Philadelphia, PA – Guess Rex Ryan really has been naughty this year.
The ever-bombastic Jets head coach's Christmas Eve meal consisted one of one mighty big helping of humble pie courtesy of the crosstown rival Giants in Saturday's conspicuously testy battle for New York bragging rights, a result that sent shock waves as loud as Ryan's typical pregame boasts to the playoff races of both conferences.
The repercussions of the Jets' mistake-laden 29-14 defeat were felt most by the losing side. Gang Green's failure to capture the mythical city championship was small potatoes to the grand picture, as a season that began with glorious expectations has now been left in smoldering ruins much like the mystique of a reputed title contender that's beaten just one team that presently sports a winning record this year has been ripped apart.
Though a third consecutive playoff trip does remain a possibility for Ryan's well-regarded bunch, it's now more dream than reality. The Jets stand behind Cincinnati, Oakland and Tennessee in the pecking order for the AFC's sixth and final postseason seed, and will need a Miracle on Exit 16W this coming weekend to find their way into the fray.
While Saturday's circumstances made the Jets the unquestioned Scrooges of this Christmas weekend, no team had a happier holiday than that of the Giants. Not only was Big Blue able to set up a monumental winner-take-all showdown with Dallas for the NFC East crown this coming Sunday at the Meadowlands, but may have received an even greater present when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo bruised his throwing hand during the initial stages of what turned out to be an anticlimactic 20-7 loss to fellow division member Philadelphia.
Romo is expected to play in this weekend's high-stakes clash with the Giants that will serve as the headline matchup of what will be another intriguing final weekend filled with tension-packed games and a whirlwind of brain-racking playoff scenarios to sort out. But let's first take a brief look back at some other teams and players who wound up with a very merry Week 16, as well as those whose Christmas spirit was spoiled by the recent events.
Good tidings were also bestowed upon:
The Detroit Lions. The longtime sad-sacks may have ruffled a few feathers this season, but their cashing of a playoff ticket for the first time since 1999 is still ranks as one of the feel-good stories of this season. And they don't figure to be an easy out either after prevailing for a third straight time by dominating a previously-hot San Diego team on Saturday. Come-of-age quarterback Matthew Stafford has been on a tear, throwing nine touchdown passes and no interceptions over the course of the winning streak, while a defense that seemed to lose its bit during a tough four-game stretch prior to the run restored its roar by picking off the Chargers' Philip Rivers twice and shutting the Bolts out in the first half of the eventual 38-10 rout.
The Cincinnati Bengals. The Jets' stumble has given the presumed preseason also-rans the inside track for the AFC's final Wild Card after the Bengals took care of business in Saturday's tussle with Arizona. By hitting home runs with the April selections of wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton and nabbing two future premium picks by jettisoning the self-exiled Carson Palmer, it's certainly been a very good year for owner Mike Brown and his staff.
The Oakland Raiders. Palmer's new team had been on the verge of being dead and buried in the AFC bracket following an untimely string of three consecutive deflating defeats, but stayed afloat by putting forth one of the grittiest efforts of the weekend. Veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour blocked a potential game-winning field goal attempt by Kansas City's Ryan Succop (some would say Al Davis got a hand in there as well) on the final play of regulation in Saturday's critical battle with the re-energized Chiefs, and Palmer began the overtime session by dropping in a perfect deep pass to speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey to set up Sebastian Janikowski's deciding kick that gave the AFC West hopefuls a hard-earned 16-13 triumph.
Cam Newton. Carolina's sensational young quarterback cemented his case for this year's Offensive Rookie of the Year award by accounting for four touchdowns (3 passing, 1 rushing) to lead the upstart Panthers to a 48-16 destruction of the deplorable Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Christmas Eve, and the reigning Heisman Trophy recipient's 171 passing yards in essentially three quarters of work vaulted him past Peyton Manning for the NFL's season record for a first-year player. Winners of four of their last five outings, the Panthers are going to be a team to watch in 2012, and something tells me that ESPN's going to be pining for a few of their games on next year's Monday Night Football schedule.
The St. Louis Rams. Being woefully overmatched in a shutout loss against an opponent fielding a backup quarterback isn't really something to feel joyous about, but Saturday's 27-0 manhandling by the Charlie Batch-driven Pittsburgh Steelers combined with Indianapolis' Thursday night upset of Houston has made the Rams viable players in the quest for a coveted No. 1 overall choice in next year's draft. Though the Colts remain the front-runners in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, they've got a winnable matchup with floundering Jacksonville next on the docket while St. Louis hosts a playoff-bound San Francisco squad that could be competing for an opening-round bye in the postseason.
And those that likely shared Ryan's "Bah humbug" feeling:
Tim Tebow. It may be borderline blasphemous to suggest that the pious young quarterback would be wallowing in his own self-pity on Christmas, but there's no denying Tebow had a bad day of work this past weekend. A very bad one. Facing an off-the-rails Buffalo team that's generally been a defensive sieve, the Denver field general tossed four second-half interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns within a span of 18 seconds -- and completed just 13-of-30 passes as the Broncos were handed a startling 40-14 loss by the Bills. Denver had been looking like a lock to claim the AFC West, but now it's anything but a sure thing.
Adrian Peterson/the Minnesota Vikings. Obtaining only the third victory in a season littered with misfortune should have been a time to rejoice for the hard-luck Vikings, but an otherwise thrilling 33-26 win at Washington was marred by the devastating knee injury Peterson sustained early in the third quarter. With two torn ligaments, the All-Pro running back is looking like a long shot to be ready in time for the start of next season, and Minnesota also played its way out of the mix for the draft's No. 1 pick by beating the Redskins.
The Philadelphia Eagles. The defending NFC East champs were officially eliminated from playoff consideration just minutes into Saturday's grudge match with the Cowboys when the Giants' win over the Jets became final. The rest of the conference probably didn't mind too much, as the Eagles have been playing as well as any team in the NFC down the stretch after getting Michael Vick back from injury and all of their talented parts finally gelling together.
The Houston Texans. The AFC South title-holders no longer have a shot at earning one of the top two playoff seeds after Thursday's shocking 19-16 setback at Indianapolis, and head coach Gary Kubiak can't be pleased with how his team has performed heading into the second season. Though Houston will be the conference's third seed regardless of what happens in this Sunday's clash with Tennessee, back-to-back losses to a pair of non-contenders over the past two weeks have made that game an important one for the Texans from a confidence standpoint.
Norv Turner. A furious late run to forge ahead in the wide-open AFC West could conceivably have spared the hot-water San Diego head coach, but now there's practically no chance Turner is spared from the axe after the Chargers were both eliminated and thoroughly whipped by the Lions on Saturday. Turner's a nice man and well-respected in NFL circles, but it's still hard to feel a whole lot of remorse for a guy who's had plenty of chances. In 14 overall seasons as a head coach with three different teams, he's reached the playoffs just four times.
Here's how things stand heading into Monday's Atlanta-New Orleans tilt:
AFC: 1) New England (12-3); 2) Baltimore (11-4); 3) Houston (10-5); 4) Denver (8-7); 5) Pittsburgh (11-4); 6) Cincinnati (9-6)
Clinched first-round bye: Patriots Clinched division title: Texans Clinched playoff berths: Ravens, Steelers Still alive: Oakland (8-7), Tennessee (8-7), N.Y. Jets (8-7)
The Patriots and the AFC North champion will grab the two opening-round byes, as the Texans are locked into the No. 3 seed due to a head-to-head loss to the Ravens earlier in the season. New England only needs to defeat Buffalo at home this coming Sunday to secure home-field advantage throughout the conference tournament, but a loss to the Bills opens up the door for either Baltimore or Pittsburgh to claim the top spot.
The pivotal game in regards to the AFC race next week will take place in Cincinnati, where the Bengals host the Ravens. A Baltimore victory gives the Ravens the North title by virtue of their season sweep of the Steelers, and possibly the No. 1 seed depending on how the Patriots fare. If Cincinnati comes out on top, Pittsburgh could then take the division by besting Cleveland, and a win over the Browns plus a New England loss would put the Steelers at the head of the pack in this scenario. The Bengals would also clinch the No. 6 seed if they can knock off the Ravens, which would in turn eliminate both the Titans and Jets from consideration.
Denver holds a tiebreaker edge on Oakland in the AFC West because of a better record in common games, meaning the Broncos seize the division and the No. 4 seed with a win over Kansas City on Sunday or a Raiders loss to San Diego. Oakland comes out ahead by topping the Chargers and the Chiefs prevailing over the Broncos, and the Raiders can still earn the final Wild Card berth if Baltimore beats Cincinnati and if either the Titans fall at Houston or the Jets down Miami this weekend. Denver is not eligible to get in through the Wild Card avenue if it's defeated by Kansas City.
The Titans and Jets are still in the mix, but both have to win their finale and have the Bengals lose to Baltimore while receiving some additional help. Tennessee has the tiebreaker on New York because of a superior mark in common games, and sneaks in if the Jets win and the two finish in a three-way tie with Cincinnati (if the Raiders are also involved, however, Oakland would win out). If it's only the Titans and Bengals at 9-7, Cincinnati would go because of a head-to-head triumph over Tennessee. The Jets have to beat the Dolphins and have the Titans come up short against the Texans, plus either Denver or Oakland must lose, to extend their postseason streak.
If the Bengals don't win their game, they'll need the Jets to lose and Oakland to take the West to make it as the sixth seed.
Got all that?
NFC: 1) Green Bay (14-1); 2) San Francisco (12-3); 3) New Orleans (11-3); 4) N.Y. Giants (8-7); 5) Detroit (10-5); 6) Atlanta (9-5)
Clinched No. 1 seed: Packers Clinched division title: 49ers Clinched playoff berths: Saints, Lions, Falcons Still alive: Dallas (8-7)
The outlook is far simpler here, with five of the six entrants already decided and the winner of Sunday's colossal showdown between the Giants and Cowboys at the Meadowlands receiving the fourth seed as the NFC East champion. The 49ers would overtake the Saints for the all-important No. 2 slot if both teams finish tied because of a better record within conference play.
The Falcons still control their own destiny for the better of the two Wild Card representatives because of a victory over the Lions earlier in the season, and Atlanta can claim the NFC South by defeating New Orleans on Monday and Tampa Bay next week, though the Saints also have to lose to Carolina for that to occur. If New Orleans tops the Falcons, the Saints clinch the division and Detroit would wrap up the No. 5 seed if it can take down Green Bay on Sunday.
Four games to keep tabs on next week (all times Eastern): Detroit at Green Bay (1 p.m.), Baltimore at Cincinnati (4:15 p.m.), Kansas City at Denver (4:15 p.m.), Dallas at N.Y. Giants (8:20 p.m.).