This week was the last of the regular season, with everything that brings – play-off deciders on the Sunday. With ten teams playing for either a play-off spot or a first round bye, there was ample tension on Sunday night with the Falcons particularly crumbling beneath it. Monday saw the annual sacrifice of coaches to the Football Gods, amongst the casualties was Jim Harbaugh, who went to three straight NFC Championship games between 2011 and 2013 after inheriting a 6-10 team.
Whilst most teams had very little to play for this weekend, a select few franchises were battling for their play-off lives. The Chargers, Chiefs, Texans and Ravens all at one point occupied the final AFC wild-card spot in an incredibly complicated game of king of the hill. The Ravens eventually won, with the Chargers (who entered the day in the driving seat, able to confirm their spot with a win) losing to the Chiefs, sans Quarterback Alex Smith, who needed a victory, and defeat for the Ravens and Texans. Alas both won, with the Ravens winning the Wild Card spot on a tie-breaker after defeating the Browns who were down to essentially their fourth choice Quarterback, after ‘Sexy Rexy’ Grossman (pictured, getting sacked) flat out refused to return to the Browns roster for the game after being cut in the off-season.
Meanwhile there were three big divisional clashes, with the Falcons facing up with the Panthers for the NFC South championship and the sole play-off spot available to either team. In a game that could turn a terrible season into a good one for either team, the Falcons completely capitulated. If the game was entirely between the Atlanta offence and the Panthers defence, they still would have lost 14-3. As it happens, the Panthers didn’t decide to rest their entire offence (at least for the first few quarters) and ran away 34-3 winners.
The NFC North was also decided, with the winners clinching a first round bye. The Packers took an early 14 point lead, but Aaron Rodgers went down with a calf strain in the second quarter and the Lions levelled the game before the MVP candidate returned to secure the win 30-20, but not before a good luck on his friend’s beard (pictured) and being trampled on by Ndamukong Suh.
In the late Sunday night/Monday morning prime-time slot the Bengals took on the Steelers for the AFC North title, with the victor taking home field advantage in the Wild Card round, and so was not as crucial as the Falcons-Panthers or Packers-Lions games, but both sides would have been desperate to win, building momentum for the play-offs and improving their chances in front of a home crowd. If Marvin Lewis had heard he would hold All-Pro Running Back Le’veon Bell to twenty yards on the ground at 2.5 yards a clip, he would have started planning for their Wild Card game hosting the Ravens, but yet again multiple turnovers from fourth year passer Andy Dalton proved costly, particularly as Ben Roethlisberger returns to his best form driving the Steelers aerial attack, with play makers Brown and Bell accounting for 208 of Roethlisberger’s 317 passing yards.
Outside of the games with play-off implications, there were several notable events such as the literally amazing performance by Geno Smith, throwing for 358 yards and three touchdowns for a perfect passer rating on a mammoth 14.3 yards per attempt, completing 80% of his passes, including several dragons to Eric Decker. The second year passer looked like a genuinely talented NFL Quarterback. The Bills toppled the Patriots in a game that was meaningless for both sides with Buffalo long eliminated from play-off contention and the Patriots secure in the number one seed. However, the Bills victory was not only their first ever at Gillette Stadium (in 12 attempts) but also their first winning season since Tom Brady could look at Eli Manning without suffering a panic attack.
The majority of the Black Monday moves are no surprise, with the 49ers and Jim Harbaugh parting ways officially Sunday night, but the writing was on the wall weeks ago. The colourful coach has accepted the Head Coach position at Michigan in the FBS, and will reportedly become the highest paid coach in college football, still somewhat surprising given he would be the front runner for any NFL vacancy given his stellar record with the 49ers, having turned them around from a season comparable to this years Giants or Bears, and taking them to three AFC Championship Games and bringing them one play away from Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2012 season.
Similarly the Falcons had hired a search firm to hire Mike Smith’s replacement before this Sunday’s game kicked off. Despite steering the team to four play-off berths in his first five years, he only accomplished a single victory (which was largely given to him gift wrapped by the Seahawks) and has coached a combined 10-22 record over the last two seasons.
Both Marc Trestman and General Manager Phil Emery have been sacked by the Bears, in no small part thanks to Jay Cutler. The Quarterback’s failure this season has ensured the two involved in giving him a huge contract extension in January had to be ousted. Trestman’s reputation as the ‘Quarterback whisperer’ is perhaps not as sullied as it might have been, thanks to Cutler ousting several other coaches over the last few seasons.
Similarly Head Coach Rex Ryan and GM John Idzik have been let go by the Jets. Ryan took the team to two consecutive AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons in 2009 and 2010, but it has been downhill since then, largely thanks to a lack of a stable or effective Quarterback and the large investment placed in Mark Sanchez. Sadly, the ‘butt fumble’ (pictured) will likely be the defining moment of the Ryan-era Jets, but as an effective leader of men and an excellent defensive coach, Ryan will be a frontrunner for many available coaching positions.
Both Tom Coughlin and Joe Philbin have emerged from Black Monday with their jobs safely intact. In the case of the former this is due to two Super Bowl victories during his tenure and the respect and belief the team still has in him. With regards to Philbin the same cannot be said, with Mike Wallace, the Dolphins best redzone target refusing to play the second half of Sunday’s game against the Jets. Owner Stephen Ross entered the changing rooms after the game to assure the players Joe Philbin will still be Head Coach next season, but Pundit and coach Jeff Reinebold suggests this is ‘the kiss of death,’ so the Dolphins’ Coaching position may not be as stable as it seems.
In somewhat of a shock move Doug Marrone has exercised his right to opt out of his contract, effectively quitting his role as Head Coach of the Buffalo Bills, despite achieving their first winning season since 2007. Marrone seemed displeased with changes to the organisational structure and what he perceived as a negative media, although we may find more to this story as it develops.
Next Week in the NFL: Wild Card Weekend
With the regular season over we move onto the first round of the play-offs – the Wild Card round. Four teams in each conference face off in a knock out round to decide who plays against the top two seeds in the next round of the play-offs, whilst the loser goes home. The Patriots, Broncos, Seahawks and Packers all earned first week buys with the first and second seeds, leaving the remaining teams to face off in the Wild Cards.
Saturday night sees the first two games of the Wild Card round with the Panthers hosting the Cardinals, possibly the two weakest teams in the play-offs, one without a Quarterack and the other without a winning record, in the half past nine slot, and the divisional rematch between the Steelers and the Ravens, in the late game. The Ravens and Steelers have played twice so far this season, on each occasion the home team ran away with the victory, which bodes well for the Steelers, who should win somewhat comfortably given the form they’ve shown over the last four weeks.
On Sunday night the Bengals and Colts kick-off at six o’clock, in a game that could go either way depending on which Andy Dalton shows up, and whether Andrew Luck reverts to his early season form, although frankly I would predict another multiple interception game from Dalton, nullifying a good match up on the ground with the Colts stuttering run defence and Jeremy Hill’s great recent form. In the half six game the Cowboys host the Lions, the last time these two teams played Megatron had over three hundred yards receiving, and the Lions won with a QB Sneak in the last minute of the game.
Whilst both teams stand improved since that 2013 game, the Cowboys go into this as favourites with a dominant offensive line, the best rushing offence in the league and Tony Romo having the best season of his career. The Lions will provide stiff opposition with the second best rushing defence in the league. If they successfully stifle the Cowboy’s ground game, the passing game will falter with less men in the box allowing a double team on Dez Bryant. However, there are always upsets on a Wild Card weekend, so be sure to watch for the most NFL action you’re going to get until September.
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