NFL Playoff Picture: Panthers in, spots still open
The Associated Press
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning clinched division titles, Cam Newton reached the postseason for the first time and the NFL headed to a final-game thriller to decide the last spot in a scrambled playoff race.
Next Sunday night, the Dallas Cowboys will host the Philadelphia Eagles in an all-or-nothing showdown to close the regular season — the winner takes the NFC East, the loser is out.
“Today we felt like we were playing for everything,” Tony Romo said after his fourth-down TD pass with 1:08 left Sunday sent Dallas over Washington 24-23. “Next week will be the same thing.”
Another winner-take-all matchup developed Sunday night. Chicago lost big to the Eagles to set up a the Bears hosting Green Bay for the NFC North.
“I’m not into drama,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after a 38-31 loss to Pittsburgh at snowy Lambeau Field. “We wanted to control our own destiny, we let that opportunity out of our hands.”
Meanwhile, all the AFC division titles got settled. Denver, New England and Cincinnati won to join Indianapolis with crowns.
Kansas City is assured of one AFC wild-card spot. Defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore, Miami and San Diego are tied at 8-7 for the other slot with even Pittsburgh at 7-8 still in it.
“You know, we’re used to going out there and playing well when we need to when the playoffs are on the line,” said Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two interceptions in a 41-7 loss to Brady and the Patriots.
Newton and his Carolina Panthers, along with Seattle, are the only NFC teams with guaranteed playoff berths.
San Francisco (10-4) can clinch a playoff spot Monday night with a win against visiting Atlanta.
Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to beat New Orleans 17-13, putting the Panthers in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta.
“When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people that were jumping off the bandwagon,” Newton said. “It was a lot of finger-pointing and saying, ‘I told you so.’ But as a team we stuck together and didn’t veer off and had faith in each other.”
The 49ers, New Orleans and Arizona are competing for the last two NFC playoff slots.
Manning set an NFL record with 51 touchdown passes in a season. He threw four as the Broncos (12-3) handed Houston its 13th straight loss. Manning broke the mark of 50 set by Brady in 2007.
“I really feel like it’s a team accomplishment, certainly an offensive accomplishment,” Manning said. “There’s a lot of people that played roles in this.”
The Patriots (11-4) won their fifth straight AFC East title. Brady has guided New England to 11 division crowns, two more than any other starting quarterback in NFL history.
“They’re all special. It’s hard to come by, and this team’s really fought hard all year,” Brady said. “We’ve earned it. Eleven wins in the NFL’s not easy, and to win a division title’s not easy.”