San Diego Chargers

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NFL owners to discuss 10 rules proposal changes next week

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —    NFL owners will be presented 10 rules proposals at their meetings next week, including changes to the catch rule and to the length of defensive pass interference penalties, and allowing personal fouls to be reviewed by instant replay.

The competition committee and several teams are bringing the proposals, which will be reviewed by owners beginning Monday in Orlando.

Other suggestions include making permanent spotting the ball at the 25-yard line following a kickoff; adding fouls for roughing the passer and penalties against players in a defenseless posture as reviewable in instant replay; designating a member of the officiating staff at New York headquarters to instruct on-field game officials to eject a player for a flagrant non-football act that drew a flag; and limiting the allowable time for a coach to throw a challenge flag.

Included in a dozen bylaw proposals is allowing a player on injured reserve to be traded, and schedule adjustments for western teams playing in the East.

Redefining the catch rule is the highest priority, according to Troy Vincent, the NFL’s football operations chief, and Rich McKay, who chairs the powerful competition committee.

“We tried to simplify the rule with a three-step process,” McKay said Friday. “Control, two feet down or a body part, and then anything that is a football act. It could be like Jesse James reaching for the goal line .”

The Steelers tight end had a likely winning touchdown catch overturned against New England, one of the most critical plays of last season. In 2018, if the new definition of a catch is passed, it would be a touchdown.

“We got rid of ‘going to the ground,’ which was definitely causing some issues on these calls,” McKay added of the process of completing a catch that has caused so much consternation.

Vincent noted that despite slight movement of the ball in a receiver’s hands, that is not loss of possession. Under the proposal, it would constitute a reception.

“With movement (of the ball), you can still have control with movement,” Vincent said. “That’s also addressed in the new proposal language.”

Equally controversial has been the defensive pass interference call. The Jets are proposing a change from a spot foul to a 15-yard penalty — unless the foul is determined by officials to be intentional and egregious. That suggestion drew plenty of discussion among competition committee members; both Vincent and McKay said it had “momentum” heading into the owners meetings.

Vincent was an outstanding defensive back in the NFL and has deep insight into pass interference.

“The difference between college ball and professional defensive backs is the (pros) were too skilled and too smart, and you can play the play, you can be strategic about it,” he said. “You don’t want a defensive back being able to strategically grab a guy, eliminate the options (on a play).

“As a former defensive back, on a professional level you can frankly bait a quarterback into doing whatever you want.”

McKay noted there was one 50-yard or longer defensive pass interference call last season, three of 45 or longer, and seven of 40 or more.

Allowing officiating director Al Riveron or designated staff members at New York headquarters to call for an ejection of a player is a proposal emanating from committee meetings with game officials.

“They were quick to point out in these situations where a lot is going on — a fight or something else in dead ball situations — many times they are at a loss to capture exactly what happened and the right numbers (of offending players),” McKay said.

Also proposed:

—If a team opens overtime with a field goal, then gets a turnover on the opponent’s next possession, that play will be run to conclusion. Previously, if the team that kicked the field goal fumbled the ball and it was run back for a touchdown by the opponent, that TD wouldn’t count because of a change of possession. Now, it would count.

Such a situation has never occurred since the rule change allowing each team an OT series.

—Owners will be asked to approve allowing video use on sideline and coaches’ box tablets. Now, only photos can be examined.

—Coaches will have a set amount of time during a commercial break to throw a challenge flag.

—Extra points need not be converted at the end of regulation after a team scores the winning touchdown.

McKay pointed to the end of the Saints-Vikings playoff game.

—Teams seeking head coaches after the season be allowed to negotiate and sign a contract, though the coach would still be prohibited from doing any work for his new team until his club is done in the postseason.

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NFL free agency winners, losers: 49ers, Seahawks headed in opposite directions

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —    The NFL’s first wave of free agency is over. Signings will continue to trickle in over the next few weeks, but the majority of high-impact moves are already on the books.

Many team officials and coaches will say they’re happy with how it all played out, but there often is a sharp separation when evaluating which teams capitalized on the market and which didn’t.

The true fallout from these moves won’t become fully clear until teams take the field. But here’s a look at what appears to be some of the biggest winners and losers of free agency a week after the market opened.

Winners

San Francisco 49ers: Continuing the momentum gained as they closed out the season on a 5-0 swing, general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan further upgraded their roster in the last two months.

First came the five-year deal for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, followed by a three-year extension for wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who is coming off of a career year. They then added four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman following his release by the Seahawks. San Francisco also upgraded at running back, replacing Carlos Hyde with Jerrick McKinnon, who will fit perfectly into Shanahan’s system both as a ball carrier and pass catcher. Center Weston Richburg and linebackers Brock Coyle and Jeremiah Attaochu further strengthen the team’s core.

It’s realistic to believe the 49ers will have a legitimate chance to leap-frog the re-tooling Seahawks in the NFC West, and they could even threaten the division-champion Rams.

Cleveland Browns: New general manager John Dorsey and third-year coach Hue Jackson aren’t messing around. Before free agency even started, they took drastic steps to upgrade the roster, trading for wide receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Tyrod Taylor and defensive back Damarious Randall. Then came the signings of running back Carlos Hyde, tight end Darren Fells, and offensive tackles Chris Hubbard and Donald Stephenson, among others.

Taylor is an underappreciated passer who seldom commits turnovers. Armed with weapons like Landry, Josh Gordon and Hyde, he has a chance to significantly improve the offense. And his presence means coaches don’t have to play a rookie quarterback before he’s ready.

Meanwhile, despite their many trades, the Browns still own five of the first 64 picks in the draft.

Minnesota Vikings: Despite reaching the NFC Championship Game, they decided to move on from Case Keenum and go all in on Kirk Cousins, whom they landed him on a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. Minnesota then addressed the other side of the ball by signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.

The Vikings believe they now have a roster fit to contend for a Super Bowl with a top-rated defense, a three-time 4,000-yard passer and a diverse collection of weapons.

Tennessee Titans: General manager Jon Robinson and first-year coach Mike Vrabel deepened their ties to the Patriots by bringing on cornerback Malcolm Butler (five years, $61.24 million) and running back Dion Lewis (four years, $20 million).

Lewis gives quarterback Marcus Mariota and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur a versatile piece, while Butler at times has been one of the better corners in the league. Just as importantly, the two bring a winning mentality.

Los Angeles Rams: Their changes were more fueled by trades than signings, but the Rams still look like winners. Los Angeles loaded up at cornerback, acquiring Marcus Peters from the Chiefs and Aqib Talib from the Broncos while also signing Sam Shields and re-upping Nickell Robey-Coleman. General manager Les Snead said his team would be aggressive this offseason, and he has certainly backed up those words in reshaping the defense.

Losers

Seattle Seahawks: They released Sherman, telling him they wanted to create greater financial flexibility. Additionally, they lost key pieces in tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Paul Richardson, and defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Michael Bennett. Team officials understood the need to reshape the roster in hopes of staving off a full-blown rebuild, but Seattle still looks poised to take a step back.

New England Patriots: They already find themselves in an offseason of change with former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia now the head coach of the Lions. But they’ve got more work ahead of them as they try to rebound from the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. Butler, Lewis, wide receiver Danny Amendola and left tackle Nate Solder all signed elsewhere. Solder’s departure to the Giants could be the biggest loss of all, as Tom Brady now needs a new blindside protector.

Miami Dolphins: The cap-strapped team still managed to sign Amendola away from the Patriots and acquired pass rusher Robert Quinn from the Rams. But Miami traded Landry and released star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and three-time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey.

***

The modern NFL quarterback has evolved over the past 35 years, beginning with Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway, continuing into the 2000s with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and then entering the new era with Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Andrew Luck. As QBs figure to dominate the draft-day discussion in the upcoming NFL draft, For The Win looks back at the last 35 drafts to pick the best classes of the era.

(Click here for the worst QB classes.)

But first, a look at some numbers. Starting with the 1983 draft, there have been 453 quarterbacks selected by NFL teams. They’ve run the gamut from Hall of Famers to players who never stepped on the field for a preseason game. A look at those 453 reveals:

The good:

• Six are in the Hall of Fame (five more aren’t yet eligible but figure to be locks: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger)
• 38 played at least 10 seasons as an NFL starter
• 48 had a winning record (minimum: 50 starts)
• 72 were elected to a Pro Bowl
• 169 were the primary starter for a team for at least one season

The bad:

• 175 never started a game in the NFL
• 190 never threw a touchdown pass
• 263 threw at least one touchdown pass (but 124 of them threw more interceptions)

The ugly:

• 128 never threw a single pass in the NFL
• 318 were taken with a pick higher than Tom Brady’s No. 199
• More than half of the drafted quarterbacks (248 of 453) haven’t combined to throw as many touchdown passes as Peyton Manning.

And now, the 10 best QB draft classes of the last 35 years.

Some things to remember: The draft was 12 rounds through 1992 and eight rounds in 1993 before adopting the current seven-round format in 1994. Also, our selection of the worst QB drafted takes into account draft position, expectations and (lack of) NFL success. If you were a first-round pick who started a season and flamed out of the league, that’s considered worse than a sixth-round QB who never played a game.

1983

The best: John Elway (1st round, No. 1 overall)
Others: Dan Marino, Jim Kelly
The worst: Todd Blackledge (1st round, No. 7)
1st round QBs: 6
QBs drafted: 16

The Class of ’83 isn’t just hype; it’s by far the greatest collection of quarterbacks ever to be taken in a single draft. You could throw out dozens of statistics to prove why, but one is all you need: Three quarterbacks were elected to the Hall of Fame from the ’83 draft (Elway, Kelly and Marino). That’s the only draft of the Super Bowl era in which more than one QB went to Canton, let alone three. The six QBs taken in the first round is also a modern draft record.

2004

The best: Philip Rivers (1st round, No. 4)
Others: Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick
The worst: J.P. Losman (1st round, No. 22)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 17

The top three picks in ’04 were Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger. That’s two Super Bowl winners and a Pro Bowl stalwart who may be the best pure quarterback of the draft, albeit one drafted to a team that didn’t have as much success.

(You can debate why. Is it the chicken or the egg? Were the Chargers mediocre because Rivers couldn’t lead them to bigger things or was Rivers placed in an impossible situation with an owner whose main concern was leaving San Diego? Whatever the answer, Manning seemed to make the right choice in refusing to play for the Chargers.)

Not even the ’83 draft can boast such quality with its top three picks, as Todd Blackledge was the second quarterback selected that year, in between Elway and Kelly. And, quite famously, Kelly and Marino didn’t win Super Bowls, leaving Elway as the only one from his class to win a ring. That leaves just one other QB draft class of the past 35 years that can boast multiple Super Bowl winners from the same draft. That class came in …

2012

The best: Russell Wilson (3rd round, No. 75)
Others: Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill
The worst: Brandon Weeden (1st round, No. 22)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 11

Who’d have guessed? Thanks to Nick Foles’ surprising Super Bowl win with the Eagles, he joins Russell Wilson as a 2012 draftee with a championship.

Back then – heck, even a few months ago – that would have been impossible to predict. If you’d have been told another quarterback from 2012 would have won a ring already, there was a bevy of options from which to choose.

Andrew Luck would have been the natural choice before injuries derailed him promising career. He could either return to form or fade away, like too many NFL players before him. Then there was Griffin (the No. 2 pick) and Russell Wilson, leading their teams to the playoffs in their rookie seasons.

When, the next year, Foles was in the midst of an 27 TD, 2 INT season with the Eagles, there appeared the chance that the class of 2012 could just maybe – possibly – challenge the class of 1983 one day. Then RG3 fizzled, Luck got hurt and Foles was pushed out of Philly.

Now, with Luck and Tannehill on the road to recovery, Kirk Cousins (who the Redskins drafted after Griffin) becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL and Foles having a Super Bowl MVP to his name, maybe the class of ’12 can at least get within shouting distance of ’83.

Interestingly, the most successful quarterback of the draft (Wilson) is perhaps the biggest question mark headed into 2018, with his successful Seahawks stripped for parts in free agency.

2005

The best: Aaron Rodgers (1st round, No. 24)
Others: Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton
The worst: David Greene (3rd round, No. 85)
1st round QBs: 3
QBs drafted: 14

The 49ers wouldn’t mind having that No. 1 pick back.

While Alex Smith turned into an above-average QB in San Francisco, Aaron Rodgers, who went 23 picks later, is a Super Bowl champ, MVP winner and future Hall of Famer. The rest of the draft class sounds nondescript – Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Campbell, Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, Derek Anderson – but they’ve combined to have the most 20-win careers of any QB class in our time span.

That sounds like a low bar to clear, sure, but compare that to the next year when just two quarterbacks have 20 wins or the year after that when none reached that mark.

1993

The best: Drew Bledsoe (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Mark Brunell, Elvis Grbac, Trent Green
The worst: Rick Mirer (1st round, No. 2)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 8

The 10th anniversary of the ’83 draft didn’t bring any Hall of Famers into the NFL, but Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell and Trent Green all had solid NFL career with each posting 50+ wins. Bledsoe was a worthy No. 1 but the run of success didn’t last long – Mirer was one of the biggest busts of all time at No. 2. Brunell and Green were steals in the fifth and eighth rounds, respectively.

1998

The best: Peyton Manning (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Batch, Brian Griese
The worst: Ryan Leaf (1st round, No. 2)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 8

Peyton Manning ended up going at No. 1, where he belonged, but the fact that it wasn’t even a debate is as preposterous now as it was then. Manning was a textbook example of NFL front offices overthinking decisions.

No quarterback was ever more hyped, or more scrutinized, as Manning was in high school and at Tennessee. Despite living up to those expectations, Peyton still got picked apart both in college (when he lost the Heisman to Charles Woodson in the greatest robbery in the award’s history) and before the draft when Ryan Leaf – RYAN LEAF – was seriously considered as an alternative.

But Indy got it right and the rest is history. Matt Hasselbeck was the second-winningest quarterback selected that year (sixth round, pick No. 187) and actually has the 15th most wins of any quarterback selected since 1993.

2001

The best: Drew Brees (2nd round, No. 32)
Others: Michael Vick
The worst: Chris Weinke (4th round, No. 106)
1st round QBs: 1
QBs drafted: 11

At the top, the 2001 QB class is better than almost any. Vick was taken with the No. 1 overall pick and Brees was No. 1 in the second round. Few other drafts can claim such star power, even if Vick’s star burned too bright, too quick.

Brees is likely to retire as the NFL leader in most major passing categories and is a surefire Hall of Famer. The reason the draft ranks doesn’t rank as high as its top two? No one else had more than 20 career wins, not Quincy Carter, not Mike McMahon, not Josh Booty, not Marques Tuiasosopo and certainly not Chris Weinke, whose 2-18 record stands as one of the worst in NFL history.

2008

The best: Matt Ryan (1st round, No. 3)
Others: Joe Flacco, Chad Henne
The worst: Brian Brohm (2nd round, No. 56)
1st round QBs: 2
QBs drafted: 13

Joe Flacco has never made a Pro Bowl in his career, which isn’t a stunner until you consider how injuries, apathy and the movement of the game to before Super Bowl have made Pro Bowl bids about as hard to score as Valentines cards in elementary school. But Flacco is 92-62 in his career, won a Super Bowl, signed a $100 million deal and consistently has his Ravens in playoff contention.

Matt Ryan’s record is only slightly better than Flacco’s (95-63) and he doesn’t have the ring (he came close though) but he’s thought of as one of the game’s top QBs. The only other draft classes to produce two quarterbacks with 90+ wins are the two at the top of our list – 1983 and 2004.

2000

The best: Tom Brady (6th round, No. 199)
Others: Chad Pennington, Marc Bulger
The worst: Giovanni Carmazzi (3rd round, No. 65)
1st round QBs: 1
QBs drafted: 12

Brady alone isn’t enough to propel this class into the top 10. (Consider: Brett Favre’s 1991 class is closer to the bottom of the list than the top, as no one else who was taken that year had more than 15 career wins.) So, in addition to Brady, there was Chad Pennington and Marc Bulger. Neither were NFL stars (they had two Pro Bowls between them) but they played a combined 13 seasons and each won more than 40 games. Touting the win total of the class of 2000 is kind of like saying that between Hank and Tommie, the Aaron brothers hit 768 home runs, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

1987

The best: Vinny Testaverde (1st round, No. 1)
Others: Rich Gannon, Steve Beuerlein, Jim Harbaugh, Chris Miller
The worst: Kelly Stouffer (1st round, No. 6)
1st round QBs: 4
QBs drafted: 19

A prime example of more being more, the ’87 draft didn’t produce a major superstar (Rich Gannon’s MVP season excepted) but between Testaverde, Gannon, Beurelein, Chris Miller and Don Majkowski, there were six legitimate NFL starters taken over the 12-round draft. They stayed around a while too; Testaverde played 21 seasons, Gannon played 18 and Beuerlein was in uniform for 17.

NFL competition committee to recommend catch rule changes

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —   WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The NFL’s catch rule would get less complicated if team owners approve recommendations from the powerful competition committee.

One of the first orders of business when the league’s annual meetings begin Monday in Orlando, Florida, will be a proposal by the committee to clarify what is a catch. Commissioner Roger Goodell said during the week of the Super Bowl he would urge simplification of the rules.

“Catch/no catch is at the top of everyone’s minds,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s football operations chief, said Wednesday before outlining the committee’s recommendations.

The owners will be asked to vote on clarifications that eliminate parts of the rule involving a receiver going to the ground, and that also eliminate negating a catch for slight movement of the ball while it is in the receiver’s possession. No calls in the last few years – not even pass interference – have caused more consternation than overturned catches in key situations, including those by Dez Bryant, Jesse James and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

“We were at the point as far as players and particularly coaches who asked, `Why is that not a catch?“’ Vincent said. “We talked to fans, coaches and players and we asked the groups, `Would you like this to be a catch?’ It was 100 percent yes.

“Then we began writing rules that actually apply to making these situations catches.”

Here’s what would constitute a catch if the owners approve the competition committee’s alterations:

control of the ball;

getting two feet down;

performing a football act or;

performing a third step.

The stipulation that slight movement of the ball while the receiver still has control no longer would result in an incompletion. Vincent pointed to the touchdown catch by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Corey Clement in the Super Bowl as an example of a player never losing possession of the ball despite slight movement.

“That’s what the fans, coaches and players want,” Vincent said. “They are the magical moments people are looking for, and that includes all of those (plays). It’s the biggest (proposed change). Why we want this is this is one call shaping results across the sport.”

Richard Sherman, the star cornerback who recently was cut by Seattle and signed with San Francisco, approves cleaning up the rules.

“I’m in favor of it because it gives the refs more clarity,” Sherman said. “I think anytime you can give the referees more of a straight line, an edge, to call plays, I think it’s better for the game.

“I think obviously there’s been a lot of scrutiny on the catch rule. Last year, my team was at the wrong end of it. A guy caught the ball and ran three or four steps, put his hand in the ground, fell, fumbled the ball and nobody touched him, and they said it was an incomplete pass. It was the most ridiculous thing I think I’ve ever seen.

“I think that they need to do more rules like that. They need to take the gray area out of a lot more rules because the rule book is getting too crazy. It’s getting too extensive. Every year, the refs are getting scrutinized left and right when it’s a bang-bang play. This game is happening at a million miles an hour and there’s really nothing you can do about it. The rule book is so complex. How many times can you think of 1,500 rules in a second of a play and see which ones apply to that particular play? So, I think any time they can simplify the rule book and simplify the ref’s understanding and the public’s understanding is better for the game.”

Competition committee members are chairman Rich McKay, president of the Falcons; Broncos general manager John Elway; Cowboys COO Stephen Jones; Giants owner John Mara; Packers President Mark Murphy; Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome; Saints coach Sean Payton and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

They also are recommending:

expanding protection of a runner, which also involves quarterbacks when they have given themselves up as a runner. Vincent cited Kiko Alonso’s hit on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco last season, saying the NFL must avoid an “unnecessary shot.”

    • “This is strictly a safety move,” Vincent said.

allowing the officiating staff at NFL headquarters in New York, using video review, to call for an ejection of a player committing an egregious non-football act. That would include throwing punches or being involved in a fight. Vincent pointed to acts by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans last season.

  • Vincent said there were no discussions within the competition committee regarding protocol for the pregame national anthem. Owners are expected to take up the subject on Monday or Tuesday, but no decisions are likely.

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AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

NFL free agents in 2018: Which players will spark spending sprees?

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   With the deadline for NFL teams to apply the franchise tag passing on Tuesday, free agency is coming into focus.

Ahead of the window for players to sign with new teams opening on March 14, here is a rundown of the top 10 players currently set to be available on the market:

1. Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins

The clear crown jewel of the class, Cousins would instantly boost any of his potential suitors – likely landing spots include the Broncos, Vikings, Jets and Cardinals. But landing the 30-year-old will be costly. His annual average salary is a virtual lock to break 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s record of $27.5 million.

2. Drew Brees, QB, Saints

Brees’ presence on this list might be merely procedural, as he was restricted from being given the franchise tag and has given no indication he would look outside of New Orleans, especially after an NFC South title. Even at 39, he would be among the most in-demand players if he took a genuine look at the open market.

3. Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars

He’s coming off of an anterior cruciate ligament tear, but Robinson is just 24 years old, and has both the frame (6-3, 211 pounds) and skill set to reclaim his spot as one of the top young wideouts in the league.

4. Andrew Norwell, G, Panthers

It takes a rare player to command big money as a guard, but Norwell helped stabilize the offensive line for the Panthers and helped power Carolina’s bruising run game over the past several seasons. Using the contract Browns guard Kevin Zeitler signed last season (five years, $60 million) as a guide, Norwell could fetch a massive payday on the open market.

5. Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams

Posting a solid but unspectacular season under the franchise tag last season with the Rams, Johnson still could be set to cash in on a massive deal. Supply in the cornerback market doesn’t meet the outsized demand, so one team in need – think 49ers, Jets, Browns, Buccaneers or Even the Rams – likely will feel compelled to open up its wallet to lock Johnson in.

6. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seahawks

He still hasn’t replicated the pass-rushing production of his most effective seasons with the Jets in 2014 and 2015 and has had off-field issues that may scare away some teams. But if Richardson can focus on his game, his versatility could tempt defensive coordinators looking for a player who stops the run and can pressure the quarterback well.

7. Sammy Watkins, WR, Rams

Watkins – like Robinson – is only 24 years old and has shown big-play potential, scoring eight touchdowns on 39 catches in one season in Los Angeles. The dynamic receiver is still learning the NFL game, but he may land on his third team in five seasons. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft is still looking for a sense of consistency after showing some promising flashes throughout his career.

8. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings

The big question with Minnesota’s former starter centers on his health. But prior to his suffering a devastating knee injury in August of 2016, he looked every bit the franchise quarterback the Vikings had needed. He’ll likely need some more time to get back to game shape, but Bridgewater may be available at a significant discount relative to most starting-caliber options.

9. Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks

This might be too high for a 31-year-old tight end. But even though he posted his least productive season for receiving yards (520) since his rookie season, Graham is still a force in the red zone with 10 touchdowns on just 95 targets last year. Graham may need fewer snaps, but can still be a difference maker on the right team.

10. Case Keenum, QB, Vikings

Keenum excelled in 2017, helping lead the Vikings to an NFC Championship Game appearance in a breakout season. If Minnesota doesn’t land Cousins, Keenum could return there, though he likely will spark considerable interest from other teams looking for a veteran to slide in as a starter.

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NFL free agency officially begins March 14. Here’s an early look at how AFC teams might approach the market. (Each club’s projected cap space is noted in parentheses, courtesy of overthecap.com as of March 7.)

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills ($24 million)

Free agents: LB Preston Brown, CB E.J. Gaines, LB Ramon Humber, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Deonte Thompson, FB Mike Tolbert, DT Kyle Williams

Advice: They’d obviously like to upgrade at quarterback, but it makes sense to pay Tyrod Taylor’s $6 million roster bonus given there’s no assurance Buffalo can do better in free agency or the draft. Coach Sean McDermott loves Williams’ leadership, but he’ll be 35 this year. Limited cap space might be better used on Brown, Gaines or perhaps a No. 2 receiver.

Miami Dolphins ($8M over the cap)

FAs: S Nate Allen, OL Jermon Bushrod, QB Jay Cutler, TE Anthony Fasano, QB Matt Moore, K Cody Parkey

Advice: Given QB Ryan Tannehill’s injury history, Miami needs to consider a quality alternative, and bringing Moore back might be the answer. But the cap doesn’t offer a lot of options, especially as long as WR Jarvis Landry’s $16M franchise tag eats into it.

New England Patriots ($15M)

FAs: WR Danny Amendola, RB Rex Burkhead, CB Malcolm Butler, LB James Harrison, RB Dion Lewis, ST/WR Matthew Slater, LT Nate Solder

Advice: Tough choices for the AFC champs, who also have to start pondering QB Tom Brady’s next deal. With WR Julian Edelman (ACL) on the mend, keeping Amendola seems wise unless another team swoops in with a huge offer. Brady would surely like to see Solder back, too, though the Pats tend not to overpay linemen (or running backs).

New York Jets ($90M)

FAs: K Chandler Catanzaro, CB Morris Claiborne, ILB Demario Davis, DE Kony Ealy, QB Josh McCown, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins

Advice: Quarterback remains the priority, and a run at Kirk Cousins appears inevitable given New York’s cap resources. If that fails, the Jets are better served to re-sign McCown and target their next franchise passer with the sixth pick of the draft. Whoever is under center will need help at the skill positions, and GM Mike Maccagnan needs to acquire corner help (Malcolm Butler?) while also rebuilding the defensive line.

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens ($5M)

FAs: OL James Hurst, C Ryan Jensen, WR Mike Wallace, TE Benjamin Watson, RB Terrance West

Advice: Jensen, 26, developed into a player worth keeping. But Baltimore will have to do major restructuring in order to pursue top-line receivers like Sammy Watkins or Allen Robinson.

Cincinnati Bengals ($35M)

FAs: C Russell Bodine, TE Tyler Eifert, RB Jeremy Hill, QB AJ McCarron, LB Kevin Minter, OL Andre Smith

Advice: It would be nice to have Eifert back, though his injury history will deter any team from giving him a huge guarantee. But Cincinnati really needs help on the O-line and would be wise to recruit Nate Solder even though doing so would cut against the franchise’s general avoidance of outside free agents.

Cleveland Browns ($114M)

FAs: RB Isaiah Crowell

Advice: No team has more cap space, though few need more help than one coming off an 0-16 campaign. GM John Dorsey can set up the next two generations of Kirk Cousins’ family, though Cleveland doesn’t check the quarterback’s block for joining a contender. AJ McCarron, a favorite of coach Hue Jackson’s from their time together in Cincinnati, would be a more affordable bridge to DeShone Kizer or the quarterback Dorsey is expected to draft. Crowell should be easy enough to replace in a back-heavy draft, but Cleveland might also look at Solder if LT Joe Thomas retires. CBs like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler and a mid-tier wideout like Paul Richardson would fill significant holes.

Pittsburgh Steelers ($1M)

FAs: OL Chris Hubbard, LB Arthur Moats

Advice: With RB Le’Veon Bell carrying the franchise tag again, this time for $14.5 million, Pittsburgh has plenty of work to do to free some funds beyond restructuring WR Antonio Brown’s contract. A long-awaited multi-year deal for Bell remains an objective both sides seem to want.

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans ($67M)

FAs: T Chris Clark, T Breno Giacomini, S Marcus Gilchrist, CB Johnathan Joseph, QB Tom Savage, G Xavier Su’a-Filo

Advice: Their first- and second-round picks belong to Cleveland, so new GM Brian Gaine will be compelled to devote his ample cap space to rebuilding the offensive line and secondary. Solder, who played for Bill O’Brien during his rookie year in New England, also makes sense here. Houston could also target Panthers all-pro G Andrew Norwell in a bid to buy protection for franchise QB Deshaun Watson.

Indianapolis Colts ($72M)

FAs: LB Jonathan Bostic, DB Darius Butler, RB Frank Gore, G Jack Mewhort, LB Barkevious Mingo, WR Donte Moncrief

Advice: Name a position, and the cap-flush Colts probably need help — especially on defense, where a game wrecker like DL Sheldon Richardson or corner like Malcolm Butler are made to order. It’s also imperative they shore up the blocking in front of recuperating QB Andrew Luck, so count Indy among teams that should try to woo Norwell, Ryan Jensen and maybe Justin Pugh.

Jacksonville Jaguars ($35M)

FAs: CB Aaron Colvin, QB Chad Henne, WR Marqise Lee, G Patrick Omameh, LB Paul Posluszny, WR Allen Robinson

Advice: QB Blake Bortles needs receiving help. It would be nice to bring Robinson back, but his knee rehab apparently prohibited the Jags from franchising him. Big targets like WR Terrelle Pryor or TE Jimmy Graham might be helpful and more affordable. Even if the Jags draft a developmental quarterback (Lamar Jackson?), they should keep a familiar vet like Henne.

Tennessee Titans ($48M)

FAs: WR Eric Decker, WR Harry Douglas, DE DaQuan Jones, G Josh Kline, LB Erik Walden, LB Avery Williamson

Advice: Jones, Kline and Williamson are reliable players it would be nice to keep in order to maintain continuity without breaking the bank. A deep threat like Seattle WR Paul Richardson could really open up the offense.

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos ($25M)

FAs: OL Allen Barbre, RB Jamaal Charles, DE Jared Crick, LB Todd Davis, TE Virgil Green, QB Brock Osweiler, T Donald Stephenson

Advice: GM John Elway will surely have to find more cap space if he’s going to lure Cousins. Pursuing Case Keenum or AJ McCarron would be an easier route to addressing the quarterback conundrum while keeping most of the roster intact. Crick and Davis, both starters, can be replaced internally.

Kansas City Chiefs ($3M over the cap)

FAs: OL Zach Fulton, LB Derrick Johnson, DL Bennie Logan, S Ron Parker, WR/KR De’Anthony Thomas, WR Albert Wilson

Advice: They’ve already been active, with QB Alex Smith and CB Marcus Peters set to be traded. Most holes can probably be addressed during the draft, though one more veteran corner, say Prince Amukamara or Morris Claiborne, would help.

Los Angeles Chargers ($22M)

FAs: S Tre Boston, QB Kellen Clemens, TE Antonio Gates, OL Matt Slauson, LB Korey Toomer, G Kenny Wiggins

Advice: Boston played well in 2017 but seems to be seeking a major payday. GM Tom Telesco might be wise to first bolster one of the league’s worst run defenses. And what about locking up a fairly reliable kicking option like Sebastian Janikowski or even Cody Parkey?

Oakland Raiders ($16M)

FAs: LB NaVorro Bowman, CB T.J. Carrie, DT Justin Ellis, K Sebastian Janikowski, QB EJ Manuel, S Reggie Nelson

Advice: It probably makes a lot of sense to re-sign Bowman, who made an impact after coming across the Bay midway through last season. Otherwise, start pushing money into the 2019 cap while Jon Gruden evaluates this roster.

***

NFL free agency officially begins March 14. Here’s an early look at how NFC teams might approach the market. (Each club’s projected cap space is noted in parentheses, courtesy of overthecap.com as of March 8.)

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys ($3 million)

Free agents: WR Brice Butler, G Jonathan Cooper, LB Anthony Hitchens, RB Alfred Morris, LB Kyle Wilber

Advice: The looming question centers on WR Dez Bryant and whether he will accept a pay cut. Such a move would likely be the best outcome for both sides, but the Cowboys shouldn’t be afraid to move on from Bryant. Hitchens is likely too expensive to keep, and the team should focus on bringing along Jaylon Smith while finding cheaper depth.

New York Giants ($24M)

FAs: LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Ross Cockrell, RB Orleans Darkwa, G D.J. Fluker, LB Devon Kennard, OL Justin Pugh, C Weston Richburg, RB Shane Vereen

Advice: Fixing the offensive front is new GM Dave Gettleman’s top priority, and he could start by giving a serious payday to Panthers G Andrew Norwell, whom he signed as an undrafted free agent four years ago. While the linebacking corps is getting an upgrade with the trade for Alec Ogletree, Gettleman could continue looking elsewhere, perhaps plucking Nigel Bradham from the Eagles.

Philadelphia Eagles ($9M over the cap)

FAs: DT Beau Allen, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Nigel Bradham, TE Trey Burton, CB Patrick Robinson, RB Darren Sproles

Advice: The new champions already made their splashy move of the offseason, acquiring DE Michael Bennett. The focus now turns to sheering salary. Bradham and Burton will likely be too expensive to keep, while DE Vinny Curry and WR Torrey Smith could be cap casualties. Some of their free agents warrant short-term offers, but GM Howie Roseman was right to suggest the team won’t open the vault for anyone right now.

Washington Redskins ($48M)

FAs: CB Bashaud Breeland, LB Zach Brown, QB Kirk Cousins, G Shawn Lauvao, LB Trent Murphy, WR Terrelle Pryor

Advice: After acquiring QB Alex Smith, Washington is finally poised for a clean break from Cousins. But there’s still work to be done. The receiving corps could use a boost after Pryor’s struggles, and Paul Richardson would give Smith the vertical threat he needs to remain an efficient deep passer. Keeping Brown should be a priority.

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears ($50M)

FAs: CB Prince Amukamara, QB Mark Sanchez, G Josh Sitton, DE Mitch Unrein

Advice: The receiving corps is in line for an overhaul. Kansas City’s Albert Wilson might be a nice starting point given his familiarity with new coach Matt Nagy’s system, but the real prize would be Allen Robinson, who would give QB Mitchell Trubisky a true No. 1 while increasing the second-year passer’s confidence. CB Kyle Fuller is on the transition tag but should receive a long-term deal.

Detroit Lions ($27M) 

FAs: CB D.J. Hayden, CB Nevin Lawson, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Tahir Whitehead, S Tavon Wilson, LB Paul Worrilow

Advice: Even with DE Ezekiel Ansah franchised, rookie coach Matt Patricia will need more help in the front seven to get the 27th-ranked defense up to snuff. Probably makes to retain Ngata and Whitehead while perhaps taking a hard look at Bradham. RB Rex Burkhead would be a sensible fit for a backfield needing a jumpstart.

Green Bay Packers ($20M)

FAs: LB Ahmad Brooks, S Morgan Burnett, G Jahri Evans, CB Davon House, TE Richard Rodgers

Advice: New GM Brian Gutekunst expressed a desire to be more “aggressive” in free agency, and there are sensible targets like DE Muhammad Wilkerson and TE Trey Burton. A tight cap outlook, however, likely prevents the team from making many moves. WR Randall Cobb might need to take a pay cut.

Minnesota Vikings ($47M)

FAs: G Joe Berger, QB Sam Bradford, QB Teddy Bridgewater, DT Tom Johnson, QB Case Keenum, RB Jerick McKinnon, CB Terence Newman

Advice: Ample cap space, a blank slate at quarterback and loaded roster make Minnesota a sensible spot for Kirk Cousins. But the Vikings need to strike a deal that won’t hamper the long-term outlook of the defense, a point coach Mike Zimmer has stressed. A third-down back likely will be needed to replace McKinnon, who wants a larger role.

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons ($15M)

FAs: DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Taylor Gabriel, DT Dontari Poe

Advice: With Poe poised to walk, Atlanta could consider a serious upgrade on the interior with Sheldon Richardson. He still hasn’t tapped into his full potential, but coach Dan Quinn’s scheme could be the perfect fit. However accommodating Richardson would surely force GM Thomas Dimitroff to get creative, especially given QB Matt Ryan is entering the final year of his deal.

Carolina Panthers ($29M)

FAs: QB Derek Anderson, DT Star Lotulelei, G Andrew Norwell, DE Julius Peppers

Advice: Coach Ron Rivera said Carolina is pondering whether to add a dynamic receiver alongside Devin Funchess, and Sammy Watkins could be the desired upgrade. Norwell and Lotulelei will likely fetch deals too rich to match, especially if Carolina somehow lands Watkins. Getting Peppers back should be reasonable.

New Orleans Saints ($28M)

FAs: QB Drew Brees, QB Chase Daniel, DE Alex Okafor, S Kenny Vaccaro

Advice: Another deal for Brees is a virtual certainty given New Orleans would take an $18 million cap hit if one isn’t reached by Wednesday. With an emerging young core, New Orleans should manage its cap and avoid major signings that have proved costly in the past.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($71M)

FAs: CB Brent Grimes, G Evan Smith, S T.J. Ward

Advice: The Bucs have the spending power to make waves, but the pool of available talent doesn’t line up with their needs. With a scarcity of top-line pass rushers, GM Jason Licht might instead focus on a cornerback — perhaps Malcolm Butler or Aaron Colvin — and maybe a safety. Addressing the offensive line would also be wise. Nate Solder or Justin Pugh could upgrade an overwhelmed front.

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals ($20M)

FAs: CB/ST Justin Bethel, G Alex Boone, WR Jaron Brown, WR John Brown, LB Karlos Dansby, QB Blaine Gabbert, DE Frostee Rucker, QB Drew Stanton, G Earl Watford

Advice: With no quarterbacks on the roster and sub-optimal positioning to address the spot in either via free agency or the draft, new coach Steve Wilks is in a bit of a bind. Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford might make the most sense as low-cost, starting-caliber fliers. Case Keenum could also be an attractive option if the price is right. Arizona should also be in the market for a bargain cornerback.

Los Angeles Rams ($28M)

FAs: LB Connor Barwin, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, C John Sullivan, WR Sammy Watkins

Advice: GM Les Snead has already packed a full offseason’s worth of notable moves into the past few weeks, agreeing to acquire CBs Marcus Peters from the Chiefs and Aqib Talib from the Broncos while crafting trades to move LBs Robert Quinn (Dolphins) and Alec Ogletree (Giants). Sullivan is worth keeping, but Robey-Coleman and Johnson, who was franchised in the previous two offseasons, are likely gone with Peters and Talib on the way. Unless Watkins is amenable to taking a discount, Los Angeles should be prepared to walk away given DT Aaron Donald is in line for a massive extension.

San Francisco 49ers ($70M)

FAs: G Brandon Fusco, RB Carlos Hyde, CB Dontae Johnson, S Eric Reid

Advice: After a measured approach in his first free agency go-around, GM John Lynch could reshape the roster this year. Trumaine Johnson fills the team’s profile and need at corner, while Allen Robinson would give QB Jimmy Garoppolo the jump-ball receiver he lacks. Dion Lewis or Jerick McKinnon could thrive as all-purpose threats in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and Lynch would also be wise to consider guards like Justin Pugh or Josh Sitton.

Seattle Seahawks ($13M)

FAs: TE Jimmy Graham, OL Luke Joeckel, CB Byron Maxwell, WR Paul Richardson, DT Sheldon Richardson, K Blair Walsh

Advice: With DE Michael Bennett shipped to Philadelphia and CB Richard Sherman’s future in doubt, Seattle must decide whether to go full tilt with a rebuild. GM John Schneider will have to navigate a difficult cap outlook, though relief could come from cutting DE Cliff Avril and CB Jeremy Lane. Keeping either Sheldon Richardson or Paul Richardson would be nice, but Schneider can probably only afford one right now. Seattle is likely best off letting Graham walk.

***

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @mikemschwartz

NFL combine begins with deep group of quarterbacks

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jon Gruden is back from the broadcast booth and the highest-paid coach in NFL history.

Unlike his colleague, Matt Patricia didn’t balk at leaving Bill Belichick’s brigade.

Andy Reid is in the midst of another major roster shake-up and his protege, Doug Pederson, is basking in Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl triumph.

All are in Indianapolis at the NFL combine this week hoping to better their chances of winning in 2018.

Top college prospects, including a group of quarterbacks that could produce five first-round draft picks, will spend four days getting poked and prodded, tested and timed.

GMs and coaches will do their best to get to know them off the field as well, either in formal 15-minute interviews or during a mixed zone after their physical assessments.

___

The NFL descends upon Indianapolis this week for the scouting combine, where teams will get another up-close look at the top draft prospects, including a quarterback class that could feature as many as five first-round picks.

Saturday’s workouts will generate much buzz, but these passers already must face the notions that teams have of them.

After poring over hours of game film of each passer, scouts, coaches and general managers have already identified their strengths and weaknesses.

Yet greater challenges remain in projecting how quarterbacks fit into specific schemes and gaining a clearer understanding of these young men as people.

Here’s a look at a pressing question facing each of the top quarterbacks in team interviews.

Josh Rosen, UCLA: “Why do you play?”

Regarded by many as the draft’s most complete quarterback, the 6-4, 210-pounder threw for 3,717 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls him “the best pure passer I have seen in several years.” But teams want to know more about Rosen’s mental makeup. Some talent evaluators perceive him as a slightly immature, laid-back player with questions surrounding his fire and toughness. Durability is also a concern, as he suffered a shoulder injury in 2016 and two concussions in 2017. Teams want to know if he can he take a big hit on the next level, get back up and keep slinging.

Sam Darnold, USC: “Why so many turnovers?”

The 6-4, 225-pound Darnold, who will not throw at the combine per a report by ESPN, might have the most upside of any of his peers. The 20-year-old, however, is still somewhat of a work in progress. He threw for 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, but was also responsible for 22 turnovers, including 13 interceptions. Coaching can help to some degree, but ball security has a lot to do with instincts and decision making. Some of those habits are hard to break. Talent evaluators will want to hear Darnold take ownership for the struggles and explain how he’s working to improve.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: “Do you understand what comes with being the face of a franchise?”

Although undersized at just over 6-0 and 216 pounds, Mayfield has a body of work that might be unparalleled in this class. The Heisman Trophy winner passed for 14,607 yards, 131 touchdowns and just 30 interceptions for his four-year college career. Last season, he threw 41 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. There’s no questioning his determination. He walked on both at Texas Tech and Oklahoma. He’s a fighter and commands the respect of his teammates.

Some talent evaluators view Mayfield as the most NFL-ready of any passer in this class, but he’ll be under scrutiny for his past actions, including last February’s arrest on public intoxication and fleeing charges as well as a November incident in which he taunted Kansas players and grabbed his crotch. Fair or not, he now is having to shoot down comparisons to former Texas A&M and Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, who only lasted two years in the NFL. As the face of an NFL franchise, Mayfield can’t afford continual off-field missteps.

Josh Allen, Wyoming: “How do you explain the accuracy issues and last year’s regression?”

Comparisons to Carson Wentz are only natural for the strong-armed quarterback, especially given that he played for the same coach as the Philadelphia Eagles star (though at different schools) and possesses similar physical traits. But Allen has work to do, primarily on his accuracy after completing just 56% of his passes the last two seasons. He topped the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2016, but managed just 1,812 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in his final college season while missing two games with a shoulder injury. NFL insiders are befuddled by his drop in production. Yes, he lost some productive weapons. But he should have performed better, and teams will want him to provide accountability rather than excuses.

Lamar Jackson. Louisville: “Can you play quarterback on this level?”

The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner recorded more than 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons, with 96 touchdowns in that span. But Jackson has to fight a major stereotype: great athlete whose skills don’t project to long-term success as an NFL passer. That view very well could keep Jackson out of the first round. Fit is extremely important. Jackson is going to need to go to a team whose coach and offensive coordinator will tailor their scheme to accent his strengths, much like Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan overhauled their offense to help Robert Griffin III.

Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: “Can you transition to a pro-style offense?”

The 6-5, 230-pound Rudolph could be a first-round dark horse. He’s coming off a career year with 4,904 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His size and deep passing experience will be attractive, and the desire to work and improve. But he ran a spread offense, operating exclusively out of the shotgun, and he’s never called plays in a huddle. Adjusting to an NFL system from that starting point leads to growing pains. Those close to Rudolph say he’s well aware of the areas where he must improve. That realistic view of himself and an ability to convey his hunger to learn will help him in interviews.

AFC wild-card games preview / NFC wild-card games preview

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —  

A preview of the AFC wild-card matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars

When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

Where: Jacksonville’s EverBank Field

Line: TBA

Injuries: A major subplot of this game will be the status of Bills RB LeSean McCoy, who was carted off the field in Week 17 after suffering an ankle injury.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Let’s party like it’s 1999: The last time the Jags hosted a playoff game … was 1999. The last time the Bills reached postseason … was 1999 (a trip curtailed by the Music City Miracle). This is an opportunity that’s been a long time coming for both franchises, and the Jaguars have already gotten permission to boost their stadium capacity by 3,500 after removing those ugly tarps from the upper decks of EverBank Field. Both teams have to be thrilled to be here given almost no one could have predicted this meeting during training camp. But it feels like the Bills — given McCoy’s injury and their late entry into the field after a miraculous meltdown by the Ravens — are playing with house money, while the Jags’ propensity to draw attention to themselves could ultimately be counterproductive.

2. Defense of the defense: Though “quarterback-driven league” has become a popular NFL catchphrase in recent years, three of the last five Super Bowl champions (2012 Ravens, 2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos) have been primarily reliant on defense. That’s not to say a quarterback can be superfluous to a title run — Baltimore’s Joe Flacco caught fire in 2012, Seattle’ Russell Wilson ably executed what was more of a game-managing role in 2013, and Peyton Manning still provided plenty of wisdom and occasional big plays to Denver’s 2015 run.

But these Jaguars can — and will almost certainly have to — ride their deep and talented defense as far as it will take them. They have playmakers at all three levels, and their ability to dually apply intense pressure in tandem with tight coverage on the back end is a challenge to most opponents and certainly one as limited offensively as Buffalo.

The Bills defense hasn’t been quite as good, though they are stingy with TD passes allowed (tied for fewest with 13). Still, this could be a tight game, and one that could fuel even more scrutiny of QBs Tyrod Taylor and Blake Bortles, who are often perceived as hindrances rather than assets even if both have often outperformed their reputations in 2017.

3. Coachspeak: Buffalo’s Sean McDermott is a first-year head coach who’s already survived one infamous rookie move — his decision to bench Taylor for fifth rounder Nate Peterman in a Week 11 blowout loss to the Chargers that nearly scuttled the Bills’ season. Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone — remember, he chose to leave his post as Buffalo’s coach after the 2014 season — is also now taking a team to the playoffs for the first time and blamed his own game management blunders on the Jags’ Week 12 loss at Arizona. Just like rosters chock full of young, green players, inexperience could be an issue under the headsets on Sunday afternoon.

***

A preview of the AFC wild-card matchup between the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs

When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET (ESPN/ABC)

Where: Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium

Line: TBA

Injuries: A sprained knee sidelined Titans RB DeMarco Murray on Sunday, while Chiefs KR De’Anthony Thomas broke his leg.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Swan song? Chiefs QB Alex Smith is presumably entering his final days with the organization after watching heir apparent Patrick Mahomes start Sunday. But Smith will be back in the saddle Sunday and, despite his reputation for often being a risk-averse passer, some of the best performances of his 13-year career have come in the playoffs, where he has 12 career TD passes and just two INTs. And this could be the best supporting cast Smith has ever had. The Chiefs joined the 1981 San Diego Chargers as the only teams with a 4,000-yard passer (Smith, career-high 4,042) a 1,000-yard back (NFL rushing king Kareem Hunt) a 1,000-yard wideout (Tyreek Hill) and a 1,000-yard tight end (Travis Kelce).

2. Nowhere to run: Smith may have to beat the Titans, who are likely to put the clamps on Hunt. Tennessee allowed a league-low five rushing TDs in 2017 and held nine of its final 11 opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. Yet with 42 sacks, the Titans are no slouches rushing the passer, either. But if the Chiefs can give Smith time, he should be able to pick apart a secondary that’s been suspect aside from exceptional S Kevin Byard.

3. Pedestrian smashmouth? The Titans seemed to be successfully forging a physical identity with their run game last season and early this year, when they ground out more than 160 yards in three of their first six games. But they only managed that twice over the final 10 contests, and Murray was especially ineffective. Derrick Henry was even worse Sunday, managing just 51 yards on 28 carries, though QB Marcus Mariota chipped in with 60 on 10 runs. Tennessee could exploit a shaky Kansas City run defense and probably has to given how ineffective Mariota’s arm has been in his third pro season.

***

NFC wild-card games preview:

A preview of the NFC wild-card matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams

When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Line: TBA

Injuries: The Rams should be fresh after sitting QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, WR Cooper Kupp and DL Aaron Donald in the regular-season finale. The Falcons have been in playoff mode for weeks. WR Julio Jones, C Alex Mack and RB Tevin Coleman are among the walking wounded.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Scoreboard watching: The Rams shut down their stars Sunday, but no team had scored more points than the 465 they posted through 16 weeks. They’ve made immense strides — Goff especially — under rookie coach Sean McVay a year after producing the fewest points and yards in the league. The Falcons were the league’s highest-scoring outfit in 2016 but were much less explosive in 2017 without former OC Kyle Shanahan even though the offensive lineup was largely unchanged. Still, the potential exists for a shootout with California’s January climate conducive to offensive fireworks.

2. MVP! MVP? Last season’s NFL MVP, Falcons QB Matt Ryan, never came close to recapturing his 2016 form. A year after throwing 38 TD passes, Ryan plummeted to 20 and didn’t have more than two in any game. His struggles were a microcosm of the offense’s under Shanahan’s replacement, Steve Sarkisian. Ryan may be handing off the MVP hardware to Gurley, who led the NFL with 19 TDs and 2,093 yards from scrimmage and almost surely would’ve taken the rushing title if he’d played in Week 17. Stopping him in the run and pass game have to be focal points of Atlanta’s athletic defense, which would be wise to put the burden on Goff.

3. Special special teams: Saying the game is played in three phases often seems like lip service. But perhaps no team leverages special teams superiority like the Rams, who count KR Pharoh Cooper, P Johnny Hekker and K Greg Zuerlein among their Pro Bowlers. Cooper is always a threat to go the distance, Los Angeles scored two TDs this season off blocked punts, and Hekker’s background as a high school quarterback makes him dangerous on fakes. However a back injury prematurely ended Zuerlein’s season, forcing the team to rely on unproven Sam Ficken going forward.

***

A preview of the NFC wild-card matchup between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints

When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox)

Where: New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome

Line: TBA

Injuries: Panthers G Trai Turner (concussion), S Kurt Coleman (ankle), and CB LaDarius Gunter (illness) were all inactive for Sunday’s loss in Atlanta. RB Jonathan Stewart was rested. For the Saints, OT Terron Armstead (thigh), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion) and DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle) each missed Week 17.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

1. Familiar foes: These NFC South rivals know each other very well, but Carolina is in trouble if the regular season is any indication. Not only did New Orleans sweep the Panthers this season, but Carolina also was outscored 65-34. The Saints forced the Panthers into committing six turnovers. That has been New Orleans’ M.O. this year: forcing opponents into making mistakes and then capitalizing with its explosive offense. With an electric atmosphere expected in the Superdome, Carolina can’t afford to make them early and fall behind.

2. Super Cam: Of Carolina’s 5,179 offensive yards in 2017, QB Cam Newton accounted for an overwhelming 4,056, or 78.3%. He led the Panthers in rushing in seven of their 16 games, winding up with 754 yards on the ground (most among NFL quarterbacks). Against some of Carolina’s weaker opponents, relying on Newton was enough to get by. But against a talented and aggressive defense, skill position players like Stewart and fellow RB Christian McCaffrey, TE Greg Olsen, and WR Devin Funchess need to step up.

3. Ground game: Despite having a surefire future Hall of Famer in QB Drew Brees, the Saints have reinvented themselves as a versatile rushing team, with Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara leading the way. The pair became the first running back teammates in NFL history to eclipse 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season. Both are versatile, though Ingram does most of his damage between the tackles, while Kamara tends to slash on the margins (and even showed Sunday he can be a threat in the return game). In their 11 victories, the Saints ran for an average of 151.3 yards. In losses, however, that number dropped to just 81.2.

***

Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes

Are Eagles cursed with Nick Foles? Key question for each NFL playoff team

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    Wondering about a few things as the NFL playoffs approach …

Are the Eagles cursed with Nick Foles?

The energy that fueled Philadelphia’s offense before Carson Wentz suffered a torn ACL has largely vanished, clearly a reflection of the challenge to maintain rhythm with Foles. During the final two games, the Eagles converted three of 25 third downs. Just as bad, Foles lacks the athleticism that allowed Wentz to extend plays, run for the sticks or so often create something out of nothing. The Eagles still have a shot at going all the way, given the supporting cast, but that’s assuming mistake-free quarterbacking from Foles.

Will James Harrison provide the Patriots with championship impact?

If his New England debut was any indication, Harrison still has enough fuel in his tank to make a difference. In 27 snaps against the Jets, the man buried on the Steelers bench all season collected two sacks, five tackles, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Harrison may give Bill Belichick’s improved defense exactly what it needed at the perfect time – instant pass rush – in its bid to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

Should the Rams worry if it comes down to a last-minute field goal?

A few weeks ago, it would have been no sweat with NFL scoring leader Greg Zuerlein in the midst of a record season. But Zuerlein is now rehabbing from surgery for a herniated disc, so suddenly L.A. no longer possesses the most reliable kicking game in the playoffs. The Rams’ spectacular season of revival could very well hinge on a first-year kicker, Sam Ficken, who owns the Penn State record for consecutive field goals but missed a field goal and a PAT in his first NFL game in Week 16.

Will Antonio Brown return to pre-injury form for the Steelers?

The Steelers may have their best chance in years of getting back to the Super Bowl because, in part, the new additions have had such great impact. Rookies JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.J. Watt have provided big-play impact on both sides of the ball. Yet with Brown rehabbing from the partially torn calf muscle that knocked him out of the showdown against the Patriots, one of the more intriguing subplots is whether he will return to his typical standard of greatness – which included playing into the conversation to perhaps become the first receiver to earn MVP honors.

Will Drew Brees’ playoff experience push the Saints over the top?

If a trip to the Super Bowl comes down to one last-minute drive, you’d probably prefer a proven commodity like Brees or one of the other four Super Bowl-credentialed quarterbacks in the playoffs. In Brees’ case, though, the difference might be what it has been all season for New Orleans – balance. That means a lot of rookie Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram controlling the tempo with the running game. Fast fact: Brees, the NFC’s top-rated passer (103.9) has attempted his fewest passes (536) since 2009 … when the ticket to winning it all included a strong running game that allowed for balance.

Are the Bills due for another miracle?

The last time Buffalo appeared in a playoff game it was undone by the “Music City Miracle.” So maybe it was fitting that the NFL’s longest postseason drought (18 years) ended with some Charm City magic in the form Tyler Boyd’s 49-yard, fourth-down touchdown in the waning seconds to eliminate the Ravens. Now the Bills — with the lowest-ranked offense in the playoffs (29th) matched against the AFC’s top defense — need some quick healing from their best offensive player, RB LeSean McCoy, to have a prayer at Jacksonville as he nurses a sprained ankle.

Will the Vikings make history as a Super Bowl host?

The conditions are favorable for Minnesota to emerge as the first team to host a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Never mind that the franchise has one playoff win in 13 years. With the Eagles stung by the injury to Wentz, the Vikings suddenly look a lot like the team to beat in the wide-open NFC. They bring the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense, a fill-in quarterback who has exceeded expectations in Case Keenum, a running game that has quietly remained productive despite losing its star rookie and an understated coach in Mike Zimmer who has pushed the right buttons.

Are the Chiefs the best-equipped team to spoil an anticipated AFC title game rematch?

Maybe. Kansas City has re-booted in recent weeks to resemble the explosive team that was the last unbeaten (5-0) in the league. That’s what it would take to pull off a win in the divisional round that would throw a wrinkle into expectations for another Steelers-Patriots showdown for the AFC Championship. The Chiefs won at Foxborough in Week 1, creating matchup issues for New England’s defense. Perhaps they can do it again. In Week 6, the Chiefs stayed close enough to Pittsburgh to have a chance at the end. But one thing about loss against Pittsburgh that doesn’t bode well: the 25th-ranked run defense. With 179 yards the last time out, Le’Veon Bell has rushed for 493 yards in three games against Kansas City, dating to last season.

Can the Panthers execute a quick fix?

The regular-season finale at Atlanta was hardly classic Cam Newton. Too many passes sailed. He was picked off three times. The rush kept him under constant duress. In some ways, though, it reflected the struggle that Carolina’s offense has had for much of the season in trying to develop consistency. Sure, the Panthers are dangerous. Two of their victories came against New England and Minnesota. But Newton’s ability to get the desired flow with his targets in the passing game has been an adventure, which wasn’t made easier with the midseason trade of Kelvin Benjamin. Yet there’s still time. And a date at New Orleans, which might bring out the best in them.

Can the Jaguars trust Blake Bortles?

It’s a prove-it league, and just because the much-maligned Bortles quarterbacked his team to a division title hardly means the doubts are completely squashed. Sure, Bortles has ridden on the coattails of Jacksonville’s tremendous defense, and he’s handing the ball off a lot to supply the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack. The formula implemented by coach Doug Marrone, which includes lowering risk with Bortles, is working. And he’s better than he was when his starting job was jeopardized during the preseason. Yet there also comes a point in pretty much every game when the quarterback must make a big-time throw.

Remember the Titans?

No, they haven’t been out of the playoff mix for as long as Buffalo, but it has been a while. That Tennessee earned its first postseason berth since 2008 by winning a single game that followed a three-game losing streak, doesn’t scream quality at the bottom of the AFC bracket. Marcus Mariota’s game regressed during this injury-challenged season, but he’s added another marker. And his embattled coach, Mike Mularkey, is still on the job.

How did the Falcons get their groove back?

In early November, the defending NFC champs staggered along at 4-4, living up to the hard-luck history of teams trying to rebound after losing a Super Bowl. Now they are the only team in the NFC field returning to the playoffs. That’s resiliency, which has come with the need to win in a different fashion this season. Last year, the Falcons averaged 33 points a game, one of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history. The Matt Ryan-armed offense is not as consistent now (22 points a game), but the young defense is still on the rise. Strikingly, the Falcons’ second-half surge coincided with them finally playing division games. And with three teams in the playoffs from the NFC South, the division will indeed test mettle.

NFL playoffs schedule 2018 / Sunday’s Stats: Games, dates, times, TV channel info

(PhatzRadio Sport / AP)    —    The 2018 NFL playoffs schedule is now set for the wild-card round.

Wild-card round 

Saturday, Jan. 6

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

Sunday, Jan. 7

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars, 1:15 p.m. ET, CBS

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

Divisional round

Saturday, Jan. 13

TBD vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 4:30 pm. ET, NBC

TBD vs. New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS

Sunday, Jan. 14

TBD vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS

TBD vs. Minnesota Vikings, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX

Championship round

Sunday, Jan. 21

AFC championship – TBD vs. TBD

NFC championship – TBD vs. TBD

Super Bowl

Sunday, Feb. 4

Super Bowl XLII – AFC champion vs. NFC champion

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SCOREBOARD

Saturday, Jan. 6

Tennessee at Kansas City, 4:35 p.m. EST. The Titans (9-7) ended an eight-season playoff drought as quarterback Marcus Mariota helped them to the franchise’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 2007 and 2008. Andy Reid’s Chiefs (10-6) are in the postseason for the third straight year and the fourth time in five years.

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Atlanta at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. EST. Matt Ryan and the defending NFC champion Falcons (10-6) clinched a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season with a 22-10 win over division rival Carolina. Todd Gurley and Jared Goff led the Rams (11-5) to their first postseason appearance since the 2004 season.

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STARS

Passing

— Andy Dalton, Bengals, threw three touchdown passes, including a 49-yarder to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds left, giving Cincinnati a 31-27 victory at Baltimore.

— Philip Rivers, Chargers, passed for 387 yards and three touchdowns in Los Angeles’ 30-10 victory over Oakland.

— Matthew Stafford, Lions, threw three touchdown passes and finished with 323 yards passing, and also caught a 2-point conversion pass from Golden Tate, in Detroit’s 35-11 win over Green Bay.

— Matt Ryan, Falcons, completed 28 of 45 passes for 317 yards and a touchdown in playoff-bound Atlanta’s 22-10 win over Carolina.

— Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers, threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns to lead San Francisco to its fifth straight victory, 34-13 against a Los Angeles Rams team that rested its big stars.

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Rushing

— Orleans Darkwa, Giants, rushed for a career-high 154 yards, including a 75-yarder on the second play from scrimmage, in New York’s 18-10 win over Washington.

— Latavius Murray, Vikings, rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 23-10 victory over Chicago.

— Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys, ran for 103 yards in Dallas’ 6-0 win at Philadelphia.

— Frank Gore, Colts, rushed for 100 yards on 24 carries in Indianapolis’ 22-13 win over Houston, falling 39 yards short of his second straight 1,000-yard season.

— Dion Lewis, Patriots, had a season-high 26 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown and also caught six passes for 40 yards and a TD in New England’s 26-6 win over the New York Jets.

— Carlos Hyde, 49ers, ran 15 times for 90 yards, scoring on runs of 8 and 5 yards in San Francisco’s 34-13 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

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Receiving

— JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers, caught nine passes for 143 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 28-24 win over Cleveland.

— Keenan Allen, Chargers, scored on a 27-yard fumble recovery and a 6-yard TD catch, and finished with nine receptions for 133 yards in Los Angeles’ 30-10 win over Oakland.

— Golden Tate, Lions, caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, and also tossed a 2-point conversion pass to quarterback Matthew Stafford in Detroit’s 35-11 win over Green Bay.

— Josh Gordon, Browns, had four receptions for 115 yards in Cleveland’s 28-24 loss at Pittsburgh.

— Albert Wilson, Chiefs, caught 10 passes for 147 yards in Kansas City’s 27-24 win at Denver.

— Amari Cooper, Raiders, had 115 yards receiving and a touchdown on three catches in Oakland’s 30-10 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

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Special Teams

— Alvin Kamara, Saints, scored on a 106-yard kickoff return in New Orleans’ 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay.

— JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers, returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to help lead Pittsburgh to a 28-24 victory over winless Cleveland.

— Matt Bryant, Falcons, kicked five field goals, including a 56-yarder, for all of Atlanta’s second-half points in a 22-10 win over Carolina that clinched a playoff spot.

— Phil Dawson, Cardinals, booted four field goals, the last from 42 yards with 2:21 left, to lead Arizona past Seattle 26-24.

— Tyler Lockett, Seahawks, scored a touchdown on a 99-yard kickoff return in Seattle’s 26-24 loss to Arizona.

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Defense

— Darqueze Dennard, Bengals, returned an interception 89 yards for a TD in Cincinnati’s 31-27 victory at Baltimore.

— Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars, returned a fumble 67 yards for a touchdown in Jacksonville’s 15-10 loss to Tennessee.

— Ezekiel Ansah, Lions, had three sacks for the second straight week, helping Detroit top Green Bay 35-11.

— Jordan Poyer, Bills, sealed a 22-16 victory for playoff-bound Buffalo with an interception in the closing moments at Miami.

— Marcus Williams, Saints, intercepted two passes in New Orleans’ 31-24 loss at Tampa Bay.

— James Harrison, Patriots, had two sacks — on consecutive plays to end the game — and finished with five total tackles and a forced fumble in his first game since being cut by Pittsburgh, a 26-6 win over the New York Jets.

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STREAKS & STATS

New England finished the regular season with three players with 1,000-plus yards from scrimmage in the same year for the first time in franchise history: running back Dion Lewis, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. … Gronkowski was not targeted in a game for the first time in his career. … The Giants snapped a five-game losing streak with an 18-10 win over Washington and gave interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo his first victory since taking over from the fired Ben McAdoo on Dec. 4. New York finished 3-13, the most losses in team history. … Detroit (9-7) failed to make the playoffs, but finished with a winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time since doing it three years in a row from 1993-95. … Green Bay (7-9) finished with a losing record for the first time since 2008, which is also the last time the Packers didn’t earn a spot in the playoffs.

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MILESTONES

New England’s 26-6 victory over the New York Jets was Bill Belichick’s 250th career regular-season win, moving him into a tie with Tom Landry for third all-time among head coaches. … The Patriots haven’t lost to the Jets at home during the regular season with Tom Brady starting since 2006. Brady’s 13th win as a starter this season tied him with Brett Favre for the most by a starting quarterback at age 40 or older. Brady, who turned 40 earlier this year, finished with 4,577 yards passing to become the oldest player in NFL history to lead the league in that category. … Stefon Diggs became the fastest player in Vikings history to reach 200 receptions, doing it in 40 games. … Arizona’s Chandler Jones finished with two sacks in a season-ending win over Seattle, surpassing Simeon Rice and setting a franchise record with 17 sacks. … Kansas City’s Alex Smith finished the regular season with 4,042 yards passing and five interceptions, becoming the first QB in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and throw fewer than 10 interceptions in five consecutive seasons. … Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, who turned 21 in November, had 1,157 all-purpose yards (917 receiving, 240 kickoff returns) to become the youngest player to gain 1,000 all-purpose yards in a season.

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PLAYOFF REGULARS

The New England Patriots clinched home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs with a 26-6 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday. The win clinched the seventh 13-win season for the Patriots (13-3), which is second in NFL history to San Francisco’s nine seasons.

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DROUGHT OVER

The Buffalo Bills snapped the longest current non-playoff streak in North American pro sports with a 22-16 victory at Miami and Cincinnati’s victory at Baltimore. The Bills hadn’t made the postseason since 1999. Buffalo (9-7) will travel to Jacksonville next weekend in a wild-card game.

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WOE AND 16

The Cleveland Browns joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to go winless during a 16-game season when they lost 28-24 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Owner Jimmy Haslam reiterated Hue Jackson will return in 2018 as coach despite a 1-31 record through two seasons. Cleveland is 4-48 since Week 12 of the 2014 season, has dropped 21 straight road games and 17 straight games to AFC North opponents. “You can say a lot of things about us this year, but down to the last minute or two minutes, our guys played hard,” Haslam said.

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COACHING CAROUSEL

The Indianapolis Colts fired coach Chuck Pagano less than two hours after they ended a 4-12 season with a 22-13 victory over Houston. Team owner Jim Irsay made the announcement in a statement, wishing Pagano and his wife well in the future. The move comes after Indy missed the playoffs for the third straight year, the team’s longest postseason drought since a seven-season absence from 1988-94. … Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was fired after his third year when the impressive turnaround job he engineered for his hometown team collapsed with a disappointing six-win season. Del Rio said owner Mark Davis told him after the team’s season-ending 30-10 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that he would not be retained as coach. Del Rio had signed a four-year contract extension last February after Oakland ended a 13-year playoff drought with a 12-win season.

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RARE TERRITORY

Minnesota reached 13 wins for only the second time in the history of the 57-year-old franchise, holding a second straight opponent without an offensive touchdown in a 23-10 win over the Chicago Bears. The Vikings finished 12-2 four times with a 14-game schedule (in 1969, 1970, 1973 and 1975), but the only other time they’ve topped 12 victories was their 15-1 record in 1998. The Vikings also clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs.

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FEELING THE DRAFT

The top of the NFL draft is set, with the winless Cleveland Browns getting the No. 1 spot, along with the fourth pick (from Houston). The New York Giants have the No. 2 selection, followed by Indianapolis at No. 3. Denver rounds out the top five selections.

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RUSHING CHAMP

Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt had a 35-yard touchdown run on his only carry in the Chiefs’ 27-24 win at Denver. But it gave Hunt 1,327 yards, making him the second rookie not selected in the first round of the draft to lead his league since 1967. Hunt, who was a third-rounder, joins Cincinnati’s Paul Robinson, who led the AFL with 1,023 yards rushing in 1968.

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SNOOZER

Dallas’ 6-0 win at Philadelphia marked the first NFL game to be 0-0 at halftime since Chicago and Denver played in Week 14 of 2011. Denver won 13-10 in overtime.

It was the first time in a Cowboys-Eagles game since the series began in 1960 to go 0-0 at the half.

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THAT’S COLD!

It was 13 degrees at kickoff of New England’s 26-6 win over the New York Jets, and the Patriots wanted to make sure their visitors knew it. A thermometer was hung in the Jets’ tunnel, which New York players filed past on their way to and from the field before the game. It was the coldest regular-season home game in Patriots history. They had a playoff game that was colder — a divisional-round game against the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 10, 2004, when it was 4 degrees with a wind chill that made it feel like minus 10. Jets safety Jamal Adams went out pregame without a shirt to test the weather. He soon got a text from his mother. “I put my shirt on, real quick,” he said.

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DOUBLE TROUBLE

New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (1,554 yards) and Mark Ingram (1,540) became the first running back teammates in NFL history to each get at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season. Kamara, who returned a kickoff 106 yards for a TD in the Saints’ loss at Tampa Bay, joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers as the only rookies in league history to have at least five rushing TDs, five TD catches and a kickoff return for a score.

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FLYING FALCONS

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has 41,796 career yards passing and passed Peyton Manning (41,626) for the most by a player in his first 10 seasons. Falcons teammate Julio Jones has 9,054 career yards receiving, reaching the 9,000-yard mark in his 95th game — the fastest in NFL history to accomplish the feat.

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BROWN DELIVERS

Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown finished the regular season with an NFL-best 1,533 yards receiving, becoming the first player in franchise history to lead the league in receiving yards multiple times. He has 582 receptions and 7,848 yards receiving over the past five seasons, the most in NFL history over any five-year span for both categories.

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SIDELINED

Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy was carted off the field with a right ankle injury in the third quarter of Sunday’s 22-16 victory at Miami. After being tackled, he pounded the turf with his fist as trainers attended to him. He had 10 yards on 11 carries, giving him 1,138 yards rushing on the season. … Arizona tight end Jermaine Gresham tore his right Achilles tendon against Seattle, creating doubt about his ability to return in time for the start of the 2018 season. … San Francisco receiver Marquise Goodwin sustained a concussion on a vicious hit by Los Angeles Rams safety Blake Countess, who likely will be fined. … Jacksonville safety Barry Church (hamstring) left the loss at Tennessee in the second half and did not return. … Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins (calf) missed the first game of his NFL career, leaving four catches short of his second 100-reception season. Houston took another hit when receiver Will Fuller departed with a left knee injury on the first offensive series.

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SPEAKING

“Everybody went crazy. I’ve been a wreck for 10 to 15 minutes.” — Buffalo’s Kyle Williams after the Bills clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 1999.

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“Our biggest games are ahead of us. We’re 13-3, that’s the best in the AFC, that’s what we’re playing for, so that’s pretty good.” — New England’s Tom Brady after the Patriots clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs with a 26-6 win over the New York Jets.

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“It’s probably been my toughest year of football, I would say, with the losses, the injuries, the benching and coming back and everything going on, the losses more than anything.” — Giants quarterback Eli Manning after New York finished 3-13, a franchise-worst for losses.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL Roundup: Bills end 17-year playoff drought with win and help

This gallery contains 1 photo.

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns to lead the San Francisco 49ers to their fifth straight victory, 34-13 on Sunday against a Los Angeles Rams team resting its big stars for the playoffs.

The Rams (11-5), who clinched the NFC West title last weekend, did not use Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald and other top players as they did not want to risk injury leading into their home playoff game next weekend, the franchise’s first postseason game since the 2004 season. Despite the loss, the Rams earned the NFC’s No. 3 seed and will host the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night.

Rams coach Sean McVay called the loss “humbling” but didn’t second-guess the decision to rest the stars.

“You certainly try to win the game,” he said. “But when you look at the way we approached it, we feel good about being able to allow some of players to get some rest, some recovery time that I think is much needed for those guys, and then you keep a couple of guys out of harm’s way.”

The visiting 49ers (6-10) finished last in the division but have soared since Garoppolo took over at quarterback. He threw touchdown passes of 8 yards to Marquise Goodwin — who later left with a concussion after a brutal hit by Blake Countess — and 12 yards to Aldrick Robinson and completed 20 of 33 passes.

Rams QB Sean Mannion made his first NFL start and was 20 of 34 passing for 169 yards with no touchdowns.

Buccaneers 31, Saints 24 • Jameis Winston threw for 363 yards, including a 39-yard scoring pass to Chris Godwin with nine seconds remaining, as host Tampa Bay snapped a losing streak at five games. Playoff-bound New Orleans (11-5) entered the day hoping to clinch its first NFC South championship in six years. The Saints wound up winning the title anyway, with Carolina losing to Atlanta.

Trailing 24-23 with 1:58 remaining, Winston moved the Bucs (5-11) 95 yards in 11 plays for the winning TD.

Alvin Kamara scored on a 106-yard kickoff return and had a second touchdown rushing for the Saints, who took a 24-20 lead midway through the fourth quarter when Zach Line caught a 3-yard TD pass from Drew Brees.

Chargers 30, Raiders 10 • Philip Rivers passed for 387 yards and three touchdowns, but the Los Angeles Chargers missed out on a playoff berth despite winning at home. Keenan Allen scored on a 27-yard fumble recovery and a 6-yard TD catch for the Chargers (9-7), who were eliminated from postseason contention when Tennessee won moments after their game ended. After the contest, the Raiders (6-10) fired coach Jack Del Rio.

Patriots 26, Jets 6 • Dion Lewis ran for a touchdown and caught a scoring pass, helping the Patriots clinch the top seed for the AFC playoffs by winning at home. New England (13-3) gained its seventh 13-win season, second-most in NFL history to San Francisco’s nine. It was also Bill Belichick’s 250th career regular-season win, moving him into a tie with Tom Landry for third among head coaches. New York finished at 5-11.

Vikings 23, Bears 10 • Minnesota’s defense turned in another dominant performance and Latavius Murray rushed for 111 yards and two TDs, helping the host Vikings win to secure a first-round playoff bye. Stefon Diggs caught six passes for 65 yards and a touchdown for the Vikings (13-3), who held a second straight foe without an offensive TD. Mitchell Trubisky completed 20 of 36 passes for 178 yards for Chicago (5-11).

Cardinals 26, Seahawks 24 • Phil Dawson kicked four field goals, the last from 42 yards with 2:21 left, to help visiting Arizona win. Seattle’s Blair Walsh missed a 48-yard attempt with 32 seconds left, but the Seahawks’ playoff hopes had ended a short time earlier when Atlanta won. Seattle (9-7) missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Arizona finished at 8-8.

Cowboys 6, Eagles 0 • Dak Prescott tossed a 20-yard TD pass to Brice Butler early in the fourth quarter and Dallas beat Philadelphia. The host Eagles (13-3) rested several starters on a frigid day and played others briefly after securing the NFC’s No. 1 seed a week earlier. They’ll host a playoff game on Jan. 13 or 14. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 103 yards for the Cowboys (9-7).

Chiefs 27, Broncos 24 • Patrick Mahomes II made his first NFL start and his first NFL relief appearance a success, leading visiting Kansas City to victory on Harrison Butker’s 30-yard field goal as time expired. With Kansas City already locked into the No. 4 seed for the AFC playoffs, Mahomes was given the start as No. 1 QB Alex Smith was rested — as were several other regular starters. He handed a 24-10 lead to No. 3 QB Tyler Bray midway through the fourth quarter, but came back with the score 24-24 and less than three minutes left. He drove the Chiefs 67 yards in 11 plays for the game-winning field goal that sent the Chiefs (10-6) to their fifth straight win. Mahomes threw for 284 yards, on 24-of-35 passing, with no touchdowns and an interception. The Broncos’ Paxton Lynch was 21 of 31 passing for 254 yards with two TDs, two interceptions and was sacked five times.

Elsewhere • Matthew Stafford’s three TD passes led host Detroit by Green Bay 35-11. The Lions (9-7) had with a winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1994-95. The Packers (7-9) have a losing record for the first time since 2008, which is also the last time they didn’t earn a spot in the playoffs.

• Jacoby Brissett threw for a touchdown and Marlon Mack ran for one to help Indianapolis defeat visiting Houston 22-13. Afterward, the Colts fired coach Chuck Pagano. Both teams finished at 4-12.

• Orleans Darkwa ran for a 154 yards to lead the Giants past the visiting Redskins 18-10. New York finished at 3-13, Washington at 7-9.

Five NFL Week 17 matchups to watch: Can Cam Newton knock Falcons out?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-    With a preseason play to diversify the offense gone by the wayside, the Carolina Panthers’ approach is clear. Now and into the playoffs, this remains Cam Newton’s show.

As Carolina finishes off yet another late-season surge by making a last push for the NFC South title, Newton has reaffirmed his role as the team’s lone offensive engine. In leading the Panthers to a 7-1 mark in their last eight games, he has thrown for 12 touchdowns with just three interceptions while racking up nearly 500 rushing yards and an additional three scores. He also is Carolina’s leading rusher and likely will set new career highs in carries (currently 128) and rushing yards (695).

But Newton’s greatest feat of all Sunday might be delivering a serious blow to the playoff chances of the Atlanta Falcons. If they fall, the defending NFC champions would need the Seattle Seahawks also to lose in order to claim the NFC’s final wild-card spot.

Newton was held to a season-low 137 passing yards in a 20-17 win over Atlanta earlier this season, but he led Carolina with 86 rushing yards and a touchdown on nine carries. The Panthers ran for 201 yards in total.

To combat the Panthers’ ground game, Atlanta will need not only improved performances from defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe but also its linebacking corps. Vic Beasley could be called upon to spy Newton, though Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell also likely will play substantial roles in ensuring the defense doesn’t give up the kind of long runs that could sink the team’s postseason ambitions.

Here are four other matchups that will define Week 17 in the NFL:

Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota vs. Jacksonville Jaguars’ pass rush

Despite being locked into the AFC’s No. 3 seed, the Jaguars are electing to play their starters. That could spell trouble for their divisional rival.

While the Titans raced out to a 37-16 win over the Jaguars in Week 2, the two teams have been on divergent paths for the rest of the season. Jacksonville now boasts the league’s third-ranked defense, though the unit is trying to regain its form after giving up a season-high 44 points in a loss to the 49ers last week. Meanwhile, Mariota has had two of his worst passing performances of the season during Tennessee’s three-game losing streak.

The Titans can clinch a wild-card berth with a win, but they’ll need Mariota to avoid the turnovers that have plagued him this season with a career-high 15 interceptions. With unfavorable matchups against the Jaguars’ lockdown secondary, he’ll also need help from the run game. Though DeMarco Murray has been ruled out with a knee injury, Derrick Henry had 92 yards on 14 carries in the first meeting this year and could play a prominent role again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. New Orleans Saints CB Marshon Lattimore

Any bad blood lingering over Evans’ hit to the back of Lattimore in the first clash between the two seems to have dissipated. But this looms as the latest in what could be a long series of meetings between two of the NFL’s best young stars at their respective positions.

For Evans and Tampa Bay, playing spoiler for New Orleans’ NFC South hopes would serve as one of the lone bright spots to an otherwise trying season. The fourth-year receiver is on track to end up with a career low in receiving yards (currently at 946) and has broken the 100-yard mark in just one game this season. He and Jameis Winston have struggled to get on the same page, as he has hauled in just 66 of 122 targets.

One week after his improbable “butt pick” interception, Lattimore can get another tune-up for the playoffs by facing a physical receiver who provides a sizable challenge on jump balls. More importantly, shutting down Evans would help wrap up the NFC South and give the Saints at least one home game in a cutthroat field. Three of New Orleans’ four losses have come on the road, and the lone home loss came to the New England Patriots in Week 2.

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Arizona Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones

The Seahawks will need the Falcons to falter in order to return to the playoffs for the sixth straight season. But Seattle also will need to take care of a divisional foe that has served as some of its strongest competition in recent years.

Wilson has made the postseason in every season so far in his career, yet he’ll continue to be counted on to carry a stagnant offense. He has thrown or rushed for all but one of the Seahawks’ 36 offensive touchdowns, but he has been stifled in the last three games, including a narrow win over the Dallas Cowboys last week in which he passed for a career-low 93 yards.

Waiting for him is Jones, the NFL’s sack leader with 15. He was part of a pass rush that sacked Wilson five times in the midseason meeting. And Arizona’s defense has given up just 22 points in its last three games. If the Cardinals give Wilson time, they could be stung by Doug Baldwin, who likely could avoid Patrick Peterson by consistently lining up in the slot, and Jimmy Graham, who hauled in two touchdowns against them earlier this year.

Buffalo Bills RB LeSean McCoy vs. Miami Dolphins’ front seven

Buffalo has the chance to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought, though it will need help elsewhere. As has been the case all season, the burden will be on McCoy to carry the offense.

McCoy currently ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,128 yards, but his average (4.09 yards per carry) is the lowest of his career. But he also has taken on an increased role in the passing game and has the most receptions (57) and receiving yards (426) of any season since he arrived in Buffalo in 2015.

Miami bottled up McCoy on the ground two weeks ago, holding him to 50 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. But he added four catches for another 46 yards and additional score as a receiver. For a Dolphins linebacking corps that has been repeatedly targeted in coverage, he could continue to be a mismatch.

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Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

NFL Week 17 kickoff times, TV channel info, game breakdowns

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   Here’s how the NFL playoff picture looks heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

AFC
1. yz-New England Patriots (12-3): AFC East champion. They can clinch home field by beating the Jets. A Pittsburgh loss would also do the trick.

2. yz-Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3): AFC North champion. If they can complete the Browns’ winless season and get help from the Jets, who would need to win at New England, then Pittsburgh would reclaim the No. 1 seed.

3. y-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5): AFC South champion. They have nothing at stake in Sunday’s game at Nashville, a contest that means everything to the Titans. Will the Jags rest key players, or decide to make an impact on the AFC wild-card race?

4. y-Kansas City Chiefs (9-6): AFC West champion. Back-to-back division champs for the first time, they’re locked into the fourth seed.

5. Baltimore Ravens (9-6): Wild card No. 1. Beat the Bengals on Sunday and a wild-card spot is assured. The Ravens can also back in if the Bills or Titans lose.

6. Tennessee Titans (8-7): Wild card No. 2. Their 7-4 record in AFC games currently gives them the tiebreaker over the Chargers and Bills. Beat the Jags on Sunday, and the Titans lock up a wild card. Joint losses by the Bolts and Buffalo would also get Tennessee in.

7. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7): Currently out of playoff field. They need to beat the Raiders on Sunday. They need the Titans to lose. If the Bolts get both those outcomes and either a Buffalo loss or Baltimore win, then they advance to postseason.

8. Buffalo Bills (8-7): Currently out of playoff field. While wishing they’d started Tyrod Taylor against the Chargers in Week 11 … Still Buffalo has a reasonable shot to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The Bills need simply win in Miami and hope either the Ravens lose or the Chargers and Titans both lose.

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye

NFC
1. y*-Philadelphia Eagles (13-2): NFC East champion. They won’t play another game away from Lincoln Financial Field this season … unless they reach the Super Bowl.

2. y-Minnesota Vikings (12-3): NFC North champion. Beat the Bears, and the Vikes get a week off. Minnesota can still get the bye if the Panthers lose, the Saints win or the Rams win.

3. y-Los Angeles Rams (11-4): NFC West champion. Division kings for the first time since 2003, they’ll be hosting a game in the wild-card round but have no shot at a bye.

4. x-New Orleans Saints (11-4): NFC South leader. A win at Tampa or loss by the Panthers gives the Saints the division and a home game in the wild-card round.

5. x-Carolina Panthers (11-4): Wild card No. 1. If they beat the Falcons, and the Bucs upset the Saints, then Carolina wins the NFC South and plays at home in the wild-card round. (And add losses by the Rams and Vikings to that scenario, then the Panthers would jump all the way up to the second seed.) Otherwise, Cam Newton and Co. will hit the road on the playoffs’ opening weekend.

6. Atlanta Falcons (9-6): Wild card No. 2. Win and they’re in as the conference’s second wild card. A Seattle loss also allows Atlanta to defend its NFC crown.

7. Seattle Seahawks (9-6): Currently out of playoff field. Their only path to a sixth consecutive postseason appearance requires a victory over the Cardinals on Sunday coupled with a loss by the Falcons, who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Seattle.

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye
*-clinched home-field advantage

***

Bears (5-10) at Vikings (12-3)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver)

The matchup: Coming off their most lopsided victory of the season, 20-3 over the Cleveland Browns, the Bears need to win to prevent going winless in the NFC North and could keep the Vikings from a first-round bye. But beating the Vikings likely won’t save coach John Fox’s job. The Vikings pitched their first shutout at Green Bay (16-0) since 1994. LG Nick Easton was lost to a broken right ankle just as the full offensive line returned for the first time since Week 5. But the Vikings are dominating defensively and will clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed by beating the Bears. They can also join the 1998 Vikings (15-1) as the second team in franchise history with at least 13 wins.

Jets (5-10) at Patriots (12-3)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson)

The matchup: With Jets QB Bryce Petty set to make his third consecutive start in place of injured QB Josh McCown, the offense will likely continue to sputter. RB Bilal Powell was the Jets’ offense last week and that doesn’t figure to change. Led by DE Trey Flowers, the Patriots sacked Bills QB Tyrod Taylor six times. Petty, who’s not nearly as mobile as Taylor, could be in for a long day. The Patriots are 5-2 at home, and have eight consecutive 12-win seasons, most since the 1970 merger. With RBs Rex Burkhead and James White out last week, Pats RB Dion Lewis assumed his heaviest workload of the season with 29 touches for 153 yards and two TDs.

Redskins (7-8) at Giants (2-13)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Sam Rosen, Matt Millen, Jennifer Hale)

The matchup: With the playoffs out of reach, Washington’s back-to-back wins have shown there’s still some fire left. After beating Denver last week, QB Kirk Cousins spoke of the importance of finishing .500 and creating a winning brand. Cousins might be playing his last game with the Redskins, and Eli Manning could be leading the Giants for the last time. Cousins’ franchise tag is becoming increasingly expensive. Manning turns 37 next week. The season can’t end soon enough for the staggering Giants, who last week officially became the losingest Giants team in the franchise’s 93-year history. The Giants don’t know who’ll be coaching next season, but they know he’ll be watching film and making personnel decisions based on what he sees in terms of talent and effort.

Cowboys (8-7) at Eagles (13-2)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber, Kristina Pink)

The matchup: Turns out RB Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t the magic that could get Dallas in the playoffs. The Cowboys couldn’t reach the end zone in last week’s home loss to Seattle. The Eagles locked up the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home field throughout the playoffs, making this game meaningless. The Eagles could play their starters to give QB Nick Foles, filling in for injured Carson Wentz, another week to build timing with his offensive mates, but it’s more likely that Foles sits, given that backup Nate Sudfeld has never taken a regular-season snap. Philadelphia’s priority is to make sure no one gets hurt.

Browns (0-15) at Steelers (12-3)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Spero Dedes, Adam Archuleta)

The matchup: One loss from infamy, the Browns have scored two TDs in their last 10 quarters and might set an NFL record for worst turnover margin. Their only hope lies in the Steelers resting starters. In Week 1, the Browns kept it close against their nearest geographic rival, but the teams operate in different football stratospheres. Rookie QB DeShone Kizer knows he’s being replaced, and he’ll try to avoid making big mistakes. The Steelers would love to make quick work of this one, then let their regulars do some scoreboard watching. Star WR Antonio Brown won’t be ready to play this week, but the Steelers hope to have him back for the postseason.

Packers (7-8) at Lions (8-7)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth)

The matchup: One week after being eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since 2008, the Packers were shut out by the Vikings, the second time they’ve been blanked at home behind QB Brett Hundley this season. Injuries have devastated Green Bay. Detroit was eliminated from playoff contention with its 26-17 loss to the Bengals. Lions president Rod Wood declined to comment on the job status of coach Jim Caldwell, who received a one-year extension in the offseason before falling to 35-28 and missing the playoffs for the second time in four seasons.

Texans (4-11) at Colts (3-12)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Tom McCarthy, Steve Beuerlein, Steve Tasker)

The matchup: It’s been a trying season for a Texans franchise that began the season with such high hopes. The last game is in Indianapolis, where they traditionally have been awful (2-13) but where coach Bill O’Brien has had more success winning the last two there. With Houston’s 2018 first-round pick belonging to Cleveland, this is a virtually meaningless game for the Texans, while a few Browns fans might be rooting for the Colts, whose 23-16 loss at Baltimore in Week 16 was their sixth in a row and guaranteed they’ll have a top-three pick in next spring’s draft. It would take one more loss and a Giants win to give Indy the second overall pick, but coach Chuck Pagano is the last person looking ahead to the Colts’ 2018 interests considering his uncertain status.

Bills (8-7) at Dolphins (6-9)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, CBS (Andrew Catalon, James Lofton)

The matchup: The Bills still have an outside chance of ending their 17-season playoff drought. They need to beat the Dolphins, then have either the Ravens lose or the Titans and Chargers lose. This is the first time in 13 seasons Buffalo has been in playoff contention in the final week. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor threw and ran for a TD in the teams’ first meeting two weeks ago. A year after winning nine of their last 11 to make the playoffs, the Dolphins are stumbling to the finish line with seven losses in their lpast nine games. QB Jay Cutler could be playing the final game of his 12-year career. Coaxed out of retirement after Ryan Tannehill suffered a season-ending injury in the summer, Cutler has been up and down, with 19 TD passes, 14 INTs and five fumbles.

Panthers (11-4) at Falcons (9-6)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, Fox (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews)

The matchup: The Panthers travel to Atlanta with a wild-card berth in hand, but they could wind up anywhere between the Nos. 2 and 5 seeds depending on their game and how other NFC teams perform. At worst, they’ll have the higher of the two wild cards. They would win the NFC South if they beat Atlanta and New Orleans loses at Tampa Bay. They would jump all the way to No. 2 and a first-round bye if Minnesota loses to Chicago as well. Atlanta still can make the playoffs and claim the NFC’s sixth seed with a win. Even with a loss, the Falcons would qualify for the postseason if Seattle loses to Arizona. The Falcons’ chances of playing beyond Week 17 likely hinge on their ability to score more inside the red zone. RB Devonta Freeman has fumbled four times in the past three games and lost one last week at the Saints’ 1-yard line.

Bengals (6-9) at Ravens (9-6)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, CBS (Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn)

The matchup: After being left for dead, the Bengals played spoiler last week with an upset of the Lions. They’d love to do it again, but it will be a tough task on the road. The future of many key Bengals, including coach Marvin Lewis and QB Andy Dalton, remains uncertain. The Bengals need to force turnovers and make big plays on defense and special teams to have a chance. The Ravens make the playoffs with a win, so expect the crowd to be rocking. They have played their way into this spot over the season’s second half by spreading the wealth offensively and getting the run game going, but their chances of making a playoff run still start with their veteran defense.

Jaguars (10-5) at Titans (8-7)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, CBS (Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl)

The matchup: Tennessee’s loss in Week 16 meant Jacksonville clinched its first AFC South title. But the Jaguars weren’t exactly in a celebratory mood after a sloppy 44-33 loss at San Francisco. The Titans stumbled to their third loss in a row, 27-23 to the Rams, but the good news is that if they beat the Jaguars in the regular-season finale, they can earn a postseason berth for the first time since 2008. They probably will be without RB DeMarco Murray, who suffered a knee injury against Los Angeles. In the teams’ first meeting this season, Tennessee led 6-3 at halftime before outscoring Jacksonville 31-13 in the second half.

Saints (11-4) at Buccaneers (4-11)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, Fox (Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman, Peter Schrager)

The matchup: Already assured of their first playoff berth since 2013, the Saints can wrap up their first division title since 2011 and at least one home playoff game with a win against the Bucs. Look for coach Sean Payton to keep his foot on the pedal, not only to win the NFC South but also keep his team sharp for the postseason. After losing for the fourth consecutive week by a field goal or in OT, the Bucs remain a tough out though they’re 4-11 and winless in the NFC South. They must take advantage of red-zone chances. They were 1-for-6 vs. Carolina.

Raiders (6-9) at Chargers (8-7)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, CBS (Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon)

The matchup: Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, one season into a four-year extension, isn’t safe. Owner Mark Davis called his extension a reward for a “significant step” in a 12-4 season and return to the playoffs. However, with the Raiders eliminated from the postseason and Del Rio’s decision to replace offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave resulting in a major regression for QB Derek Carr, one of 2017’s most disappointing teams could undergo more changes. Remarkably, after an 0-4 start, rookie coach Anthony Lynn’s Chargers can clinch a playoff spot if they win and Tennessee and Baltimore lose.

Chiefs (9-6) at Broncos (5-10)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, CBS ( Beth Mowins, Jay Feely)

The matchup: After a fourth consecutive loss Dec. 3 dropped their record to 6-6, the Chiefs rebounded to win three in a row, including last week’s 29-13 beating of Miami to clinch the AFC West. Kansas City is locked into the fourth seed in the conference and a home playoff game. QB Alex Smith, RB Kareem Hunt, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce all have more than 1,000 yards, only the second time in NFL history that has happened. Smith is resting this week, leaving first-round pick Patrick Mahomes to get his first start.

49ers (5-10) at Rams (11-4)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, Fox (Joe Davis, Brady Quinn,  Jenny Taft)

The matchup: The rest of the NFL barely noticed that 0-9 start by the struggling 49ers, but everyone else in the league might be feeling relieved that they won’t have to face San Francisco in the playoffs. Since the arrival of QB Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers have been red hot. San Francisco hopes to take the momentum of a five-game winning streak into the offseason. For the first time in four offseasons, San Francisco won’t be hunting for a new coach, and the expectations will be a lot higher when the 2018 season begins. Year 2 back in L.A. has included an unlikely NFC West title, breakout seasons by QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley and the likelihood that the Rams are going to be a team to watch. Goff, Gurley and DT Aaron Donald will rest.

Cardinals (7-8) vs. Seahawks (9-6)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, Fox (Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin)

The matchup: Is this the final game of Bruce Arians’ run in Arizona? Is there any chance 34-year-old Larry Fitzgerald might retire? Who will be the quarterback for this team next season? The Cardinals are at a crossroads. But Arizona has a chance to ruin Seattle’s playoff chances. Barely clinging to hope of a postseason berth, Seattle still has enough stars on defense and a playoff-tested quarterback to get through what has been the Seahawks’ biggest challenge in recent years: the Cardinals at CenturyLink Field. Seattle is 7-1 when TE Jimmy Graham catches a TD pass.

Times p.m. Eastern.

Compiled by Brian Allee-Walsh, Zac Jackson, Jordan Godwin, Scott Pitoniak, Arthur Arkush, Andy Friedlander, Scott Johnson, Howard Balzer.

NFL playoff picture after Week 16 / NFL Week 17 clinching scenarios / Overreactions

This gallery contains 1 photo.

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports / AP)    —    Here’s how the NFL playoff picture looks with Week 16’s action now complete.

AFC
1. yz-New England Patriots (12-3): AFC East champion. They scored a first-round bye with Jacksonville’s loss.

2. yz-Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3): AFC North champion. Monday’s dismantling of Houston gave them the other first-round bye.

3. y-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5): AFC South champion. Tennessee’s loss made the Jags AFC South champs for the first time, but Jacksonville’s unsightly loss to San Francisco cost them any shot at a bye.

4. y-Kansas City Chiefs (9-6): AFC West champion. They wrapped up the division Sunday, marking the first time they’ve done that in successive seasons.

5. Baltimore Ravens (9-6): Wild card No. 1. Their end-of-season schedule has them sitting pretty with the lowly Colts their latest victim on Saturday. Beat the Bengals in Week 17, and Baltimore is assured a wild-card spot.

6. Tennessee Titans (8-7): Wild card No. 2. Their 7-4 record in AFC games currently gives them the tiebreaker over the Chargers and Bills.

In the hunt: Los Angeles Chargers (8-7), Buffalo Bills (8-7)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye

NFC
1. y*-Philadelphia Eagles (13-2): NFC East champion. It wasn’t pretty, but Monday night’s win means they won’t play another game away from Lincoln Financial Field this season … unless they reach the Super Bowl.

2. y-Minnesota Vikings (12-3): NFC North champion. The dream is to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on its home field. But even after taking care of the Packers on Saturday night, the Vikings still have work to do before scoring a bye.

3. y-Los Angeles Rams (11-4): NFC West champion. They’re division kings for the first time since 2003.

4. x-New Orleans Saints (11-4): NFC South leader. They’re going to the playoffs and just a win away from claiming the division.

5. x-Carolina Panthers (11-4): Wild card No. 1. They’re into the field as well and still have an outside shot at the NFC South crown and a first-round bye.

6. Atlanta Falcons (9-6): Wild card No. 2. Sunday’s loss at New Orleans means they can no longer retain NFC South crown. But Atlanta is still just a win shy (or Seattle loss in Week 17) from punching its return ticket to postseason.

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (9-6)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye
*-clinched home-field advantage

***

NFL Week 17 clinching scenarios: Three spots, one bye, seeding still up for grabs

A good chunk of the NFL’s playoff bracket has been filled out. Still, plenty of loose ends remain heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

Most notably, one spot remains open in the NFC — the Falcons or Seahawks will claim it — while four AFC teams are vying for the conference’s pair of wild-card slots. Also still unclaimed: Home field in the AFC as well as the NFC South title.

Here is a look at every clinching scenario for Week 17:

AFC

New England Patriots (already clinched AFC East and first-round bye) [vs. New York Jets]

New England clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:

1) NE win OR

2) PIT loss OR

3) NE tie + PIT tie

More: NFL playoff picture after Week 16

More: Seahawks may still need help to reach playoffs, but they’re long on pride

Pittsburgh Steelers (already clinched AFC North and first-round bye) [vs. Cleveland Browns]

Pittsburgh clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with:

1) PIT win + NE loss or tie OR

2) PIT tie + NE loss

Baltimore Ravens [vs. Cincinnati Bengals]

Baltimore clinches a playoff berth with:

1) BAL win or tie OR

2) BUF loss or tie OR

3) TEN loss or tie

Tennessee Titans [vs. Jacksonville Jaguars]

Tennessee clinches a playoff berth with:

1) TEN win OR

2) TEN tie + BUF loss or tie + LAC loss or tie OR

3) BUF loss + LAC loss

Los Angeles Chargers [vs. Oakland Raiders]

Los Angeles clinches a playoff berth with:

1) LAC win + TEN loss or tie + BUF loss or tie OR

2) LAC win + TEN loss or tie + BAL win or tie OR

3) LAC tie + TEN loss + BUF loss or tie

Buffalo Bills [at Miami Dolphins]

Buffalo clinches a playoff berth with:

1) BUF win + BAL loss OR

2) BUF win + LAC loss or tie + TEN loss or tie OR

3) BUF tie + LAC loss + TEN loss

NFC

Minnesota Vikings (already clinched NFC North) [vs. Chicago Bears]

Minnesota clinches a first-round bye with:

1) MIN win or tie OR

2) CAR loss or tie OR

3) NO win

New Orleans Saints (already clinched playoff berth) [at Tampa Bay Buccanneers]

New Orleans clinches NFC South division title with:

1) NO win OR

2) CAR loss OR

3) NO tie + CAR tie

Carolina Panthers (already clinched playoff berth) [at Atlanta Falcons]

Carolina clinches NFC South division title with:

1) CAR win + NO loss or tie OR

2) CAR tie + NO loss

Carolina clinches a first-round bye with:

1) CAR win + NO loss or tie + MIN loss + LAR loss or tie

Atlanta Falcons [vs. Carolina Panthers]

Atlanta clinches a playoff berth with:

1) ATL win OR

2) SEA loss OR

3) ATL tie + SEA tie

Seattle Seahawks [vs. Arizona Cardinals]

Seattle clinches a playoff berth with:

1) SEA win + ATL loss or tie OR

2) SEA tie + ATL loss

___

NFL Overreactions: Dak Prescott was a one-year wonder

Dak Prescott was a one-year wonder.

Prescott has followed up a sensational rookie season with a so-so sophomore year. He was shaky during Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension and struggled in a must-win game against Seattle on Sunday.

That makes Prescott 0-2 in elimination games with the Dallas Cowboys. After going 13-3 last season, the Cowboys lost to Green Bay in the playoffs.

When Dallas needed Prescott most — in the six games Elliott was banished — he tossed five touchdown passes, seven interceptions and the team was 3-3.

But the second-year quarterback doesn’t deserve all the blame. The Cowboys have had injuries on the offensive line, poor coaching decisions and Dez Bryant’s sideline attitude is becoming a problem no matter how much people want to laud his passion.

Prescott threw 39 TDs and only eight picks in his first 24 games while leading the Cowboys to an 18-6 record. He didn’t suddenly forget how to play.

The Cowboys shouldn’t be in the market for a franchise quarterback in the offseason.

Here are more overreactions following Week 16:

___

OVERREACTION: The Browns (0-15) will beat the Steelers (12-3) because Pittsburgh has already locked up a first-round bye.

REALISTIC REACTION: The Steelers need a win to have a chance to secure the No. 1 seed so coach Mike Tomlin probably won’t rest his starters. If so, Landry Jones could still beat these Browns.

___

OVERREACTION: Todd Gurley is the NFL MVP.

REALISTIC REACTION: Gurley belongs in the conversation but don’t discount what Tom Brady and Carson Wentz did in the first three months and Russell Wilson deserves consideration for single-handedly keeping the Seahawks in the playoff race until the final week.

___

OVERREACTION: The real Blake Bortles showed up in Jacksonville’s loss to San Francisco.

REALISTIC REACTION: Bortles was excellent the previous three games so he’s capable of big-time performances.

___

OVERREACTION: The Patriots will regret trading Jimmy Garoppolo.

REALISTIC REACTION: Not until Tom Brady retires. If he retires.

___

OVERREACTION: Earl Thomas will join the Cowboys.

REALISTIC REACTION: He’s still under contract with Seattle for one more year.

___

OVERREACTION: Cam Newton purposely fumbled to freeze the defense on his 2-yard TD run that gave Carolina (11-4) a comeback win over Tampa.

REALISTIC REACTION: Sure he did. Wink. Wink.

___

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

___

Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

Xmas NFL Roundup: Eagles clinch top seed, but Foles has tough time vs Raiders

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Nick Foles has three weeks to get in sync with his receivers.

Making his second start since MVP candidate Carson Wentz tore his left ACL, Foles had a tough time in Philadelphia’s 19-10 victory over Oakland on Monday night. He was 19 of 38 for 163 yards with one touchdown and one interception, one week after he had four TD passes and no picks in a 34-29 win at the Giants.

The Eagles (13-2) clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed with the victory over the Raiders (6-9), so Foles and most of the starters may not play much or at all against Dallas in Week 17. Their next meaningful game is Jan. 13 or 14 in the playoffs.

Considering the offense’s poor performance Christmas night, coach Doug Pederson might want to let them work on it against the Cowboys.

“It’ll probably be Wednesday before I make a final decision on who plays,” Pederson said. “Right now with only two (quarterbacks), I would assume (Foles) has to play some.”

The wind played a factor in the passing game for both teams. Oakland’s Derek Carr also struggled.

“It was gusty at times, made it a little more difficult,” Pederson said.

After Ronald Darby intercepted Carr’s pass with 54 seconds left, Foles came through. He completed four straight passes for 21 yards. Following an incomplete pass, Jake Elliott kicked a 48-yard field goal with 22 seconds left. Derek Barnett sealed it when he returned a fumble 23 yards for a touchdown after picking up a lateral on Oakland’s final play from scrimmage.

“I didn’t play good enough,” Foles said. “I have to play cleaner, (need) pinpoint accuracy and good decisions on third downs.”

Here’s some things we learned from Philadelphia’s win over Oakland:

BIG-PLAY D: The Eagles forced five turnovers in the second half, making one big play after another to bail out the offense. It was a dramatic turnaround for the defense, which struggled against Eli Manning and the Giants last week. They held the Raiders to 274 total yards, 63 coming on one play — Carr’s TD pass to Amari Cooper.

“Last week, our offense was carrying us and we were playing like trash and this week our offense was making little mistakes and we had to come out there and make some plays,” Darby said. “That’s what football is all about, a team effort.”

THIRD-DOWN WOES: The Eagles were 1 for 14 on third downs and somehow still won. They were 2 for 2 on fourth down, including a conversion on a TD drive in the first quarter.

“We just didn’t get into a rhythm,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “Our defense bailed us out.”

MACK ATTACK: Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack didn’t have any sacks for the first time in six weeks, but he caused Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson to commit two holding penalties and have a false start penalty.

“You can count on Khalil,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “You put it down and he’s going to play well. He’s a fiery football player and his attitude and effort every day is unbelievable. He’s very consistent that way.”

BEAST MODE: Marshawn Lynch had 95 yards rushing on a season-high 25 carries. He almost became the first running back to reach 100 yards against Philadelphia since October 2016. The Raiders finished with 134 yards on the ground against the NFL’s top-ranked run defense.

INVISIBLE MEN: Philadelphia’s Alshon Jeffery and Oakland’s Michael Crabtree had no catches. Jeffery was targeted twice and Crabtree three times.

___

STEELERS 34, TEXANS 6

HOUSTON (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger told his teammates they didn’t need to make up for Antonio Brown’s absence. He just wanted everyone to do what they could to help out, figuring that would be enough.

It certainly was.

“I know everyone was thinking about A.B. not being out there and trying to fill those shoes, but you can’t fill those shoes,” Roethlisberger said. “I just tried to tell them: ‘Don’t try to fill them, just try to be the best you can be.'”

Roethlisberger threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns in the first game since Brown injured his calf, and the Steelers clinched a first-round playoff bye with a 34-6 win over the Texans. Roethlisberger threw passes to six players as Pittsburgh (12-3) romped over the lowly Texans (4-11) despite missing the NFL’s leading receiver.

“It just kind of shows how many weapons we actually have in our offense … everybody played well,” Le’Veon Bell said. “Ben made the plays when he needed to. I made some plays on third down when I needed to. It was literally a total team effort.”

The Steelers led 20-0 at halftime after taking advantage of two turnovers by the Texans. Bell added a 10-yard TD run late in the third quarter and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster made it 34-6 with an 18-yard touchdown grab in the fourth.

Bell finished with 14 carries for 69 yards and Smith-Schuster had six receptions for 75 yards.

“Significant day for us,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “Our last regular-season road game, finishing 7-1, getting our 12th win, securing a ticket to the second round. All very positive things, but it’s kind of the culmination of being singularly focused on the next opportunity.”

T.J. Yates was 7 of 16 for 83 yards and a touchdown for the Texans, who lost their fifth straight game and for the eighth time in nine games.

“It’s brutal,” coach Bill O’Brien said of Houston’s skid. “It’s been a tough year.”

Yates made his second straight start since Tom Savage sustained a concussion. Yates left the game briefly on Monday to be evaluated for a concussion, and his replacement, Taylor Heinicke, sustained a concussion on his only full possession.

Roethlisberger was replaced by backup Landry Jones with about six minutes remaining and the game well in hand.

The Steelers hurried and harassed Yates all day with Mike Hilton leading the way with three sacks and three quarterback hits, Cameron Heyward adding two and forcing a fumble. Hilton became the first cornerback with three sacks in a game since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

The Texans couldn’t do much right on a day their home stadium was overtaken by vocal Steelers fans waving their Terrible Towels. One of the few highlights came on an acrobatic 3-yard touchdown reception by DeAndre Hopkins in the fourth quarter. Hopkins deflected the ball with his right hand, reeled it in with his left and got both feet down before falling out of bounds for his NFL-best and franchise-record 13th touchdown reception.

Hopkins may have been the only one who wasn’t impressed with the grab.

“I’m mad I didn’t catch it the first time,” he said. “Like me, who I am, I was supposed to catch that one the first time with my right hand.”

The Steelers took a 10-0 lead when Roethlisberger connected with Justin Hunter on a 5-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.

Alfred Blue had a 48-yard run on the first play of the second quarter to get the Texans to the Pittsburgh 18-yard line. The Texans got to the 1 on second down later in that drive, but couldn’t do anything on the next two plays before Yates was intercepted in the end zone.

Pittsburgh added a touchdown on a 1-yard run by Roosevelt Nix on the ensuing possession. Heyward sacked Yates three plays later and caused a fumble recovered by Bud Dupree to give the Steelers the ball right back.

Pittsburgh added a 36-yard field goal on the next drive to push the lead to 20-0.

Yates was sacked again on Houston’s next possession and injured on the play. He left the game to be evaluated for a concussion, forcing the Texans to play Heinicke.

Heinicke finished that possession and remained in the game for the first drive of the third quarter while Yates was being evaluated. But Heinicke took a hard hit on a sack on the last play of that drive and had to be evaluated for a concussion, too.

FAMILY TIME

J.J. Watt didn’t get to play on Monday as he recovers from a broken leg, but spent some time pregame with his brother, Pittsburgh rookie linebacker T.J. Watt. Houston’s defensive end threw the ball around with T.J. and the brothers also posed for some pictures with their parents before the game.

T.J. was disappointed that his brother didn’t get to play on Monday, but is looking forward to seeing him return next season.

“I wish he was out there just to be a dominant force for them,” T.J. said. “But I know he’ll come back bigger, faster and stronger.”

INJURY UPDATE

Houston cornerback Kevin Johnson injured his knee in the third quarter and didn’t return. … Texans safety Corey Moore also injured his knee in the second half and didn’t return.

UP NEXT

Steelers: Host the Browns on Sunday.

Texans: Visit Indianapolis on Sunday.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL playoff picture: Week 16

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports / AP)    —   Here’s how the NFL playoff picture looks after Week 16’s Sunday action.

AFC
1. yz-New England Patriots (12-3): AFC East champion. They scored a first-round bye with Jacksonville’s loss and will lock up home-field advantage if Pittsburgh falters Monday.

2. y-Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3): AFC North champion. They can snatch the other AFC bye by beating the Texans on Christmas.

3. y-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5): AFC South champion. Tennessee’s loss made the Jags AFC South champs for the first time, but Jacksonville’s unsightly loss to San Francisco severely damaged its hopes of a first-round bye.

4. y-Kansas City Chiefs (9-6): AFC West champion. They wrapped up the division Sunday, marking the first time they’ve done that in successive seasons.

5. Baltimore Ravens (9-6): Wild card No. 1. Their end-of-season schedule has them sitting pretty with the lowly Colts their latest victim on Saturday. Beat the Bengals in Week 17, and Baltimore is assured a wild-card spot.

6. Tennessee Titans (8-7): Wild card No. 2. Their 7-4 record in AFC games currently gives them the tiebreaker over the Chargers and Bills.

In the hunt: Los Angeles Chargers (8-7), Buffalo Bills (8-7)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye

NFC
1. yz-Philadelphia Eagles (12-2): NFC East champion. One more win or Minnesota loss will keep the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field through January.

2. y-Minnesota Vikings (12-3): NFC North champion. The dream is to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on its home field. But even after taking care of the Packers on Saturday night, the Vikings need help to get the No. 1 seed — and still have work to do before scoring a bye.

3. y-Los Angeles Rams (11-4): NFC West champion. They’re division kings for the first time since 2003.

4. x-New Orleans Saints (11-4): NFC South leader. They’re going to the playoffs and just a win away from claiming the division.

5. x-Carolina Panthers (11-4): Wild card No. 1. They’re into the field as well and still have an outside shot at the NFC South crown and a first-round bye.

6. Atlanta Falcons (9-6): Wild card No. 2. Sunday’s loss at New Orleans means they can no longer retain NFC South crown. But Atlanta is still just a win shy (or Seattle loss in Week 17) from punching its return ticket to postseason.

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (9-6)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye

***

SCOREBOARD

Monday, Dec. 25

Pittsburgh at Houston, 4:30 EST. The Steelers (11-3) have won three of their past four over the Texans. Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger has six touchdown passes and one interception in four games against the Texans. Houston (4-10) has lost four straight and seven of eight. QB T.J. Yates will make his second straight start with Tom Savage on IR with a concussion.

Oakland at Philadelphia, 8:30 EST. The Eagles (12-2) can clinch home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with a win. The Eagles have a first-round bye for only the sixth time since 1970 and the first since 2004. Oakland’s Derek Carr joined Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck as the only QBs with at least 100 TD passes in his first four seasons in the NFL. Pro Bowl defensive end Khalil Mack is trying for a sack in his sixth straight game for the Raiders (6-8).

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STARS

Passing

—Jared Goff, Rams, was 22 for 38 for 301 yards and four touchdowns in Los Angeles’ 27-23 win over Tennessee.

—Kirk Cousins, Redskins, was 19 for 37 for 299 yards and three touchdowns and an interception in Washington’s 27-11 win over Denver. Cousins is the first quarterback in Washington history with three seasons of 25 or more TD passes.

—Jameis Winston, Bucs, was 21 for 27 for 367 yards and a touchdown in Tampa Bay’s 22-19 loss to Carolina.

—Alex Smith, Chiefs, was 25 for 39 for 304 yards and a touchdown in Kansas City’s 29-13 win over Miami

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Rushing

—Todd Gurley, Rams, had 22 carries for 118 yards and added 10 receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yarder in Los Angeles’ 27-23 win over Tennessee. He became only the third player in NFL history to put together such a performance in the same game, joining Ollie Matson (1954) and Herschel Walker (1986).

—Bilal Powell, Jets, had 19 carries for 145 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown in New York’s 14-7 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

—Dion Lewis, Patriots, had 24 carries for 129 yards and a touchdown in New England’s 37-16 win over Buffalo.

—Giovani Bernard, Bengals, had 23 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati’s 26-17 win over Detroit.

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Receiving

—Julio Jones, Falcons, had seven catches for 149 yards in Atlanta’s 23-13 loss to New Orleans.

—Tyreek Hill, Chiefs, had six catches for 109 yards in Kansas City’s 29-13 win over Miami.

—Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals had nine catches for 119 yards and a touchdown in Arizona’s 23-0 win over the New York Giants.

—Keelan Cole, Jaguars, had six catches for 108 yards in Jacksonville’s 44-33 loss to San Francisco.

—Mike Evans, Bucs, had six catches for 107 yards in Tampa’s 22-19 loss to Carolina.

—Jakeem Grant, Dolphins, had four catches for 107 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown in Miami’s 29-13 loss to Kansas City.

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Special Teams

—Damiere Byrd, Panthers, returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown in Carolina’s 22-19 win over Tampa Bay. It was the longest kick return in Panthers history, surpassing Kealoha Pilares’ 101-yard kick return TD in Week 11 of the 2011 season against the Lions.

—Harrison Butker, Chiefs, was 5 for 6 on field goals and added two PATs in Kansas City’s 29-13 win over Miami.

—Randy Bullock, Bengals, was 4 for 4 on field goals and added two PATs in Cincinnati’s 26-17 win over Detroit.

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Defense

—Dontae Johnson, 49ers, returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown in San Francisco’s 44-33 win over Jacksonville.

—Justin Coleman, Seahawks, returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown in Seattle’s 21-12 win over Dallas.

— Robert Nkemdiche, Cardinals, ran back a fumble 21 yards for a touchdown in Arizona’s 23-0 win over the New York Giants.

—Jordan Poyer, Bills, returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown in Buffalo’s 37-16 loss to New England.

—Wesley Woodyard, Titans returned a fumble 4 yards for a touchdown in Tennessee’s 27-23 loss to the LA Rams.

—Ezekiel Ansah, Lions had three sacks in Detroit’s 26-17 loss to Cincinnati.

—Antoine Bethea, Cardinals, had two interceptions in Arizona’s 23-0 win over the New York Giants.

—Ross Cockrell, Giants, had two interceptions in New York’s 23-0 loss to Arizona.

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STREAKS & STATS

DeShone Kizer threw two more interceptions and the winless Cleveland Browns committed two turnovers in the red zone on the way to a 20-3 loss to the Chicago Bears. One more loss and the Browns will join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to go 0-16. The Browns have clinched the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. They will be the fifth team in the common draft era to pick No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts. The previous team to do so was the 1999-2000 Browns. … Jordan Poyer’s pick-6 of Tom Brady was the first against the Patriots superstar since Atlanta’s Robert Alford in the Super Bowl. The previous pick-6 of Brady in the regular season came in Week 13 in the 2015 season when the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins did it. Brady has thrown an interception in five straight games for the first time since Weeks 2-6 of the 2002 season. … Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen had five catches for 63 yards and added an interception in the team’s 14-7 win at the New York Jets. Allen, who has 93 catches for 1,260 yards this season, is the first player in NFL history to have at least 90 catches and an interception in the same season. He is also the third player in NFL history to have at least 1,000 receiving yards and an interception in the same season, joining Hall of Famer Don Hutson (1942) and Randy Moss (2009). … The 2017 season will mark the first time in the Super Bowl era that the Cowboys, Giants, Redskins, Packers, and 49ers all missed the playoffs. The previous time all five of those teams missed the postseason was in 1964. … Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan sacked Denver’s Brock Osweiler twice and has 11 this season, becoming the first Redskins player with 10 or more in consecutive seasons since Dexter Manley and Charles Mann in 1985 and 1986. … Carolina has 15 sacks in its past three games and has forced 10 turnovers.

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MILESTONES

The New England Patriots improved to 12-3 after beating Buffalo 37-16. The Patriots have won at least 12 games in eight consecutive seasons (2010-17), surpassing the 2003-09 Indianapolis Colts for the longest such streak in NFL history. … New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees passed for 239 yards and a touchdown in the Saints’ 23-13 win over Atlanta. Brees has 70,200 passing yards and joined Peyton Manning (71,940) and Hall of Famer Brett Favre (71,838) as the only players in NFL history to reach 70,000 passing yards. Brees reached the milestone in his 248th game and is the fastest in league history to accomplish the feat. Brees, who has 4,089 passing yards this season, reached 4,000 passing yards for a 12th consecutive season, extending his NFL record. … With the Cardinals’ 23-0 victory over the Giants, Bruce Arians moved into a tie with Ken Whisenhunt for most victories by a Cardinals coach (49). … Kareem Hunt is the first Chiefs rookie running back with at least 10 TDs from scrimmage since Billy Jackson (11) in 1981.

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CLINCHED

The LA Rams, who defeated Tennessee 27-23, clinched the NFC West title for the first time since 2003. … The Kansas City Chiefs, who knocked off Miami 29-13, secured the AFC West for the second consecutive season. … The Jacksonville Jaguars, who had already clinched a playoff berth, locked up the AFC South title with Tennessee’s loss to the Rams. It marks Jacksonville’s first division title since 1999 (AFC Central). … The New Orleans Saints, who defeated Atlanta 23-13, and the Carolina Panthers, who knocked off Tampa Bay 22-19, both clinched playoff berths.

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SIDELINED

Tennessee could be without starting running back DeMarco Murray next week when it tries to clinch a playoff spot. Murray injured his right knee with 2:23 left in the game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams lost left guard Rodger Saffold to a rib injury late in the game. Los Angeles safety Marqui Christian also hurt a shoulder.

Dallas played most of its game without five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith. He started against Seattle despite a right knee injury that kept him out of practice most of the week. He came out after the first series.

Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned after missing two games with a concussion only to hurt his right shoulder before halftime of a game against Detroit. Bengals running back Joe Mixon also returned after missing two games with a concussion. He left Sunday with an injured right ankle in the first quarter.

Buffalo lost backup running back Travaris Cadet to a right ankle injury in the second quarter. Safety Micah Hyde and cornerback Shareece Wright both left in the second half against New England.

The Jets lost defensive end Leonard Williams in the second half with a back injury.

The Giants lost their leading receiver, tight end Evan Engram, in the first period with a rib injury. New York safety Landon Collins was knocked out of the game at Arizona with a forearm injury in the third quarter.

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SPEAKING

“You’ve got to understand what rock bottom looks like before you can even climb to the top.” — Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer after his team fell to 0-15 on the season with a 20-3 loss to Chicago.

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“The idea was to put it on the ground, get (the defense) to freeze for a second, and pick it up and score. I tell you when I saw that … but the best part is it didn’t ruin my Christmas, which I appreciate.” — Carolina coach Ron Rivera joked after Cam Newton fumbled the shotgun snap after it hit his knuckles. But the ball bounced back up into his hands and he alertly picked it up and got across the goal line for the go-ahead score in the final minute for a 22-19 win over Tampa Bay.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL Roundup: Saints beat Falcons, clinch NFC playoff berth

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —    NEW ORLEANS – Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore corralled an unusual, momentum-turning interception off his back, New Orleans made two defensive stands from inside its 2-yard line, and the Saints clinched their first playoff berth since 2013 with a 23-13 victory over the rival Atlanta Falcons.

Ted Ginn caught a 54-yard pass for a touchdown, which came a few plays after Lattimore’s interception and shortly before halftime. Mark Ingram used a sharp cutback to break loose for a 26-yard touchdown for New Orleans ( 11-4), which kept its tenuous hold on first place in the NFC South heading into the final week of the season.

While the loss eliminated the Falcons (9-6) from the NFC South race, Atlanta can clinch a wild-card berth by beating Carolina in the final regular-season game on New Year’s Eve.

The Falcons entered the game with a second straight division crown in their grasp, but they needed to beat the Saints. They squandered chances spectacularly, much to the delight of a deafening Superdome crowd – and certainly to the chagrin of scattered fans wearing Falcons red. The Falcons were taunted on their way to the game by a plane towing a banner that read “28-3 Merry Xmas,” a reference to Atlanta’s Super Bowl collapse.

Atlanta trailed 6-0 when Lattimore’s interception of Matt Ryan set the Saints up to double their lead.

But early in the third quarter, Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones intercepted a pass that deflected off of Ginn’s hands and returned it 41 yards to the New Orleans 2. Devonta Freeman fumbled on a hit by Tyeler Davison two plays later and linebacker Manti Teo recovered.

Drew Brees completed 21 of 28 passes for 239 yards. Brees became the third quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 70,000 career yards passing, joining Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.

Ryan was 22 of 36 for 288 yards. He was sacked five times, twice by Cameron Jordan.

PANTHERS 22, BUCCANEERS 19

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton scored on a 2-yard run with 35 seconds remaining to lift the Panthers into the NFC playoffs.

The Panthers (11-4) trailed most of the second half, but Newton drove them 59 yards, completing 4 of 7 passes for 52 yards in the final three minutes before scoring on a what could have been a game-ending play. Newton fumbled the snap from the shotgun, alertly picked it up and then dived across the goal line for the go-ahead score.

Newton celebrated the score by using the football as a prop, pretending to light a candle on a cake in celebration of his son Chosen’s 2nd birthday.

Carolina can clinch the NFC South championship with a win over Atlanta and a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay.

The Panthers sealed the game when Kawann Short sacked Jameis Winston on Tampa Bay’s final drive, and forced a fumble that Julius Peppers recovered. Winston threw for 367 yards and a touchdown but was sacked six times and fumbled three times. The Bucs are 4-11.

SEAHAWKS 21, COWBOYS 12

ARLINGTON, Texas – Justin Coleman put Seattle in front for good with a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown and the Seahawks won a playoff elimination game against Dallas, beating the Cowboys in Ezekiel Elliott’s return from a six-game suspension.

Dak Prescott threw two interceptions and the Dallas offense didn’t score a touchdown despite the reunion with his backfield mate, the one he shared a remarkable rookie season with a year ago when Cowboys had an NFC-best 13 wins.

Now Dallas (8-7) is eliminated from the postseason with the end of its three-game winning streak, and the Seahawks (9-6) still have a chance to keep their five-year playoff streak alive after Russell Wilson threw for two touchdowns despite a career-low 93 yards passing.

Coleman gave Seattle a 14-9 lead in the third quarter when he reached down to catch Prescott’s badly overthrown pass to Elliott and ran untouched 30 yards for a touchdown.

It was the fourth pick-six of the season for Prescott, who threw just four interceptions last season when he was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He has 13 interceptions for the season.

RAMS 27, TITANS 23

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jared Goff threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp in the fourth quarter and the Rams held off Tennessee to clinch their first NFC West title since 2003.

The Rams (11-4) came in needing a win or a loss by Seattle to secure the division. They took care of business themselves, with Todd Gurley and Goff leading the way again.

Gurley bolstered his argument for NFL MVP with 118 yards rushing and 158 yards receiving with two TDs. Goff finished with four touchdowns and 301 yards passing.

The Titans (8-7) lost their third straight game, damaging their chances of ending their own playoff drought stretching to 2008.

The Titans had the ball and a chance to win late in the game. On fourth-and-4 at the Rams 44, Marcus Mariota rolled right and chucked the ball incomplete under pressure from Connor Barwin.

CHIEFS 29, DOLPHINS 13

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Alex Smith threw for 304 yards and a touchdown, Kareem Hunt ran for 91 yards and a score and the Chiefs clinched back-to-back AFC West titles for the first time in franchise history.

Tyreek Hill had six catches for 109 yards, and Harrison Butker converted five field goals, as the Chiefs (9-6) dashed what faint postseason hope the Dolphins (6-9) still harbored.

Jay Cutler threw for 286 yards and a touchdown, but a chunk of that came on a 65-yard toss to Jakeem Grant late in the first half. Otherwise, Miami struggled against a defense that has been stingy and opportunistic the past two weeks.

That’s coincided with the return of Marcus Peters from his disciplinary suspension.

The Chiefs’ star cornerback had two interceptions and forced a fumble against the Chargers last week, a win that pushed them to the brink of the playoffs. He recovered a fumble and forced another on Sunday, giving Peters a hand in five turnovers the past two weeks.

PATRIOTS 37, BILLS 16

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady passed for a pair of touchdowns and the Patriots stayed on track to claim home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Dion Lewis caught a touchdown pass and rushed for a 4-yard score. He carried 24 times for a career-high 129 yards. It was just his second-career 100-yard game. Mike Gillislee, active for the first time in six games, added a 1-yard rushing touchdown

New England (12-3) can lock up first-round bye with either a Pittsburgh or Jacksonville loss.

Even with the loss, the Bills (8-7) remain in contention to break their 17-year playoff drought.

New England has won at least 12 games in eight straight seasons – an NFL record.

Buffalo stayed close throughout and went into halftime locked in a 13-13 tie. But the Bills managed just three points in the final 30 minutes, after a touchdown at the end of the first half was taken away.

Trailing 13-10, Buffalo was in position to take the lead, but an apparent 4-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor to Kelvin Benjamin in the corner of the end zone was overturned after an official review.

NFL vice president of officiating Al Riveron said in a Twitter post Benjamin was juggling the ball and was only able to get one of his feet down before completing the catch.

CHARGERS 14, JETS 7

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Philip Rivers threw a touchdown pass to Antonio Gates and Melvin Gordon ran for a score, and the Chargers stayed alive in the AFC playoff race.

The Chargers (8-7) entered the weekend needing to win both of their remaining games – including next Sunday at home against Oakland – and get lots of help elsewhere to remain in the mix. Rivers & Co. held up their end of things, but barely.

Los Angeles, which started the season 0-4, had a tough time getting much going against a spirited effort by the defense of the Jets (5-10). Rivers finished 22 of 40 for 290 yards.

Gordon had 81 yards on 19 carries, but left late in the game with an ankle injury. He remained standing on the sideline as the Chargers tried to run out the clock.

Bryce Petty, making his second start this season in place of the injured Josh McCown, struggled all game. He missed open receivers and repeatedly flexed his right hand, which he banged up early in the game. But he remained in, going 15 of 28 for 119 yards and an interception.

Bilal Powell was the bright spot for the Jets’ offense, rushing for 145 yards, including a 57-yard TD, on 19 carries.

BENGALS 26, LIONS 17

CINCINNATI – Giovani Bernard ran for 116 yards and a clinching touchdown in the closing minutes that eliminated the Lions from playoff contention and gave Marvin Lewis a good moment in what was possibly his final home game as Bengals coach.

Matthew Stafford and the Lions (8-7) couldn’t take advantage of an injury-depleted team that gave indifferent performances the last two games. It was a fitting finish for Detroit, which opened the season 3-4 and repeatedly wasted chances to move to the forefront of the playoff chase.

Tion Green’s 5-yard touchdown drive put the Lions ahead 17-16 early in the fourth quarter, but defensive penalties extended Cincinnati’s drive that led to Randy Bullock’s go-ahead kick with 4:42 left.

Given one last chance, Detroit self-destructed with a holding penalty, a false start and a short punt, allowing the Bengals (6-9) to finish it off in front of a half-empty stadium.

BEARS 20, BROWNS 3

CHICAGO – The Browns got pushed to the brink of a winless season, hurt by two more interceptions by DeShone Kizer and two turnovers in the red zone against Chicago.

One more loss and the Browns will join the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to go 0-16. Last year, Cleveland was 0-14 before getting its only victory on Dec. 24.

And the Browns will wrap up the season at AFC North leader Pittsburgh next week. Then again, the Browns (0-15) keep racking up losses no matter whom they’re playing.

They’re 1-30 in two seasons under coach Hue Jackson.

Rookie QB Kizer threw for 182 yards and ran his league leading-interception total to 21. One of those was to a wide-open Kyle Fuller in the end zone in the second quarter.

Defensive end Myles Garrett had what looked like a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter wiped out because Carl Nassib was offside.

Rashard Higgins lost a fumble near the goal line that Chicago (5-10) recovered in the end zone.

49ERS 44, JAGUARS 33

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Jimmy Garoppolo threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score against one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses and the 49ers won their fourth straight behind their new quarterback, beating the Jaguars.

The day wasn’t a total loss for the Jaguars (10-5), who clinched their first division title since 1999 earlier in the afternoon when Tennessee lost at home to the Rams. But the defeat dealt a big blow to Jacksonville’s hopes for a first-round bye. The Jaguars need to win next week and hope Pittsburgh loses twice to get a bye.

The 49ers (5-10) saw their playoff hopes die a long time ago during an 0-9 start but the mood and play around the team changed dramatically after Garoppolo was inserted into the starting lineup earlier this month following a midseason trade from New England.

He has led San Francisco to four straight wins but this one might have been the most impressive, considering the quality of Jacksonville’s defense. The Jaguars came into the game having allowed the fewest points and yards passing in the league, while recording the most sacks.

CARDINALS 23, GIANTS 0

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Larry Fitzgerald had a big day in what might have been the final home game of his prolific career and the Cardinals shut out an opponent for the first time in 25 seasons in a victory over Eli Manning and the Giants.

Fitzgerald, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection in his 14 NFL seasons, caught nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. He even completed a pass for the first time (in three career tries), a 21-yarder to Jaron Brown.

Manning, on the other hand, could not get the offense moving for the Giants (2-13) and got no help on the ground.

The 36-year-old quarterback completed 27 of 45 passes for 263 yards and was intercepted twice, both by Antoine Bethea. Manning also had the ball stripped by Deone Bucannon and returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Robert Nkemdiche.

REDSKINS 27, BRONCOS 11

LANDOVER, Md. – Kirk Cousins threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns in what could be his final home game for the Redskins.

Cousins was 19 of 37 with TD passes to Jamison Crowder , Josh Doctson and Vernon Davis and an interception. He became the first quarterback in Washington history with three seasons of 25 or more TD passes, and needs 65 yards for his third in a row with 4,000-plus yards.

Washington’s 386 offensive yards are third most by a Denver opponent this season, behind only Philadelphia and New England. The Broncos came in giving up an average of 276.8 yards a game.

The Redskins (7-8) came 78 seconds from not allowing a touchdown for a second consecutive game for the first time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Washington had allowed a combined 68 points in its previous two games before clamping down against Arizona and Denver.

After a week of uncertainty, Brock Osweiler started at QB over Paxton Lynch for the Broncos (5-10) and was 22 of 38 for 193 yards with a fumble and an interception

NFL Roundup: Vikings shut out Packers 16-0, keep eye on 1st-round bye

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GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — While winning at Lambeau Field means a lot to the Minnesota Vikings, the NFC North champions have bigger goals in mind.

A first-round playoff bye is well within reach, and could be secured as soon as Sunday.

The Vikings took care of business on their end with a 16-0 victory Saturday night over the injury-depleted Green Bay Packers, the team’s first shutout in 24 years. Having already clinched the division title, Minnesota (12-3) can wrap up a first-round bye if the Carolina Panthers lose or tie on Sunday against Tampa Bay.

“I’m hoping we can get one more win, work on some things we need to work on … and then go out and play our rear ends off in the playoffs,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.

Stefon Diggs caught a 4-yard pass from quarterback Case Keenum just inside the back line of the end zone in the first quarter for the only touchdown. After the game, Keenum stopped before heading up the tunnel at Lambeau, clapping his hands above his head while Vikings fans chanted “Skol! Skol!”

They felt right at home in Titletown.

“Defense played absolutely incredible today, and we did enough. It doesn’t matter how, it matters how many,” Keenum said.

The Packers (7-8) managed to hold a 239-236 edge in total yards. They were still shut out twice in a season for the first time since 2006.

“I never felt more defeated, more embarrassed by a performance. Yeah, we had opportunities, and we didn’t connect when we did,” receiver Randall Cobb said.

In its defense, the team fielded a lineup that often looked like one coach Mike McCarthy might send out for a game late in the preseason. The Packers had already been eliminated from playoff contention.

Brett Hundley was 17 of 40 for 130 yards with two interceptions in taking over at quarterback again for Aaron Rodgers, who returned to injured reserve this week after missing seven games earlier in the year with a collarbone injury.

“It’s so frustrating just because of the fact that I know what I can do,” Hundley said. “But to go out there and not be consistent — which is my number one goal — and just give our team an opportunity to win each game, that hurts.”

MINNESOTA MILESTONES: The Vikings forced an incompletion into the end zone on fourth-and-4 from the 14 early in the fourth quarter to turn away the Packers’ last best effort to cross the goal line. Minnesota safety Harrison Smith ended another Green Bay drive with an interception at the Vikings 5 late in the second quarter. Minnesota left frigid Lambeau Field with its first shutout since a 13-0 win over Detroit on Dec. 5, 1993. It was the first shutout over the Packers since Nov. 14, 1971.

THAT HURTS: Starting outside linebackers Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Nick Perry (ankle/shoulder) missed the game for Green Bay, along with cornerback Damarious Randall (hamstring). The Packers didn’t have leading receiver Davante Adams, who is in the concussion protocol, and then lost wideout Jordy Nelson and tight end Richard Rodgers to shoulder injuries in the first half.

“Injuries are unfortunate. We had a lot of opportunities tonight. We didn’t make the plays,” McCarthy said.

FROZEN TUNDRA: The hard turf at chilly Lambeau didn’t help, either, as some players had trouble with their footing early in the game. With the Packers unable to connect on medium-to-long-range passes, their best plays came when Hundley broke free for big gains on the run .

In the stands, fans bundled up in parkas, huddled under blankets and sipped on free hot chocolate to stay warm. Purple-clad Minnesota backers celebrated on a night when temperatures were in the single digits.

STAT WATCH: Diggs finished with five catches for 60 yards. Keenum was 14 of 25 for 139 yards. … The Packers were also shut out 23-0 by Baltimore on Nov. 19. … Hundley finished the home schedule having thrown no touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games at Lambeau.

INJURY REPORT: The Vikings said left guard Nick Easton will have surgery after breaking his right ankle in the first quarter. Long snapper Kevin McDermott (shoulder) left late in the second quarter, with backup TE David Morgan taking over snapping duties. … For the Packers, RT Jason Spriggs was carted off the field with a knee injury on the first play from scrimmage. Justin McCray, who was starting at right guard for Jahri Evans (knee), slid over to tackle with Lucas Patrick taking over at guard. … Green Bay RB Aaron Jones (knee) didn’t return after getting hurt in the first half.

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Ravens beat Colts 23-16 to edge closer to playoff berth

BALTIMORE (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens didn’t force a turnover, scored only two touchdowns and were dangerously close to going into overtime at home against lowly Indianapolis.

“We didn’t play our best game,” coach John Harbaugh readily acknowledged.

Though the Ravens’ performance Saturday was not particularly artistic, they perceived the final result to be a thing of beauty: Ravens 23, Colts 16.

Baltimore (9-6) scored on its first two possessions and held off the skidding Colts (3-12) in a windy, rain-soaked second half.

The Ravens will reach the playoffs as an AFC wild card by defeating Cincinnati at home next Sunday. Striving for its first postseason berth since 2014, Baltimore has won five of six following a 4-5 start.

“We found a way to win it. That’s the thing, it’s a win,” Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t matter. You have to find a way to win in this league.”

Joe Flacco threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns, Justin Tucker kicked three field goals and the Ravens did just enough to squeeze out a victory.

“I wish we had gotten into the end zone one more time,” Flacco said. “It’s not always pretty.”

Indianapolis closed to 16-13 in the third quarter before Flacco threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Maxx Williams with 8:40 remaining.

It was 23-16 when Anthony Walker blocked a Ravens punt , giving the Colts the ball at the Baltimore 27 with 2:36 left. Indianapolis moved to the 10 before a third-down sack and a fourth-down incompletion ended the comeback bid.

“We had a great chance to win this game,” Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. “We just didn’t get it done down there.”

Flacco, who went 29 for 38, has thrown for seven TDs with just one interception over his last four games.

“We’re a very excited, a very confident football team,” Flacco said.

The Colts have lost six in a row for the first time since 2011, when they opened 0-13. That was the year before they drafted quarterback Andrew Luck, whose absence this season with a shoulder injury contributed heavily to the team’s slide into the AFC South cellar.

Brissett completed 16 of 33 passes for 215 yards and Frank Gore had 68 yards rushing and a touchdown catch for Indianapolis. More importantly, the Colts did not commit a turnover against a team that leads the NFL with 33 takeaways.

Adam Vinatieri kicked three field goals for the Colts, but he had one blocked and came up short on a 60-yard try at the end of the first half.

Flacco went 16 for 22 for 157 yards to help the Ravens take a 13-7 halftime lead.

After kicking a field goal on its first possession, Baltimore blocked a field goal try by Vinatieri. The Ravens then launched a 71-yard drive that ended with Flacco tossing a 6-yard touchdown pass to Michael Campanaro for a 10-0 lead.

Brissett answered with a 14-yard TD pass to Gore, and Tucker kicked a 39-yard field goal for Baltimore after the two-minute warning.

Tucker connected from 36 yards out to increase the lead to 16-7 with 5 1/2 minutes gone in the third quarter, but Vinatieri kicked a pair for the Colts to make it 16-13.

BLOCK THAT KICK

Baltimore’s Tony Jefferson swatted away a 38-yard FG try in the first quarter, the 13th blocked kick by the Ravens since 2014 and their fifth over the past two seasons. It was the first time the Colts had a FG blocked since Nov. 3, 2013. Vinatieri later came up short on a 60-yard try before connecting from 48 and hitting the right upright on a successful 38-yarder.

INJURY UPDATE

Colts: WR Donte Moncrief (ankle), CB Rashaan Melvin (hand) and TE Jason Vander Laan (concussion) were among seven players on the inactive list.

Ravens: WR Jeremy Maclin (knee) was on the inactive list. … CB Jaylen Hill (right knee) left in the third quarter and did not return.

UP NEXT

Colts: Wrap up this unpleasant season at home against Houston on New Year’s Eve.

Ravens: Seek their first sweep of Bengals since 2012. Baltimore won the Super Bowl that season.

___

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL Week 16 kickoff times, TV channel info, game breakdowns

This gallery contains 1 photo.

Colts (3-11) at Ravens (8-6)

TV: Saturday, 4:30, NFL Network (Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl)

The matchup: Losers of five in a row, the Colts haven’t scored more than 17 points in any of those games. Young QB Jacoby Brissett has shown promise at times, but the Colts rank near the bottom of the league in most major offensive categories. The Ravens offense has come alive, and though the defense has given up too many big plays, it’s still forcing enough turnovers that the Ravens remain in the playoff hunt. QB Joe Flacco has settled in after a tough start. He’s been helped by the growth of the offensive line and emergence of RB Alex Collins.

Vikings (11-3) at Packers (7-7)

TV: Saturday, 8:30, NBC (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya)

The matchup: The Vikings clinched their second division title in the last three seasons with one of the most convincing victories of coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure, 34-7 over the Cincinnati Bengals. After another gem from Case Keenum, backup QB Teddy Bridgewater made his long-awaited return to his first game action since January 2016. Minnesota can still catch the Eagles and take the NFC’s top seed, but they’re positioned well to finish second, still clinching a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. A rusty Aaron Rodgers couldn’t mask an underequipped Packers defense in a 31-24 loss to the Panthers. Rodgers, who returned nine weeks after surgery to repair his broken right collarbone, was shut down, and Brett Hundley will start the game after the Packers were eliminated from the playoffs. They could be without top WR Davante Adams (concussion).

Lions (8-6) at Bengals (5-9)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman, Jennifer Hale)

The matchup: The Lions still need help to make the postseason, but they’ve won their last two games to keep their playoff hopes alive. Despite Detroit having the league’s worst rushing offense, QB Matthew Stafford has enough arm and enough receivers he trusts that the Lions continue to score. Marvin Lewis might not return after 15 seasons as Bengals head coach. It’s time the Bengals get a fresh start. A defense that had been solid over the first three months of the season has been gashed lately, and the offense has been mediocre all season. The Bengals have been hit hard by injuries, and the O-line never took the necessary step forward. The Lions have harassed opposing quarterbacks with a variety of pass rushers. If they force the Bengals into must-pass situations, they’ll feast.

Dolphins (6-8) at Chiefs (8-6)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Jenny Dell)

The matchup: Dolphins QB Jay Cutler’s inconsistency was evident in last week’s loss at Buffalo. Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s team is playing like it did when it started the season 5-0. The Chiefs are back in control of the AFC West after consecutive wins against the divisional rival Raiders and Chargers. They can clinch the division with a win in either of their two remaining games. Chiefs QB Alex Smith is having his best season. His 25-5 TD-to-interception ratio translates into a 105.4 passer rating, best in the league.

Bills (8-6) at Patriots (11-3)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson)

The matchup: The win last week vs. Miami enabled the Bills to finish 6-2 at New Era Field, their best home record since 1999, the last season they made the playoffs. RB LeSean McCoy became the 30th player in league history to surpass the 10,000-yard rushing milestone and had rushing and receiving TDs. QB Tyrod Taylor, back after missing a game because of a bruised knee, passed for one TD and ran for one. New England clinched its ninth consecutive AFC East title and took over the top conference seed with a controversial 27-24 victory at Pittsburgh. The Bills’ best bet is to get McCoy and the run game going. The Patriots allowed the Steelers to run for 143 yards. Pats RB Dion Lewis gained 92 yards in the first Bills game and could be used more with Rex Burkhead out due to a knee injury.

Browns (0-14) at Bears (4-10)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Tom McCarthy, Steve Beuerlein, Steve Tasker)

The matchup: One week after Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said coach Hue Jackson (1-29 record) would return in 2018, intrigue grew regarding Jackson’s potential candidacy for a possible Bengals opening. Jackson’s Browns again failed to secure their first win, with QB DeShone Kizer committing three turnovers, but Jackson said Monday that the rookie would start this weekend. The Bears’ 20-10 loss to the Lions served as another reminder that top pick QB Mitchell Trubisky, whose first 300-yard passing game was marred by his first three-giveaway outing, needs more help.

Buccaneers (4-10) at Panthers (10-4)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber, Kristina Pink)

The matchup: Bucs coach Dirk Koetter and his underachieving team are simply trying to keep it together as their season comes to a crashing thud. One thing is certain: The Bucs will miss the playoffs for the 10th year in a row. Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s leadership skills will be on display over the next few weeks as they continue to pursue a playoff berth. How well the Panthers deal with the distractions of an investigation into owner Jerry Richardson could make or break their season. They will be missing LB Thomas Davis, suspended for a blindside hit on Green Bay’s Davante Adams.

Falcons (9-5) at Saints (10-4)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver)

The matchup: There is no love lost between these franchises. In their Week 14 game won by host Atlanta 20-17, TV cameras caught Saints coach Sean Payton making a choking gesture in the direction of Falcons RB Devonta Freeman in reference to their collapse in Super Bowl LI. Also during the game, Payton charged on the field late in the game, drawing a $10,000 fine from the league office. The Saints stumbled through the Jets game and won but might have lost veteran RG Larry Warford (concussion protocol) in the process. But they will have rookie RB Alvin Kamara, who exited the first meeting early because of concussion-like symptoms. The Falcons escaped with a win in the first meeting, despite three interceptions by QB Matt Ryan.

Broncos (5-9) at Redskins (6-8)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Spero Dedes, Adam Archuleta)

The matchup: After an eight-game losing streak, the Broncos have won two in a row, outscoring those teams 48-13. QB Brock Osweiler played well in relief of Trevor Siemian, who is on injured reserve (shoulder). Osweiler may stay in the lineup with Paxton Lynch still trying to shake an ankle injury. The Redskins, devastated by injuries throughout the season — LT Trent Williams is the latest to land on injured reserve — ended a two-game losing streak in a 20-15 win against Arizona. With a shuffled line and injured runners and receivers, QB Kirk Cousins has thrown only nine interceptions.

Rams (10-4) at Titans (8-6)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin)

The matchup: The Rams improved to 6-1 on the road with a huge 42-7 win in Seattle and sit firmly in the NFC West driver’s seat, on the edge of winning their first division title since 2003. Todd Gurley rushed for 152 yards and had four TDs. The Rams’ 34-point halftime lead in a road game was the largest in franchise history. Tennessee’s 25-23 loss to San Francisco on a game-winning field goal damaged its playoff hopes. Titans QB Marcus Mariota has thrown a career-high 14 interceptions, many of which have come when he was facing the blitz. If Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips dials up his usual pass pressure, Mariota will be in trouble.

Chargers (7-7) at Jets (5-9)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn)

The matchup: DEs Joey Bosa (11½) and Melvin Ingram (10) have helped the Chargers total 38 sacks this season, which means the Jets offensive line will be challenged to protect young QB Bryce Petty. With a combination of RBs Bilal Powell, Matt Forte and Elijah McGuire, the Jets need to run. New York’s defensive line is better when Muhammad Wilkerson plays. Coupled with Leonard Williams, that will be a handful for the Chargers offensive line. Chargers RB Melvin Gordon fell 3 yards short of reaching 1,000 last season and has 931 now.

Jaguars (10-4) at 49ers (4-10)

TV: Sunday, 4:05, CBS (Andrew Catalon, James Lofton)

The matchup: For a team that was supposed to be a quarterback away from being a contender, Jacksonville is getting a lot out of QB Blake Bortles lately. He is playing the best football of his career, having beaten the Seahawks and Texans impressively the last two weeks. The Jaguars can clinch the AFC South with a win, and the top AFC seed and a first-round bye are still in play. With RB Leonard Fournette returning, the Jaguars have to feel good about what they can do on offense. It’s rare to find a 4-10 team feeling pretty good about itself, but the 49ers have won four of five while getting a boost from new QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

Seahawks (8-6) at Cowboys (8-6)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, Fox (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews)

The matchup: Last week’s obliteration by the Rams left Seattle all but knocked out of the race for the NFC West title and hanging on to fading hopes for a wild-card spot. The battered defense, playing without injured Pro Bowlers in CB Richard Sherman, SS Kam Chancellor, DE Cliff Avril and LB K.J. Wright and with MLB Bobby Wagner hobbled, was shredded by RB Todd Gurley. QB Russell Wilson took seven sacks and fumbled twice. Dallas is barely hanging on in the playoff hunt and needs to win its last two games and get help from Atlanta and Detroit. But RB Ezekiel Elliott, the heart of their offense, is back from a six-game suspension. The formula with Elliott is run, control the clock, keep its defense off the field and get big plays in the passing game.

Giants (2-12) at Cardinals (6-8)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, Fox (Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth, Shannon Spake)

The matchup: Giants QB Eli Manning is doing what he can to prove he’s not done, and a 434-yard performance in Week 15 vs. the Eagles provided solid evidence. Whether he’s playing for his Giants job or auditioning for other teams remains to be seen. What’s clear is that New York is ready to move on from this season. The Cardinals are playing for pride and maybe coach Bruce Arians’ job. Back-to-back losing seasons wouldn’t look good. Arizona has been devastated by injuries, but the Cardinals weren’t playing well even when healthy.

Steelers (11-3) at Texans (4-10)

TV: Monday 4:30, NBC, NFLN (Mike Tirico, Kurt Warner, Heather Cox)

The matchup: To make a crushing 27-24 loss to New England even worse, Steelers star WR Antonio Brown suffered a calf injury that will probably cause him to miss the rest of the regular season (he definitely won’t play Monday). Ben Roethlisberger will need to find a new option outside of RB Le’Veon Bell, likely in rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and WR Martavis Bryant. With Texans QB Tom Savage out with a concussion, T.J. Yates was ineffective, and the running game was even worse in a 45-7 thumping by the Jagaurs. With nothing on the line, the Texans are forced to spend their Christmas playing one of the NFL’s best teams. The Texans’ pass rush has faced substantial attrition through injury, but DE Jadeveon Clowney is still a disruptive force.

Raiders (6-8) at Eagles (12-2)

TV: Monday 8:30, ESPN (Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters)

The matchup: Oakland’s season effectively ended in excruciating fashion in a 20-17 loss. The Raiders committed a season-high 14 penalties, two of which nullified TDs. The ironman streak by Raiders LT Donald Penn, who had never missed a game in his 11-year career, ended at 170 games. Penn had foot surgery and will miss the rest of the season. With QB Carson Wentz out for the season, Philadelphia struggled to hold on for a win over the last-place Giants, but offense wasn’t the problem. Backup QB Nick Foles was more than adequate and the offense put up its usual 30-plus points. But the previously strong defense struggled badly. One more win locks up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the Eagles.

Times p.m. Eastern

Compiled by Brian Allee-Walsh, Zac Jackson, Jordan Godwin, Scott Pitoniak, Arthur Arkush, Andy Friedlander, Scott Johnson, Howard Balzer

NFLWeek 16: Ravens could be formidable postseason foe thanks to defense

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —  Here’s how the NFL playoff picture looks after Week 15’s games.

AFC
1. y-New England Patriots (11-3): AFC East champion. They escaped Pittsburgh with their 15th division title in 17 seasons and a clear path to home-field advantage.

2. y-Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3): AFC North champion. After a gut-wrenching loss, they’re now facing the likelihood of once again having to go through Foxborough to reach the Super Bowl.

3. x-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4): AFC South leader. They’re playoff-bound for the first time since 2007 and still have a reasonable shot at a first-round bye.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6): AFC West leader. Not only did Saturday’s win over the Chargers give K.C. vital breathing room, but the Chiefs’ schedule now gets quite favorable as they finish against the Dolphins and Broncos. They need win only one of those games to put a bow on the division.

5. Tennessee Titans (8-6): Wild card No. 1. They’re doing their best to drop out of the field. But a 7-4 conference record keeps them ahead of Buffalo and Baltimore. However next week’s date with the Rams looks like major trouble.

6. Buffalo Bills (8-6): Wild card No. 2. They’re desperately trying to snap the longest playoff drought in major North American professional team sports (it dates to 1999). The strength of victory tiebreaker keeps Buffalo ahead of the Ravens, who are being undermined by their defeats of the winless Browns.

In the hunt: Baltimore Ravens (8-6), Los Angeles Chargers (7-7), Miami Dolphins (6-8), Oakland Raiders (6-8)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division

NFC
1. yz-Philadelphia Eagles (12-2): NFC East champion. Life after Carson Wentz had a hairy beginning, but the Iggles survived the Giants to ensure themselves at least a first-round bye.

2. y-Minnesota Vikings (11-3): NFC North champion. Newly crowned division champions still have shot at home-field advantage … and a shot to play Super Bowl on home field.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4): NFC West leader. They gave the Seahawks a shocking beating at CenturyLink Field that likely means L.A. is headed to postseason while Seattle probably isn’t.

4. New Orleans Saints (10-4): NFC South leader. Surprisingly struggled against punchless Jets but managed to retain division lead.

5. Carolina Panthers (10-4): Wild card No. 1. Technically tied for first place but getting swept by Saints keeps Panthers on wild-card path.

6. Atlanta Falcons (9-5): Wild card No. 2. They’ve beaten the Seahawks, Lions and Cowboys, so Atlanta enjoys a one-game lead but owns key tiebreaker over pursuers. Monday night’s win in Tampa officially ended Packers’ playoff hopes.

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (8-6), Detroit Lions (8-6), Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye

***

There are some folks in the AFC who shudder at the thought of facing the Ravens’ defense in the playoffs.

That’s understandable, given Baltimore’s propensity for takeaways (league-high 33) and its turnover margin (plus-17). That the offense is substandard tends to get ignored a bit, particularly if Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Matthew Judon are in an opposing quarterback’s face all day.

Should the Ravens (8-6) win out, something they have a very strong chance of doing by facing Indianapolis on Saturday, then Cincinnati to close the schedule, they could be a formidable foe in January.

Baltimore is 58-20 at home during the regular season in coach John Harbaugh’s 10-year run, including 15-7 in December. The Colts (3-11) are one of the league’s worst teams, ravaged by injuries and insufficient talent. They are 1-6 on the road.

Baltimore (No. 11 in AP Pro32) is a 10 1-2 point choice over Indy (No. 30). Could be a shutout.

RAVENS, 22-3

KNOCKOUT LEAGUE TIP

The Saints came through for those still alive, and the best team we have left is CAROLINA.

No. 14 Seattle (plus 3 1-2) at No. 13 Dallas

Cowboys are coming on, Zeke is back, Seahawks are reeling.

BEST BET: COWBOYS, 27-20

No. 31 New York Giants (plus 3 1-2) at No. 22 Arizona

Not with a lot of conviction, but we have to pick one …

UPSET SPECIAL: GIANTS, 19-17

No. 18 Green Bay (plus 8 1-2) at No. 3 Minnesota, Saturday

Vikings touting idea of playing in as well as hosting Super Bowl.

VIKINGS, 30-16

No. 9 Atlanta (plus 5 1-2) at No. 6 (tie) New Orleans

Winner clinches playoff berth, adds strength to its NFC South standing.

SAINTS, 30-27

No. 28 Tampa Bay (plus 10) at No. 6 (tie) Carolina

Dangerous Panthers are in playoffs with victory.

PANTHERS, 33-16

No. 5 Los Angeles Rams (minus 4) at No. 16 Tennessee

Titans playing at their worst just when they need to be good.

RAMS, 26-17

No. 8 Jacksonville (minus 5) at No. 23 San Francisco

Jaguars secure AFC South, but Jimmy G makes it tight.

JAGUARS, 20-17

No. 21 Miami (plus 9) at No. 10 Kansas City

AFC West belongs to Chiefs, despite midseason hiatus.

CHIEFS, 23-16

No. 17 Los Angeles Chargers (minus 8 1-2) at No. 24 (tie) New York Jets

AFC wild card still in reach, though Chargers need help.

CHARGERS, 28-22

No. 15 Buffalo (plus 12) at No. 1 New England

Last team Bills needed to see while still in wild-card contention.

PATRIOTS, 27-20

No. 2 Pittsburgh (minus 7 1-2) at No. 27 Houston, Monday

Santa’s gift to Steelers fans: more Terrible Towels to wave.

STEELERS, 30-10

No. 20 Oakland (plus 7) at No. 4 Philadelphia, Monday

Santa’s gift to Eagles fans: home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs.

EAGLES, 30-26

No. 12 Detroit (minus 3) at No. 26 Cincinnati

Bengals have mailed it in, Lions still in chase.

LIONS, 27-13

No. 24 (tie) Denver (plus 3 1-2) at No. 19 Washington

Broncos have won two straight. They were against Jets and Colts.

REDSKINS, 23-21

No. 32 Cleveland (plus 7) at No. 29 Chicago

We know what you want. Pro Picks got it right in Week 15 of 2016. Sorry …

BEARS, 16-10

___

2017 RECORD:

Last week: Against spread (8-6-1). Straight up (13-3)

Season Totals: Against spread (104-102-9). Straight up: (141-81)

Best Bet: 9-6 against spread, 10-5 straight up.

Upset special: 9-6 against spread, 9-6 straight up

___

NFL Week 16: 13 of 16 games in Week 16 have playoff implications

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Holiday cheer could be in order in New Orleans, Carolina, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Kansas City this weekend.

They might even be singing playoff praise of the Titans in Music City.

Of the 16 games in Week 16 of the NFL schedule, 13 have some sort of postseason implication. Leading the parade are the NFC South matchups between the Falcons and Saints, and the Buccaneers and Panthers.

“This is definitely a type of game that we’d love to win and roll on to the playoffs,” says defensive end Cam Jordan, one of the main reasons the Saints are in such a strong position. “It’s crazy to think that 10 wins doesn’t (necessarily) get you in. … But we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

So do the Falcons, who beat the Saints in Atlanta, but trail them and the Panthers by one game.

All three teams are accustomed to contending, particularly Carolina, which has won the division three of the last four years.

“It’s a big weekend in the NFC South. It feels like in the NFC South the last few weekends our playoffs have started,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Every game has been critical for playoffs and seeding and alignment. It’s fun. This is the time of the year that you hope you are part of the discussion, and we are. We have a chance to make a move to get to 11 wins on Sunday and that is what our focus is on.”

Atlanta (9-5) at New Orleans (10-4)

Atlanta has won five of its last six this year, and also has won three straight vs. the Saints. It has been getting balanced performances on both sides of the ball, from star receiver Julio Jones to rookie defensive end Takkarist McKinley.

Ranked first in offense, the Saints are the only NFL team with three players who’ve each surpassed 1,000 scrimmage yards: running back Mark Ingram has 1,420, rookie RB Alvin Kamara has 1,336, and receiver Michael Thomas has 1,085. Kamara leads NFL rookies with 12 TDs.

The winner clinches a playoff spot. New Orleans could own the division crown with a victory and a Panthers defeat.

Tampa Bay (4-10) at Carolina (10-4)

Carolina also moves into the postseason with a victory, though it can’t secure the NFC South title this weekend.

The Panthers are 6-1 in the last seven and have won four straight at home. Tampa Bay has lost its last four.

Cam Newton tears up the Bucs. He has 12 TDs (eight passing, four rushing) in the last four home games against Tampa Bay. Newton needs 31 yards rushing to move into third place all-time among NFL quarterbacks.

Newton unveiled a new target last week when Damiere Byrd had two TD catches.

Los Angeles Rams (10-4) at Tennessee (8-6)

A vital game for both squads.

The Rams can clinch their first NFC West title since 2003 with a win. Otherwise, losses by Atlanta, Carolina and Detroit give Los Angeles a playoff berth.

Meanwhile, the Titans can clinch playoff spot with a win combined with losses by both Baltimore and Buffalo. To get that victory, Tennessee must slow a Rams team tied for the league lead in scoring (438 points, same as Philadelphia). Todd Gurley last week became the first running back since 2010 with three-plus TDs rushing and a TD receiving in the same game. Jared Goff is averaging 261.7 yards passing and has five TDs and no interceptions in his past three games vs. the AFC. Rams rookie receiver Cooper Kupp has 323 yards receiving in the past four games. Kupp leads NFL rookies with 804 yards receiving and is first among rookie receivers with 58 catches.

Miami (6-8) at Kansas City (8-6)

Despite their midseason swoon, the Chiefs stand ready to clinch the AFC West they led all the way. A win or a Chargers defeat does the trick; they have never won successive AFC West titles.

But the Dolphins have won seven of their last 10 against KC, and their last loss at Arrowhead Stadium was in 2002.

Most dangerous to Kansas City’s chances is Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry, who has 98 receptions, second only to Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (101).

Jacksonville (10-4) at San Francisco (4-10)

Although Jacksonville has lost eight straight in the Pacific Time Zone by an average of 20.9 points — the last win out west came Jan. 2, 2005, at Oakland — these are different Jaguars. They take their first division title since 1999 with a win, which would be a fifth road victory of the season after winning five in the previous four seasons combined.

The Niners no longer are pushovers with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. He passed for 381 yards last week to become the first 49ers QB with back-to-back 300-yard games since Jeff Garcia in 2000. Garoppolo joined Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle as the only Niners quarterbacks to win their first three starts.

Buffalo (8-6) at New England (11-3)

Did somebody say mismatch?

Most years, this is perhaps the most one-sided of series. Tom Brady has a 27-3 regular-season record against the Bills, his highest win total over any opponent. He has also thrown for more touchdowns (66) against the Bills than any other foe.

But the Bills have some extra incentive: Buffalo is in contention to break a 17-year playoff drought, the longest active streak in North America’s four major professional sports.

“Of course, the big picture’s there, but you can’t move too far ahead,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “Take it one practice at a time, empty your tank into one day, getting better that day and going out and executing on Sunday or on game day.”

The Patriots wrapped up a record ninth consecutive AFC East title with last week’s win over Pittsburgh. They can grab a first-round bye this week with a win combined with either a Pittsburgh or Jacksonville loss. If the Patriots win and both of those teams lose, New England will secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Indianapolis (3-11) at Baltimore (8-6), Saturday

Baltimore has come alive and will get into the postseason with two wins. Over the past seven games, the Ravens rank third with a 30.7-point average and have outscored opponents by 107 points in that span. They lead the NFL with 33 takeaways and a plus-17 turnover differential, and rank second with five defensive TDs.

Indy? Other than Frank Gore’s and Adam Vinatieri’s pursuits of career marks, not much to look at.

Gore needs one rushing TD to tie Ricky Watters (78) for 21st on the career list. Vinatieri needs nine points for a 20th season with 100.

Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) at New York Jets (5-9)

Even winning out might not be enough to get LA into the playoffs. Still, after an 0-4 start, what the Chargers have done is impressive.

Philip Rivers to Keenan Allen has become as dangerous a passing combination as any, and the duo of DEs Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram makes opposing QBs antsy.

New York tends to play good teams close, but not win.

Seattle (8-6) at Dallas (8-6)

The loser here is out of contention. Considering the hopes with which both franchises began this year, that’s stunning.

Ezekiel Elliott returns to the Dallas backfield after serving his six-game suspension — the Cowboys went 3-3, winning the three most recent outings.

The Seahawks have made the playoffs five straight years, but have dropped their last two and are ravaged by injuries, penalties and a lack of on-field discipline.

Detroit (8-6) at Cincinnati (5-9)

While Cincinnati bungles its way toward the end of the schedule, the Lions have a strong chance of winning out. Whether that will be enough to make the postseason depends on other teams’ results.

The Bengals have won five straight and eight of nine in this series. But Detroit, led by Pro Bowl CB Darius Slay with an NFL-high seven picks, and QB Matthew Stafford, is 5-2 on the road.

Pittsburgh (11-3) at Houston (4-10), Monday

The Steelers already own the AFC North crown, but blew it big-time in the overall conference race when they fell to New England last week. That defeat likely cost them home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, and they could fall to the third seed if they don’t stay ahead of Jacksonville, which won at Heinz Field this season.

Even with star WR Antonio Brown, this shouldn’t be much of a test for Pittsburgh, unless it has a letdown.

Houston has lost four straight and seven of eight.

Oakland (6-8) at Philadelphia (12-2), Monday

Nick Foles stepped in for injured Carson Wentz and kept the Eagles flying. Still, look for Philly to try to win this one on the ground. The Eagles ranks second running the ball, first against the rush. Oakland is 25th in rushing.

Philadelphia already has a first-round bye; it’s merely the sixth time that has happened since 1970.

Oakland’s Derek Carr joined Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck as the only QBs with at least 100 TD passes in his first four pro seasons.

Minnesota (11-3) at Green Bay (7-7), Saturday

To get home-field advantage for the entire NFC playoffs, the Vikings must win against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers. Green Bay put A-Rod on injured reserve after his one-game comeback from a collarbone injury; the Pack is out of playoff contention.

Minnesota can secure a first-round bye with a win and Carolina loss.

Cleveland (0-14) at Chicago (4-10)

A year ago, with the same abysmal record, the Browns beat the Chargers to avoid matching Detroit’s 0-16 of 2008, the worst single season in NFL history. Considering they finish at Pittsburgh, this probably is their only shot at finding the victory column.

If coach John Fox has any job security left, it would likely disappear by falling to Cleveland.

Denver (5-9) at Washington (6-8)

After an eight-game slide, Denver has won two straight, but against the Jets and Colts. The Broncos have 32 consecutive victories when winning the turnover battle, the longest active streak in the NFL.

The undermanned Redskins come off a victory against Arizona and LB Preston Smith last week became the first Washington player with a sack, fumble recovery and interception in the same game since Monte Coleman in 1993.

New York Giants (2-12) at Arizona (6-8)

This season can’t end quickly enough for the tumult-ridden Giants or injury-ravaged Cardinals.

New York allowed 106 points combined in losses to NFC West teams 49ers (31-23), Rams (51-17) and Seahawks (24-7) so far.

An Arizona loss would clinch a second straight losing season after three winning years since coach Bruce Arians arrived.

___

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL Week 16 clinching scenarios: NFC playoff field can be wrapped up

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    Here’s how the NFL playoff picture looks after Week 15’s games.

AFC
1. y-New England Patriots (11-3): AFC East champion. They escaped Pittsburgh with their 15th division title in 17 seasons and a clear path to home-field advantage.

2. y-Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3): AFC North champion. After a gut-wrenching loss, they’re now facing the likelihood of once again having to go through Foxborough to reach the Super Bowl.

More: NFL Week 15 clinching scenarios: Rams, Jaguars can join playoff field

3. x-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4): AFC South leader. They’re playoff-bound for the first time since 2007 and still have a reasonable shot at a first-round bye.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6): AFC West leader. Not only did Saturday’s win over the Chargers give K.C. vital breathing room, but the Chiefs’ schedule now gets quite favorable as they finish against the Dolphins and Broncos. They need win only one of those games to put a bow on the division.

5. Tennessee Titans (8-6): Wild card No. 1. They’re doing their best to drop out of the field. But a 7-4 conference record keeps them ahead of Buffalo and Baltimore. However next week’s date with the Rams looks like major trouble.

6. Buffalo Bills (8-6): Wild card No. 2. They’re desperately trying to snap the longest playoff drought in major North American professional team sports (it dates to 1999). The strength of victory tiebreaker keeps Buffalo ahead of the Ravens, who are being undermined by their defeats of the winless Browns.

In the hunt: Baltimore Ravens (8-6), Los Angeles Chargers (7-7), Miami Dolphins (6-8), Oakland Raiders (6-8)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division

NFC
1. yz-Philadelphia Eagles (12-2): NFC East champion. Life after Carson Wentz had a hairy beginning, but the Iggles survived the Giants to ensure themselves at least a first-round bye.

2. y-Minnesota Vikings (11-3): NFC North champion. Newly crowned division champions still have shot at home-field advantage … and a shot to play Super Bowl on home field.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4): NFC West leader. They gave the Seahawks a shocking beating at CenturyLink Field that likely means L.A. is headed to postseason while Seattle probably isn’t.

4. New Orleans Saints (10-4): NFC South leader. Surprisingly struggled against punchless Jets but managed to retain division lead.

5. Carolina Panthers (10-4): Wild card No. 1. Technically tied for first place but getting swept by Saints keeps Panthers on wild-card path.

6. Atlanta Falcons (9-5): Wild card No. 2. They’ve beaten the Seahawks, Lions and Cowboys, so Atlanta enjoys a one-game lead but owns key tiebreaker over pursuers. Monday night’s win in Tampa officially ended Packers’ playoff hopes.

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (8-6), Detroit Lions (8-6), Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye

***

Five teams have already sealed spots in the postseason, but the playoff picture could be almost all wrapped up by the end of Week 16.

Eleven teams have something to gain, and six teams can claim a berth this week. The NFC field can be sealed entirely.

Here is a look at every clinching scenario for Week 16:

AFC

New England Patriots (already clinched AFC East)

New England clinches homefield advantage throughout AFC playoffs:

1) NE win + PIT loss + JAX loss or tie

New England clinches a first-round bye:

1) NE win + PIT loss

2) NE win + JAX loss or tie

3) NE tie + JAX loss

Pittsburgh Steelers (already clinched AFC North)

Pittsburgh clinches a first-round bye:

1) PIT win + JAX loss or tie

2) PIT tie + JAX loss

Jacksonville Jaguars (already clinched playoff berth)

Jacksonville clinches AFC South:

1) JAX win or tie

2) TEN loss or tie

Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City clinches AFC West:

1) KC win

2) LAC loss

3) KC tie + LAC tie

Tennessee Titans

Tennessee clinches a playoff berth:

1) TEN win + BAL loss + BUF loss

NFC

Philadelphia Eagles (already clinched NFC East, first-round bye)

Philadelphia clinches homefield advantage throughout NFC playoffs:

1) PHI win

2) MIN loss

3) PHI tie + MIN tie

Minnesota Vikings (already clinched NFC North)

Minnesota clinches a first-round bye:

1) MIN win + CAR loss or tie

2) MIN tie + CAR loss + NO loss or tie + LAR loss or tie

Los Angeles Rams

Rams clinch NFC West:

1) LAR win or tie

2) SEA loss or tie

Rams clinch a playoff berth:

1) DET loss or tie + CAR loss + ATL loss

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans clinches NFC South:

1) NO win + CAR loss

New Orleans clinches a playoff berth:

1) NO win or tie

2) DAL-SEA tie

Carolina Panthers

Carolina clinches a playoff berth:

1) CAR win or tie

2) DAL-SEA tie

Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta clinches a playoff berth:

1) ATL win

2) ATL tie + DAL-SEA tie + DET loss or tie

NFL playoff picture after Week 15

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports / AP)   —-    Here’s how the NFL playoff picture looks after Week 15’s games.

AFC
1. y-New England Patriots (11-3): AFC East champion. They escaped Pittsburgh with their 15th division title in 17 seasons and a clear path to home-field advantage.

2. y-Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3): AFC North champion. After a gut-wrenching loss, they’re now facing the likelihood of once again having to go through Foxborough to reach the Super Bowl.

3. x-Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4): AFC South leader. They’re playoff-bound for the first time since 2007 and still have a reasonable shot at a first-round bye.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6): AFC West leader. Not only did Saturday’s win over the Chargers give K.C. vital breathing room, but the Chiefs’ schedule now gets quite favorable as they finish against the Dolphins and Broncos. They need win only one of those games to put a bow on the division.

5. Tennessee Titans (8-6): Wild card No. 1. They’re doing their best to drop out of the field. But a 7-4 conference record keeps them ahead of Buffalo and Baltimore. However next week’s date with the Rams looks like major trouble.

6. Buffalo Bills (8-6): Wild card No. 2. They’re desperately trying to snap the longest playoff drought in major North American professional team sports (it dates to 1999). The strength of victory tiebreaker keeps Buffalo ahead of the Ravens, who are being undermined by their defeats of the winless Browns.

In the hunt: Baltimore Ravens (8-6), Los Angeles Chargers (7-7), Miami Dolphins (6-8), Oakland Raiders (6-8)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division

NFC
1. yz-Philadelphia Eagles (12-2): NFC East champion. Life after Carson Wentz had a hairy beginning, but the Iggles survived the Giants to ensure themselves at least a first-round bye.

2. y-Minnesota Vikings (11-3): NFC North champion. Newly crowned division champions still have shot at home-field advantage … and a shot to play Super Bowl on home field.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4): NFC West leader. They gave the Seahawks a shocking beating at CenturyLink Field that likely means L.A. is headed to postseason while Seattle probably isn’t.

4. New Orleans Saints (10-4): NFC South leader. Surprisingly struggled against punchless Jets but managed to retain division lead.

5. Carolina Panthers (10-4): Wild card No. 1. Technically tied for first place but getting swept by Saints keeps Panthers on wild-card path.

6. Atlanta Falcons (9-5): Wild card No. 2. They’ve beaten the Seahawks, Lions and Cowboys, so Atlanta enjoys a one-game lead but owns key tiebreaker over pursuers. Monday night’s win in Tampa officially ended Packers’ playoff hopes.

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (8-6), Detroit Lions (8-6), Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division
z-clinched first-round bye

***

Bust out the protractors and rulers, refs. All your old-school stationery supplies are fair game for measurements in the NFL.

Referee Gene Steratore’s decision to use a folded index card for a first-down measurement that went in favor of Dallas against the Raiders will start a new trend. Football is a game of inches. Making the right call is crucial so refs need all the help they can get.

Give them calculators, erasers and No. 2 pencils, too. Perhaps the league’s competition committee will change the rules to allow referees to carry these supplies onto the field.

After all, it worked so well for Steratore, who saw it one way while cameras suggested he was wrong.

Here are more overreactions following Week 15:

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OVERREACTION: Spoiling a pity parade will spark the Browns (0-14) to finally win a game.

REALISTIC REACTION: Why not? Nothing else worked.

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OVERREACTION: Colin Kaepernick will return to the NFL after he teams up with P. Diddy to buy the Panthers.

REALISTIC REACTION: He’d have to trade Cam Newton.

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OVERREACTION: The Steelers (10-3) can’t win without Antonio Brown.

REALISTIC REACTION: They almost beat the Patriots (10-3) with their star receiver missing most of the game.

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OVERREACTION: Nate Sudfeld could toss four TD passes throwing in Philadelphia’s offense.

REALISTIC REACTION: Carson Wentz and Nick Foles doing it in consecutive weeks doesn’t mean whoever lines up under center for the Eagles (12-2) will have similar success. And, they don’t want to find out.

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OVERREACTION: Aaron Rodgers lost his magic touch.

REALISTIC REACTION: He was coming back from surgery on a broken collarbone. He’s not Superman.

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OVERREACTION: Playoff football will fill the seats in Los Angeles.

REALISTIC REACTION: Too many seats to fill in the Coliseum.

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OVERREACTION: Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner will settle their differences in locker-room scrap.

REALISTIC REACTION: It’s already forgotten.

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OVERREACTION: The Vikings are the scariest team in the NFC playoffs.

REALISTIC REACTION: Case Keenum is still their quarterback.

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OVERREACTION: The Bills will end their 17-year playoff drought.

REALISTIC REACTION: They’re not winning in New England and beating the Dolphins twice in three weeks will be a tough task. They could end up 8-8.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

NFL Week 15: 2 rules league could stand to change

This gallery contains 1 photo.

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Well, no one STILL seems to agree on what, exactly, should constitute a catch in the NFL — and that contributed to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ loss to the New England Patriots in a key game for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

It’s also hard to find folks who like the provision that awards possession of the football to the team on defense after an offensive player fumbles it out of the end zone — and that (along with, yes, what appeared to be a folded index card used to determine whether there was a first down) helped the Dallas Cowboys beat the Oakland Raiders to keep their postseason hopes intact as Ezekiel Elliott prepares to return from a suspension.

Two of the most confounding pieces of the NFL rulebook took center stage at the end of key games Sunday, and the results could have a real impact on who ends up reaching the Super Bowl.

Maybe this offseason, the competition committee will, once and for all, alter the ways one — or even both — of these situations are handled. Until that happens, there will be questions and complaints.

Which, when you think about it, might be what the league wants: Such conversations mean attention.

New England clinched a record ninth consecutive division title with a 27-24 victory at Pittsburgh that came after Ben Roethlisberger’s apparent 10-yard TD pass to Jesse James with 28 seconds left was erased because, as referee Tony Corrente, explained: “The receiver did not survive the ground.”

As James twisted and lunged into the end zone at the play’s finish, he extended the ball, which shifted in his hands. The call was called the way the NFL says it should be .

But CBS announcers Tony Romo and Jim Nantz were so unaware that was even an issue that they only were trying to figure out whether James might have been touched by a defender before the football crossed the goal line.

“There’s no doubt it’s going to hold up,” Nantz declared.

Asked later how he felt about the eventual replay ruling, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin replied: “It’s really irrelevant how I feel about it, to be honest with you. It’s not going to change the outcome of the game. I’m not going to cry over spilled milk.”

Both teams are 11-3; the Patriots’ win puts them on a path to host a possible rematch in the conference championship game.

And there were so many other talking points afterward, including just how serious Steelers receiver Antonio Brown’s left calf injury is; what went on with the last-minute decision-making by Roethlisberger, who compounded the damage done by the James call by faking a spike and then forcing a throw on a slant into the end zone that got intercepted with 5 seconds to go; and why Pittsburgh allowed New England tight end Rob Gronkowski to roam free with single-man coverage.

At night, Dallas’ 20-17 victory at Oakland was sealed when Raiders QB David Carr lost his grip on the football while reaching for the end zone on a scramble from the 8. The ball crossed the goal line, then went out the side of the end zone — a turnover and a touchback.

Why not give the offense the ball where the player lost possession? Or back the offense up to the 25? Or come up with some other solution that doesn’t reward the defense for having done absolutely nothing to prevent a score?

That wasn’t the most bizarre moment of the game. Or even the entire NFL day. No, that was reserved for referee Gene Steratore’s decision to try sliding what appeared to be an index card between the tip of the ball and the end of the chain when measuring for a first down. When he determined the card didn’t fit, Steratore awarded a first down to Dallas (8-6), which wound up kicking the go-ahead field goal on that drive.

“That was interesting,” Cowboys QB Dak Prescott said. “Him measuring with the paper.”

In case you missed it, here are the other top topics after the NFL season’s 15th Sunday:

RICHARDSON’S GONE

Hours after the NFL said it would take over the investigation into workplace misconduct by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson — and after Sports Illustrated reported, citing unnamed sources, that confidential payouts had been made for sexual harassment and using a racial slur — he announced he will sell the team after the season. Among those immediately throwing their hats in the ring as possible buyers were musician/actor Diddy and two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry.

HELLO AND GOODBYE, A-ROD

Aaron Rodgers returned after missing two months with a broken collarbone and threw a career-high-tying three interceptions in the Green Bay Packers’ 31-24 loss at Carolina. The Packers were all but eliminated from the playoffs; they haven’t missed out since 2008.

BREAK UP THE JAGS

So bad for so, so long, the Jacksonville Jaguars earned their first postseason berth in a decade by easily beating the Houston Texans 45-7. QB Blake Bortles threw three TDs in the first half for the first time in his career.

WELCOME BACK, TEDDY TWO GLOVES

With an NFC North-clinching 34-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals a foregone conclusion, the Minnesota Vikings gave Teddy Bridgewater his first regular-season game action since January 2016. And his first pass since tearing up his knee? Intercepted.

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Week 15 fantasy football takeaways: Nick Foles fits fine with Eagles

The quarterback transition in Philadelphia sure was a smooth one as veteran Nick Foles made his first start in place of injured starter Carson Wentz.

Foles, who threw 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions as the Eagles’ starter in 2013, made a triumphant return Sunday. He threw for 237 yards and four touchdowns — to four different receivers.

Fantasy owners should feel confident starting Foles at home next week against the Oakland Raiders in their league championship game.

Back in the saddle

The other major story involving a quarterback was the return of Aaron Rodgers to the Green Bay Packers for the first time since he broke his collarbone in Week 6.

Rodgers was solid, but a bit rusty as well. He completed 26-pf-45 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns … but he was also intercepted three times.

Fantasy owners expecting Rodgers to rekindle his old magic with wide receiver Jordy Nelson were sadly disappointed. Nelson caught three of his six targets for a total of 28 yards.

Doubly painful

Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown has been one of the league’s most consistent receivers, but a partially torn calf muscle cut his day short. Brown suffered the injury in the second quarter and finished with just two catches for 24 yards.

Even if you survived the injury and still managed to win your playoff semifinal without Brown’s usual contributions, the injury is still devastating because he won’t play in next week’s title game.

Early waiver wire

It’s almost impossible to find someone available on the waiver wire who’s good enough to start when a fantasy title is on the line, but Jaguars wide receiver Keelan Cole might be one of those players. Cole stepped forward when Marqise Lee exited with an ankle injury, catching seven passes for 186 yards and a touchdown, and could start next week at San Francisco.

If owners in your league gave up on the return of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen from a foot injury, his nine receptions for 116 yards and a score showed he’s back. He has a great Week 16 matchup at home vs. Tampa Bay.

The injury-ravaged Washington Redskins promoted running back Kapri Bibbs from the practice squad this week. Inserted into the third-down role, Bibbs caught all four of his targets for 47 yards and a touchdown.

Broad Shoulders Award

Our weekly honor for the player who single-handedly carried his fantasy teams to victory goes to Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley.

Could it have been anyone else?

Gurley was in a class all his own, rushing 21 times for 152 yards (7.2 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. He also caught three passes for 28 yards and another score.

In standard leagues, Gurley’s performance was good enough for 42 fantasy points — the highest total for any player in a single week this season. In leagues that award a point per reception, Gurley’s 45 points rank third behind Julio Jones in Week 12 (50.8) and Kareem Hunt in Week 1 (45.6).

Gurley may have been one of 2016’s biggest fantasy busts, but he’s awfully close to being 2017’s fantasy MVP.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL playoff picture after Week 15

This gallery contains 1 photo.

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports / AP)    —   Here’s how the NFL playoff picture looks after Week 15’s Sunday afternoon games.

AFC
1. x-New England Patriots (11-3): AFC East champion. They escaped Pittsburgh with their 15th division title in 17 seasons and a clear path to home-field advantage.

2. x-Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3): AFC North champion. After a gut-wrenching loss, they’re now facing the likelihood of once again having to go through Foxborough to reach the Super Bowl.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4): AFC South leader. They’re playoff-bound for the first time since 2007 and still have a reasonable shot at a first-round bye.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6): AFC West leader. Not only did Saturday’s win over the Chargers give K.C. vital breathing room, but the Chiefs’ schedule now gets quite favorable as they finish against the Dolphins and Broncos. They need win only one of those games to put a bow on the division.

5. Tennessee Titans (8-6): Wild card No. 1. They’re doing their best to drop out of the field. But a 7-4 conference record keeps them ahead of Buffalo and Baltimore. However next week’s date with the Rams looks like major trouble.

6. Buffalo Bills (8-6): Wild card No. 2. They’re desperately trying to snap the longest playoff drought in major North American professional team sports (it dates to 1999). The strength of victory tiebreaker keeps Buffalo ahead of the Ravens, who are being undermined by their defeats of the winless Browns.

In the hunt: Baltimore Ravens (8-6), Los Angeles Chargers (7-7), Oakland Raiders (6-8)

x-division winner

NFC
1. xy-Philadelphia Eagles (12-2): NFC East champion. Life after Carson Wentz had a hairy beginning, but the Iggles survived the Giants to ensure themselves at least a first-round bye.

2. x-Minnesota Vikings (11-3): NFC North champion. Newly crowned division champions still have shot at home-field advantage … and a shot to play Super Bowl at home.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4): NFC West leader. They gave the Seahawks a shocking beating at CenturyLink Field that likely means L.A. is headed to postseason while Seattle probably isn’t.

4. New Orleans Saints (10-4): NFC South leader. Surprisingly struggled against punchless Jets but managed to retain division lead.

5. Carolina Panthers (10-4): Wild card No. 1. Technically tied for first place but getting swept by Saints keeps Panthers on wild-card path.

6. Atlanta Falcons (8-5): Wild card No. 2. They’ve beaten the Seahawks, Lions and Cowboys, so Atlanta can afford a loss Monday night, though it obviously wouldn’t be ideal. A Falcons win eliminates Green Bay.

In the hunt: Seattle Seahawks (8-6), Detroit Lions (8-6), Dallas Cowboys (8-6), Green Bay Packers (7-7)

x-division winner
y-first-round bye

***

SCOREBOARD

Monday, Dec. 17

Atlanta at Tampa Bay, 8:30 p.m. EST. This is the second meeting between the teams in four games, with the Falcons (8-5) having won the last time 34-20 in Atlanta as Julio Jones caught a season-best 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers (4-9) hope to play spoiler, with the first of three games against NFC South rivals to end the regular season.

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STARS

Passing

— Blake Bortles, Jaguars, threw three touchdown passes, including two to seldom-used backup Jaydon Mickens, and for a season-high 326 yards as Jacksonville clinched a playoff spot with a 45-7 rout of Houston.

— Cam Newton, Panthers, passed for 242 yards and four touchdowns, and the Panthers spoiled Aaron Rodgers’ return from a broken collarbone with a 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers.

— Nick Foles, Eagles, threw four touchdown passes in his first start replacing the injured Carson Wentz, leading Philadelphia to a first-round playoff bye with a 34-29 victory over the New York Giants.

— Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers, threw for a career-high 381 yards and a touchdown to help San Francisco top Tennessee 25-23.

— Drew Brees, Saints, completed 26 of 36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns, and also was intercepted in New Orleans’ 31-19 win over the New York Jets.

— Eli Manning, Giants, passed for a season-high 434 yards with three touchdowns in New York’s 34-29 loss to Philadelphia.

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Rushing

— Todd Gurley, Rams, rushed for 152 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries and caught three passes for 28 yards and a score to lead Los Angeles past Seattle 42-7.

— Mark Ingram, Saints, ran for two touchdowns and gained 151 yards from scrimmage, capped by his late 50-yard TD run, and New Orleans beat the New York Jets 31-19.

— Le’Veon Bell, Steelers, rushed for 117 yards and added another 48 receiving in Pittsburgh’s 27-24 loss to New England.

— LeSean McCoy, Bills, scored twice and became the 30th player to reach 10,000 yards rushing, helping Buffalo beat the Miami Dolphins 24-16.

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Receiving

— Keelan Cole, Jaguars, had seven receptions for a career-high 186 yards and a TD in Jacksonville’s 45-7 victory over Houston.

— Rob Gronkowski, Patriots, returned from a one-game suspension to finish with nine receptions for 168 yards in New England’s 27-24 win at Pittsburgh.

— Greg Olsen, Panthers, caught nine passes for 116 yards and a TD to help Carolina top Green Bay 31-24.

— Sterling Shepard, Giants, had 11 receptions for 139 yards and a score in New York’s 34-29 loss to Philadelphia.

— Jerick McKinnon, Vikings, caught seven passes for 114 yards in a 34-7 win over Cincinnati for the first 100-yard receiving game for a Minnesota running back since Onterrio Smith in 2004.

— Michael Thomas, Saints, had nine receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown in New Orleans’ 31-19 win over the New York Jets.

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Special Teams

— Robbie Gould, 49ers, made a winning 45-yard field goal as time expired — his sixth successful kick of the game — to help lift San Francisco over Tennessee 25-23.

— Philadelphia Eagles became the first team since 1991 to block a field goal, extra point and punt in the same game, accomplishing the feat in a 34-29 win over the New York Giants.

— Sam Koch, Ravens, booted four punts inside Cleveland’s 20-yard line, giving him a league-high 37 this season, and helping Baltimore to a 27-10 win.

— Phil Dawson, Cardinals, accounted for all of Arizona’s points in a 20-15 loss at Washington with field goals of 40, 35, 19, 34 and 32 yards.

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Defense

— Brandon Williams, Ravens, recovered a fumble forced by Za’Darius Smith and shimmied across the goal line for a 1-yard score in Baltimore’s 27-10 win at Cleveland.

— Eric Kendricks, Vikings, returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown in Minnesota’s 34-7 victory over Cincinnati.

— Aaron Donald, Rams, sacked Russell Wilson three times in Los Angeles’ 42-7 rout of Seattle.

— Anthony Lanier, Redskins, had two sacks, a forced fumble and batted down three passes in Washington’s 20-15 win over Arizona.

— Cameron Jordan, Saints, batted down four passes — three on third-down throws — in New Orleans’ 31-19 win over the New York Jets.

— James Bradberry, Panthers, stripped the ball from Packers wide receiver Geronimo Allison with 1:28 left to seal Carolina’s 31-24 win.

— Chandler Jones, Cardinals, earned his NFL-leading 15th sack of the season in Arizona’s 20-15 loss at Washington and is two shy of setting the franchise single-season record.

— Sean Smith, Raiders, intercepted two passes in Oakland’s 20-17 loss to Dallas.

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STREAKS & STATS

Jacksonville clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2007 with a 45-7 drubbing of AFC South rival Houston on Sunday. It was the Jaguars’ seventh victory in its last eight games. … Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer won his first regular-season meeting against his old boss, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, who lost to a former assistant for the first time in eight matchups, 34-7. Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals from 2008-13. … The Bengals have never won in six all-time visits to Minnesota. … After Baltimore’s 27-10 victory over Cleveland, Joe Flacco’s .895 winning percentage against the Browns is the third best by an active quarterback against any opponent. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is 21-2 (.913) against Cleveland and New England’s Tom Brady is 27-3 (.900) against Buffalo. … Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley had 152 yards rushing, three TD runs and a TD catch in a 42-7 win at Seattle, joining Marshall Faulk (Oct. 20, 2002) as the only Rams in franchise history to have 150 or more yards rushing, three or more rushing TDs and a TD catch in a game.

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MILESTONES

New Orleans’ Michael Thomas had nine catches for 93 yards in the Saints’ 31-19 win over the New York Jets, giving him 94 receptions this season and making him the second NFL player with at least 90 receptions in each of his first two seasons — the other being the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. … Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy reached 10,000 career yards rushing on his 2,145th carry, becoming the fifth-fastest player in NFL history to achieve the milestone. The only players to reach 10,000 career rushing yards in fewer attempts are Jim Brown (1,936), Adrian Peterson (2,004), Barry Sanders (2,020) and O.J. Simpson (2,085). … Carolina’s Cam Newton has four seasons with at least 600 rushing yards, tying him with Michael Vick for the most such seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. … The Panthers’ Julius Peppers had a half-sack against Green Bay, making him the fourth player in NFL history to have at least 10 seasons with 10 or more sacks, joining Hall of Famers Bruce Smith (13 seasons), Reggie White (12) and Kevin Greene (10). … Jimmy Garoppolo became the first 49ers quarterback since the merger in 1970 to win each of his first three starts, and just the second QB to do so in franchise history. Y.A. Tittle did so spanning the 1951-52 seasons. … Oakland’s Derek Carr joined Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck as the only players with at least 100 TD passes in their first four years in the NFL.

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TICKETS PUNCHED

Philadelphia, which had already clinched the NFC East, secured a first-round bye with a 34-29 win over the New York Giants. … Minnesota beat Cincinnati 34-7 and locked up the NFC North title. It marks the second division title for the Vikings in the past three seasons. … New England, which defeated Pittsburgh 27-24, secured the AFC East title. It’s the ninth consecutive division title for the Patriots (2009-17), the longest streak in NFL history. … Jacksonville defeated Houston 45-7 and clinched a playoff berth — the Jaguars’ first since 2007.

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RODGERS’ RETURN

Aaron Rodgers made his first appearance since Oct. 15 and threw for 290 yards with three touchdowns, but was intercepted three times in Green Bay’s 31-24 loss to Carolina. For a moment it looked as if the two-time league MVP was about to lead the Packers back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. But a fourth Green Bay turnover — this time a fumble by wide receiver Geronimo Allison with 1:48 left — spelled doom. Rodgers had good velocity on his passes at times, and even ran for a few first downs in his first game back from a broken collarbone.

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BLOCK PARTY

Philadelphia became the first team to block a field goal, extra point and punt since 1991, doing it against the New York Giants in a 34-29 victory. Derek Barnett blocked Aldrick Rosas’ extra point attempt in the first quarter, Kamu Grugier-Hill knocked away Brad Wing’s punt in the second, and Malcolm Jenkins prevented Rosas’ 48-yard attempt in the fourth. The last team to accomplish the feat was Buffalo against New England on Nov. 24, 1991.

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STEPPING IN

Nick Foles threw four touchdown passes in his first start replacing the injured Carson Wentz, and helped the Philadelphia Eagles secure a first-round playoff bye by beating the New York Giants. Foles was 24 of 38 for 237 yards and no interceptions. The Eagles also became the first team since the 2011 Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn to have different starting quarterbacks throw at least four touchdown passes in back-to-back weeks. … Bryce Petty made his first start at quarterback for the New York Jets, completing 19 of 39 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown in a 31-19 loss at New Orleans. He was intercepted twice — once by Craig Robertson on a tipped pass and once by Marshon Lattimore on a long, inconsequential throw as the game ended.

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BAD BROWNS

The Browns (0-14) went 0-8 at home — 0-7 in Cleveland, 0-1 in London — for the second time and must win at either Chicago or Pittsburgh to avoid joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in the notorious 0-16 club. Last season, the Browns avoided infamy by winning their final home game and finishing 1-15. Cleveland is 1-29 in two seasons under coach Hue Jackson, who is expected to be back despite his .033 winning percentage.

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DROUGHT BUSTERS?

Buffalo improved to 8-6 to match the team’s best record through 14 games during the team’s 17-year playoff drought — the longest active streak in North America’s four major professional sports. The Bills were 8-6 in both 2004 and 2014, but missed the playoffs with 9-7 finishes. Buffalo’s 6-2 home record was its best finish at Orchard Park since 1999. The Bills now hit the road to continue their playoff pursuit in closing the season at New England next week and then at Miami on Dec. 31.

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DOWNED SEAHAWKS

Seattle’s 34-0 halftime deficit in its 42-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams was the largest for the Seahawks since the 2010 season — the first under Pete Carroll — when it trailed the New York Giants 35-0 at halftime on the way to a 41-7 loss. It was the largest halftime lead in a road game for the Rams in franchise history.

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SIDELINED

Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown left the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to New England in the second quarter with a left calf injury. Brown was helped to the medical tent, then taken to a hospital for further examination. Also, Pittsburgh rookie running back James Conner left with a sprained knee in the fourth quarter. … The Patriots lost running back Rex Burkhead with a knee injury in the first half. He did not return. … Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams left in the third quarter of the Packers’ 31-24 loss at Carolina because of a concussion. … Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams left in the third quarter against New Orleans with concussion symptoms. … The Giants had safety Landon Collins and linebacker B.J. Goodson leave against Philadelphia after aggravating ankle injuries. … Jacksonville wide receiver Marqise Lee injured his right ankle in the first quarter against Houston and was later ruled out.

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SPEAKING

“It’s a story of perseverance.” — Jaguars owner Shad Khan after the Jaguars clinched their first postseason berth since 2007 with a 45-7 drubbing of AFC South rival Houston on Sunday.

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“I’m not running from this. I have never gone any place and left it worse than when I found it. I’m not going to run from this. I’m going to be here and I need to get this fixed as fast as I can because I think it is important.” — Cleveland coach Hue Jackson after the Browns fell to 0-14 with a 27-10 loss to Baltimore.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL Roundup: Dallas Cowboys keep playoff hopes alive when Raiders QB blunders

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   OAKLAND, Calif. – Dallas kept its playoff hopes alive by the slimmest of margins after Dak Prescott converted a fourth-down sneak by the width of an index card to set up Dan Bailey’s go-ahead 19-yard field goal, and Derek Carr fumbled the ball inches from the goal line with 31 seconds left to give the Cowboys a 20-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday night.

The first key play came when Cowboys coach Jason Garrett decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 39 with about five minutes left in a tie game. Prescott ran into a pile that took officials time to untangle.

Referee Gene Steratore then called for the chains to come out, but even that wasn’t enough. He then tried to slide what appeared to be an index card between the tip of the ball and the end of the chain. When the card didn’t slide through, Steratore gave Dallas (8-6) a first down.

Prescott then hit Dez Bryant with a 40-yard pass that set up Bailey’s short kick with 1:44 to play that gave the Cowboys the lead.

But the game was far from over. The Raiders (6-8) got a gift when Jourdan Lewis committed a 43-yard pass interference penalty on a fourth-and-10 from their own 30. Carr then scrambled on third-and-3 from the 8 and reached out for the end zone. But the ball came loose before crossing the goal line and went out of the end zone for a touchback that all but ended Oakland’s playoff hopes. The Raiders are tied for ninth in the AFC.

Dallas is in a three-way tie for seventh place in the NFC, a half-game behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot. The Falcons beat the Cowboys head-to-head.

The Cowboys got their third straight win without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who returns from a six-game suspension next week. But Dallas’ three straight losses at the start of the suspension created a hole the team is still trying to escape.

JAGUARS 45, TEXANS 7

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Jaguars are returning to the playoffs for the first time in a decade thanks to a 45-7 drubbing of rival Houston.

Once the NFL’s poster child for futility and a punchline for potential relocation, the Jaguars (10-4) are now one of the league’s top turnaround stories.

Blake Bortles threw three touchdowns passes, including two to a reserve receiver who slept in his car earlier this season. The Jaguars won for the seventh time in eight games to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2007.

Bortles finished with a season-high 326 yards and the best QB rating (143.8) of his career, including 186 yards and a touchdown to rookie Keelan Cole. Primary punt returner Jaydon Mickens, who stepped in for injured starter Marqise Lee in the first quarter, caught four passes for 61 yards and two scores against the Texans (4-10).

The Jaguars were an NFL-worst 22-74 over the previous six years, more a laughingstock than a postseason contender.

PATRIOTS 27, STEELERS 24

PITTSBURGH – Tom Brady fed Rob Gronkowski repeatedly to set up Dion Lewis’ go-ahead 8-yard touchdown with 56 seconds remaining and Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted in the end zone with 5 seconds left.

The Patriots (11-3) gained the inside track for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs by ending Pittsburgh’s eight-game winning streak. Brady threw for 298 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Gronkowski, fresh off a one-game suspension, finished with nine receptions for 168 yards, including four on the winning drive.

It briefly looked like it wouldn’t be enough.

The Steelers (11-3), who played most of the game without injured star wide receiver Antonio Brown, appeared to take the lead when Roethlisberger connected with tight end Jesse James for a 10-yard touchdown with 28 seconds to left. The play was overturned on review, with official Tony Corrente saying the ball did not “survive” the completion of the catch.

Roethlisberger hit Darrius Heyward-Bey for a short gain, whp but stayed in bounds. With the clock running and no timeouts, rather than spike it to set up a short kick that would have sent the game to overtime, Roethlisberger tried to win it.

Instead, he lost it. His pass to Eli Rogers was batted into the air, and New England safety Duron Harmon came down with it. One kneel down later, the Patriots had their fifth straight victory over the Steelers.

Brown, the NFL’s leading receiver, went to a hospital having his left calf injury examined.

RAMS 42, SEAHAWKS 7

SEATTLE – Todd Gurley rushed for 152 yards and scored four total touchdowns in just 2 1/2 quarters, and the Rams moved to the cusp of their first division title since 2003.

The matchup to determine first place in the NFC West was completely one-sided. Los Angeles (10-4) was dominant, embarrassing Seattle into the worst loss during Pete Carroll’s eight seasons in charge.

Taking advantage of field position, the Rams scored on six of seven first-half drives, including a 21-point blitz in the second quarter capped by a 57-yard TD run by Gurley on third-and-20 with less than a minute remaining in the first half to take a 34-0 lead at the break.

Gurley had 144 yards rushing in the first half, twice scoring from the 1. He added a 14-yard TD reception midway through the third quarter for a 40-0 Rams lead and spent the rest of his day watching. The 152 yards rushing were the second best of his career.

The Rams don’t have the division wrapped up, but have a two-game lead with two weeks to play. A win against either Tennessee or San Francisco is enough for their first division title in 14 years.

49ERS 25, TITANS 23

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Jimmy Garoppolo led one final scoring drive in the closing seconds to cap a fantastic first home start and Robbie Gould kicked a winning 45-yard field goal as time expired.

Garoppolo threw for a career-high 381 yards and a touchdown to give the 49ers (4-10) a three-game winning streak in a lost season. And Tom Brady’s former backup showed he could do it at home as well as on the road – and against a playoff contender, no less – outdueling Marcus Mariota down the stretch as the teams traded field goals.

Gould kicked three of his six field goals over the final nine minutes: 50, 48 and 45 yards, and has now gone 20 consecutive without a miss.

Gould put the Niners out front on a 48-yarder with 3:08 remaining. Mariota then drove the Titans (8-6) to a lead as Ryan Succop kicked a 50-yard field goal with 1:07 to play, then Garoppolo and the San Francisco offense got one last shot.

VIKINGS 34, BENGALS 7

MINNEAPOLIS – Eric Kendricks had an interception return for a touchdown, Case Keenum passed for 236 yards and two scores, and the Vikings clinched the NFC North over the depleted and disinterested Bengals.

Running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combined for 37 touches and 242 yards from scrimmage for the Vikings (11-3), who were given quite the reprieve on the schedule a week after their eight-game winning streak ended at Carolina in the last of three consecutive road trips. They were never challenged the Bengals (5-9), missing more than half of the starting defense to injuries, and met with a morning report by ESPN that head coach Marvin Lewis will not return next season .

The game went so smoothly that Teddy Bridgewater even made his grand entrance, his first live action in 16 months since a massive knee injury. Bridgewater’s first pass was intercepted, a high throw that bounced off McKinnon’s hands and into the arms of strong safety Shawn Williams deep in Vikings territory. That set up a short touchdown run by Giovani Bernard to keep the Bengals from being shut out for a second time this year.

Keenum completed 20 of 23 passes, including seven easy tosses to McKinnon for 114 yards in the first 100-yard receiving game for a Vikings running back since Onterrio Smith on Sept. 26, 2004, against Chicago.

Lewis who lost to a former assistant (Mike Zimmer) for the first time in eight matchups. Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals from 2008-13.

EAGLES 34, GIANTS 29

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Nick Foles threw four touchdown passes in his first start replacing the injured Carson Wentz, and the Eagles secured a first-round playoff bye.

Foles hit 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards and no interceptions. The NFC East champion Eagles (12-2) made a late stand on first-and-goal in the final minute in edging the Giants (2-12) for the second time this season, spoiling a three-touchdown, season-high 434-yard passing game by Eli Manning.

Foles hit Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton and Nelson Agholor on scoring passes ranging from 3 to 13 yards in filling in for Wentz, who tore an ACL last week and was lost for the season after a brilliant year.

The Eagles also got two field goals from Jake Elliott and three blocked kicks from their special teams, foiling an extra point, a punt and field goal. The block on the punt set up a touchdown.

Manning finished 37 of 57 and hit Tavarres King on two touchdowns and Sterling Shepard on one. It was Manning’s ninth career 400-yard game and his first since last season.

PANTHERS 31, PACKERS 24

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton threw for 242 yards and four touchdowns, and the Panthers spoiled Aaron Rodgers’ return from a broken collarbone.

Damiere Byrd had two touchdown catches, and Christian McCaffrey had 136 yards from scrimmage, including a 7-yard touchdown reception as the Panthers (10-4) won their fourth straight home game.

Greg Olsen had his most productive game since returning from a broken foot, catching nine passes for 116 yards and a TD, and the Panthers kept pace with the first-place New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

Rodgers, making his first appearance since Oct. 15, threw for 290 yards with three touchdowns, but was intercepted three times as the Packers’ playoff hopes took a critical blow.

Green Bay (7-7) had a chance to send the game into overtime for a third straight week. But cornerback James Bradberry stripped wide receiver Geronimo Allison of the ball with 1:48 remaining. Mike Adams recovered to finish off the Packers.

SAINTS 31, JETS 19

NEW ORLEANS – Mark Ingram ran for two touchdowns and gained 151 yards from scrimmage, including a late 50-yard TD run, and the Saints overcame three turnovers.

Michael Thomas became the second NFL player with at least 90 receptions in his first two seasons. He caught nine passes for 93 yards, including a pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown on a short slant for New Orleans (10-4), which retained its tenuous hold on first place in the NFC South heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.

Alvin Kamara turned a short catch into a 10-yard TD in his return from a concussion that knocked him out of the Saints’ loss at Atlanta a week earlier.

Bryce Petty made his first start at quarterback this season for the Jets (5-9), who were eliminated from playoff contention. Petty completed 19 of 39 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted twice – once on a tipped pass and once on a long, inconsequential throw as the game ended.

His 2-yard touchdown pass to rookie Elijah McGuire cut New Orleans’ lead to 24-19 with 1:51 left. But the Jets’ onside kick failed and Ingram broke loose for his long score while the Saints were trying to run down the clock.

Drew Brees completed 26 of 36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns, but also was intercepted deep in his own territory to set up a Jets field goal at the end of the first half.

RAVENS 27, BROWNS 10

CLEVELAND – Joe Flacco threw a touchdown pass, ran for a score and beat Cleveland again as the Ravens stayed on track for the AFC playoffs.

With victories at home over Indianapolis and Cincinnati in its last two games, the Ravens will return to the postseason after a two-year absence.

The Browns are two losses from becoming the NFL’s second 0-16 team.

Flacco scored on a 2-yard run and threw a 33-yard TD pass to Benjamin Watson as the Ravens (8-6) took control with two touchdowns in the final 3:01 of the first half.

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams recovered a fumble and rolled in for a TD in third quarter to put the Ravens up 24-10.

The Browns (0-14) went 0-8 at home – 0-7 in Cleveland, 0-1 in London – for the second time and must win at either Chicago or Pittsburgh to avoid joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in the notorious 0-16 club. Last season, the Browns avoided infamy by winning their final home game and finishing 1-15.

Cleveland is 1-29 in two seasons under coach Hue Jackson, who is expected to be back despite his .033 winning percentage.

BILLS 24, DOLPHINS 16

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – LeSean McCoy scored twice and surpassed 10,000 career yards rushing, while helping the Bills stay in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.

Tyrod Taylor also scored on a 9-yard touchdown run and Shareece Wright and Jordan Poyer intercepted Miami’s Jay Cutler on consecutive drives to start the second half. Buffalo never trailed. Rookie Tre’Davious White sealed the win by intercepting Cutler with 28 seconds remaining – and one play after Miami punter Matt Haack recovered an onside kick at Miami’s 37.

The Bills have won three of four and improved to 8-6 to match the team’s best record through 14 games during Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought – the longest active streak in North America’s four major professional sports. The Bills were 8-6 in both 2004 and 2014, but missed the playoffs with 9-7 finishes.

Buffalo also finished 6-2 at home to match its best finish at Orchard Park since 1999.

Buffalo must now hit the road to continue its playoff pursuit, closing the season at New England, then at Miami on Dec. 31.

The loss all but mathematically eliminated the Dolphins (6-8) from playoff contention.

REDSKINS 20, CARDINALS 15

LANDOVER, Md. – Anthony Lanier sacked Blaine Gabbert and forced a fumble that Preston Smith recovered and the Redskins held on to beat the Cardinals in a comedy of errors for each team.

Smith also intercepted Gabbert and Lanier batted down three passes and had two sacks as they gave the Redskins (6-8) a glimpse of their potential as significant pieces of the defense for years to come.

Gabbert was 16 of 41 for 189 yards with the interception and a fumble he recovered himself in the fourth quarter. Arizona (6-8), which got all its points on field goals by Phil Dawson, went 0 for 6 in the red zone and 4 for 19 on third down as it was eliminated from playoff contention.

Washington’s Kirk Cousins was 18 of 26 for 196 yards with touchdown passes to Jamison Crowder and new running back Kapri Bibbs. The Redskins were booed at times in the second half by fans in the announced crowd of 71,026.

NFL: AFC surprise? Breaking down four teams with best chance to stun Steelers, Patriots

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —    There’s no question the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots have represented the AFC’s elite for much of this season.

It’s widely expected that those two, set to clash Sunday, will meet in the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season. I, too, firmly believe the rematch will materialize.

But a wacky 2017 season has proven it’s probably unwise to overlook anybody (well, anyone other than the Browns, and a few others). And despite their pedigree, the Steelers and Patriots have exhibited some signs of vulnerability.

The Jaguars, Chargers, Chiefs and Ravens, seem poised to make some noise down the stretch of the regular season and possibly the postseason. But do any have legitimate chances to upset the Steelers or Patriots? Here’s why they might, as well as why they might not:

Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4)

The Jaguars are one of the year’s most surprising teams, going from 3-13 in 2016 to a likely playoff squad this season. Jacksonville has victories over the Steelers, Seahawks and Chargers, and their early-season win over the Ravens now seems more meaningful. With the top-ranked defense that also leads the NFL in sacks (47) and takeaways (30), Jacksonville has a chance to win against any opponent. So, if you had to pick an upset special, the Jags are your best bet.

It’s ultimately really hard to believe in Jacksonville because of its quarterback. A dozen current and former NFL talent evaluators, coaches and quarterbacks unanimously put Blake Bortles in the category of “needs replacing” when asked by USA TODAY to rate the league’s starting quarterbacks who are 30 or under. Despite 85.8 passer ratings and 16 touchdown passes to go with eight interceptions, Bortles has done just enough to keep the Jaguars’ offense going. But if he’s asked to engage in a late-game shootout with Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger, Jacksonville is likely toast.

Los Angeles Chargers (7-6)

 After an 0-4 start, first-year coach Anthony Lynn has guided his squad to a turnaround. Los Angeles is currently the eighth seed but can break a tie for the AFC West lead in Saturday’s matchup with the Chiefs. If the Chargers do prevail, they could cause problems. They’re the only other team besides the Eagles and Steelers to boast a top 10 defense and top-five offense. They’ve got a mean pass rush (37 sacks, third in the NFL) and a veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers. Given how Brady has looked in recent weeks while battling an Achilles tendon injury, the Patriots would have to have some concern about facing a pass rush like that of the Chargers.

However, inconsistencies keep this squad in check. Outside of a romp of the 7-6 Bills, the Chargers don’t have a win against a team with winning record. In a 21-13 loss to the Patriots in Week 8, the Chargers’ pass rush was held in check and recorded just one sack on Brady. The defense also struggles on third downs, ranking 19th in the league (40.1%). Although Rivers ranks fourth in the league in passing, his offense is 24th in rushing. He also has never managed to top Roethlisberger or Brady when it matters most. For his career, he’s 2-3 against Pittsburgh (0-1 in the playoffs) and 1-5 against New England (0-2 in the playoffs).

Kansas City Chiefs (7-6)

The co-owners of the AFC West lead still have hope for the postseason after ending a four-game slide with a 26-15 win over the Raiders. With a resume that features a 5-0 start and wins over the Patriots and Eagles, the Chiefs give you pause. Their offense featured one of the league’s most potent rushing attacks, and Alex Smith was leading the MVP conversation before the team’s midseason tailspin. Can this team get back on track and ride that momentum into the playoffs?

Their chances don’t appear to be great. Yes, they matched up well with New England early in the year. But that was before the Patriots defense had rounded into form, and opponents have recently found an answer for rookie standout Kareem Hunt and the rest of the Chiefs offense.

Baltimore Ravens (7-6)

They got off to a rocky start to the season while Joe Flacco worked to overcome a back injury. But the Ravens have won three of their last four games to enter the postseason discussion. They gave the Steelers quite a scare last week but couldn’t hang on in the 39-38 loss. With a defense that ranks second in the league with 29 takeaways and Flacco’s experience in big games, Baltimore is one of those teams you’d rather not face in the playoffs.

With games left against the Browns, Colts and Bengals, the Ravens seemingly have a good shot at overtaking either the Bills or Titans for one of the wild-card spots. But even if Baltimore does run into Pittsburgh again, the Steelers seem to hold an edge because of superior offensive weapons. A matchup with the Patriots, however, would be interesting. Flacco owns a 2-2 record versus Brady in the postseason.

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USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Lorenzo Reyes has attended multiple contests in 2017 involving the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, including January’s AFC Championship Game. He just covered both teams in Week 14 and has some observations heading into Sunday afternoon’s clash at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, a matchup likely to determine home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs:

PATRIOTS

1. Tom Brady may be affected by injury

Neither the Patriots nor Brady have said much — surprise — about a mysterious Achilles ailment that’s landed the star quarterback on the injury report over the past three weeks. Brady has missed practice time and, based on Monday night’s subpar performance, it’s worth wondering if his mechanics have been compromised — especially if he’s nursing his plant foot.

Against Miami on Monday, he missed several throws he would normally complete with ease. More specifically, Brady short-armed passes to the sideline or deep parts of the field. Both of his interceptions were underthrown. When asked afterward whether the problem was physical or mechanical, Brady said: “I think it’s a little of everything.”

2. Receivers need to step up

Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s one-game suspension, levied for a dirty hit at Buffalo in Week 13, further crippled the passing attack.

Gronk will be back against the Steelers, but the loss to the Dolphins emphasized how limited the Patriot receivers are when the dominant tight end isn’t drawing attention away from them. Brandin Cooks was targeted seven times Monday but caught just one ball. In fact, no wideout had a reception in the first half. The Patriots failed to convert all 11 of their third-down tries and gained a season-low 248 yards. New England appeared lost facing the relentless pass rush and disguised coverages the Dolphins utilized.

It’s easier said than done, but if the Steelers can limit Gronkowski and pressure Brady like the Dolphins did, New England may lack the firepower — even if newly acquired Kenny Britt is active Sunday — to compete with Pittsburgh’s high-scoring offense.

3. Thin depth in front seven is ominous

Injuries have decimated New England’s front seven. Defensive end Trey Flowers (ribs) and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (calf) — and their combined 11½ sacks — were sorely missed in Miami. Making matters worse, defensive tackle Alan Branch (knee) was forced out Monday night. New England simply couldn’t disrupt Jay Cutler before the Dolphins raced to a 17-point second-half lead.

“You’re not going to be able to do as much with (backups) as guys that have done a lot of things against different teams, different situations, different looks,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday in a rare moment of candor.

Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell leads the NFL with 1,684 yards from scrimmage and is the type of multi-purpose threat who can take advantage of mismatches posed by an injury-weakened unit.

STEELERS

1. Mixed coverages

During an interview with USA TODAY Sports in August, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler was asked about his takeaways from last season’s 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC title game. “I learned that we’ve got to play something else besides zone,” he responded.

Brady dismantled the Pittsburgh defense, completing 76.2% of his throws for 384 yards and three scores, and a repeat performance would be no surprise if the Steelers rely on zone concepts again.

Butler speculated during training camp that Pittsburgh would “play a little bit more man-to-man” this year against the Patriots, which seems wise. Miami played a lot of single-high safety coverage with a linebacker playing zone in the middle of the field while cornerbacks were man-to-man on the outside.

The Steelers will get a boost if cornerback Joe Haden is ready to return from a broken fibula Sunday.

2. Pittsburgh really misses Ryan Shazier

There is probably no player more important to the defense than the uber-athletic inside linebacker. And the emotional loss of Shazier, who recently underwent spinal stabilization surgery after an awkward tackle at Cincinnati, can’t be understated.

Schematically, the Pro Bowler normally chases running backs from sideline to sideline and monitors the short-to-intermediate space in the middle of the field on passing downs. His absence Sunday night against the Ravens was palpable. Baltimore entered the game ranked 30th in yards per game (288.5) and 18th in yards per carry (4.0) but gained 413 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per rush while Shazier watched from his hospital room.

Sean Spence and Arthur Moats are trying to fill the void, but as coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday: “It’s just not a realistic discussion to talk about one guy replacing (Shazier).”

The Steelers may be forced to bring a safety into the box for run support. Doing that, however, will likely be an open invite for Brady to go to the air.

3. Can Pittsburgh afford to play from behind?

The AFC North champion Steelers have won eight in a row yet have needed a game-winning field goal from Chris Boswell inside the final minute over the past three weeks.

But it’s not sustainable to continue surmounting substantial deficits at the wire — especially against veteran teams like the Patriots, who are 40-11 since 2001 following a loss.

Brady is 10-2 in his career against Pittsburgh and has won the last four by compiling 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Even playing on the road, Brady and Co. have a mental edge on the Steelers.

But Pittsburgh may be able to neutralize that by jumping out to an early lead.

PREDICTION

Expect the Patriots to be hot early, but look for the Steelers to strike back in the second half. Lessons learned from recent failures against New England — combined with the Patriots’ defensive injuries — give the Steelers a great chance, especially if Antonio Brown continues his MVP campaign with another huge performance. > Steelers 28-26

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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