The NFL's final regular season Sunday certainly didn't disappoint. Playoff berths, conference seeding and the hierarchy of the NFL draft order were all at stake, and there were more than a few shocking surprises along the way.
In the AFC, the Broncos survived five turnovers and a Brock Osweiler benching (Peyton Manning is back!) to knock off the feisty Chargers, and in doing so, leapfrogged the Patriots into the conference's No. 1 seed. Denver's crazy rise into the top seed came after New England failed to dispatch the Dolphins, capping a lackluster finish to the season in which they posted a 2-4 record over the last six weeks. The Patriots are certainly still a favorite in the conference because of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but there's no denying they limped into the postseason after accumulating a ton of injuries to key players. Meanwhile, the Bengals beat the Ravens to claim the No. 3 seed, while the Texans clinched the AFC South divisional title and the No. 4 seed as they beat the Jaguars.
Rounding things out, the Chiefs won their 10th straight game, outlasting the Raiders to lock up the No. 5 seed and the Jets, who just had to win to get in, stumbled badly and lost to the Bills. Combined with the Steelers' easy win over the Browns, Pittsburgh jumped past New York and grabbed the sixth and final spot in the playoffs. Rough day for Jets fans.
Over in the NFC, the Panthers locked up the No. 1 seed behind Cam Newton's big four-touchdown day (two through the air, two on the ground), rolling the Buccaneers to finish 15-1. The Cardinals settled for the No. 2 seed after getting dominated by the Seahawks at home, but Arizona still gets a nice first-round bye.
The Vikings knocked off the Packers in Lambeau to claim the NFC North division title and the No. 3 seed. The Packers finished 10-6 on the season after starting out the year 6-0, but locked up the No. 5 seed by virtue of a tiebreaker over the Seahawks. Washington had already locked up the No. 4 seed with their win last week, but now know that they'll be facing Green Bay next weekend. Finally, Seattle rounds out the group as one of the most talented No. 6 seeds in recent memory after blowing out out what some consider to be the most balanced and complete team in the NFL in Arizona.
There were some 500-plus possible playoff scenarios that could've emerged from the action on Sunday, but here's what we know now that the dust has settled. Last year's two Super Bowl teams in the Seahawks and Patriots are still alive, while the Colts, Ravens, Cowboys and Lions failed to make it back to the postseason this year. Four new teams took their place -- Kansas City, Minnesota, Houston, and Washington. The NFL is surely happy with this outcome, as the playoffs field this year keeps a 25-season streak alive in which at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs after missing the postseason the year before.
As for the rest of the field, NFL draft order was the name of the game on Sunday.
The Titans lost to the Colts, securing them the first overall pick in the draft, while Cleveland's loss to Pittsburgh guaranteed them the second pick. The Chargers and Cowboys also both lost, giving them No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, while Jacksonville rounds out the top five with their loss at the hands of the Texans.
Elsewhere, the Saints beat the Falcons, the Lions beat the Bears, the Eagles beat the Giants, the Niners beat the Rams and Washington beat Dallas.
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J.J. Watt strengthens his Defensive Player of the Year claim
Watt was ridiculous in Houston's regular season finale, and the likely Defensive Player of the Year finished with eight tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in Houston's win over the Jags. Watt ended up as the NFL sacks-leader with 17.5, and joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White (considered by some to be the greatest defensive lineman ever) as the only players with at least 15 sacks in three of their first five NFL seasons (sacks became a tracked stat in 1982).
There was little doubt before this week that Watt is one of the most disruptive and game-changing talents on the defensive side of the ball in football, but he ended the season with a flourish anyway.
A good year for passing
It's pretty clear that the league has been trending toward more prolific passing numbers, and 2015 was no exception. With Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick joining the club on Sunday, the league saw 11 quarterbacks throw 30-plus touchdowns this year, up two from the nine that accomplished that last year, and up six from the five quarterbacks that did it in 2013.
Not surprisingly, there were more passing touchdowns this year than any previous NFL season ever.
Kirk Cousins makes history
So let's take a look at a few players that broke records this year. First up, the surprising and intriguing case of Kirk Cousins. After a rough start, Cousins turned a corner for Jay Gruden and put up some truly amazing numbers en route to leading Washington to a playoff berth. Cousins finished with 29 touchdowns to 11 picks and became the first Washington quarterback since 1978 to throw a touchdown pass in all 16 games. He also set the franchise single-season passing yards record, passing Jay Schroeder's 4,109 yards in 1986. He is the first quarterback in the franchise's history to pass for more than 4,000 yards and throw more than 25 touchdowns in a single season.
Cousins has flown under the radar a little bit this year because of the quality of the NFC East as a whole, but it's hard to ignore his record-setting numbers.
Cam Newton, soon-to-be MVP
Cam Newton just keeps setting records. Adding two scores on the ground on Sunday, he is now tied with Steve Young for quarterback career rushing touchdowns (43). He also tied Young for most career games with both a touchdown pass and touchdown run (31) with his performance on Sunday, and he accomplished that in 91 fewer games than the Hall of Famer.
Even more impressive, Newton became the only player in NFL history with 30 or more passing touchdowns and 10 or more rushing touchdowns in a single season. He's truly a unique player, and will almost surely win the league's MVP award.
Predictions for the top 2015 NFL awards
Carson Palmer, likely runner-up for MVP
The guy that could challenge Newton for that honor is Carson Palmer, but a substandard final game against the Seahawks could have derailed any momentum he had in catching Newton. Nonetheless, Palmer finishes the year as the Cardinals' all-time single season passing leader (4,671 yards) and he became just the 18th player in NFL history to pass for over 40,000 yards in his career.
Russell Wilson probably should've been in the running for MVP, too
No one had a better final seven weeks than Russell Wilson. The Seahawks' signal caller finished the year with 24 touchdowns to just one pick in those seven games and set Seahawks passing touchdowns (34) and yardage records (4,024) along the way. Per ESPN Stats and Info, he also became the first and only player in the league's history with 4,000 or more passing yards, 30 or more passing touchdowns and 500-plus rushing yards.
Wilson finished the year completing 68.1 percent of his passes at 8.3 yards per attempt, and his 110.1 passer rating was not only the best in NFL this year, it was the 15th-best single-season mark in NFL history.
We can't forget Drew Brees
Naturally, we can't talk about insane passing numbers without bringing up the passing yardage champion for 2015, New Orleans' Drew Brees. Brees finished the year with 4,870 passing yards and led the league in that category for an NFL-record 6th time. Brees' 323 yards passing against the Falcons on Sunday notched the 96th 300-plus yard passing game of his career, also an NFL record. His sixth straight season with 4,500 yards passing is an NFL record, as is his seven total career 4,500-yard passing seasons.
Seahawks set insane record for defense
As long as we're talking about the insane offensive explosion the NFL has undergone over the years, it's worth noting that Seattle became just the first team in the Super Bowl era to lead the league in scoring defense four years in a row. That's right, after limiting the league's best offense in Arizona to just 6 points in their finale, Seattle jumped up into the top spot for fewest amount of points surrendered on the year. This year's group may not be quite as good as the 2013 or 2014 Seahawks on the defensive side of the ball, but they still led the league in that key category once again.
Adrian Peterson, future Hall of Famer
With 67 yards rushing on Sunday Night Football, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson locked up his third NFL rushing title, beating Tampa Bay's Doug Martin by 85 yards. As Gil Brandt pointed out on twitter, every player with three or more rushing titles in NFL history (and there are seven of them total) is in the Hall of Fame. Seems very likely that AD will be heading there after he retires as well.
Jay Cutler goes out on a bad note
This is not entirely important, but I did find it to be a pretty interesting and surprising stat: Prior to Sunday's action, Jay Cutler had been the only starting quarterback in the NFL without a multi-interception game all season. That streak ended, of course, when he threw three picks against the Lions in the finale.
Final scores for Sunday
New Orleans Saints 20, Atlanta Falcons 17
Buffalo Bills 22, New York Jets 17
Detroit Lions 24, Chicago Bears 20
Cincinnati Bengals 24, Baltimore Ravens 16
Pittsburgh Steelers 28, Cleveland Browns 12
Washington 34, Dallas Cowboys 23
Houston Texans 30, Jacksonville Jaguars 6
Indianapolis Colts 30, Tennessee Titans 24
Miami Dolphins 20, New England Patriots 10
Philadelphia Eagles 35, New York Giants 30
Carolina Panthers 38, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10
Kansas City Chiefs 23, Oakland Raiders 17
Seattle Seahawks 36, Arizona Cardinals 6
Denver Broncos 27, San Diego Chargers 20
San Francisco 49ers 19, St. Louis Rams 16
Minnesota Vikings 20, Green Bay Packers 13
J.J. Watt celebrated getting his cast off with a sack and reached a milestone only Reggie White ever has.
Later, Watt busted out the NFL's version of the Evolution of Dance: he did the Whip, Nae Nae, dabbed and ran off on Da Plug.
Meanwhile, DeMarco Murray celebrated Chip Kelly's firing with a 54-yard touchdown on his first carry of the game.
Lamarr Houston tore his ACL doing a sack dance last year. But just like in Footloose, nothing's going to stop him from dancing.
Ndamukong Suh plowed into Tom Brady's legs, but Brady lived to tell the tale.
Bills kicker Dan Carpenter was so mad at himself for missing an extra point, he spiked his helmet -- which then hit him the face.
Rex Ryan was bringing out all the stops to beat the Jets, including using EJ Manuel on fourth down to draw them offsides.
Ever wondered if Ben Roethlisberger would make a good wrestler? The answer is no.
Lil Cowboys fan is sadder than Kellen Moore.
Alabama won more games at AT&T Stadium in 2015 than the Cowboys did. ROLL TIDE.
The Raiders paid tribute to Charles Woodson on Instagram, which is 12 years younger than Woodson's NFL career.
The Steelers, who already lost Le'Veon Bell for the season, had to finish the game against the Browns without DeAngelo Williams. The veteran running back left early with an ankle injury.
Washington corner Dashaun Phillips was taken to the hospital with a neck injury. He was moving his extremities, but Cowboys fans should not have been doing the wave.
Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson, who's set to become a free agent this offseason, was carted off to the locker room against the Bills. After the game, coach Todd Bowles said Wilkerson broke his leg.