The road to the Super Bowl on the NFC side will go through Dixie. Home-field advantage in the AFC is still very much up in the air, however, after the Minnesota Vikings stunned the Texans in Houston.
The Falcons invaded the Motor City on Saturday and really showed the difference between winning and losing organizations, topping an underachieving Lions team content with celebrating Calvin Johnson's greatness.
"Megatron," of course, entered the record books, breaking Jerry Rice's mark for most single-season receiving yards in NFL history. But, as has been the case for most of the season, Johnson's stellar play didn't translate on the scoreboard.
Matt Ryan, on the other hand, continued his MVP-like play and threw four touchdown passes as Atlanta clinched the NFC's top seed with a 31-18 walk in the park.
Roddy White caught two of those scores and finished with 153 yards on eight receptions for Atlanta, which also produced 17 points off three Detroit turnovers.
Ryan finished a spectacular 25-of-32 for 279 yards and matched Steve Bartkowski's 32-year old Falcons franchise record for touchdown passes with 31.
"It means a lot because this was one of the goals," said White. "We wanted to play in the (Georgia) Dome and have everybody come to us, and then we'll give them our best shot."
Johnson made 11 grabs for 225 yards, upping his record total to 1,892, certainly within earshot of 2,000. And that wasn't the only NFL record the rangy superstar broke on Saturday. Johnson also became the first player to record at least 100 receiving yards in eight straight games, surpassing a mark set by Charley Hennigan in 1961 and matched by Michael Irvin in 1995.
"I've coached for 19 years in the NFL. I've never seen a better player than Calvin Johnson," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz.
Perhaps, but there are sure a lot of teams better than Schwartz's undisciplined bunch.
You can't say the same thing about the Falcons, who understand they really haven't accomplished anything yet.
The thought process in the ATL, is all about the postseason since Atlanta has made losing in the first round a habit, one they hope to break by finishing the 2012 campaign strong and entering the playoffs with a hot hand.
"I like our chances (in the playoffs) a lot better at home with the Dome rocking," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "But it doesn't mean anything obviously. We still have to go out there and play."
"Momentum is very important," Falcons coach Mike Smith added. "Sometimes it's difficult to measure and quantify it. When you use the word momentum, you use the word passion. You use the word purpose.
"It's important that you're playing efficiently and effectively in December and January. That's what every team is striving for. Over the last two seasons, the teams that were playing well in December and January and really rolling were the teams that had the most success.:
Over in the AFC the Texans won the war against Adrian Peterson, holding the Vikings superstar in check for the most part with an array of run blitzes. That said, Wade Phillips' defense proved to be a one-trick pony as the Texans were trounced by visiting Minnesota 23-6.
Peterson was still effective, carrying the ball 25 times for 86 yards for the playoff-hopeful Vikings but his string of eight consecutive games with 100 yards rushing came to an end.
The typically ineffective Christian Ponder took advantage of all the extra attention to A.P. and played a pretty clean game, exploiting the flats and completing 16-of-30 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown for Minnesota.
"Obviously it was a great team win for us," Ponder said. "The defense played exceptionally well."
Houston also turned it over twice and failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 2006. putting Denver, which won its 10th straight contest by disposing of Cleveland on Sunday, in play for the top spot in the AFC.
In the crosshairs of a consistent Vikings pass rush the immobile Matt Schaub connected on just 18-of-32 passes for 178 yards for the Texans.
Houston still controls its own destiny for the top spot in the AFC but must do something the franchise has never done before, win in Indianapolis.
"It makes it very, very disappointing because we had the chance to line up here and get something done today," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "Doesn't mean we still can't get it done. That's the most important thing. But, to line up and get beat the way we got beat today is very disappointing. Hopefully we learn from it and bounce right back.
"We have to. We don't have a choice."
THE MONDAY REWIND
COLTS REALLY DID GET LUCK-Y
A lot of things can change in a year.
In just under 365 days the Colts turned from a moribund 2-14 bunch to a 10-5 club heading to the postseason thanks in large part to Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Luck set the NFL rookie passing record on Sunday, passing the 4,051-yard mark compiled last season by Carolina Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton in the second quarter of Indianapolis' 20-13 win at Kansas City. That was the least of his accomplishments, though.
When Luck found Reggie Wayne for a 7-yard TD pass with just over four minutes remaining in the City of Fountains, the playoffs were a reality again for a franchise which was spoiled by the greatness of Peyton Manning.
"Mission accomplished. That's all I can say," interim coach Bruce Arians said about extending the season for Chuck Pagano, who is coming back to work this week after successfully battling Leukemia, "It's a fantastic feeling."
"Obviously it's nicer to be in the playoffs," Luck added, "but it's nice to have a couple records -- which I'm sure will be broken in the next year."
Luck's numbers weren't all that impressive in K.C. He finished just 17-of-35 with 205 yards for the Colts, who have won four of five overall and clinched the fifth seed in the AFC postseason picture. He is, however, overflowing with the intangibles that make quarterbacks great.
The jury is still out on whether the Stanford product will ever reach the same heights of players like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or his predecessor in Indy. But, what we do know, is Luck was better than all of those names as a rookie.
"Would we have done it without him?" Arians asked after the game.
The coach didn't wait for answer, preferring to do it himself:
BENGALS EXORCISE THE DEMONS
Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals exorcised their demons in the Steel City on Sunday and accomplished something the franchise hadn't achieved in three decades, back-to-back playoff appearances.
It wasn't pretty but when Josh Brown booted a 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining, Cincinnati earned a 13-10 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field, vaulting the Bengals into the postseason while eliminating their AFC North rival in the process.
The Bengals, an AFC wild card entry a year ago, last reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 1981 and 1982.
"Obviously we know the history is that we haven't been (in the postseason) two years in a row for the last 30 years," Dalton said. "But since I have been here I haven't known that. My class, me, A.J. (Green), some of these other guys, we come in and expect to go to the playoffs."
Brown's clutch kick came one play after Dalton and Green connected on a 21- yard pass to the Pittsburgh 25, and two after Bengals safety Reggie Nelson intercepted Ben Roethlisberger near midfield with 14 seconds remaining in regulation.
Roethlisberger was picked off twice on the afternoon, with Leon Hall returning the first 17 yards for Cincinnati's lone touchdown of the game back in the first quarter.
"We should be (in the playoffs) if it wasn't for me," Roethlisberger said.
Dalton finished with 278 yards on 24-of-41 passing and was also intercepted twice, with Green amassing 116 yards on 10 catches to help the resurgent Bengals to their sixth triumph in their last seven outings.
"Huge team win," said Dalton. "It's exactly what we needed to have happen, we needed everybody to play well. Our defense played great, giving us good field position and different things. Obviously (on) offense there's areas we can improve, but it feels good to get the win."
AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS ARE SET
With the Colts and Bengals clinching playoff berths, all six postseason spots in the AFC have been accounted for.
The Baltimore Ravens, who beat the New York Giants 33-14, clinched the AFC North on Sunday, while the Texans (AFC South), Broncos (AFC West) and New England Patriots (AFC East) had already taken care of business in their respective divisions.
Now it's all about jockeying among the top three. Houston, could fall all the way to No. 3 if they lose at Indy in Week 17, and Denver beats lowly Kansas City while the Pats top Miami.
VIKINGS HAVE INSIDE TRACK TO NFC'S FINAL PLAYOFF SPOT
One more win and the Vikings are in.
Minnesota has gone from a 3-13 team to 9-6 with next weekend's finale at Mall of America Field against long-time rival Green Bay serving as a play-in game for the hopeful Vikings.
"We're not done yet," Ponder said after his team upset the mighty Texans. "We still want to get to playoffs and we'll be extremely disappointed if we don't get there. But we've come a long way."
An emotional Vikings owner Zygi Wilf went even further in the locker room after Minnesota's big win.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," Wilf said while holding back tears. "I'm emotional because you guys are so great. We're going to win the next one and we're going on, guys. God bless you guys."
Aaron Rodgers and the Pack still have plenty to play for, however. A win in Minneapolis would clinch a first-round bye for Green Bay while a loss, along with a San Francisco win against lowly Arizona, could set up a Vikings-Packers rematch at Lambeau Field in the first round of the playoffs.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, clinched a wild card berth on Sunday and still have a chance at the NFC West crown after routing San Francisco 42-13, and the Redskins-Cowboys matchup in Week 17 will decide the NFC East.
A Minnesota loss against the Packers could put life back into Chicago's postseason hopes while the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants need a lot of help for an opportunity to defend their title.
TIME TO START THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE
There isn't going to be a lot to celebrate for a number of NFL coaches on New Year's Eve.
While the rest of us are getting ready to pop the champagne corks and warm up the diaphragm for Auld Lang Syne, a number of head coaches are going to be staring at pink slips.
In fact, there figures to be far more turnover than usual this time around and Dec. 31 just happens to fall on the Monday after Week 17, the day 20 NFL teams will start their vacations.
The future of some embattled mentors are virtually a fait accompli with Philadelphia's Andy Reid, the Chargers' Norv Turner, Carolina's Ron Rivera, the Chiefs' Romeo Crennel and the Browns' Pat Shurmur almost assuredly hoping Barack Obama can get those unemployment benefits extended.
That's just a short list, though. Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Munchak of the Titans are also in hot water , and no one would be surprised if Mike Mularkey in Jacksonville or Schwartz in Detroit are asked to pack up their offices.
Jon Gruden has been rumored for just about every job in America from the University of Tennessee all the way to the clerk of your local convenience store. Everyone also always talks about Bill Cowher and Brian Billick, a pair of former coaches with Super Bowl pedigrees, but Billick often describes why neither is likely to come back. "Too old and too expensive," the former Ravens coach is fond of saying.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly seems to be the "Flavor of the Day" with a lot of reports indicating the Eagles are honing in on him and his inventive offensive mind to replace Reid.
Kelly, who is 45-7 in four years as head coach at Oregon, turned down Tampa Bay last offseason after effectively agreeing to take the job but with possible NCAA sanctions hanging over Oregon like a Sword of Damocles now, it's probably time for Kelly to flee the Pacific Northwest.
That said, the Eagles don't seem like a great fit. Kelly is a spread-offense guy and would prefer a read-option type at quarterback. Of course, it's not like Philadelphia has to hand the keys over to Nick Foles, a 2012 third round pick who is a pure pocket passer and has showed some signs late this season.
Carolina and Cam Newton would be the perfect fit for Kelly but competition will be strong and the Panthers aren't the type or organization to outbid others for a hot name.
Memories are also evidently very short among front office types in the NFL. The other college coach on a few radars, despite his acrimonious departure from Miami back in 2006, is Alabama's Nick Saban.
Saban, who will be shooting for back-to-back national championships when he leads his second-ranked Crimson Tide against No. 1 Notre Dame on Jan. 7, has been steadfast in saying he isn't leaving Alabama but it's not like he has an aversion to leaving anyone high-and-dry.
The Browns in particular may make a push. It's looking more and more like new Cleveland CEO Joe Banner will part ways with both general manager Tom Heckert and Shurmur, creating a power vacuum that a high-maintenance type like Saban can take advantage of. Banner also understands his owner, Jim Haslam, is a University of Tennessee grad and has a huge affinity for SEC football.
Meanwhile, the top coordinator-type on the market could be New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was an abject disaster in Denver as the Broncos head coach in 2009-10.
-New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees passed for 446 yards and three touchdowns in the Saints' 34-31 overtime win at Dallas. Brees now has 4,781 passing yards in 2012 and is the first player in NFL history to record at least 4,500 yards in three consecutive seasons.
-St. Louis rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins had a 41-yard interception-return touchdown in the Rams' 28-13 win at Tampa Bay. Jenkins has returned three interceptions for touchdowns this season, tied for the most by a rookie in NFL history. The other two rookies to accomplish the feat are both enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Lem Barney (1967) and Ronnie Lott (1981).
-Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman had a 10-yard interception-return touchdown in the Bears' 28-13 win at Arizona. It marked the eighth interception-return touchdown scored by the Bears, tied with the 1998 Seattle Seahawks for the second-most in a season in NFL history. The 1961 San Diego Chargers hold the NFL record with nine INT-TDs.
-New England wide receiver Wes Welker had 10 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots' 23-16 win at Jacksonville. Welker has 18 career games with at least 10 catches, passing Jerry Rice for the most in NFL history.
-Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles rushed for 226 yards, including an 86-yard touchdown, in the Chiefs' loss to Indianapolis. Charles has three touchdown runs of at least 80 yards this season, tied with Chris Johnson (2009 and 2012) and Barry Sanders (1997) for the most in a single season in NFL history.