Usual teams in playoffs: 49 things you need to know

The NFL is supposed to be wildly unpredictable. But the four teams with a playoff bye look awfully familiar: Seattle, Green Bay, New England, and Denver. These were the most common four teams atop "Power Rankings" back in September. These have been power teams for at least three years.

When Seattle beat Green Bay in the season opener, many of us wondered if that game would help decide homefield advantage in the playoffs. That's exactly what wound up happening, with the Packers' Week 15 slip up in Buffalo giving the Seahawks the opening they needed. There are five new playoff teams out of 12, although Pittsburgh and Baltimore hardly qualify as plucky upstarts.

Four division championships were decided Sunday, and Carolina's win is the only one that qualifies as a mild surprise. Pittsburgh's win over Cincinnati continued a recent trend for the Steelers. They are winning with defense and balance again, which makes them a very dangerous team in the AFC playoffs. Carolina also has found an identity during their four game winning streak with a strong running game and vastly improved pass rush in December. It doesn't matter how they got there. The Panthers look more dangerous than other playoff teams like Arizona, Detroit, Baltimore and Cincinnati.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Panthers were still playing by Conference Championship weekend. This is a top-heavy league led by loaded, familiar teams. Let's hope the playoffs are a little more unpredictable than the regular season.

Here's what else you need to know from the final Sunday of the regular season:

  1. This game took a dark turn for the Packers when Aaron Rodgers collapsed to the turf after aggravating his left calf strain in the second quarter. Rodgers limped to the sidelines and was eventually carted to the locker room. The game went from 14-0 to 14-14 in Rodgers' absence. Rodgers returned in the third quarter, and in true MVP fashion, immediately led Green Bay to the go-ahead touchdown. This is an invaluable victory that gives Rodgers two weeks of recovery time before the Packers play again.
  1. The Lions can only lament at what might have been. This was a tie game in the third quarter with Matt Flynn at quarterback for the Packers. Things went downhill once Rodgers pulled his Willis Reed maneuver, and now Detroit will head to Dallas for a Wild Card round matchup against the 12-4 Cowboys. This was Detroit's first loss in December.
  1. Ndamukong Suh strikes again. The Lions' defensive tackle stepped on Rodgers' left ankle/calf area with his right and left foot after a Rodgers completion midway through the fourth quarter. Rodgers was livid after the play, slapping at Suh while he was on the ground. You can expect the league to take a look at the play, which Suh will assuredly explain as inadvertent and unfortunate. History tells us we shouldn't buy it.

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. It may have been a pyrrhic victory for the Steelers, as Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell never returned after suffering a third-quarter knee injury. We believe Bell has been Pittsburgh's most valuable player as well as the NFL's most dynamic running back this season. Backup Josh Harris, an undrafted rookie out of Wake Forest, showed better than expected speed on a 59-yard run that was nullified by a holding penalty. Harris and pint-sized speed merchant Dri Archer would likely split duties if Bell can't go against the Ravens in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
  1. Antonio Brown should be a lock as a first-team All Pro after leading the NFL with 129 receptions and 1,698 yards to go with 13 receiving touchdowns, one passing touchdown and another special teams score. Brown is the only player in history to record at least five catches and 50 yards in all 16 games; he's now accomplished the feat in back-to-back seasons. Ben Roethlisberger finished tied with Drew Brees for the most passing yards (4,952) in the league.
  1. The Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection is responsible for the most interceptions in the league since 2011. Dalton tossed two more in Green's direction Sunday night, one of which was a high pass and the other a miscommunication. Green was forced from the game for concussion tests after fumbling on a pivotal play late in the fourth quarter. If healthy, he and Dalton will try to get the postseason monkey off their backs against Colts cornerback Vontae Davis, who has been among the NFL's best cover men this year.
  1. In a game with zero playoff implications for either squad, Tom Brady and the Patriots ran into a Bills team fighting for its first winning season since 2004. It showed. With tight end Rob Gronkowski and wideout Julian Edelman inactive, Brady squeezed out just six points and 80 yards passing before resting after the half. Rookie backup Jimmy Garoppolo played the rest of the way, producing a mere three points off 90 yards through the air against an active Buffalo front seven that generated four sacks and six hits on the passer.
  1. Kyle Orton's final start of the year -- and maybe ever in Buffalo -- saw the veteran puncture New England for 176 yards and a touchdown strike. With throws of 18, 20, 20 and 43 yards, Orton made enough plays against a Patriots defense that shuttled in young players from the start. Still, it's another reminder that the switch from E.J. Manuel to the veteran was a wise choice by Bills coach Doug Marrone.
  1. Sammy Watkins closed his rookie campaign with 57 yards off three catches and another five yards on a sweep. While fading from the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Watkins finishes the season with 982 yards and six touchdowns off 65 grabs. We'd like to see more consistent production next season, but getting back to full health should help. The Bills can feel good about their young playmaker.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. Stripped of his two starting tackles, quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens looked nothing like postseason material for three-plus quarters. Cleveland's defense held Baltimore to under 5.0 yards per play before Flacco caught fire in the final period with a pair of touchdown strikes to Torrey Smith and Kamar Aiken to put the Browns away. Still, this 11th-ranked Ravens attack has struggled of late. Can Flacco put together another magical January run?
  1. It's not a good sign for Johnny Manziel that undrafted quarterback Connor Shaw looked more comfortable and prepared -- and played better -- in his first NFL start. It was far from pristine, but the rookie out of South Carolina finished 14-of-28 passing for 177 yards while handling the blitz with more poise than Johnny Football. Baltimore showed how little they respected the Browns' offense by going for it on fourth down in the red zone in the opening quarter.
  1. Browns rookie running back Terrance West played his best game in months with 94 yards off 18 carries after earning the start over Isaiah Crowell. Coach Mike Pettine challenged West to practice better in recent weeks, and it paid off on Sunday. Crowell and West give the Browns two solid runners to lean on in 2015.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. Watt bolstered his MVP argument with three sacks, including a fourth-quarter safety that staked the Texans to a six-point lead. He's now the only player with a pair of 20-sack seasons since the statistic became official in 1982. Watt's 2014 season is the most dominant we have ever seen by a defensive lineman. His 2012 season isn't far behind.
  1. It's no surprise that Andre Johnson had his best game of the season with Case Keenum under center. Over the last two years, Johnson has six touchdowns in 10 Keenum starts and just two scores in 21 games started by other quarterbacks. Keenum's carelessness with the ball and struggles with blitzes will prevent him from competing for a starting job, but he's a lot better than several NFL backups. It's hard to believe he wasted away on the Rams' practice squad for the majority of the season.
  1. Credit Texans coach Bill O'Brien for successfully instilling a culture change to a more physical team reliant upon defense and ball control. An easy schedule was a factor, but it's still impressive that the Seahawks and Rams were the only teams with a better defense from the Week 10 bye to the end of the season.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. San Diego only had to win this game to make the postseason. They didn't have the offensive line to pull it off. Give this win to the Kansas City pass rush, with Justin Houstonrecording four sacks. Kansas City overwhelmed San Diego's MASH unit offensive line on their way to seven sacks as a team. The Chargers did not appear to trust their pass protection early, calling a ton of runs. That lack of faith came with good reason.
  1. Kansas City needed the Ravens to lose in order to make the playoffs. That didn't happen, but Andy Reid piloted another winning record with the Chiefs finishing 9-7. This game should not have even been in doubt in the fourth quarter, but Reid refused to rely on his effective running game Sunday, too often asking Chase Daniel to throw passes in the red zone. Daniel started off 9 for 9, but wound up looking like a backup in a second half full of offensive mistakes.
  1. Ultimately, the Chiefs' red-zone defense saved them. Eddie Royal couldn't come up with two chances for a touchdown late in the game, and then Chargers running back Branden Oliver was stuffed on fourth-and-1 during a crucial fourth-quarter sequence. This Chargers team was not going anywhere even if they made the playoffs with Keenan Allen, Ryan Mathews and a banged-up offensive line rendering Philip Rivers too short handed to survive.

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. Carolina is a playoff team because they found an identity late in the season. Their running game took off when Jonathan Stewart took over as their primary running back because of DeAngelo Williams' injury. And their pass rush took fire late in the year, with veteran Charles Johnson leading the way.
  1. Stewart only had 49 yards rushing Sunday, but the team as a whole ran for 195 yards in part Cam Newton led the way. The Panthers have re-embraced Newton as a running option, and the Falcons pass rush could not get him to the ground even when they pressured him on Sunday.
  1. This performance could spell the end of the Mike Smith era in Atlanta. In the end, his defense was sub-mediocre like it was for most of the year. Matt Ryan made a number of poor throws under pressure, including two throws returned for a touchdown. The Falcons couldn't run the ball year. Ultimately, Mike Smith preached toughness, intelligent football, and strong running game as hallmarks of his team. This Falcons squad had none of that.

Smith was fired on Monday, the Falcons announced.

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. If not for a pair of turnovers and a failed fourth-down conversion, the Seahawks would have won this one in a laugher. The defense remains the NFL's most suffocating, having surrendered a total of three touchdowns in the past six games. They became the first team to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed for three consecutive seasons since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings. The road to the Super Bowl runs through CenturyLink Field, where Seattle is 16-2 over the past two years.
  1. The "Legion of Boom" wrecked Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick and Peyton Manning en route to last year's Super Bowl victory. Although they have been stingier in their current stretch, it should be noted that the dominance has come against Drew Stanton, Mark Sanchez, Colin Kaepernick (twice), Ryan Lindley and Shaun Hill -- four of whom opened the season on the bench. The Seahawks are the NFC's heavy favorites by dint of homefield advantage and postseason experience, but the Cowboys and Packers certainly won't view them as invincible.
  1. The Cardinals became the 10th consecutive team to lose the week after playing Pete Carroll's squad. It's a testament to their physicality, which has left opponents with a hangover going back to early last season.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. The game ended with Rex Ryan getting doused with Gatorade. How many coaches have received that honor after wrapping a 4-12 season? Ryan is undeniably loved by his players, but this is a results business and the Jets have missed the postseason four straight years. Ryan repeatedly ducked questions about his future after the game, but it's clear he knows what's coming next. Said Ryan: "I think we all expect what's gonna happen is gonna happen, but we'll find out in time."

Ryan and general manager John Idzik were informed on Monday morning by owner Woody Johnson that they would not return in 2015.

  1. The GenoCoaster was a genuine thrill ride on Sunday. In what could be his final start with the Jets, Geno Smith posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3. He threw for a career-high 358 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He had just five incompletions on 25 attempts. Smith can now say -- with a straight face -- that he has shown "Pro Bowl flashes." Will this excellent performance cast him in a different light when decisions are made this offseason?
  1. Lamar Miller ended a very strong 2014 season with an exclamation point in the form of a 97-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The run put Miller above 1,000 yards on the season and provided the Dolphins with a reminder why he should remain the focal point of the backfield in 2015.

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. John Mara and the Giants will take a week or so to make their final decision, a process that likely involves a series of sit-downs between Tom Coughlin, general manager Jerry Reese and Mara himself. And while it seems likely that Coughlin will return, he may need to sacrifice another coordinator (or two) in the process. Mara puts significance in each game, and Perry Fewell's defense gave up 34 points to Mark Sanchez and the Eagles. Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn, thought to be on the block last year, also saw his unit surrender the first blocked punt in Steve Weatherford's career. Both are lower-impact decisions that could pacify a fan base and keep Eli Manning -- who, despite a crushing late-game interception that cost the Giants this one, has looked like a new quarterback this year -- on track at the same time.
  1. If Coughlin returns, he'll have Odell Beckham to thank. In each and every game, he has made a stunning play. He plays bigger than his size and is faster than receivers with his frame. He high-pointed a ball more than 4 feet in the air and landed on his back, grasping the ball in one hand. Then, Beckham strong-armed his way out of press coverage, made a move and jetted 63 yards for a score, backpedaling into the end zone. At the moment, Beckham might be the most electrifying football player New York has seen since Lawrence Taylor.
  1. Sanchez does something in each game that makes us think he could be an NFL starter. Given the shallow market this offseason, is it really hard to believe that he could be considered a No. 1 quarterback again? Despite one pick in this game, Sanchez managed a game against a defense with plenty to prove.

-- Conor Orr

  1. No one would have predicted Mike Zimmer's team would reach seven wins without Adrian Peterson. Teddy Bridgewater's play has improved each week. Sunday the rookie again displayed poise in the pocket, went through his progression well for a rookie and made good pre-snap reads. Sometimes he bails on routes too early and checks down, but his improvement on the deep ball has been a great sign for what's to come.

On defense, Zimmer's squad can become a force. Xavier Rhodes flashed his cover skills, shadowing Alshon Jeffery all day, holding the big wideout to just two catches for 34 yards. With Rhodes and Harrison Smith on the back end and Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr up front, Minnesota's defense will be one to reckon with down the road. The Vikings' future is bright.

  1. Even as the Bears turned into a dumpster fire this season, Matt Forte continued to show he's a supreme running back. Chicago's most consistent weapon went over 1,000 yards for the fifth straight season. Sunday he became just the second NFL back to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes (LaDanian Tomlinson, 2003). His eight receptions Sunday gave him 102 for the season and broke Larry Centers' record for the most by a RB in a season in NFL history. He is the NFL's most underappreciated playmaker at an underappreciated position.
  1. If it's the end for the Marc Trestman-Jay Cutler marriage, they went out without much of a whimper. Cutler's play was essentially the same as all the year sans the backbreaking turnovers: Uninspiring. Chicago's offense displayed no fluidity and was killed by pre-snap penalties. The quarterback was hot and cold. Most of his 23 completions on 36 pass came on check downs and short passes, accumulating just 172 yards -- for a Gabbertzone-esque 4.8 average. Cutler failed to reach the end zone when given several short fields. Trestman appears on the way out and Cutler could follow. Neither did anything Sunday to change that narrative in Chicago.

Trestman and general manager Phil Emery were fired on Monday.

-- Kevin Patra

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  1. It's official: The Buccaneers hold the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. It's the silver lining of a nightmare season that ended with a seven-game losing streak and a 2-14 record. Quarterback appears to be the obvious direction to go with the first pick. Josh McCown is not the long-term answer and the team appears to have lost faith in Mike Glennon. Marcus Mariota? Jameis Winston? The Bucs are on the clock.
  1. The astounding rise of Odell Beckham Jr. will keep Mike Evans from winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but the Bucs got themselves a keeper. Evans went over 1,000 yards for the season in this game and recorded his 12th touchdown reception. Evans and Beckham finished the year tied with 12 touchdowns apiece.
  1. The Saints wiped out a 20-7 deficit and shut out the Bucs in the second half. Will that be enough to save the job of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan? Ryan was a buzzy head-coach candidate this time last year. After the Saints tumbled on defense in 2014, it will be interesting to see if Ryan is the fall guy for a lost season.

-- Dan Hanzus

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  1. DeMarco Murray's 12th 100-yard performance of the season leaves him with 1,845 rushing yards, besting Emmitt Smith's Cowboys record of 1,773. Dez Bryant outraced the Redskins' defense for a 65-yard touchdown and added a toe-tapping 23-yard score, bringing his season total to 16 touchdown. Terrell Owens previously held the team record with 15. If there is a slight concern with Dallas' new "Triplets," it's that Murray has averaged 3.9 yards per carry over the last five weeks after topping 4.0 in every game from Weeks 1-11. He's not the explosive tackle breaker he was early in the season.
  1. Thanks to a fourth-quarter interception, Tony Romo finished with a single-game passer rating under 129.0 for just the second time in the past six weeks. He is likely to finish the season as the league leader in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. Although he has done more game managing this season, Romo remains in the MVP conversation with Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt and Tom Brady.
  1. Robert Griffin III's numbers belie his struggles. He tossed red-zone interceptions on back-to-back possessions and handed the Cowboys defense a touchdown with a strip-sack fumble deep in his own territory. The Redskins' two best plays of the day came via play action, with Griffin throwing at or behind the line of scrimmage. In a humbling and lost season, Griffin left the organization with nothing but skepticism about his potential to develop into a passer capable of winning games from the pocket.

-- Chris Wesseling

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  1. The Colts couldn't improve their seeding, and they looked like they knew it for much of Sunday's win. They sleepwalked through the first half and Andrew Luck sat out the second half of the victory. While the Colts running game's struggles continued, Luck was mostly sharp in the first half.
  1. Luck broke the team's single season yardage record, previously held by Peyton Manning. Reggie Waynemade a nice grab to clinch the record, although he couldn't quite finish off the touchdown on an 80-yard gain. The Colts will host the loser of Bengals-Steelers next week.
  1. The Titans go into the offseason with no identity and nothing to build off. Bishop Sankey only had four carries Sunday. Their quarterbacks (Charlie Whitehurst and Jordan Palmer!) completed 13-of-31 passes for 50 yards. 50! That's one of the worst passing performances you'll ever see.

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. Should we be concerned about Peyton Manning? Not yet. The Broncos quarterback rebounded from last week's four-interception debacle to puncture Oakland for 273 yards at 7.4 yards per throw. He's tossed just five touchdowns over the past four games, but Peyton still finishes the year with 39 passing scores, second to only Andrew Luck (40) among NFL quarterbacks. What he does between now and February, though, will mean much more.
  1. Good chemistry between Manning and Demaryius Thomas doomed Oakland, with the Broncos wideout picking up 115 yards off eight grabs. Thomas would have amassed more if not for a dropped pass in the end zone, but he still finishes the year with 1,619 yards through the air, a Broncos franchise record. Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders join Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey as the only 100-catch duos in team history.
  1. C.J. Anderson's three touchdowns on the day gives him nine scores over his past six games, the most among NFL running backs during that span. Coming in averaging 98.3 yards per game on the ground since Week 11, the Broncos emergent workhorse piled up another 87 yards off 13 carries against a Raiders defense that wasn't the same with Khalil Mack battling a hamstring injury. Ronnie Hillman also looked sharp with 56 yards off 15 totes.

-- Marc Sessler

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  1. If this was the last of Harbaugh and Frank Gore in San Francisco, they went out in style. Harbaugh will finish his 49ers career with a 44-19-1 record and three trips to the NFC Championship game. Gore went over 11,000 rushing yards in his career on Sunday, churning out 144 on 25 carries. His best two performances of the season came in the final two games.

Harbaugh and the 49ers mutually parted ways following the game Sunday.

  1. The Cardinals' fortunes rose and fell with Ryan Lindley, which is apropos for their December of quarterback woes. Lindley opened the game and closed out the first half with the two most impressive drives of his career, finding Michael Floyd for touchdowns on both. The rest of the game was a nightmare, with Lindley exhibiting happy feet, staring down receivers and being intercepted three times. This is a proud, well-coached team being held hostage by the sport's most important position. There is no remedy on the horizon.
  1. Unthinkable a month ago, the Cardinals will travel to Carolina as underdogs against a team with four fewer wins. The Panthers are one of the league's hottest teams, having won four straight behind an improved defense and rushing attack. Arizona, meanwhile, has lost in two a row with a previously stout defense having allowed an average of 496 yards to the Seahawks and 49ers the past two weeks.

-- Chris Wesseling

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Week 17 game and debates the MVP race between Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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