Column

NFL Week 16: Schedule plan means fantastic finishes in division races

NFL's decision five years ago to schedule only division games in final week pays a big dividend this year

The fix is in — and it's working.

Five seasons ago, confronted with the problem of playoff-bound teams resting starters and coasting into the postseason, the NFL began scheduling only division games for the final week of the season. The theory being, chances would be better those finales would mean something.

And, after a Sunday when all the pieces fell in place, we're in for a few winner-take-all finishes.

Three titles are up for grabs: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh in the AFC North, Detroit at Green Bay in the NFC North, and — in the division where every team is guaranteed a losing record — Carolina at Atlanta in the NFC South.

The NFC West is still in play too, but Seattle, after Sunday night's 35-6 pounding of Arizona, has clinched at least a wild-card spot and has the inside track on the division title and top seeding in the conference.

Pittsburgh won at Cincinnati, 42-21, on Dec. 7, and has won the two games since. The Steelers clinched a playoff spot Sunday, ending their two-year postseason drought.

Detroit hasn't won in Green Bay since 1991, but the Lions got some practice playing in the cold Sunday, posting a 20-14 victory at Chicago.

Green Bay won at Tampa Bay, 20-3, even though quarterback Aaron Rodgers was battling flu and a calf injury. The Packers' defense held the Buccaneers to a 109 yards, sacked Josh McCown seven times and limited Doug Martin to 17 yards in 10 carries.

"We picked the worst possible time to play our worst [offensive] game," Tampa Bay Coach Lovie Smith told reporters. "We'd liked to have fought them a lot harder than we did. I think the guys tried to play hard. Defensively we hung in there and kept them out of the end zone a lot. But it's hard to win games when you put up that kind of offensive production . . . which was very little."

Then again, even losers are winners in the NFC South. The Panthers are atop the division at 6-8-1, and the Falcons are 6-9. So unless those teams tie in their finale, the division winner will have seven victories — as many as the AFC North last-place Cleveland Browns have now.

Setting the stage for this lowdown showdown were Sunday's results. Atlanta won at New Orleans, 30-14, and Carolina beat the visiting Browns, 17-13.

The only other NFL team to win its division with a losing record? It was the 2010 Seattle Seahawks, who, in Coach Pete Carroll's first season, secured the NFC West at 7-9 and went on to shock defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans in the first round.

Hanging tough

It wasn't a banner day numbers-wise for DeMarco Murray — he ran for a season-low 58 yards in 20 carries in Sunday's 42-7 blowout of Indianapolis — but the Dallas Cowboys running back showed his toughness. He was playing just six days are undergoing surgery to stabilize a fractured fourth metacarpal in his left hand.

Murray needs 29 yards to surpass Emmitt Smith's single-season team record of 1,773.

The Cowboys, who finish at Washington, clinched their first playoff berth and NFC East title since 2009.

Johnny Bench

The Johnny Manziel experiment has been a flop so far. On the heels of a miserable starting debut last Sunday, Cleveland's rookie quarterback made his first road start and didn't fare much better.

Manziel left in the first half at Carolina with a hamstring injury, having absorbed a big hit from Luke Kuechly and Colin Jones on a designed run. The first-round pick left the field with a towel draped over his head. In all Sunday, Manziel was on the field for three possessions and one play of a fourth, completing three of eight passes for 32 yards. He also ran twice for three yards.

"It's frustrating," Manziel said. "I've never done anything like this, whether it's been playing since I was a kid in any sport, football, baseball, basketball. Never had anything like this so it was really new to me and really frustrating because I think I've put in two really good weeks of practice."

Brian Hoyer stepped in to replace him, and although his performance wasn't stellar, he did complete an 81-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron. Hoyer becomes a free agent after this season, and Manziel has yet to show he's the answer, so the Browns have some big decisions to make.

Rex, likely their ex

A year ago, after his team beat Miami in a finale, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson congratulated his players in the locker room and told them he was keeping Rex Ryan as coach. The Jets erupted in celebration.

There was no such announcement — and certainly no jubilation — for the Jets on Sunday, even though they played New England surprisingly tough in a 17-16 defeat at home. It was likely Ryan's last home game as coach, and his team dropped to 3-12, the first time since 2007 the club has lost at least a dozen games.

"It's tough because through this all, he's been the rock," guard Willie Colon said of Ryan. "I honestly want to win for him, more than anybody."

The Patriots clinched a first-round bye for the fifth consecutive year, the longest streak of any NFL team since the current playoff format began in 1990.

Fun while it lasted

For the first time in 12 seasons, the NFL will not have a team go from worst to first in its division in back-to-back years. Second-place Houston (8-7) came closest to pulling off the feat this season, but Indianapolis (10-5) won the AFC South.

Curtain call

Pittsburgh's defense frequently has been a liability this season, but the Steelers showed up in a big way against Kansas City, repeatedly stuffing the Chiefs in the red zone in a 20-12 victory at home. That included stonewalling Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles for no gain on fourth and one from Pittsburgh's 12-yard line in the second quarter.

"It was such a sense of urgency this week, knowing what was at stake," Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. "I just thought we answered the challenge."

Battling Beckham

Star rookie Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants had eight catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-27 win at St. Louis. Beckham, who missed the first four games because of injury, has 79 receptions, the most in league history for a player in his first 11 career games. He's also the first rookie with at least 130 yards receiving and a touchdown catch in three consecutive games.

Scary scene

Several people were injured by a lightning strike in the Raymond James Stadium parking lot after Green Bay's game at Tampa Bay.

According to an Associated Press report, officials with Tampa Fire Rescue said seven people were taken to a hospital with minor injuries. It did not appear anyone was directly struck by lightning; rather, the bolt kicked up rocks and gravel, and knocked a few people down.

Down and dirty

Dominic Raiola might be cheap, but his upcoming fine shouldn't be.

Cameras caught the Detroit center stomping on the lower leg of Chicago's Ego Ferguson, a rookie defensive lineman, late in the third quarter of Sunday's game. It's almost inconceivable the move was anything but intentional, although Raiola was not ejected.

After the game, Raiola claimed he stumbled, the stomp was unintentional, and that he apologized to Ferguson.

"I was stumbling out of the play, come on now, I'm not out here trying to step on people," he said.

Ferguson was unconvinced and angry, telling reporters, "You can't take away what happened with that play. You saw the play."

Last month, the NFL fined Raiola $10,000 for unnecessarily striking New England defensive end Zach Moore in the head. At the end of that game, on a meaningless snap when everyone else went half-speed, Raiola launched forward at the knees of the lineman in front of him.

Last year, in a game at Green Bay, Raiola was accused of yelling vulgarities at the University of Wisconsin Badger Band during warmups.

In the likely event the NFL punishes Raiola for the stomping, it has a road map. Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was suspended two games for a similar act on Thanksgiving in 2011. A similar ban for Raiola would sideline him for a playoff game.

Philbin still a Phin

The Miami Dolphins aren't going anywhere — and neither is their coach.

Even though the team will miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season, Joe Philbin is staying as coach, an announcement Dolphins owner Stephen Ross made after Sunday's 37-35 victory over Minnesota.

"We're building something great here," Ross told reporters in the locker room. "He's the right guy. . . . I believe in this team, I believe in the coach."

Philbin, who has a year remaining on his contract, is 23-24 in three seasons.

Players applauded the decision to retain him.

"That's exciting news for me, and I think everyone on the team," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "We believe in Coach Philbin and the program he has and everything he has set in place."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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