It’s not easy being green.
With a playoff berth at their fingertips, the New York Jets stumbled at the finish line Sunday with a 22-17 loss at Buffalo — a defeat all the more excruciating because the Bills are coached by Rex Ryan, dumped by the Jets after last season.
That loss opened the door for Pittsburgh to grab the final AFC berth, which the Steelers did with a 28-12 win at Cleveland.
On a day when New England blew a chance for the AFC’s top seed, and Denver grabbed it — with Peyton Manning replacing the struggling Brock Osweiler — the Jets did the most painful belly flop.
Pittsburgh will play at Cincinnati in a first-round game. Those AFC North rivals split their series this season, with the road team winning each time. In the other AFC wild-card game, Houston will play host to Kansas City, which has the NFL’s longest active winning streak at 10 games.
The Bills had three interceptions against the Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick, their former quarterback, and denied a happy homecoming to Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey to boot. Gailey was Buffalo’s head coach from 2010-12.
“It’s the hardest and most difficult end to a season I’ve ever had,” said Fitzpatrick, whose exceptional season was tainted by a Bills sweep. “There’s not a whole lot of talking in [the locker room] right now. It’s hard to come up with words.”
Hard for some. Not for Ryan.
“I’ve got a lot of friends over there, and I want them to be successful,” the colorfully bombastic coach said. “But not at my expense.”
Ryan took the opportunity to jab reporters who questioned his defensive acumen, gloating after his team limited the Jets to 300 yards of offense — 65 fewer than their average.
“You guys know me, I’ve got a horrible resume as a defensive coach,” he said. “You try to point it out all the time. But the facts don’t back you up a whole lot.”
The Bills finished 8-8 under Ryan, whose rallying cry throughout the season was based on revenge and retribution.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t monitoring Jets-Bills during his game, but he had a strong inkling of the way things were going when he heard a roar from Pittsburgh fans behind him late in the fourth quarter.
“I assumed there was a fight or a Steelers fan was beating up a Browns fan,” he joked. “When I saw the towels getting out I kind of assumed what was going on. A lot of thanks to Coach Ryan and the rest of the Bills and everybody in Buffalo. I know they’re excited about 8-8 and we’re excited they got us in.”
For the first time in his 18-year career, Manning was a backup.
That lasted a little more than a half.
With starter Osweiler struggling against San Diego, Broncos Coach Gary Kubiak relied on instincts in the third quarter and inserted the league’s only five-time most valuable player.
“My gut told me to turn it over to him,” Kubiak told reporters. “It says everything about Peyton how he handled everything. It’s been a weird year for him and for me. It’s going to take everyone.”
Manning, 39, who got a standing ovation from the Denver crowd when he trotted onto the field, directed scoring drives on four of his first five possessions, even though his numbers weren’t gaudy — five for nine for 59 yards, with no touchdowns and no turnovers.
He started the day as a backup for the first time since his freshman season at Tennessee, when he was the understudy to future major league baseball player Todd Helton. Manning had not played since Week 9, when he was sidelined by foot and rib-cage injuries.
“These fans were great,” he said after the game. “They were cheering loud, but I’m pretty sure everybody was in their same seats when they were booing my butt off against Kansas City back about six weeks ago. I understand how this works.”
The Broncos secured the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The last time they did that, in 2013, they advanced to the Super Bowl.
Arizona came into its finale with the league’s top-ranked offense and No. 5 defense. The Cardinals got a jarring reminder not to get too comfortable, though, when they were crushed at home by Seattle, 36-6.
That snapped Arizona’s nine-game winning streak, and was Seattle’s first game back on that field since losing the Super Bowl to New England last February.
Both teams are in the playoffs, with the Cardinals earning the No. 2 seed and a bye, and the Seahawks qualifying as a wild-card entrant.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson had three touchdown passes Sunday, bringing his total to 24 touchdowns and one interception in his last seven games. No player in NFL history has had that many touchdowns and so few interceptions over a span that long.
Since the NFL adopted its current postseason format in 1990, at least four teams every season have qualified for the playoffs after missing them the year before. This season, those four are Kansas City, Minnesota, Houston and Washington.
The Browns moved quickly to part ways with Coach Mike Pettine and General Manager Ray Farmer, firing both after the finale. There figure to be several more firings around the league Monday.
Among the coaches on shaky ground are Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants, whose team lost at home to Philadelphia, 35-30; Indianapolis’ Chuck Pagano, whose team beat Tennessee, 30-24; San Diego’s Mike McCoy, whose team lost at Denver, 27-20; and San Francisco’s Jim Tomsula, whose team beat St. Louis, 19-16 in overtime.
It would cost Dallas as much as $24 million to fire Jason Garrett, whose Cowboys lost to Washington, 34-23, to finish 4-12. Sean Payton of New Orleans ended the season on a high note (a 20-17 win at Atlanta), as did Miami interim Coach Dan Campbell, with the 10-point upset of New England.
Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown had 13 receptions for 187 yards and a touchdown Sunday, bringing his two-season total to 265 catches, an NFL record. He began the day tied for the record with Marvin Harrison, who had 252 receptions for Indianapolis in 2001 and ’02.
Where was Johnny?
Cleveland’s season is over, but the Johnny Manziel saga rages on.
The troubled quarterback, recovering from a concussion sustained against Kansas City last Sunday, reportedly went to Las Vegas on Saturday as his teammates prepared for the Pittsburgh game. He had been deactivated for the game because of the injury and, according to various reports, wasn’t seen at the stadium.
USA Today quoted an employee and patron who said they saw Manziel at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas on Saturday. According to the report, Manziel ate at the casino restaurant and was spotted at the blackjack table. Manziel, who spent time at a treatment center during the off-season, made headlines earlier in the week after a video was posted to Instagram on Christmas Eve showing him rapping and holding a can of alcoholic beverage.
After Sunday’s game, and before he was fired, Pettine was asked whether Manziel was in Las Vegas.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t. To me, when guys are . . . we have a protocol for them if they’re inactive. I don’t have all of the information on that yet, but my biggest concern was the guys that were going to be out there today getting prepared for the Steelers.”
Easy as 1-2-3
The order at the top of this spring’s draft was established Sunday. Tennessee will choose first, followed by Cleveland and San Diego.
The Titans used the No. 2 pick on Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota last year, so they will be looking for another position if they hang on to the top selection.