1. Seattle (13-3). That is some bitter relationship between Seattle and St. Louis. Glad no one was hurt out there.
2. San Francisco (12-4). Trent Baalke’s roster depth paid off Sunday in the desert. Colin Kaepernick’s 29-yard pass to the unknown Quinton Patton, a rookie fourth-round pick from Louisiana Tech, put the Niners in position for the winning 40-yard field goal as time ran out in Arizona.
3. Denver (13-3). Love this line from Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post midway through the first half at Oakland: “This score just in: Denver 17, Oakland doesn’t care.”
4. Carolina (12-4). From 1-3 to the second seed in the NFC … That is one heck of a coaching and playing job by the Panthers, and their reward before their next opponent comes to town in two weeks is a healing week off.
5. New England (12-4). Think of the agonizing four losses the Patriots have had in this four-loss season … 13-6 in a torrential downpour in Cincinnati, 30-27 with that push-the-pile penalty against the Jets, 24-20 on the wrongly picked-up flag in the end zone in Carolina, 24-20 with four shots into the end zone to win in Miami. Amazing how close this team came to the best record in football with the mayhem it dealt with at the skill positions all year.
6. New Orleans (11-5). Wow: Drew Brees exceeded 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career Sunday … and no one else has done it more than once.
7. Cincinnati (11-5). But the four picks, Andy Dalton … that’s got to stop if the Bengals are going to win their first playoff game since forever.
8. Indianapolis (11-5). With a free month to get their act together, the Colts did just that. Trent Richardson even got into the act Sunday in the rout of the Jags.
9. Kansas City (11-5). Chase Daniel earned lots of respects, and probably some money, with an A-minus performance at San Diego.
10. Green Bay (8-7-1). Aaron Rodgers puts the Packers here, almost all by himself. What a performance, with the cobwebs hanging off him.
11. Philadelphia (10-6). Saints at Eagles Sunday. What a great game, even if the great outdoors is New Orleans’ kryptonite.
12. San Diego (9-7). ”Go celebrate with the fans,” coach Mike McCoy told his team, intelligently, after the harder-than-anyone-thought-it-would-be overtime win over the Chiefs. Great to see McCoy and Philip Rivers succeed together after some down years for the QB.
13. Arizona (10-6). What an admirable team, with a great future.
14. Pittsburgh (8-8). I wish they’d gotten in. I wanted to see Ben Roethlisberger take aim at the Bengals again. Would have been great theater.
15. (tie) Chicago (8-8). Matt Forte is one of the best players in football. I mean, top 20. What a tremendous performance he had in the loss to Green Bay—26 touches, 157 yards, three touchdowns.
(tie) Miami (8-8). With a playoff spot theirs for the taking, The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Dolphins went 0-2 the last two weeks against the Bills and Jets. Score: Foes 39, Dolphs 7.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. Rodgers has had better days numerically that this one: 25 of 39, 318 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 85.2 rating. But the great ones play great when it’s most important. Playing for the first time in eight weeks in Sunday’s NFC North championship game, Rodgers led 77- and 87-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, the last one capped by a 48-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-down scramble to Randall Cobb with 46 seconds left. Talk about a clutch return.
LeGarrette Blount, running back, New England. His season rushing high before the finale against Buffalo was 76 yards. The Patriots didn’t want the Bills, the leading sack team in football, to dominate this game, and so Tom Brady threw it only 24 times in the win over Buffalo. That’s also how often Blount ran it—for 189 yards and two touchdowns. That was a huge factor in continuing the Bills’ inability to win in Foxboro. They’ve never won at Gillette Stadium.
Marvin Jones, wide receiver, Cincinnati. The most unsung Bengal in an explosive offensive year, Jones made a ridiculous one-handed touchdown catch with Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb hanging all over him in the first half, keying Cincinnati’s 34-17 win. Touchdowns this season: A.J. Green 11, Marvin Jones 10. In the second half, with Jones leaping to catch his would-be 11th touchdown of the season, he was interfered with by Baltimore corner Jimmy Smith, and, with the ball placed at the 1-yard-line, Andy Dalton ran it in for the decisive score.
Defensive Players of the Week
Robert Mathis, outside linebacker, Indianapolis. At 32, Mathis won his first NFL sack championship Sunday, sacking Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne twice, giving him 19.5 for the season. He edged Rams sensation Robert Quinn (19), and Mathis will be a threat to torment Alex Smith on the Lucas Oil carpet this weekend.
Greg Hardy, defensive end, Carolina. Attention, NFC, entering the playoffs: Seven sacks in the last two weeks for Hardy, the former sixth-round pick who has played in the shadow of many Panthers in his career. He tormented Matt Ryan with four sacks and four additional pressures Sunday in the 21-20 division-clinching win at Atlanta.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Phil Dawson, placekicker, San Francisco. For his 56-yard game-winner at Arizona, inside of two minutes, to go up by three and apparently win the game, and then, after the Cards tied it up with 29 seconds left, for his 40-yarder right down the middle as time expired for a 23-20 Niners win.
Coach of the Week
Mike McCarthy, head coach, Green Bay. I lost count of players on IR at 17 (including Randall Cobb, who was designated to return, which he did in a very big way Sunday), and then you have to add in the half-season missed by the most important player on the team, Aaron Rodgers. Still, McCarthy got this team to a highly unlikely division title and a home playoff game. A great coaching job.
Goats of the Week
Ryan Succop, placekicker, Kansas City. Missed the 41-yard field goal that would have beaten the Chargers in regulation and sent the Steelers to the playoffs. If you’re passing through western Pennsylvania in the near future, Mr. Succop, don’t wear Chiefs stuff.
The Bill Leavy officiating crew. Missed the illegal formation penalty against the Chargers on Succop’s 41-yard missed field goal attempt that would have given Succop another try, from 36 yards. If Succop had been given the second shot and made it, well, that would have put Pittsburgh in the playoffs, not San Diego. The worst part of this: Two officials—who appear from the tape to be side judge Keith Parham and umpire Ruben Fowler—were staring straight at the line from behind the Chargers rushers before the snap of the ball. They had to see the seven Chargers on the line to the right of the ball, which is illegal. Teams can have only six men on either side of the ball when it is snapped on a field-goal try.