OAKLAND, Calif. – He stood stoically in the players' parking lot at the O.co Coliseum, a squirming toddler in his arms and an offseason of second guesses, regrets and What if?s on his mind.
For Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, coming to terms with his and his teammates' failure to seize an AFC West title that was wholly within their grasp was a giant bummer. It was only as he released his nearly 3-year-old daughter Elle to mingle with her mother and twin brother that it dawned on Palmer that the final Sunday of the season, and the first day of 2012, might have played out in even more maddening fashion.
"Did Cincinnati get in?" Palmer asked, mindful that the Bengals – the team for which he played his first eight NFL seasons before refusing to report last summer, commencing a stare down that led to the October trade which sent him to Oakland – had lost a pivotal game to the Baltimore Ravens.
Yes, he was told, the Bengals had backed into the AFC's final wild-card spot.
[ Playoffs: AFC/NFC matchups and seeds ]
"Are you serious?" Palmer said. "At what, 9 and 7? And they play at Houston? Cincy will beat Houston, watch."
To be fair, Palmer's tone contained no bitterness. It was more one of bemused resignation, a feeling to which many NFL fans can relate. On a nerve-racking New Year's Day that decided the AFC's two remaining playoff participants (along with the New York Giants' winner-take-all victory over the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East title) and featured 12 games with the potential to impact the postseason picture, few teams rose to the occasion, and twisted logic ruled the day.
Among the lowlights:
• The Denver Broncos, needing only a home victory over the last-place Kansas City Chiefs to claim a division crown, suffered a 7-3 defeat in which their starting quarterback completed six of 22 passes for 60 yards, with a fumble and an interception. A few minutes after slinking into their locker room with a third consecutive loss – this one to a K.C. team quarterbacked by a player (Kyle Orton) they'd released less than six weeks earlier – the Broncos celebrated their first AFC West championship and playoff berth since 2005, thanks to the Raiders' 38-26 defeat to the San Diego Chargers. The final standings tell a tale of four equally flawed foes: The Broncos, Raiders and Chargers each finished 8-8 while the Chiefs were 7-9. Tim Tebow: All He Does Is Win Division Titles (Thanks To Philip Rivers' Revived Right Arm).
[ Related: Tim Tebow suddenly lacking magic ]
• The Bengals, who suffered a 24-16 home defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, "earned" the final wild-card spot despite losing five of their final eight games, going 0-7 against playoff teams and beating just one opponent (the 9-7 Titans, against whom they won a tiebreaker) with a winning record.
• Earlier Sunday, the Titans stayed alive – for a few hours – by beating the AFC South champion Houston Texans 23-22 under dubious circumstances. With Houston already locked into the No. 3 playoff seed and thus having pulled numerous key starters, the Titans were killing the clock with a seven-point lead just inside the two-minute warning when fullback Ahmard Hall fumbled at his own 36-yard line. After backup quarterback Jake Delhomme threw a five-yard touchdown pass to seldom-used wideout Bryant Johnson with 14 seconds remaining, Texans coach Gary Kubiak called for a two-point conversion. Houston had a play, "Roll Right," designed to exploit an all-out blitz and man-to-man coverage – the line blocks to the left while Delhomme and the halfback sprint right for a quick bootleg pass – but tight end Joel Dreessen committed a false-start penalty, moving the ball back to the 7. Kubiak, with nothing to lose, still went for two – and backup center Thomas Austin snapped the ball over Delhomme's head, securing the Titans' victory and ensuring that Houston will enter the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
• The New York Jets (8-8) also were eliminated after completing a late-season collapse with a 19-17 defeat to the 6-10 Miami Dolphins, a meltdown that included three Mark Sanchez interceptions and veteran wideout and team captain Santonio Holmes going ballistic in the huddle, getting benched and sulking on the sideline as the game was decided. "I'll tell you what," Jets halfback LaDainian Tomlinson told reporters, "it's tough for guys to follow a captain that kind of behaves in that manner." An unnamed teammate told the Newark Star-Ledger's Jenny Vrentas that Holmes "quit. … It's happened all season." U-G-L-Y Jets Jets Jets.
• The Detroit Lions, going all out to win a game that would have improved their NFC playoff seeding to fifth (and, it turns out, allowed them to avoid a seemingly unfavorable first-round matchup against the New Orleans Saints next Saturday), got 520 passing yards and five touchdowns from quarterback Matthew Stafford while scoring 41 points at Lambeau Field – and lost 45-41 as Aaron Rodgers' backup, Matt Flynn, threw for 480 yards and six TDs.
All of which goes to prove – well, who knows what it proves, if anything? After all, this is the 21st century NFL, a league which routinely cycles its postseason participants (as usual, half of the 12 playoff teams turned over from 2010 to '11) and produces January outcomes that bear little resemblance to the regular-season results that preceded them.
The most recent, glaring example came last year, when the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks – the first 7-9 team ever to reach the playoffs – rumbled to an earthshaking first-round upset of the Saints. The Chargers also have some history in this regard, stunning Peyton Manning and the Colts three years ago in the first round after winning the AFC West with an 8-8 mark.
Does this mean that, despite slopping into the postseason on Sunday, the Bengals have a decent chance at toppling the Texans (a team which clinched its division crown with a last-second victory in Cincinnati three weeks ago) on Saturday, and that even a Broncos victory over the fifth-seeded and defending AFC champion Steelers (12-4) wouldn't be completely shocking?
"Hey, you've gotta respect them," Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes said of the Broncos after Sunday's game. "They're there for a reason. And whoever they play has got to deal with them."
That may be true, but the Tebow-mania Broncos – who won seven of eight games after benching Orton, many in dramatic fashion – are now but a distant memory. After fumbling away the ball in the red zone in the second quarter, Denver's second-year quarterback had four fourth-quarter possessions; the first three ended in punts, and the fourth with a game-killing interception. The final Tebow Time tally: 2-of-8, 17 yards and a pick in the final period. With numbers like that, the Broncos didn't have a prayer.
So while the Chiefs had a spirited celebration in the locker room and on the flight home – "We beat that ass [Sunday]," K.C. fullback Le'Ron McClain said – the Broncos reacted as though they'd been dealt a dose of harsh reality. "If we keep putting that product out there like that [Sunday], it's not going to be pretty," veteran cornerback Champ Bailey told reporters. "We've got to find a way to get better."
The Broncos' defeat provoked pointed reactions in both locker rooms at the Coliseum, as the Chargers – done in by a six-game losing streak following a 4-1 start and officially eliminated with a blowout loss to the Lions last Saturday – and Raiders both reflected on what might have been.
"They lost?" Chargers tackle Jeromey Clary asked incredulously of the Broncos. "[Expletive] me."
Said Spikes: "I've been torn up since last week. All the stuff that happened in the six-game stretch … three games that I knew we should have won – not just me, but America knew. It's a prime example of, you just never know. Every game is precious, and those [defeats] came back to haunt us."
Rivers, who completed 19 of 26 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns against the Raiders, agreed, saying, "Just one game, any one of 'em. We were up 21-10 against the Jets. Kansas City, the fumbled snap … the missed field goal against Denver. The first Oakland game, we were down seven with the ball at their 40. The Green Bay game … if we find a way to win one of 'em, we get in."
On the field immediately after Sunday's game, Chargers safety Eric Weddle embraced Raiders center Samson Satele and said, "Sorry we had to ruin your season." When Weddle learned that the Broncos had lost, he said, "You knew that was gonna happen."
"[Expletive] Denver is going to the playoffs," Satele said disdainfully. "That's terrible, man."
It got worse in the postgame interview room when Raiders coach Hue Jackson, continuing a recent trend, lit into his players, opening his remarks with, "To say I'm pissed off is an understatement."
Later, Jackson said, "I'm pissed at my team. At some point in time, as a group of men, you go into the game and you can say whatever you want about the coaches, you win the game … I've been taking it all year for this football team. Not anymore."
Jackson was especially peeved at the Oakland defense, which for the second consecutive home game allowed its opponent to drive the length of the field – literally, the entire field – for a fourth-quarter touchdown. In this case, the Chargers' 99-yard scoring march was more like 99 5/6 yards.
After Palmer (28-of-43, 417 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) threw a 22-yard scoring pass to tight end Kevin Boss with 9:43 remaining to cut the San Diego lead to 31-26, an unnecessary roughness penalty on safety Steve Gregory allowed Sebastian Janikowski to kick off from midfield. He squirted a kick that went untouched until the Chargers' Richard Goodman (who earlier had a 105-yard touchdown return) grabbed it at the 1 and circled back into the end zone, eventually diving back across the line to avoid a safety.
On first down, several yards into his end zone, Rivers calmly took a shotgun snap and hit wideout Malcom Floyd for a 19-yard gain. Three plays later, Floyd caught a Rivers pass, spun out of a tackle attempt by cornerback Lito Sheppard and raced into the end zone with a 43-yard score and a 12-point lead. When Raiders wideout Jacoby Ford slipped on an out pattern and Palmer's pass was picked off by Antoine Cason at the San Diego 20 with 4:36 remaining, it was officially Tebow Time, albeit a warped form of it.
"It was like a good old kick in the [expletive]," Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said of the Chiefs' victory, and the knowledge that the division title had been there for the taking. "The bottom line is we had it in our grasp, and we fumbled."
As Palmer prepared to leave the Coliseum parking lot and head off into the cool Bay Area night and an offseason of upheaval – while the Bengals and Broncos live to play another day – he, too, lamented the opportunity lost.
"It just makes it that much worse," Palmer said of Denver's defeat. "It just sucks."
It's just football, 2012 style. Happy New Year, y'all.
The Ravens, who've had to do things the hard way in each of coach John Harbaugh's first three seasons, finally got the first-round bye they've been craving thanks to that victory over the Bengals, securing their first AFC North title since 2006 and the conference's No. 2 seed. "We're climbing the ladder of success," linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo wrote Sunday night via text. "A lot of beat up guys, including myself, and a home game after a bye. We're 4-0 after byes [under Harbaugh] and 8-0 at home this year. Do the math." When I crunch the numbers on Ravens defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs, and factor in his overall impact and team success, I come up with a sum that equals NFL defensive player of the year. And it was "Sizzle" who made the pivotal play on Sunday: Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Bengals trailing 17-13 and having driven into Baltimore territory, Suggs came up behind Cincinnati tight end Jermaine Gresham after a short catch and dislodged the football, forcing a fumble that teammate Bernard Pollard recovered. Three plays later Ray Rice, who'd scored the game's first touchdown on a 70-yard burst, broke free for a 51-yard score. … Another obvious defensive player of the year candidate is the relentless Jared Allen. The Vikings' defensive end had 18½ sacks going into Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears and felt he had a shot at breaking Michael Strahan's decade-old, single-season record of 22½. He was right: Allen, with 3½ sacks of Josh McCown in the Vikings' 17-13 defeat, finished with 22. … Sunday also featured a fantastic finish from a future Hall of Fame pass rusher: Jason Taylor, in his third stint with the Dolphins, helped eliminate the Jets – the team for which he played in 2010 – with a spirited performance in his final NFL game. Taylor harassed Sanchez to force an interception and, with 2½ minutes remaining, appeared to score a game-clinching touchdown on a fumble recovery before it was overturned by a replay review. He was carried off the field following Miami's victory. … The Giants completed a late-season sweep of the Cowboys to win the NFC East, securing their 31-14 victory on the strength of Eli Manning's arm and wideout Victor Cruz's breakaway brilliance, as the two hooked up with a 74-yard touchdown pass for the game's first score and never let up. Cruz (six catches, 178 yards) set a franchise single-season record for receiving yards (1,536) and had five scoring catches of 65 or more yards – the most in the league since Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch had six for the L.A. Rams in 1951.
[ Related: Jared Allen feels like 'runner-up at the prom' ]
So, who's the best receiver in football? Before his injury-plagued 2011 season, the Texans' Andre Johnson got a lot of love that way. And this year it has become fashionable to claim that the Lions' Calvin Johnson is The Man. On Sunday, "Megatron" closed out a tremendous campaign with an 11-catch, 244-yard, one-TD effort against the Pack and finished as the league leader in receiving yards with 1,681. Johnson is awesome, but he's not the best. That honor still goes to Larry Fitzgerald, whose spectacular, one-handed catch (and nine-reception, 149-yard performance) set up Jay Feely's 28-yard field goal that gave the Cardinals (8-8) a 23-20 victory over the Seahawks – Arizona's NFL-record fourth overtime triumph of the season. Scarily, Larry's father, veteran Minneapolis sportswriter Larry Fitzgerald Sr., said on Twitter Sunday night that his son had suffered a lung injury and was spitting up blood on the sidelines. "I'm OK," the younger Fitzgerald said early Monday morning, via text message. "God is good." … Speaking of good, it must be nice to be Tom Brady – trailing 21-0 to the Bills, with the Patriots needing a victory to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the New England quarterback led a rally that produced 49 consecutive points. Among other accomplishments, Brady finished 2011 with 5,235 passing yards, surpassing Dan Marino's vaunted single-season record from 1984 (it had already been topped by the Saints' Drew Brees, who boosted the mark to 5,486 with another gaudy effort on Sunday). Brady also threw three touchdown passes to boost his career total to 300, tying Hall of Famer John Elway for fifth on the all-time list. … Hi, I'm Matt Flynn, and I was very, very good in relief of Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, my first start since an impressive performance against the Patriots last December. And, as a result, I am going to be very, very rich shortly after the start of free agency in March. Until then, kindly give me back my clipboard and headset. Thank you.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The blackbird butchers in Beebe, Ark. Seriously – what is wrong with people?
2. Why Cowboys owner Jerry Jones insisted before Sunday's season-ending defeat to the Giants that coach Jason Garrett's job was safe "no matter what the score is" – and why he wouldn't strongly consider making a run at Jeff Fisher. Garrett's a smart guy with a lot of admirable qualities, but he's a very raw coach whose inexperience has been obvious in his year-and-a-half on the job. He has blown games this season because he has been unduly passive and flat-out discombobulated, and before Sunday's game eight of his 10 career defeats had come after Dallas held fourth-quarter leads. Fisher, conversely, is the ultimate closer: During his long career with the Titans, he was 56-3 in road games in which his team led in the fourth quarter – second only to Vince Lombardi (38-1-1) in NFL history. Given all that Jones has invested in quarterback Tony Romo, who will be 32 next season, and the fact that Dallas is a team constructed with the idea of winning now, I don't see why the owner wouldn't try to upgrade from a promising neophyte to a pro's pro.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
There are some coaches in imminent danger of being fired who it's very tough to defend. Prime example: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raheem Morris, whose team lost its final 10 games and, in Sunday's finale against the Falcons (who by winning secured the NFC's No. 5 seed and will face the Giants on Sunday), showed up flatter than a rear tire on Albert Haynesworth's 10-speed, falling behind 42-0 in the first half en route to a 45-24 defeat. The Chargers, however, fought to the finish, even though they'd been all but eliminated by their 11th game (at which point they were 4-7) and officially dropped out of playoff contention last week. I'm now going to say something that most Chargers fans don't want to hear – and something which many readers never thought would appear in my column: I don't think San Diego owner Dean Spanos should fire Norv Turner. Following Sunday's victory over the Raiders, Spanos told the San Diego Union Tribune's Kevin Acee, "I'm looking at the entire organization. I'm going to sleep on this for a couple of days. … There are a lot of things I want to think about." I'd urge Spanos to think about the role general manager A.J. Smith's subpar performance played in the Chargers' disappointing 2010 and '11 seasons (Smith is also reportedly in danger of losing his job, though he's considered more likely to survive than Turner) and the testimonials of thoughtful players like Rivers and veteran center Nick Hardwick.
Following Sunday's game, Rivers said of Turner, "We've won 49 games together in five years. We were 4-7 this year and didn't quit, and we were 4-8 [in 2008] and didn't quit and won the division. I'm not saying those were good years, but it shows what kind of coach he is, and how we feel about him. I really hope he stays." Turner, for his part, pointed out that Rivers – for all of the quarterback's high-profile struggles this season – looked a lot better once the team solidified its shaky offensive line situation. "I think back to that first Raiders game, we were playing with guys who hadn't practiced, who'd been signed off the practice squad, and Philip took a beating that night," Turner said, recalling the Raiders' 24-17 victory in San Diego on Nov. 10. "It was as rough a night as you can go through as a quarterback. We've had 13 different offensive linemen this year, and we started the year with eight on our roster. Since we got [left tackle] Jared Gaither, we've won four of five. When we protect Philip, we're a different team. And when you have a great group of guys that stay with you, handle adversity and keep fighting, you appreciate that." According to Hardwick, the appreciation is mutual. "We had a hard year," he said. "We had some crazy things go down, and we had to battle through some tough times. Norv stayed very consistent and very steady through the whole thing. He's an unbelievably hard-working guy who cares about his team – that's all he cares about. He doesn't care about glory for himself. When we lose, he takes the heat. When we win, he deflects [the praise]. We love the guy, because he's so selfless, and because he works so hard. These are the kind of games that bring out the best in you or the worst in you. [Sunday], we played We could've rolled over, but guys continued to fight their asses off, and that's because of our coach. It was a seemingly meaningless game. But it's not meaningless." Turner, a masterful play-caller and a genial co-worker, will always find gainful employment in the NFL – heck, he could even be Garrett's offensive coordinator in Dallas next season, among other possibilities. However, I believe he belongs back in San Diego with a new front-office honcho, rather than the other way around.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Needed one more series"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Allen, on his furious assault on Strahan's single-season sack record.
"No. 3 ain't bad No. 2 coulda been awesome"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, on his team's playoff seed.
"We are in!"
– Text Sunday evening from Broncos coach John Fox.
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