The 11-year run, including the entire first decade of this century, finally came to an end in Detroit in a sweet, convincing victory over San Diego on Sunday. But here's hoping that the Lions don't lose focus over the final week of the season because they have a tremendous opportunity to help themselves with a win over Green Bay.
Particularly if Atlanta loses at New Orleans on Monday night.
The Lions qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season, doing a nice job of erasing a lot of harsh memories over those 11 seasons (that period, which featured an 0-16 season, is known as the Millen Era). But there is another streak the Lions need to consider: 20 years. That's the last time the Lions won a playoff game, beating Dallas 38-6 in something of a fluke considering what happened to the respective teams over the next few years. Or there's the 54 years since the Lions played for the NFL title, beating Cleveland way back before even I was born.
If the Lions stay focused for another week, they have a chance to get a good draw in the playoffs. Instead of facing a return to New Orleans, where Detroit was beat handily 31-17, the Lions could go to the winner of the Dallas-New York Giants showdown for the NFC East title.
[ Related: Playoff picture, scenarios ]
Sadly, few teams play hard for seeding, but this is one of those games where the Lions need to maintain their eye on the bigger picture. Even though Detroit can breathe a certain bit of relief, the fact is that next weekend figures to be tense. Overall, 13 of 16 games on New Year's Day will potentially have impact on the playoffs, whether that's teams qualifying for the postseason or jockeying for better seeding.
As Detroit players gave coach Jim Schwartz two Gatorade baths at the end of the game, they took a deserved moment to celebrate. As much as the Lions have been criticized this season for constant penalty problems and Ndamukong Suh's behavior, the reason for the attention is actually a positive thing.
For the first time in so long, the Lions are worth talking about. For that, a little Christmas champagne is in order.
"There will be a time we won't celebrate making the playoffs," Schwartz said. "That won't be tonight."
Schwartz needs to make sure the celebration ends soon. The 10-5 Lions have a chance to grab the No. 5 overall seed if Atlanta, which is 9-5 and beat Detroit earlier this season, loses one of the next two games.
[ Slideshow: Best NFL photos from Week 16 ]
The Falcons are in a precarious situation. They haven't sewed up a playoff berth yet and they need to beat New Orleans on Monday because they don't want to go to New Orleans in the first round, either.
The Saints are drastically different at home because of their defense (they have forced eight turnovers in six home games and only five in eight road games this season). On the other hand, the Giants and Cowboys are among the league's most inconsistent teams.
For obvious reasons, the Lions weren't terribly concerned about that after thumping the Chargers.
"We're in and that's all that really matters right now," defensive end Kyle Vandenbosch said.
For the night and maybe the next day, that's fine. Come Monday, the situation changes.
• It hasn't been a pretty three-year career for Oakland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, even if he has improved quite a bit this season. Likewise, quarterback Carson Palmer has been inconsistent since the Raiders acquired him via trade in October. However, the two picked the right time to hook up on a 53-yard pass in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal against Kansas City. Give credit to Heyward-Bey for running a nice route and to Palmer for showing off his strong arm. Good stuff all the way around and the kind of play the Raiders have been missing.
Cam Newton ran for a 49-yard touchdown, his 14th rushing score of the season.
• What a wonderful year to have to pick the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. For what it's worth, my vote goes to Cam Newton with one week left after he put on yet another show on Saturday at home. Newton completed 12-of-17 passes for 171 yards (Brandon LaFell made a nice snag on a team-record 91-yard touchdown pass). He also broke a 49-yard touchdown run, extending his NFL record for rushing scores by a quarterback to 14. Newton has completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,893 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions this season. He has also run for 674 yards. He has basically posted the greatest statistical rookie season ever. Of course, there is also Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, whose passing numbers are similar to Newton's. Dalton has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 3,166 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. More important, Dalton has the Bengals at 9-6 and currently in the playoffs if the postseason started today. The team accomplishment is certainly worth (as is the performance of fellow Bengals rookie A.J. Green). However, there is something dominant about Newton with his combination of size, and running and throwing ability. He has exceeded all expectations and has helped turn a team that was hopeless in 2010 (the Panthers were 2-14 and scored less than 20 points in 14 games) into one of the league's most exciting. The 6-9 Panthers are averaging a shade under 26 points a game this season (389 points). If Carolina had a somewhat reasonable defense (they have given up 384 points, the fifth-most in the league), they might be in the playoff picture, too.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Brandon LaFell on his 91-yard score]
• By now, you have undoubtedly seen the vaulting 19-yard touchdown catch and run by Cincinnati wide receiver Jerome Simpson, which featured Simpson nailing a landing straight out of an Olympic gymnastics competition. That was the kind of athletic ability everyone saw from Simpson when he was a second-round pick from Coastal Carolina in 2008. The sad part is this is the same guy who may face federal charges for a 2.5-pound marijuana delivery to his home in September. The Bengals have spent four years trying to nurture Simpson into being a great player. He's still not quite there, but that play on Saturday shows why the team has been so patient with him. At the same time, he's a Bengal, through and through.
[ Related: Jerome Simpson makes spectacular TD catch ]
Tight end Jared Cook was a favorite target of Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck. Cook caught eight passes on Saturday against the Jaguars. "You can't run with Cookie down the middle like that," Hasselbeck said.
• The New York Giants not only helped themselves in the playoff race and ruined the Jets', but they laid claim to victory in the biggest game ever played against the Jets. As noted earlier this week, this game finally had some real meaning for the first time since the Jets joined the NFL in 1970. Since Jets coach Rex Ryan spent the week talking about how he didn't want to be coaching the second-best team in New York, this game took on greater meaning. Some may say that Ryan needs to shut his mouth, but that's the wrong way to look at it. This game is relevant partly because of Ryan, who wouldn't stop, even during the postgame period. (He had a run-in with the Giants' Brandon Jacobs, who called the coach a "disrespectful bastard.") Great stuff.
• It was a good day to be named Clay. Within 19 seconds of each other (at least on the official play clocks of their respective games), running back John Clay of Pittsburgh and fullback/tight end Charles Clay of Miami scored touchdowns. With 6:50 remaining in the second quarter, John Clay scored on a 10-yard run to give the Steelers a 10-0 lead against St. Louis. Then, at the 6:31 mark in New England, Charles Clay scored on a 1-yard pass from Matt Moore to give the Dolphins a 17-0 lead.
• Tennessee may not have enough time left to get in the playoffs, but it may have finally gotten something special out of tight end Jared Cook, a third-round pick in 2009. Cook had a career-high eight catches for 169 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville to keep hope alive for the Titans. Cook has more than 100 yards receiving in each of the past two games, showing off some of the skills the Titans saw when they drafted him. If he continues to progress, wide receiver Kenny Britt comes back strong and running back Chris Johnson regains his consistency, the Titans' offense could be special next season.
• Well, it was a brutal day for two quarterbacks who were hoping to parlay Saturday into more confidence from their teams. Instead, the Denver Broncos' Tim Tebow and the Jets' Mark Sanchez both played poorly enough that it could overwhelm anything they have done. Tebow was especially horrible, throwing four interceptions and cementing the notion that he doesn't have the ability to rally a team when it gets behind by double-digits. Tebow wasn't the problem in the previous loss against New England (he had one of three fumbles in the second quarter, but the play was really a matter of good defense by the Pats), however, God did him no favors in Buffalo. Tebow looked just dreadful Saturday, throwing twice as many picks as he had coming into the game. Two of the four were returned for scores. Yeah, it's hard to say that Tebow shouldn't remain as the starter next season, but it may be too difficult to draw up game plans that hide his faults in the future. To anyone who has been watching, Denver puts a lot of pressure on its defense to protect Tebow's shortcomings. As for Sanchez, he was just as bad in his own way. In his third season as the Jets starter, Sanchez isn't getting better. Against the Giants, Sanchez completed 30-of-59 passes for a paltry 258 yards (4.4 yards per attempt is brutal). Sanchez was sacked five times, including a game-clinching safety in the fourth quarter, and was intercepted twice. Sanchez easily could have been intercepted two other times as the Giants continually funneled passes into the middle of the field. That's where Sanchez tends to miss reads on where defenders are, missing receivers and floating too many throws. To this point, Sanchez has been protected by coach Rex Ryan and owner Woody Johnson.
Tim Tebow threw four interceptions against the Bills, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
• Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur did damage to himself on two fronts in a brutal 20-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, a game that could have helped Pittsburgh win the division if the Browns had been able to win. First of all, there was some horrendous clock management at the end of the first half. The Browns had a second-and-1 situation at the Baltimore 8-yard line with 57 seconds remaining in the first half. Cleveland managed to run only three plays from such a short distance over that time, even after getting a first-and-goal situation. Shurmur topped his butchery by not even scoring a point as he tried to get cute with 11 seconds remaining. Shurmur called for a running play on second down even though he had no timeouts remaining. The play was stopped and time ran out. Then, with two minutes remaining, the Browns had Baltimore in a fourth-and-2 situation at the Cleveland 37, but then jumped offside, allowing Baltimore to get a first down and run out the clock. The second issue in all of this is that Shurmur owes it to other teams to not make obvious mistakes like this when playoff seeds and home-field advantage are on the line. A field goal at the end of the first half might have changed the strategy of the second half.
• The officials in the New England game were particularly good all game long, but the pass interference call on Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty was pretty brutal. The pass, which was intended for Miami wide receiver Brian Hartline, was clearly uncatchable unless you were Michael Jordan in his prime.
• Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman continued his salute to Cal Ripken by throwing an interception in 11 consecutive games. To those Redskins fans who keep emailing me about how good Grossman is, sorry, you're just wrong. Grossman may have had two touchdown passes, but his pick, combined with two failures to score touchdowns after getting inside the 10-yard line, doomed the Redskins to a loss to 3-12 Minnesota.
• If you didn't listen to the NFL Network pregame show, you missed this gem from analyst Michael Irvin as he discussed Houston's loss to Indianapolis on Thursday night. "That win Thursday night that the Colts put on the Texans is exactly the win that knocked the Texans out of any chance at getting to the Super Bowl because you needed that bye," Irvin said. Really, Michael? It was the loss on Thursday that killed Houston's chances? Not the loss of quarterbacks Matt Schaub or Matt Leinart? Not the loss of linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams? Yeah, maybe I'm quibbling, but this is the kind of silliness that kills an organization. No reasonable person expected the Texans to make the Super Bowl this season, not with rookie T.J. Yates now playing quarterback or any of the other assorted subs playing at other spots. The Texans have had a great season to overcome the injuries they have suffered. This is a good year to build on. Irvin's comments make it sound like there's a problem.
• The St. Louis Rams put up zero fight against Pittsburgh. That's not surprising. The Rams may have rushed for 164 yards, but they had just 91 yards passing and were shut out for the second time in the past four games. They also have scored less than 10 points in six games. So much for the genius of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Miami's Brandon Marshall gave New England headaches in the first half Saturday.
Loved: The play of Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall in the first half against New England. Marshall had five catches for 102 yards, including a 47-yarder and a touchdown, in the first half alone (he finished with seven catches for 156 yards). Maybe the most impressive play of the first half was his breakup on a pass that was nearly intercepted by New England's Devin McCourty. That preserved a drive that the Dolphins eventually scored a touchdown on.
Loathed: The completely busted coverage by the combination of Jets cornerbacks Kyle Wilson and Antonio Cromartie as they turned an 11-yard reception by wide receiver Victor Cruz into a 99-yard touchdown that turned the game around for the Giants. This was simply horrendous coverage. It's one thing to allow the catch on third-and-10. That happens. It's another to be so out of position that Cruz gets between two guys. Inexcusable.
Loved: The performance of New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, who deflected five passes, including one that stopped a touchdown and another that led to an interception by linebacker David Harris. The beauty of the way Revis plays is that he never has to wrap his arm around a wide receiver to get leverage as he reaches around for the deflection on short throws. Revis' body control is simply amazing.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Ahmad Bradshaw on bragging rights, playoffs]
Loathed: Watching the seeming lack of effort by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense over the past three games. During that stretch, the Bucs have allowed 120 points, including more than 40 apiece by Jacksonville and Carolina. Conversely, the Bucs have only scored 45 in that span. The dismal effort in the second half against Carolina – allowing TDs on four of the first five defensive series – should be the final nail in the coffin for coach Raheem Morris, the guy who actually runs the defense. Then again, the nails are probably already hammered.
Loved: That the 49ers stayed true to their small-ball style of play, even in a tense game at Seattle. The 49ers never panicked in a game that could have cost them a first-round bye. In the process, kicker David Akers hit four of five field goals to break the record for most in a season (42). All the 49ers have to do to maintain the No. 2 seed is have New Orleans lose on Monday or beat St. Louis in the season finale. The 49ers still have a shot at the No. 1 seed if Green Bay loses its final two games and the 49ers beat the Rams. That's a long shot.
Loathed: The highlight work of CBS studio analyst and former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher. During the halftime highlights on the early games, Cowher talked about a scrambling play by Steelers backup-turned-starting quarterback Charlie Batch in the game against St. Louis. Cowher said Batch used some "improvision." Come on, Bill, it's improvisation. Dude, this is not an SAT word.
David Akers's leg kept the Niners in the hunt for the top seed in the NFC.
Loved: The running of Reggie Bush, at least until he sadly hurt his knee in the second half. I've been as big a critic of Bush as a running back as anyone, but he has looked exceptionally sharp as this season has progressed. On Saturday, Bush had a number of interesting plays, including a rare pass attempt off a direct snap (if he had thrown it better, he would have had a shot to get it to quarterback Matt Moore, the intended receiver). Bush's best run of the day was a 6-yard carry to the left where he vaulted New England defensive back Kyle Arrington. Cool stuff. Along the way, Bush surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in rushing for the first time in his six-year career.
Loathed: The fact that Detroit was caught off guard on an onside kick attempt in the third quarter after San Diego scored to get within 24-7. Seriously, when you're indoors and kickoff returns are limited to begin with, the first thing you have to check for is an onside kick. No doubt, some Lions fans will remember the onside kick the Lions failed to cover in 2000 in a loss to Miami. The play turned the game and Lions coach Bobby Ross resigned shortly after the defeat.
Loved: The fact that the Lions gave up only a field goal on that drive after the botched onside kick, then scored a touchdown after that to keep control of the game. Strong mental stuff from a team that has been more than a tad inconsistent in that respect this season.
Loathed: The penalties Jets rookie linebacker Nick Bellore picked up on back-to-back punt attempts in the first quarter (the second penalty was part of an offsetting penalty situation that forced a third punt). The first two penalties negated a pair of 50-yard punts. The third punt was shanked for only a 36-yard net, helping the Giants eventually get a field goal.
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