The Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans probably shouldn't feel cheated.
After starting the season 0-4, there's no way the Steelers should have even been alive for a playoff spot at about 7:10 p.m. Eastern time on the season's final day. But, throughout it all, that was the case when Kansas City's Ryan Succop lined up for a field goal to put Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
The Steelers needed a miracle to make the playoffs, not just after the 0-4 start, but on Sunday. The Ravens lost despite four Andy Dalton interceptions for the Bengals. That helped. Then the Dolphins got upset at home by the Jets, a huge result. The Steelers won to stay alive, but so what? News came in that the Chiefs had deactivated all of their key players against the Chargers, who suddenly were playing for a wild-card spot. Pittsburgh needed a Chargers loss to get in and the Chiefs' backups weren't going to beat the motivated Chargers in San Diego ... right?
The Chargers trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter but tied it. The Chiefs drove into field-goal range for Succop in the final minute. Succop was born in Pittsburgh. If there was a sign this Steelers miracle was meant to be, that was it.
But Succop missed. That meant nothing, really, to the Chiefs. They were the AFC's fifth seed no matter what. But it mattered in San Diego, and it sure as heck mattered in Pittsburgh.
In overtime at San Diego, the Steelers got kicked down a couple more times. A Chargers fake punt seemed to result in a fumble and a Chiefs touchdown, but the play was ruled dead and San Diego was given a first down. Kansas City held the Chargers to a field goal and started to march downfield on their possession under the new overtime rules. But it stalled. The Steelers quest to become the second 0-4 team to make the playoffs, joining the 1992 Chargers, came to a sudden end.
The disappointing part for the Steelers is they would have been a very tough out in the playoffs had they made it. But it wasn't meant to be. Even though they had no business being in the race at the end, the Steelers will have visions of Succop's kick going wide right in their nightmares all offseason.
Here are the other winners and losers from Week 17:
Kansas City Chiefs backups: Succop's missed field goal erased what would have been an incredible story, of the Chiefs pulling off one of the more unlikely wins of the season.
Quarterback Alex Smith, running back Jamaal Charles, receiver Dwayne Bowe, offensive tackle Branden Albert, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali were held out. The Kansas City Star said that 20 of the Chiefs' preferred starters were replaced (fullback Anthony Sherman and offensive tackle Eric Fisher were the only ones that started as usual). And they came within a few inches, on Succop's miss, of beating the now playoff-bound Chargers.
The Chiefs should feel pretty good about themselves going forward. Their backups almost won on the road against San Diego. It would have been one of the most impressive and craziest wins of the entire season, but that miss doesn't take away from a magnificent effort (or, if you'd rather, what was almost an all-time choke job by the Chargers).
AFC division winners: Every one of the AFC's division champs looked good on Sunday. The only one that even had a competitive game on their hands by the fourth quarter was the Patriots, and that was in a rainstorm and the Bills never really threatened to win. The Broncos destroyed the Raiders, not only on offense but with their defense too. The Bengals showed their upside by beating the defending champion Ravens easily with Andy Dalton throwing four interceptions. Cincinnati can be very tough if Dalton can clean that up in January (granted, that's a big if). The Colts have all of a sudden caught a second wind as well.
The Chiefs had a good season and the Chargers have shown they're capable of winning at top-seeded Denver already. This is shaking out to be a pretty interesting AFC playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb: If you're not from Wisconsin or Illinois, you have no idea how often "Fourth and 8" will be brought up by Packers fans from now until roughly the end of time.
Play of the year. If you're not from Chicago, you'll want to read Eric Edholm's breakdown of it.
Rex Ryan: The Jets didn't make Ryan wait until Monday. They announced after Sunday's game that he's coming back for 2014. After Sunday, firing him would have been strange.
The Jets played very hard and well in a 20-7 win that knocked the Dolphins out of the playoffs. They went 8-8 with a roster that doesn't have .500 talent. That's a credit to Ryan. He's loud, he makes wild predictions, but he can coach. The Jets were smart to keep him around for at least another year.
Minnesota Vikings: There's little chance you watched Vikings-Lions, but it didn't seem like a meaningless game in Minnesota. Sunday was the last game at the Metrodome. And even though the Vikings' home for 32 years hadn't produced a ton of memories, 32 years is a long time in one place, and the Vikings made sure to send it out with a win.
Rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who emerged as a future star over the second half of the season, scored twice. His second touchdown, in the fourth quarter, was the game-winner in the Vikings' 14-13 win. The Vikings leave the old dome behind after Sunday's game, and the last memory will be a good one.
The Chiefs third-down play call before Ryan Succop's miss: Remember that missed field goal we talked about a while ago? Of course you do. What Steelers fans should be at least a little upset about is the play call before the miss.
Almost every NFL team will use a free play like the Chiefs had on third down to center the ball. For some reason, Kansas City was on the right hash but ran off tackle to the right. So when Succop lined up for a 41-yard field goal, he was on the right hash instead of the middle. His kick stayed on a straight line, and missed wide right by inches.
Maybe Succop wanted the ball on the right hash, but then just shift the blame to him for screwing it up. Either way, a curious call led to a miss that changed the playoff outcomes for two teams.
Mike McCarthy not going for the two-point conversion: Rodgers and Cobb saved McCarthy from an offseason of grief.
McCarthy made a baffling decision in the fourth quarter. When the Packers scored with 11:38 left, it made the score 28-26. It makes little sense to kick the extra point there. But that's what McCarthy did, instead of going for the two-point conversion. The score stayed at 28-27 until Rodgers hit Cobb on fourth and 8 for a crazy 48-yard touchdown.
Had that not happened, McCarthy would have been left to answer a lot of questions about why the Packers kicked an extra point and lost by one with the NFC North on the line.
The officials: It was another tough day for the officials. There seemed to be a missed call on Succop's missed field goal that would have given him another chance. The play clock started at 25 seconds, not 40, during a key fourth-quarter moment in the Dallas-Philadelphia game, and that cost the Cowboys. And the officials lost control for a while as the Seahawks-Rams started to fight, and it ended up with Rams defensive lineman Kendall Langford inadvertently knocking an official's hat off his head and getting ejected for it.
Oakland Raiders: It wasn't too long ago that the Raiders were 3-4, not one of the NFL's success stories but much better off than most people figured they would be. Then the wheels fell off.
The Raiders lost eight of their last nine. They allowed Philadelphia's Nick Foles to throw for seven touchdowns and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles to score five. There was the weird flip-flop back to Terrelle Pryor at quarterback for Week 17. And their last memory of the 2013 season will be an entirely inept performance against the Broncos.
Denver led 31-0 at the half and Peyton Manning didn't play a snap after halftime. He didn't need to after getting 266 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. The Raiders had 55 yards and four first downs in the first half.
Oakland was pretty good for the first half of the season, but finished the season with very little hope. There's a ton of work to be done before the Raiders are respectable again. The second half of the season has to be disheartening in Oakland.
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