1. Worst Playoff Clincher Ever. Some teams play poorly at the end of the regular season, but still manage to ‘back in’ to the playoffs. Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, on the other hand, have stumbled, stammered and crashed into the postseason, like tipsy cowboys in a frontier bar. Tebow’s stats from the final two games of the regular season, both Broncos losses, are garish: he completed 19 of 51 passes (37%), for 245 yards, four interceptions, and a touchdown. In Denver’s 7-3 home loss to Kansas City on Sunday, Tebow was 6-22, for 60 yards and an interception. The Broncos (8-8) ended their season on a three-game losing streak. But they won the AFC West over the 8-8 Oakland Raiders, who lost to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, because of their better record against common opponents.
The Chiefs wrote the script on how to stop Tebow. Their defenders played tight man-to-man on the Broncos receivers, daring Tebow to throw crisp passes. Kansas City also pressured Tebow on the outside, where he likes to roll out of the pocket. The Pittsburgh Steelers, always a defensive power, visit Denver for a wild-card game next week: the Steelers will surely copy the Kansas City scheme.
The Cincinnati Bengals also backed into a playoff spot: they grabbed the AFC’s sixth and final position despite losing to the Baltimore Ravens, who clinched the AFC North and a first-round bye, 24-16. The Bengals play in Houston next week: the New England Patriots earned the other bye in the AFC.
2. Colts Get Lucky. By losing 19-13 to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts finished with a 2-14 record. That’s lousy enough to give them the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is one of the most highly-touted prospects since, well, Peyton Manning—the Colts owe Manning, who missed the entire season with a neck injury, a $28 million bonus if he’s still with the team in March. So does Indianapolis turn the page on the Peyton era, save itself a hefty bill and start Luck right away? Or do the Colts keep Manning, and make Luck serve as his understudy until it’s time for him to retire? Colts owner Jim Irsay has said that if Manning is healthy, he’ll remain a Colt. Fortunately for Indy, if Manning is done, another Peyton may take his place.
3. New York (Giants!), New York (ugh, the Jets). In what was basically the first playoff game of 2012 —the winner of Sunday night’s New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys duel clinched the NFC East, while the loser was eliminated–the Giants beat the Cowboys, 31-14, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Giants second-year receiver Victor Cruz, an undrafted free agent who was nearly cut from the team a year ago, finished with six catches, 178 yards and a touchdown. Cruz, who grew up rooting for the Cowboys in Paterson, New Jersey, just a few miles from the MetLife Stadium, set a new team record for most receiving yards in a single season, finishing with 1,358. Giants quarterback Eli Manning continued his ascent out of Peyton’s shadow, and put the finishing touches on the finest season of his career: Manning’s fourth quarter touchdown pass gave him 15 fourth-quarter scores for the season, the most in NFL history. The Giants host the Atlanta Falcons in an opening round playoff game next week (Detroit travels to New Orleans in the other NFC game: Green Bay and San Francisco earned first round byes).
Meanwhile, the New York team that carried higher expectations this season, the Jets, melted down in Miami. Bloviating Jets coach Rex Ryan has long yapped about the Super Bowl talent on this team. But the Jets, who lost 19-17 to Miami on Sunday, are in complete disarray. Mercurial wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who was given a $45 million contract before this season and named team captain, threw a fit in the huddle, upset that quarterback Mark Sanchez wasn’t throwing him the ball. Players started bickering on the field, and Holmes was benched at the end of the game. “It’s tough for guys to follow a captain that kind of behaves in that manner,” Jets running back, and future Hall of Famer, LaDainian Tomlinson said afterwards in a stinging comment. Holmes quit on his team, which was fighting for its playoff life.
One team in New York, the Giants, quietly goes about its business, won a Super Bowl in 2008, and is now headed back to the playoffs. The other, the Jets, just talks a big game—and is going home.