December 31, 2012
Two thousand steps forward.
Two big steps back.
On a Sunday when Minnesota's Adrian Peterson became the seventh NFL player to run for 2,000 yards — coming within nine of breaking Eric Dickerson's season rushing record — two teams backpedaled in a big way.
The Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers lost on the road, both blowing opportunities for first-round playoff byes.
Indianapolis beat Houston, 28-16, and the Vikings edged the Packers, 37-34, to earn the final playoff spot in the NFC.
Swooping in to secure those No. 2 seedings — which come with a week off — were San Francisco in the NFC and New England in the AFC.
The top seedings are Atlanta in the NFC and Denver in the AFC.
The Vikings' victory secured a first-round rematch Saturday night with Green Bay, this time at Lambeau Field.
The playoffs open Saturday with Cincinnati at Houston. On Sunday, Indianapolis plays at Baltimore, followed by Seattle at Washington.
The Redskins clinched the NFC East on Sunday night with a 28-18 victory over Dallas in a winner-take-all game. The Redskins won the division title for the first time since 1999, and are the first team since the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars to make the playoffs after losing six of its first nine games.
That means the first round will feature a record three rookie quarterbacks: the Colts' Andrew Luck, and — in the same game — the Redskins' Robert Griffin III and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson.
Peterson, scarcely a year after suffering torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, completed a head-spinning season in which he ran for 2,097 yards — 199 against the Packers on Sunday — to fall just short of the 2,105 mark set by Dickerson in 1984.
So fans of the old Los Angeles Rams can say that 29 (Dickerson's jersey number) is still greater than 28 (Peterson's).
Peterson was all smiles after the game, and seemed unaware in an on-field TV interview that he had come so close to eclipsing Dickerson's mark, bringing new meaning to the phrase "the whole nine yards."
"It wasn't meant to happen, or it would've happened. Not to say it doesn't hurt, because it does," said Peterson, who had a career-high 34 carries. "But we came in here tonight and accomplished the ultimate goal, and that was getting a win and punching our ticket to the playoffs."
Making the win sweeter for the Vikings, they eliminated division rival Chicago in grabbing the last playoff spot.
Peterson's comeback was the season's most amazing one, but not the most emotional. That was the return Sunday of Indianapolis Coach Chuck Pagano, who in September learned he had a treatable form of leukemia.
Interim Coach Bruce Arians guided the Colts to a playoff berth, and probably will become the first stand-in to be named coach of the year.
In yet another emotional moment in this fairy tale of a season for the Colts — a franchise that was 2-14 last season — Pagano blinked back tears Sunday as he was honored with a video tribute and a standing ovation from the packed house at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Then, the Colts took the field and handed the Texans their second consecutive defeat.
"Guys really did not want to lose in his first game back and heading into the playoffs," Luck said. "To get a win I think means the world to him."
Pagano certainly wasn't downplaying the emotions of the moment.
"There was a lot of high-fiving, a lot of dancing, a lot of hugging going on and a lot of celebrating," the coach said after emerging from the locker room. "There's a lot to celebrate right now."
Not for everyone, that's for sure. According to multiple reports, Philadelphia fired Andy Reid on Sunday night, cutting ties with the league's longest-tenured coach after 14 seasons. The clock probably has struck midnight for Norv Turner in San Diego, Pat Shurmur in Cleveland, Romeo Crennel in Kansas City and Chan Gailey in Buffalo.
Shurmur, after a 24-10 loss to Pittsburgh, stuck to bottom-line coach-speak when asked about his future: "We really did not win enough games and we're not competing next week. I was never really worried about [next season] and I have no regrets."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers called it "tough" to contemplate Turner's not being the team's coach.
"You've played quarterback for a guy for 102 games," Rivers said. "That's a lot of time spent. A lot of fun, a lot of hard work, plenty of disagreements and aggravations. It's hard. Other than my dad, I don't know that there has been a coach that you've had so much respect for and trust for. Six years is a long time."
The Eagles suffered a 42-7 humiliation at the hands of the New York Giants, whose too-little-too-late effort failed to earn them a trip back to the playoffs. That marks the seventh consecutive year the defending Super Bowl champion will not win a first-round playoff game the following season.
"It happens that way," said Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck, whose team finished 9-7. "I've been 10-6 and not made the playoffs. You've got to win the ones you're supposed to. That's why the division games mean so much. If we'd won the division games, we'd still be in the driver's seat."
Heading into Week 17, all of the AFC playoff participants had been decided. Those finales were all about seeding.
But the NFC picture had yet to come into full focus. So before Dallas and Washington squared off Sunday night for the NFC East crown, the NFC West had to be determined.
San Francisco claimed that division title with a 27-13 win over Arizona. Seattle won at home too, picking up a 20-13 victory over St. Louis.
"It was a lot harder this time around to get it," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said of securing the week off. "We were the target this year and got everybody's best shot. To come out and still win our division and have the opportunity to get a first-round bye is tremendous."
We're No. 1
Kansas City lost Sunday but also won. Sort of.
The Chiefs finished 2-14, assuring themselves of the top pick in April's draft. Unlike last year, when Luck and Robert Griffin III were selected first and second, there isn't a quarterback worthy of the top pick.
The early indications are that teams drafting in the top five will be looking to bail out of those spots to get better value slightly later in the draft.
Jacksonville also finished 2-14 but was edged by Kansas City based on the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker.
Mile High expectations
In another season, Peterson would be a shoo-in to be named the league's most valuable player and comeback player of the year.
But he'll have stiff competition for those honors from Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who missed the entire 2011 season because of a slow-healing neck injury.
Manning, in his first season with the Broncos after 14 seasons in Indianapolis, finished the regular season with 4,659 yards passing, 37 touchdowns and a 105.8 passer rating, all second-best in his career.
The Broncos swept the AFC West for the first time since 1998, when they went on to win the Super Bowl.
"As I have mentioned many times, what he has done, to be coming off that kind of rehab, that type of injury at his position in a new city with a new team is unprecedented," Broncos Coach John Fox said of Manning, the league's only four-time MVP. "'Historical' would be the word I would use."
Denver has won 11 in a row, all by at least a touchdown. The Broncos joined the 2005 Colts (13) and 1942 Bears (11) as the only teams to win at least 11 games in a row in a single season by a margin of seven points or more.
Manning, meanwhile, had three touchdown passes against the Chiefs, his 73rd game in which he has thrown for at least three touchdowns. That passed Brett Favre for the most in NFL history.
Youth is served
Indianapolis' Luck and Seattle's Wilson each directed their teams to an 11th victory Sunday.
They are in a group of five rookie quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era who collected 11 wins, the others being Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (13 in 2004), Baltimore's Joe Flacco (11 in 2008), and Atlanta's Matt Ryan (11 in 2008).
Luck is the only first-year quarterback with at least 4,000 yards passing and double-digit victories.
Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson had five catches for 72 yards in the Lions' 26-24 loss to Chicago, finishing the season with an NFL-record 1,964 yards receiving. He's also the only player to record at least 1,600 yards receiving in consecutive seasons.
New England's Tom Brady and New Orleans' Drew Brees carved out more space in the NFL record books.
Brady threw two touchdown passes in a 28-0 rout of Miami, his 48th consecutive game with a scoring pass. That moved him past Johnny Unitas and into second place on the all-time list, behind Brees (54). Brady is the first player to throw at least one scoring pass in all 16 games for three consecutive seasons.
The Saints' season was forgettable in many ways, but Brees did put up some impressive numbers. With his 396-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 44-38 loss to Carolina, Brees closed the season with 5,177 yards passing and 43 touchdowns.
Brees is the first quarterback in NFL history with consecutive 5,000-yard seasons, and the first with three such seasons in a career.
What's more, he's the first player to throw for 15,000 yards over a three-year span.
That's 8 1/2 miles.
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