Week 17 is in the books, and with it, the 2014 regular season came to a close.
The Seattle Seahawks started out the year atop our power rankings and shoot back into the No. 1 spot after beating the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. They did so on the back of a great performance by Bruce Irvin, who finished with five tackles, a sack, an interception-touchdown and a forced fumble. The Seahawks staked their claim to the top spot by ending the season on a six-game win streak -- a tear in which they outscored their opponents 134-39, allowed no fourth-quarter points and locked up the NFC West Division title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The No. 1 seed is a huge get for Seattle -- it is 22-2 in its last 24 games at home, a spell in which the Seahawks racked up 55 takeaways, amassed a plus-357 point differential, and built a plus-22 turnover margin. Seattle's defense is again playing at high level and gave up the fewest points in the NFL for the third season in a row, a feat last accomplished by the 1969-71 Minnesota Viking "Purple People Eaters." The Seahawks are peaking at the right time.
The New England Patriots relinquished their spot at the top with a languid Week 17 performance against the Bills, but the loss ultimately does not affect New England's possession of the AFC's No. 1 seed. The Pats head into their bye week with extra time to clean up any issues they may have. New England won 10 of its final 12 games, a stretch in which Tom Brady completed 65 percent of his passes at 7.46 yards per attempt while connecting on 29 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. Right now the Patriots look like the favorites in the AFC, but tepid performances during the last two weeks may be cause for a little consternation during the bye.
The Cowboys stick with the No. 3 spot after a blowout victory against Washington. The win marked Dallas' fourth victory in a row, a streak in which it outscored opponents 165-79. Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant look like an unstoppable triumvirate -- Romo led the NFL in passer rating (113.2), completion percentage (69.9), and yards per attempt (8.5) this year despite fracturing bones in his back, Murray broke Emmitt Smith's franchise record for rushing yards in a season (1,845), and Bryant caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns in the second-lowest-volume passing offense in the NFL. Good luck stopping all three of these guys in the postseason. The No. 3 seed and lack of home field advantage throughout probably doesn't faze Dallas either, as it finished 8-0 on the road this year.
End of Regular Season
Meanwhile, the Broncos look ready for the playoffs after destroying the Raiders 45-17, a game in which Peyton Manning uncharacteristically did not throw a touchdown pass. C.J. Anderson carried the load for Denver instead, grabbing three touchdowns, a nice representation of the new balanced approach the Broncos are riding into the postseason. They get a bye and home field advantage in the Divisional Round.
The Packers look good to go as well after knocking off the Lions at home to clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the NFC North division title. Despite leaving the game briefly after aggravating a calf injury (a play on which he threw a touchdown anyway), Aaron Rodgers finished 17 of 22 for 226 yards and two touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Pack finished a perfect 8-0 at home this season, and that's a place no one wants to go to in early January. The Lions have to be disappointed they couldn't snap their 23-year winless streak at Lambeau Field, but will now have to redouble their efforts in getting past the Cowboys on the road next week. The good news is that on paper, Detroit matches up well against the 'Boys. The Lions fielded the best run defense in the NFL this year, a group that gave up only 69.3 rush yards per game -- close to an NFL record.
The Steelers finished their season on a four-game win streak of their own, beating the Bengals to win the AFC North division title and grab the No. 3 seed in the AFC. The win was a costly one, though, as running back Le'Veon Bell left with a knee injury that may keep him out of next week's wild card matchup with the Ravens. Nonetheless, Ben Roethlisberger has been playing efficient ball during the past month, and has a game-changing weapon in Antonio Brown.
The Colts bounced back this week with an easy win against the Titans, easing some concerns following the blowout to Dallas last week, and the Ravens used fourth-quarter heroics to grab that sixth and final spot in the AFC. Baltimore is an interesting No. 6 seed -- the third team from the AFC North division to qualify for the postseason -- and it features balance in all three phases of the game. This could make Baltimore a dangerous underdog.
Meantime, the Bengals' big win against the Broncos in Week 16 didn't provide much momentum against the Steelers, and they'll now have to go on the road to take on the Colts as the No. 5 seed.
In the NFC, the Cardinals limp into the postseason as well, losers of four of their last six games after running their record to 9-1. Ryan Lindley looked better against the strong pass defense of the Niners, but his efforts weren't enough to pull out the win. It's unclear if Drew Stanton will return in time for the playoffs, and quarterback play will be key, but right now Arizona needs to figure out what's going on with its defense. After giving up nearly 600 total yards to the Seahawks last week, the previously stingy Cards group gave up 395 yards to the slumping Niners on Sunday, including 206 rushing yards. Something needs to get fixed on that side of the ball as Arizona heads on the road to take on the streaking Panthers this week.
Carolina comes in at the No. 15 spot in our rankings but is playing good football the past few weeks. It's hard to overlook the stretch where the Panthers went 1-8-1 -- consistency and overall performance this year matters -- but right now all they have to do is take it week to week. Bollocks to whatever happened during the regular season.
You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here
The Eagles finished their year strong by beating a relatively hot Giants team on the road. They're eliminated from the postseason, but I would imagine Chip Kelly and company will take a victory like this over a division rival. Philly faltered late this season in games it needed to win, but they're still a strong team with balance in three phases. They can run the ball, play defense, and were probably the NFL's best special teams group, but it came down to an inability to put it all together as the division race wrapped up.
Meanwhile, the Texans, too, missed out on the playoffs but finished their year strong, gutting out a win against the Jags. A 9-7 finish obviously isn't ideal, but considering the losses at the quarterback position, Bill O'Brien has to feel good about the direction they're going.
The Chiefs ended San Diego's season with a win at home, a consolation prize to a disappointing season without a playoff berth. The Bills and 49ers grabbed wins to stay above .500, and the Saints, Vikings, and Jets all ended their seasons on high notes as well. The Buccaneers ended on a high-note too, I guess, in that they staked their claim to the No. 1 overall pick.
Here are the full rankings.
|RANK||END OF SEASON||SB NATION BLOG|
|1||Seattle Seahawks, 12-4 (last week: 2)||Field Gulls|
|2||New England Patriots, 12-4 (last week: 1)||Pats Pulpit|
|3||Dallas Cowboys, 12-4 (last week: 3)||Blogging the Boys|
|4||Denver Broncos, 12-4 (last week: 4)||Mile High Report|
|5||Green Bay Packers, 12-4 (last week: 5)||Acme Packing Company|
|6||Pittsburgh Steelers, 11-5 (Last week: 7)||Behind the Steel Curtain|
|7||Detroit Lions, 11-5 (Last week: 6)||Pride of Detroit|
|8||Indianapolis Colts, 11-5 (last week: 9)||Stampede Blue|
|9||Baltimore Ravens, 10-6 (Last week: 12)||Baltimore Beatdown|
|10||Cincinnati Bengals, 10-5-1 (Last week: 8)||Cincy Jungle|
|11||Philadelphia Eagles, 10-6 (last week: 13)||Bleeding Green Nation|
|12||Arizona Cardinals, 11-5 (last week: 10)||Revenge of the Birds|
|13||Houston Texans, 9-7 (Last week: 14)||Battle Red Blog|
|14||San Diego Chargers, 9-7 (Last week: 13)||Bolts from the Blue|
|15||Carolina Panthers, 7-8-1 (last week: 18)||Cat Scratch Reader|
|16||Kansas City Chiefs, 9-7 (Last week: 16)||Arrowhead Pride|
|17||Buffalo Bills, 9-7 (Last week: 15)||Buffalo Rumblings|
|18||Miami Dolphins, 8-8 (Last week: 15)||The Phinsider|
|19||San Francisco 49ers, 8-8 (Last week: 20)||Niners Nation|
|20||New Orleans Saints, 7-9 (Last week: 23)||Canal Street Chronicles|
|21||Atlanta Falcons, 6-10 (Last week: 19)||The Falcoholic|
|22||New York Giants, 6-10 (last week: 21)||Big Blue View|
|23||St. Louis Rams, 6-10 (Last week: 22)||Turf Show Times|
|24||Minnesota Vikings, 7-9 (Last week: 25)||Daily Norseman|
|25||Cleveland Browns, 7-9 (Last week: 24)||Dawgs by Nature|
|26||New York Jets, 4-12 (last week: 29)||Gang Green Nation|
|27||Chicago Bears, 5-11 (Last week: 26)||Windy City Gridiron|
|28||Oakland Raiders, 3-13 (last week: 27)||Silver and Black Pride|
|29||Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-13 (last week: 28)||Big Cat Country|
|30||Washington, 4-12 (last week: 31)||Hogs Haven|
|31||Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2-14 (last week: 27)||Bucs Nation|
|32||Tennessee Titans, 2-14 (last week: 32)||Music City Miracles|