There’s a harsh finality to elimination in an NFL season. I suppose that’s true of every sport, but the nature of an NFL schedule — with its 16 games and the seven months spent preparing for those 16 games — creates an environment with little opportunity for error. As a result, mistakes and spectacular plays are magnified, especially during games that dictate the end of the season for one team, and a shot at a shiny trophy for another.

These are the times when we spotlight moments and place them on a glistening and spinning pedestal forever. The moments of Week 17 both this year and in years past aren’t Montana to Clark, or Eli to Tyree. No, they’re the moments which made those moments possible. Maybe.

Or maybe I’m getting a little too melodramatic here. Pardon me then, but when a man does little more than scream for many hours straight at a picture box, great things seem possible.

Oh, you didn’t do that? Come along then, and let’s re-live the belated Christmas jewel that Week 17 bestowed upon us.

With the calamity calmed now, we know that the first-round playoff matchups we’ll continue to scream obscenities about next weekend are as follows:

  • Chargers @ Bengals
  • Chiefs @ Colts
  • 49ers @ Packers
  • Saints @ Eagles
  • NFC byes: Seahawks and Panthers, and Seattle gets homefield advantage
  • AFC byes: Broncos and Patriots, and Denver gets homefield advantage

We arrived there through a pleasant and at times inner organ halting combination of heroism and bitterly disappointing nothingness.

The Ravens and an unkind second half

Eventually everything fell in place for the Ravens to ease in as the No. 6 seed. And by “everything” I mean the Dolphins losing (more on that case of absenteeism below) because that was everything the defending champs required. Yet repeated mistakes by the Bengals led only to a repeated inability to capitalize on said mistakes.

The Ravens intercepted two of Andy Dalton’s first six pass attempts (over the last three weeks he had thrown 0 picks on 117 attempts), but they could only get two field goals out of the resulting red-zone trips. That was just the beginning of the offensive blackout which started when Justin Tucker kicked that second field goal with 2:30 remaining in the first quarter. Over their next five drives, the Ravens recorded only one first down, a stretch when Cincy outpaced them offensively with 189 yards to Baltimore’s 43.

Then came more Bengals failure followed by Ravens failure when Dalton threw another pick which ended in only a field goal. In total he threw four, yet Joe Flacco led an offense which scored just one touchdown, and a deep passing game that was entirely erased, starting with Torrey Smith. Flacco’s longest pass went for only 14 yards.

Dalton had a few passes longer than that. Like this one, finished by Marvin Jones’ juggling…

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

Oh, there was hope, as that lone touchdown to Marlon Brown capped an 11-point run which tied the game at 17 after Ray Rice’s two-point conversion. But a tipped pass by Michael Johnson that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Chris Crocker started the Bengals’ own run. And 17 points later, the Ravens’ season was over, losing 34-17.

Flacco was hurt and limited, and at one point after getting smacked by Carlos Dunlap he stayed down, prompting Tyrod Taylor to throw a few warmup tosses. Only he knows the exact severity of his knee injury.

But here’s another undeniable truth: in a must-win game, Flacco threw three interceptions.

There’s nothing I despise more than the frequency that the word “elite” is used to both describe and debate quarterbacks, and a little over a year ago it relentlessly followed Flacco during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and then throughout the rest of February while his bank busting contract was negotiated. You know, the one that pays him $20.1 million annually, more than the average yearly salary given to Aaron Rodgers ($18.1).

So what did Year 1 of that contract purchase? A quarterback who had two games with three interceptions over the last four weeks of the season, and he averaged only 3.8 yards per pass attempt in Week 17 when the champs were eliminated.

Of course, one man alone can’t orchestrate a collapse like the one Baltimore endured over the past two weeks, losing by a combined scored of 75-24. Ray Rice continued to be just the worst, rushing for only 15 yards on six carries yesterday, though he was still a presence in the passing game (35 yards on seven catches). And there was an utter lack of separation on the outside, and as a result Smith finished with only 27 receiving yards after averaging 70.5 per game throughout the rest of the season.

Prior to yesterday the last seven defending Super Bowl champions had failed to win a playoff game. Since winning a playoff game is pretty difficult when a team doesn’t even qualify for the playoffs, the Ravens are now extending that streak. Parity is real, guys.

The Dolphins, and an unkind game

The Dolphins had to either win last week to clinch a playoff spot, or win this week to pretty much punch a ticket with a little bit of help (you know, the Ravens loss that happened). So here’s what they have to look back on now: against the Bills and Jets — two teams that had been eliminated from playoff contention — the Dolphins lost by a combined score of 39-7.

It was an appropriate end for a Dolphins season filled with dysfunction, and rotting from the inside. A usually stout or at worst above average Dolphins defense allowed Geno Smith to complete 63 percent of his passes. Normally that would but just sort of good and pretty unremarkable. But in Smith we’re discussing a quarterback whose completion percentage fell below 55.0 in seven games this year. He was raw, and that’s being so very kind.

Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions, meaning that the two quarterbacks of teams in the leading position for the sixth seed in the AFC upchucked a combined six picks. Which begs the question: did anyone really, honestly want that final spot?


Yes, the Steelers wanted a playoff spot please

Surely knowing but never openly acknowledging that their chances of earning a playoff berth were improbable at best, the Steelers faced a Joe Haden-less defense and a Browns offense which still calls Jason Campbell its quarterback, and they did their part. A team that would senselessly dispose of its rookie head coach hours later was easily tossed aside 20-7, with the Browns’ only points coming at the 2:55 mark of the fourth quarter.

So no, this game wasn’t at all close. And yes, with the graces of our football overlords everything else fell the Steelers’ way, with two of the three teams that needed to lose (Dolphins and Ravens) doing just that. But then they also needed the Chargers to lose against what was essentially the Chiefs’ all-preseason team, with 11 defensive starters sitting, and nine offensive starters (including Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles) since Kansas City was locked into the fifth seed and couldn’t move up or down.

Surely there’s a better chance of those dog riding monkeys winning a game, right?

Ummm, about that

I need you to really pause and absorb just what it means for 20 starters to sit out. They did it because Andy Reid (quite rightfully) said this: I don’t care at all about this game. He then made a loud farting noise with his hands.

Chase Daniel started a competitive football game, something he hadn’t done…ever. Daniel spent four seasons as Drew Brees’ backup in New Orleans, and now one in the same role behind Alex Smith. That alone should have been enough for a chillin’ day and an easy win, but then Jamaal Charles — he of the 1,980 total yards — also sat, along with every member of a defense that sacked opposing quarterbacks 47 times this season, and allowed a passer rating of only 78.5 while intercepting 21 passes (third).

No, none of this should have been difficult for the Chargers. Yet there was the Chiefs’ B team scoring 21 first-half points. Philip Rivers et al kept pace with 14 of their own, and Ryan Mathews chugged along with 144 rushing yards (over the last four weeks of the season he had 537 total yards). But despite the presence of pretty much no one of value on either side of the ball for the Chiefs, San Diego needed these two remarkable events filled with prayer to win a game: Ryan Succop (a Pittsburgh native) missing on a 41-yard field goal, and Eric Weddle running for a first down on a fake punt from his own 28 yard-line in overtime while Mike McCoy rubbed his brass balls.

Conversely, the Steelers needed one or both of those things to not happen, and their improbable playoff ascension would have been sealed.

Against an all-August preseason team, the Bolts eventually won both a game, and a wholly undeserved playoff berth. There wasn’t a worthy team for the sixth AFC spot, but the Chargers go by default.

Hey shhhh, don’t show this to anyone in Pittsburgh, kay?

chiefs FG

I’ll just leave this here:

When Team A presents a field-goal or Try Kick formation: (1) No more than six Team B players may be on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper at the snap; Penalty: For illegal formation by the defense, loss of 5 yards from the previous spot.

Even before that, at the end of Weddle’s fake punt run he was stripped by Cyrus Gray for what was presumably a game-ending — and for the Chargers, season-ending — touchdown. But no, it wasn’t, because referee Bill Leavy ruled that Weddle’s forward progress had been stopped prior to the strip, and therefore the play was dead.

He didn’t properly announce that to the crowd, and the audience at home was equally confused. Here’s the play…

It was an odd and bogus call on a play that determined the playoff fate of two teams. How, exactly, is Weddle’s forward progress stopped, yet he’s also awarded the first down? After looking at that many times, he was stopped short of the first down, and then he fought towards the marker. If he’s still fighting, he’s still progressing and the play is still live.

No single play or call determines the outcome of an entire game or season. But losing on a judgement call where the opportunity for human error is at its highest is the ultimate form of offseason mental anguish.

Meanwhile, Chargers fans are all like “meh, we don’t care about your calls or fancy numbers and wussy math”.

But alas, a hero came

From my perch in The Score’s ivory offices where I view many games at the same time every Sunday, it felt morally wrong having that Chargers-Chiefs debacle on alongside the Bears-Packers play-in game.

In the end the Packers won the first of two play-in games during this glorious Week 17, beating the rivaled Bears 33-28 to win the NFC North and a playoff spot. But it was an act of juxtaposition.

Aaron Rodgers returned to much fanfare, mercifully relieving Matt Flynn. He didn’t quite look like Aaron Rodgers at first, though, as he threw an interception on his first trip to the red-zone, stalling a drive at Chicago’s five yard-line, followed by another one on a throw that was slightly high, but still should have been caught by Jordy Nelson (it was one of the few he didn’t catch, which his 161 receiving yards that led Week 17). The result was ugly: two picks on his first 10 pass attempts, after he had thrown only four over his previous 251 attempts prior to breaking his collarbone.

Of course, none of that mattered at all later after Rodgers chucked a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on fourth and eight with 46 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The heave what would have — and maybe should have — been the Packers’ final of the season is now a highlight we’ll watch until the end of our days.

Cobb’s line to end the day was a rather efficient one: two targets, two catches, and two touchdowns. But that act of heroism which we will be praised endlessly and be replayed until it’s burned into your cranium this week would not have been possible without this complete herp derp.

That was ruled a fumble, and not a forward pass (and therefore an incomplete pass) by Rodgers. Since the play wasn’t blown dead, Jarrett Boykin leisurely sauntered into the end zone untouched. Simple observation also won the day.

Elsewhere, a lack of observation lost the day.

Kyle Orton was Romo’ed

Since the Internet is governed by narrative laws, I can’t discuss the ending of the other Week 17 play-in game without noting that Tony Romo also throws interceptions, and sometimes at the end of games. I also can’t mention that often when he makes those throws his defense has given up many, many points. But that’s a rant for many, many other times.

No one except the Cowboys truly gave the Cowboys a chance Sunday night against Philadelphia. In a moment of truth their fans (who also support the Yankees and Lakers) really didn’t expect much with not only Romo but more importantly Sean Lee out.

But there was Kyle Orton in his first start since 2011, connecting with Jason Witten 12 times for 135 yards (both season highs), and hitting on three passes for 30 yards or more, including this 32-yard touchdown pass to a leaping and barreling Dez Bryant to bring his ‘Boys to within two points late in the fourth quarter. That’s when Bryant had 51 of his 99 receiving yards.

And there was Orton averaging 7.8 yards per pass attempt with 358 yards overall and two touchdowns. And there he was with a chance to drive down the field and win the game with 1:49 remaining and one timeout. Then, there he was with what we all expected: he reverted to the quarterback he had every right to be — one whose timing is off due to his stagnant time behind Romo, and his accuracy suffered randomly because of it — and he uncorked a game-ending interception on a pass intended for Miles Austin that was thrown half a step behind and into the hands of Brandon Boykin.

Translating that to language humans now speak in nearly 2014, first the Cowboys were all like…

Cowboys fan hides in his sweater. on TwitpicThen the Eagles were like…

The Cowboys finished 2013 with an 8-8 record for the third straight season, and for the fourth straight year their offseason begins in late december without playoff football. Worse, since their last championship in 1995 the Cowboys have just two playoff wins, only one of which came during this century.

How many playoff wins do the Jaguars have during that same stretch since ’95? Five. The Raiders? Five. The Texans will pick first overall next May, and they have two playoff wins even though they just finished only their 12th season in existence.

Slowly it’s occurring to me that the Cowboys might just be an overhyped and over-commercialized team whch plays far below its potential. That’s been true for at least three years now, but this season the heart hurt ran especially deep.

Fun with numbers: 2013 records (or thereabouts) edition

  • Reggie Bush and Joique Bell became the first running back duo in league history to each have over 500 rushing and receiving yards.
  • Pierre Garcon became the third receiver in league history to catch five or more passes in every game.
  • The Panthers set a team single-game record when they sacked Matt Ryan nine times. That’s a whole lot of hurt, but remarkably it’s still not an all-time single-game record, as five other teams crunched quarterbacks 12 times in a game. In total, they finished the regular season with 60 sacks, an increase of 21 over last year that also tied a team record.
  • Andrew Luck finalized his title as the quarterback who has passed for the most yards over the first two years of his career. He finished this year with 3,540 yards, giving him a total of 7,914 over his first two professional seasons.
  • Carson Palmer became the first quarterback to pass for over 4,000 yards with three different teams.
  • This isn’t a 2013 record, but it’s still quite ridiculous: in the Patriots’ eventual blowout win over Buffalo to secure a bye, LeGarrette Blount had a franchise record 334 all-purpose yards, 189 of which came on the ground, along with two touchdowns. His yardage total is the seventh highest single-game output since the merger.
  • The Broncos set the single season points record, finishing with 606 while breaking the record in booming fashion against the listless Raiders on Peyton Manning’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. Oh and hey, Manning had another pretty alright day.
  • Manning set the single-season passing yards record. He played in only the first half of a blowout 34-14 win that secured homefield advantage, but that was plenty of time to throw for 266 yards, giving him 5,477 in total this year to beat Drew Brees’ single-season record (oh and Brees did a “look at me” with his 381 yards today and four touchdowns, giving him four seasons with over 5,000 yards, and three straight).
  • Manning also threw four touchdown passes in a game for the ninth time this season, and he finished with 55, which is a weee bit more than his interception total (10).
  • A stray passing yards kaboom related thought: a few seasons ago in 2011 it was a damn big deal when Brees first set the record Manning broke yesterday. That’s when he passed Dan Marino’s mark that had stood since 1984. Marino’s 5,084 yards lasted as the benchmark for 26 seasons, but now over the last three years it’s been passed five times.
  • After an awesome though at times odd day, it feels appropriate to leave you with these two firsts in 2013…