was sacked three times in the second half.

      --LB Scott Solomon was added to the active roster from the practice squad and he made an impact in the game against Carolina. His tackle of Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart for a loss of 2 yards forced the Panthers to punt on the final play of the third quarter. Solomon added a fourth-quarter sack and was credited with taking part in four tackles.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Bills CB Gilmore suffers possible concussion
    By The Sports Xchange

    OAKLAND, Calif. -- Buffalo Bills starting right cornerback Stephon Gilmore sustained a possible concussion with7:23 left in the third quarter Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

    • While tackling Raiders wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, Gilmore banged the back of his head on the ground.

      After being examined by Buffalo's medical staff, Gilmore left the game and was, according to the Bills, being evaluated for a concussion. At the end of the third quarter, the Bills announced that Gilmore would not return.

      Gilmore has started 14 games this season and has three interceptions.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Packers-Buccaneers: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    TAMPA, Fla. -- A week after a performance he called a "stinker," Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers found himself battling with the flu and a strained calf.

    • With the way the Packers' defense played Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, Rodgers didn't need to do much as Green Bay clinched its sixth straight playoff berth under coach Mike McCarthy.

      The Packers punched their postseason ticket and set up a de facto NFC North championship game against the Detroit Lions by beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-3 at Raymond James Stadium.

      The Packers (11-4) rebounded from a 21-13 loss at Buffalo last week but did so largely behind their defense, which harassed Bucs quarterback Josh McCown all afternoon, sacked him seven times and allowed only 109 total yards.

      Green Bay's defense hasn't given up a touchdown in two weeks.

      "Obviously this is a game we needed to qualify for the playoffs. As we leave here, looking forward to next week for the opportunity to win the division," McCarthy said. "It started and ended with defense today, just the constant pressure, the seven sacks. They controlled the game for us today."

      Rodgers, meanwhile, was under the weather all week and strained his calf on the Packers' second series.

      He still finished the game with 318 yards and a late touchdown on 31-for-40 passing. Receiver Randall Cobb reeled in 11 passes for 131 yards, and Jordy Nelson had nine receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown.

      "Yeah, it was tough. I didn't think I could run very well. I was able to just kind of push through it," Rodgers said. "The line did a good job blocking so I didn't really have to move a whole lot to get out of the pocket."

      Running back Eddie Lacy racked up 99 yards and a 44-yard touchdown on 17 carries as he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the season.

      The Packers will face the Lions next week at Lambeau Field in their regular-season finale. The winner will finish atop the NFC North.

      The Buccaneers (2-13) have not won a game at home this season. They will play the Saints next week to wrap up the regular season and are still in contention for the No. 1 overall draft pick.

      What the Packers said:

      "You see him do things on the football field as far as making plays and this and that. I think the last couple days, you see the kind of warrior he is. He battled whatever illness he had the last couple days then goes out and strains his calf the first or second series. … Just a really gritty, gritty performance by Aaron." -- coach Mike McCarthy on QB Aaron Rodgers' performance

      "It says a lot about the organization and the way they treat people, but also the appreciation that the guys have for the opportunity to play for such a franchise. And the leadership's been good those year." -- QB Aaron Rodgers on the Packers' six straight playoff berths

      What the Bucs said:

      "We do see the light at the end of the tunnel. … There are a lot of positives. But you can't really talk about it until we start winning football games. That day will come. We're not there now." -- coach Lovie Smith

      "It's like basketball on grass. They got guys going everywhere. They know what they are doing. It's like a well-oiled machine. They do what they do well; they make adjustments well. They are a good offensive football team." -- DE Michael Johnson on the Packers

      What we learned about the Packers:

      1. The defense is rounding into form. Granted, the Bills and the Bucs aren't exactly the most dangerous offensive teams in the NFL, but the Packers haven't given up an offensive touchdown to either each of the last two weeks. They held Tampa Bay to a mere 109 yards of offense in Sunday's 20-3 victory. They sacked quarterback Josh McCown seven times and put a ton of pressure on him several other times. Clay Matthews was all over the field, a good sign for their defense. In short, since allowing 37 points to the Falcons two weeks ago, they've stepped up defensively. "Everyone was on the same page. Everyone was communicating and clicking on all cylinders. That's the way it has to be at this time," safety Morgan Burnett said. "I know it's not the playoffs, but this is considered the playoffs for us. We have to treat every game like it's the most important game, which it is." Coach Mike McCarthy also called Sunday "probably one of our best performances," which is where they'll need to be in next week's de facto NFC South championship game against the Lions.

      2. Their offense is going to have to be better next week. As prolific as this group can be, they only managed 13 points against the Bills last week and 20 against the Bucs on Sunday. The Lions will be a much tougher matchup in the regular-season finale, and the Packers will have to be at the top of their game. It will help to have quarterback Aaron Rodgers healthy, if he's recovered from his calf strain by then. There were encouraging elements in Sunday's performance, particularly in how well balanced Green Bay's game plan was. Eddie Lacy ran 17 times for 99 yards and a touchdown, and Rodgers completed 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown despite his illness and injury. Randall Cobb caught 11 balls on 14 targets and racked up 131 yards. Jordy Nelson caught all nine of his targets for 113 yards. Most teams would take a 100-yard rusher, a 300-yard passer and two 100-yard receivers, obviously. But the Lions have one of the NFL's top defenses, particularly up front, and the Packers know they'll have to be on top of their game to claim the NFC South title. "It's exciting," Rodgers said. "Detroit's playing really good. They're already in the playoffs. They've got a great defense, one of the best in the league if not the best."

      --QB Aaron Rodgers was under the weather (flu) and injured (strained calf), but he still managed to complete 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards and a late touchdown in Sunday's 20-3 win over the Bucs in Tampa. Rodgers hurt his calf on the Packers' second drive and Green Bay had to adjust its game plan as a result, working in more short and quick passes so Rodgers didn't have to roll out. He admitted afterward that some of his deep passes were lacking because of his injury, but he was mostly able to do everything asked of him thanks to the Packers' solid protection up front. Asked if the injury will affect him in the Packers' season finale against the Lions, Rodgers said, "It's too early to give a 100 percent guarantee, but it would definitely take a lot to hold me out of that game."

      --RB Eddie Lacy nearly put up 100 yards on the ground for the third time in the last four weeks -- and he rushed for 125 yards the week before that stretch -- as he compiled 99 yards on 17 carries and dashed for a 44-yard touchdown in the Packers' 20-3 win over the Bucs on Sunday in Tampa. Lacy averaged 5.8 yards per carry. After a rough start to the season, Lacy surpassed the 1,000-yard mark with a total of 1,039 heading into the season finale.

      --WR Randall Cobb enjoyed one of the best games of his career in Sunday's 20-3 win over the Bucs. Cobb reeled in 11 passes for 131 yards, both season highs, for an average of 11.9 yards per reception. He was targeted by quarterback Aaron Rodgers a team-high 14 times. Cobb now has 1,207 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. "We were able to move the ball well," Cobb said. "We understand that moving forward we have to continue to find a way to put the points up and put our defense in a better situation to give them a little more cushion."

      What we learned about the Bucs:

      1. Their offense might be getting worse. Injuries have certainly taken their toll, and some credit here goes to the Packers defense on Sunday. But it's the second-to-last week of the season, and the Bucs managed a whopping 109 total yards of offense. At one point near the end of the first half, they had negative-1 yard. "It's hard to win games when you put up that type of offensive production, which was very little," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. Most of the blame falls on the offensive line, which has been consistently terrible this season in a way that affects the quarterback (who has no time in the pocket) and running backs (who have no holes to run through). That said, Josh McCown has made too many mistakes and Doug Martin has rarely looked explosive. The only two threats on the Bucs offense are receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, and it shows as they're both about to pass the 1,000-yard mark on the year. "To just pinpoint and just blame it on one particular area just wouldn't be right," Smith said. "Who's the culprit? It's all of the above. … Today, didn't seem like we made a lot of progress, but we've played better than we played today."

      2. Their defense is no joke. Sure, they gave up 20 points and lost Sunday's game, and they gave up 431 total yards while Aaron Rodgers was hobbled by a strained calf. None of that's good. But the Bucs still managed to keep the game close most of the way without star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and without linebacker Mason Foster. They've had to find their way with guys like Danny Lansanah at linebacker, Bradley McDougald at safety and Jacquies Smith at defensive end. Michael Johnson looked pretty good at times coming off the edge Sunday, an encouraging sign. It wasn't enough at the end of the day, but for a team with so many things to improve heading into next season, the fact that the defense might turn out to be at least average is a step in the right direction. "Defensively we hung in there and kept them out of the end zone a lot," coach Lovie Smith said. "Added cornerback Alterraun Verner: "But as long as you're not getting the win, there's really nothing positive. We still left plays on the field. We could have dominated this game."

      --QB Josh McCown put together three decent-to-solid games upon returning from a thumb injury, but his performance of late has slipped. McCown completed 12 of 26 passes on Sunday for 147 yards and an interception. He was sacked seven times and hurried several others. "Absolutely there are things to be excited for after [this season ends], but right now we have to try and finish on a better note," McCown said. Coach Lovie Smith deflected a question after Sunday's loss about whether young backup quarterback Mike Glennon should be playing late in this lost season, and there has been some speculation that the Bucs will draft a quarterback in the first round of next year's draft.

      --RB Doug Martin struggled badly once again in Sunday's 20-3 loss to the Packers. Martin amassed only 17 yard on 10 carries and didn't break out a run longer than 4 yards. Granted, some of that falls on the Bucs' porous offensive line. But Martin, seemingly a breakout star in 2012, has managed only 386 rushing yards on 115 carries this year -- an average of 3.4 yards. "It's something that we'll get to," Martin said. "It'll take some time, but in the future, we will get better in all phases of the game."

      --OT Anthony Collins was listed among the Bucs' inactive players for the third straight week Sunday after losing his starting left tackle job last week. Tampa Bay signed Collins to a five-year, $30 million deal in March, but his future with the team appears to be in doubt as they try to work with Demar Dotson at left tackle. Offensive line play has been perhaps the Bucs' greatest weakness amid a rough year all around.

      --LB Mason Foster left Sunday's game in the first quarter with an Achilles injury and did not return. Foster said afterward he was "trying to get through it, but the pain wasn't going away -- it stayed with me. I kept pushing, but it was making me limp." Foster said even if he had been able to push through it and get back on the field, he didn't feel well enough to help the team. Foster's status for next week's regular-season finale against the Saints is unclear.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Falcons inch closer to NFC South title
    By The Sports Xchange

    NEW ORLEANS -- They are far from perfect -- and, if truth be told, maybe even far from mediocre -- but the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons, incredibly, have the NFC South title in their sights with one game left in the season.

    • After routing the New Orleans Saints 30-14 Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- completing a season sweep of the Saints, and sending New Orleans (6-9) to its fifth consecutive home loss and eliminating them from playoff contention -- the Falcons can win the NFC South by defeating the Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) next Sunday in Atlanta.

      Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 322 yards and one touchdown and Matt Bryant kicked three field goals to provide the offensive spark.

      "We'll enjoy this tonight, but we'll be moving on (to Carolina) pretty quickly," Ryan said. "We'll go ahead and make sure we have a great plan for next week."

      But it was the dormant Atlanta defense -- ranked dead last in the NFL after allowing nearly 410 yards per game through 14 games -- that made the difference against the league's second-best offense.

      The Falcons entered the game with a league-low 16 sacks, but they got to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times, harassed him consistently, intercepted him twice and forced two fumbles.

      The last fumble came on the game's final play -- a strip sack by defensive end Kroy Biermann in the final seconds that defensive end Osi Umenyiora picked up and returned 86 yards for a score.

      On his way to the end zone, Umenyiora turned to wave goodbye to the Saints, who were eliminated from the playoff picture.

      "That's about as bad a feeling as you could ever have," said Brees, who threw for 313 yards but was picked off twice, including a pick by cornerback Robert McClain with 2:28 left with the Saints trailing 20-13 to kill any chance for a comeback. "It's disappointing to know that with two games left we controlled our own destiny."

      When rookie running back Devonta Freeman dashed 31 yards for a touchdown with 5:42 left in the third quarter, the Falcons extended their lead to 20-7.

      The critical play in the game may have come on the Saints' next series. Brees moved the Saints to a first down at the Atlanta 14, and he completed a pass near the goal line to tight end Jimmy Graham that would have put the Saints within 20-14.

      As Graham pushed his way to the goal line, he was sandwiched by safeties Dezmen Southward and Kemal Ishmael, and Ishmael reached in to strip the ball from his grasp and recover the fumble. The turnover call was upheld upon video review.

      Saints coach Sean Payton did not agree.

      "It's something you can't control," Payton said. "There's only one (replay) angle that matters. Do I think it was a score? Yes. The one look we had that they continued to show, it looked pretty clear, but it is what it is. They go back to New York now with that (replay), and it's disappointing."

      Falcons coach Mike Smith said he might have a biased view, but he thought the call was correct.

      "It was a critical play in the ball game," Smith said. "We talked about attacking the ball and winning the turnover battle. That was a big-time play. He went in, raked the ball out and created the turnover. From my view, I didn't think that the ball crossed the plane. I didn't think there was enough evidence to overturn it. I think they got it right."

      Referee John Parry told a pool reporter after the game:

      "We spent the full 60 seconds, and we looked at every replay angle. We primarily focused on the angle that was -- I wouldn't say exactly -- but was pretty close to being down on the goal line to try to determine if it was either a score and or a catch/fumble recovered by Atlanta. There was nothing clear and indisputable to make a change to the ruling from the field. If we would have ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score. If we ruled catch/fumble, recovered Atlanta, nothing enough to change it."

      Brees did get the Saints within 20-14 with 5:48 left, marching 87 yards on 12 plays before hitting Graham with a 4-yard, back-shoulder throw against Ishmael. Brees completed 8 of 11 passes for 80 yards on the drive.

      Trailing by six, the Saints got the ball back at their 10 with 2:40 left. But cornerback Robert McClain undercut Brees' sideline throw for wide receiver Nick Toon for a decisive interception at the Saints' 13. Bryant's third field goal of the game -- from 32 yards -- iced the game, 23-14, with 1:56 left.

      "They had been running those kind of routes the whole game, and if saw him drop his hips, I was going to go attack him," McClain said. "Luckily I was able to get the ball."

      The Saints' high-powered offense was non-existent in the first half, getting only a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram on New Orleans' first offensive play upheld that came at the end of a 99-yard, opening kickoff return by rookie Jalen Saunders. Cornerback Javier Arenas wrestled Saunders down just short of the goal line, but Ingram got the touchdown on the next play.

      After that, the Falcons controlled the first half, getting field goals of 44 and 50 yards from Bryant and a touchdown with three seconds left in the half on a 3-yard shovel pass from Ryan to wide receiver Eric Weems.

      NOTES: The Falcons lost RB Steven Jackson and S William Moore to injuries. Their status for next week is uncertain. ... Saints RB Pierre Thomas left with a rib injury. ... In two games against the Saints this year, K Matt Bryant has six field goals, including three from 50 yards or longer.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Dolphins-Vikings: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins failed to make the playoffs for the sixth straight year but still managed to save their coach's job.

    • Moments after Miami rallied to defeat the Minnesota Vikings 37-35 on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross announced that coach Joe Philbin will return next season.

      "You don't have to keep asking me that question," Ross said, alluding to the rumors that Philbin would be fired after this season. "The coach is coming back. The coach has a year on his contract, and we're bringing him back.

      "I believe in what we are building, and I believe in this coach. He's the right guy."

      Miami was pushed out of the playoff race earlier Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Kansas City Chiefs.

      Back at Sun Life, the winning points were scored on a safety with 41 seconds left.

      Vikings punter Jeff Locke fielded a low snap on one hop, and Dolphins backup defensive end Terrence Fede blocked the punt out of the end zone.

      "We intimidated the long snapper, and he gave us a bad snap," said Fede, crediting tight end Dion Sims and linebacker Jason Trusnik with the intimidation. "When I saw (the snap) on the ground, I aborted the mission and went for the block."

      Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill passed for 396 yards and a career-high four touchdowns to help the Dolphins (8-7) end a two-game losing streak.

      Tannehill's performance spoiled the homecoming of Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who is from Miami.

      Bridgewater completed 19 of 26 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns for Minnesota (6-9). Bridgewater is now 5-6 as a starter.

      "It's tough," Bridgewater said of the loss, "especially being from Miami. I probably won't hear the end of it."

      What the Dolphins said:

      "I want to compete for championships, so it's disappointing we're not in (the playoffs)." -- coach Joe Philbin.

      What the Vikings said:

      "It was not a good day for us. We made too many mistakes. We had penalties in crucial situations. It just wasn't a good day." -- coach Mike Zimmer.

      What we learned about the Dolphins:

      1. Head coach Joe Philbin is coming back. It's a bit of a surprise because the Dolphins have been eliminated for the playoffs for the sixth straight year. The Dolphins went 8-8 last season, and owner Stephen Ross, when he announced that Philbin was coming back for 2014, said he wanted to see progress. Well, the Dolphins are now 8-7 and out of the playoffs with one more game to go. Even if the Dolphins beat the lowly New York Jets next week, that would not represent much progress.

      2. Dolphins running back Lamar Miller can run late in games. Miller came in averaging 5.4 yards for his first 10 carries in a game and just 2.5 in his next 10. In addition, in the first halves of Miami's past three losses, he had a combined total of 151 yards on 28 carries and just nine yards on 12 carries in the second half. On Sunday against Minnesota, however, he ran for 48 yards on his first 10 carries and 44 yards on his next nine.

      --QB Ryan Tannehill passed for 396 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes in a 37-35 win over Minnesota. Tannehill was highly accurate, completing 35 of his 47 passes for 74.4 percent. Trailing 35-28 with 4:40 left in the game, Tannehill engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive that was capped by his three-yard pass to Damien Williams. Tannehill helped the Dolphins convert 9 of 13 on third downs.

      --RB Lamar Miller had perhaps his best game of the year, compiling a season-high 150 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown. Miller ran 19 times for 92 yards and a 4.8 average. He also caught five passes for 58 yards. It was the second most rushing yards he has had this season and most in terms of receiving yards.

      --WR Mike Wallace had five receptions for 58 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Minnesota. For the season, Wallace has 10 touchdown catches, which ties his career personal best, which he set in 2010. In addition, he has 70 catches this season for 862 yards.

      --WR Jarvis Landry had eight catches for 31 yards. He now has 71 catches this season, which broke Terry Kirby's record for most receptions by a Dolphins rookie. Landry had a costly mistake late in the game on a fumbled kickoff return, but the Dolphins rallied to win, minimizing the error. Overall, though, Landry has showed tremendous toughness this season as a receiver and kick returner.

      What we learned about the Vikings:

      1. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is progressing nicely. Bridgewater completed 19 out of 26 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on Sunday against Miami. Bridgewater is now 5-6 as a starter, but he has passed for more than 250 yards in each of his past three games.

      2. The Vikings played conservatively in a key situation and got beat. With eight seconds left in the first half, Minnesota led 14-7 and had the ball inside the Dolphins one-yard line. Minnesota tried a throw into the end zone, but it fell incomplete. The play took just two seconds. Rather than try a similar play on third and goal, the Vikings -- worried that a sack or some other bad play would take them out of a sure-fire field goal -- decided to kick. They got the field goal and a 17-7 lead, but they left four points on the table in what turned into a 37-35 loss.

      --QB Teddy Bridgewater, who is in Miami, had an unhappy homecoming. Playing at Sun Life Stadium for the first time in his career, Bridgewater completed 19 out of 26 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Bridgewater is now 5-6 as a starter, but he has passed for more than 250 yards in each of his past three games.

      --RB Matt Asiata, who is in his third year in the NFL, has been pressed into much more action this season due to the suspension of Adrian Peterson. Asiata entered Sunday's game with a career-high 421 yards. He added to his totals with 16 carries for 58 yards and two touchdowns. Asiata, a Mormon of Samoan descent, was undrafted out of college (Utah) and was cut twice by the Vikings before finally sticking. He is not a game-breaker but has turned into a solid pro.

      --WR Greg Jennings had three catches for 56 yards and one touchdown. His touchdown grab -- a 21-yarder -- was outstanding, reaching to grab a high and hard pass. But Jennings is an old pro -- he has more than 50 catches in seven of his past eight seasons. Jennings, 31, is past his prime years of 2008-10, when he had three consecutive years of more than 1,100 yards. But he is still competitive.

      --TE Kyle Rudolph has had another disappointing season. The second-round pick out of Notre Dame had a breakout year in 2012, catching 53 passes and nine touchdowns. But in the past two years combined, Rudolph has just 54 receptions for five touchdowns. He played just eight games last year due to a broken foot. And he has played just eight games this season, missing Sunday's game due to an ankle injury.

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    NFL roundup: Philbin will return as Dolphins coach
    By The Sports Xchange

    Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin will be back with the team next year, the final season of his contract.

    • "I believe in what we're building, Coach Philbin is coming back next year," Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in the locker room after Miami rallied from a 14-0 deficit to beat the Vikings with a blocked punt.

      "Here's a Christmas present. You don't have to ask me anymore. He has one year left on his contract and is coming back."

      The Dolphins were eliminated from the playoff picture by virtue of the Pittsburgh Steelers' victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

      The Dolphins are 8-7.

      --Unless the Atlanta Falcons qualify for the playoffs and make a serious run, coach Mike Smith is expected to be fired at the end of the season, CBSSports.com reported.

      According to the report, team owner Arthur Blank has told several people that he plans on letting Smith go when the season is over. However, Blank expects to keep general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

      --San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is playing with a bulging disk in his lower back, ESPN reported.

      According to the report, doctors fear that the injury is on the brink of being herniated.

      Rivers led the Chargers to a come-from-behind 38-35 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday. San Diego trailed 28-7 at the half.

      --Despite being benched last week, Jay Cutler will likely return as the quarterback of the Chicago Bears and with a new coaching staff and perhaps general manager, according to CBSSports.com.

      Second-year head coach Marc Trestman is expected to be fired and general manager Phil Emery could also be ousted at the end of the season. However, the Bears may be stuck with Cutler for at least two more years because of his big contract.

      Cutler is guaranteed $16 million next season and $10 million of his $16 million salary in 2016 becomes fully guaranteed in March. Cutler reportedly is unwilling to change his contract to help him get traded. He also wants to wait and see who will be coaching him next season.

      --Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who caught four passes for 126 yards in the 27-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, enjoyed the win over a team that cut him in March.

      Jackson said he was not surprised the Eagles left him in single coverage.

      "That's how they play," Jackson said, per ESPN. "They're very naive and they play how they play, so they (can't) care less who's out there or who's at wide receiver. They don't care. That's the Philadelphia Eagles' defense. I've been there a lot of years and witnessed a lot of players, wide receivers, tight ends get off some huge games on them. I'm just happy to be on that side and send them home with a loss."

  • Sunday, December 21, 2014
    Texans dominate Ravens behind D, fourth QB
    By The Sports Xchange

    HOUSTON – After quickly acknowledging that the Texans' defense got the better of him and the rest of the Baltimore offense, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco made a point to address the dismantling again.

    • Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson recorded two of three interceptions of Flacco and the Texans kept alive their postseason hopes with a 25-13 victory over the Ravens on Sunday at NRG Stadium.

      The Texans (8-7) dominated Flacco and the Ravens (9-6) from start to finish, limiting Baltimore to 211 total yards and just 3.1 yards per play. Flacco finished 21 of 50 for 195 yards, with 135 yards coming in the fourth quarter as the Ravens mounted a futile rally. His first touchdown pass materialized only after Jacoby Jones provided the Ravens fantastic field position with a 45-yard punt return early in the third quarter.

      "We got our ass kicked," Flacco said. "It's really simple. We did a lot of things not very well."

      Texans kicker Randy Bullock made a franchise record six field goals, five (35, 25, 30, 20 and 33 yards) in the red zone. Bullock rescued an otherwise pedestrian Texans offense, one on their fourth quarterback, the recently re-signed Case Keenum, at the controls this season.

      Keenum, the Texans' third starter this season, passed for 185 yards while completing 20 of 42 attempts. He was released prior to the season when Houston acquired quarterback Ryan Mallett in a trade with the New England Patriots, but with Mallett (pectoral) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (leg) lost for the season and rookie Tom Savage (knee) unavailable, the Texans signed Keenum off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad this week.

      "At the end of the day these guys have come in here, the latest example being Case, understanding this is pro football," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "The next man has to step up. Even if next guy wasn't in the building a week ago, he showed up Monday and was ready to go.

      "Like I said, he (Keenum) had good recollection. He's a good leader and I thought he managed the offense very well today.

      Texans running back Arian Foster finished with 96 rushing yards and also tossed a 5-yard scoring pass to rookie tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

      Receiver Torrey Smith caught both Ravens touchdowns and finished with five receptions for 59 yards. Baltimore managed just 2.1 yards per rush and punted to conclude its first five possessions of the game.

      "Hand it to their defense, they dominated the game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the story of the game. They dominated the game really from the beginning to the end. That doesn't mean our guys didn't fight, compete and try like crazy but we couldn't get anything going offensively. That's the story of the game."

      With his fourth-down sack of Flacco at the 2:27 mark of the fourth quarter, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt became the franchise career lead with 54. He bypassed former Texans defensive end Mario Williams, the top overall pick in the 2006 draft, who recorded 53 sacks over six seasons in Houston before signing with the Buffalo Bills in 2012.

      "I think our defense is doing a great job right now of playing together," Watt said. "Everybody going out there and doing their job, coach is putting together a great plan. When you have a new staff in place it takes a little bit of time to get everybody on same page and get an understanding of that you want to accomplish, and I think that we're doing a good job of that right now. Obviously we want to go out there next week (against Jacksonville) and put another good game together."

      NOTES: With his four-yard catch early in the second quarter, Texans WR Andre Johnson became the 10th player in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions and the second-fastest (behind Marvin Harrison) to do so, reaching the plateau in his 168th game. Johnson later bypassed Hines Ward for ninth on the all-time receptions list. ... Ravens QB Joe Flacco completed 3 of 18 attempts for 27 yards and two interceptions for a 0.0 passer rating in the first half. His previous career low for passer rating at the intermission was 2.8 during the 2009 Wild Card Game at New England. ... With his 5-yard scoring pass to TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, Texans RB Arian Foster became the first Houston non-quarterback to pass for a touchdown since the Texans' inaugural season in 2002. ... Ravens RT Rick Wagner was lost to a foot injury in the third quarter and did not return to action.