BALTIMORE — On the home sideline at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith sneaked behind Coach John Harbaugh, a water cooler in his hands and celebration on his mind. Before he could hoist it over his coach’s head, cornerback Marcus Peters stopped him.
The Ravens were the team of 2019. They turned an experimental offense into fuel for a juggernaut. Lamar Jackson transformed from doubted passer to unquestioned MVP. Baltimore morphed from a shaky 2-2 to an unassailable 14-2, the best regular season in franchise history, a testament to ingenuity and brawn.
“It’s something people will be talking about for a long time,” Harbaugh said. “But we won’t be. We’ll be talking about getting ready for the next game.”
The rest of the NFL chased the Ravens all season, but now they and 11 other teams are braced on a new start line. It is not time for Gatorade baths. It is time for new beginnings, whether that means preparing for the postseason, hiring a new coach or searching for a new quarterback. The regular season is over, and this is what to know:
The Patriots’ Super Bowl defense is on life support. For the first time in 10 years, New England will have to play during the opening weekend of the playoffs. All they needed to secure a bye was to beat the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots’ defense yielded a last-minute touchdown drive, culminated by Ryan Fitzpatrick’s strike to tight end Mike Gesicki with 24 seconds left that capped a stunning 27-24 loss.
At M&T Bank Stadium, fans watching the end on the videoboard cheered when the clock struck zero, even though the result changed nothing about when the Ravens could meet the Patriots in the playoffs. That’s the place the Patriots occupy in the NFL’s collective psyche — always foremost, always the villain.
But the Patriots, even as reigning champs, are a dynasty in winter. Their loss to hapless Miami revealed the latest proof of their mediocre talent level. The Patriots’ likeliest path to the Super Bowl is the Titans at home, at the Chiefs, at the Ravens. The Patriots could conjure enough smarts and magic to win one, maybe two of those games, but they are nowhere near good enough to win all three.
The questions about Tom Brady’s future and the direction of the Patriots will only grow louder. Some of them will come Sunday at Gillette Stadium, which for the first time in a decade will host a playoff game on the opening weekend.
The 49ers won the NFC West by the slimmest of margins. The NFC playoff field didn’t finalize until late Sunday night, when the Seattle-San Francisco ending descended into madness. The game ended with a tackle at the goal line after the Seahawks toggled between brilliance and fiasco.
Russell Wilson orchestrated an effortless two-minute drill with the Seahawks trailing 26-21, moving the Seahawks to the San Francisco 1-yard line. With no timeouts left, he spiked the ball with 26 seconds left. Seattle sent Marshawn Lynch, re-signed off the street this week, to the huddle. You would think if there is one scenario Seattle’s coaching staff should not need more than 25 seconds to figure out, it would be a goal-line play with Lynch in the backfield.
Somehow, the Seahawks were milling around when officials tossed a flag for delay of game. It was an unforgivable penalty — Seattle went from a near-certain touchdown to second and goal from the 6. Wilson fluttered two incomplete passes. On fourth down, Wilson rifled a slant to tight end Jacob Hollister. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw slammed him. Hollister’s left shoulder hit the turf a split-second before he could roll his right arm, which held the ball, to the goal line. After review, it was ruled short.
And so the 49ers earned home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs while the Saints remained the No. 3 seed and the Packers stayed at No. 2. The Seahawks would have hosted the Vikings this weekend, but instead they’ll travel to Philadelphia.
Aaron Rodgers was terrible, but the Packers hung on to a bye. Rodgers ended up passing for more than 300 yards and led a last-minute drive that resulted in Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal, which clinched a first-round bye for the Packers. But Rodgers spent most of Green Bay’s lackluster, 23-20 victory in Detroit overthrowing receivers. At halftime, Rodgers had completed 6 of 18 passes for 90 yards, and the Lions led 17-3.
The Packers are a hard team to figure. Coach Matt LaFleur deserves credit for going 13-3 in his first season, but Green Bay has rarely played like an elite team. They have the lowest point differential for a team that earned a bye since the 2015 Denver Broncos, who outscored opponents by 59 points. Those Broncos dragged Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl in his final season. Anything is still possible for Green Bay, but they could be an underdog in their playoff opener if — as is the most likely scenario — they see the Saints at Lambeau Field.
The Eagles won the NFC East. But it remains to be seen what kind of shape they’ll be in next weekend. Running back Miles Sanders and guard Brandon Brooks left the Eagles’ 34-17 victory over the New York Giants, in which a tie game late in the second half turned into a rout. Those added to Philadelphia’s laundry list of key players nursing ailments.
Since Nick Foles stepped in for Carson Wentz on a Super Bowl run, the Eagles have specialized in out-of-nowhere heroes. Add Boston Scott to the list. The running back, who spent time on the practice squad this season, ran for three touchdowns — all in the second half — and gained 138 yards from scrimmage on four catches and 19 carries.
The Eagles are a slight underdog at home in the opening round. But it is a role they know well and have thrived in before.
The Titans left no doubt. Tennessee was lucky to play the Houston Texans, who were locked into the No. 4 seed and benched several key players, including quarterback Deshaun Watson in favor of AJ McCarron. Tennessee fell behind 7-0 after the opening drive and let the Texans come within one score in the second half, but ultimately they took advantage and clinched the AFC’s final playoff spot.
The Titans will head to Gillette Stadium on Saturday as the No. 6 seed. The Patriots’ infrastructure and home-field advantage make them a favorite in the first round. But the Titans are going to be trouble for New England. Derrick Henry won the rushing title, finishing with 1,540 yards after going for 211 on Sunday. And rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown is turning into one of the scariest offensive players in the league.
Freddie Kitchens is one-and-done. The Cleveland Browns fired Kitchens hours after they finished a dismal 6-10 season with a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who entered with only one other victory. The Browns positioned themselves for a possible backdoor playoff run, only to lose three games to end the season. Kitchens was handed a team with enough talent to contend for the playoffs — and he failed utterly, producing an undisciplined, unprepared team and allowing quarterback Baker Mayfield to regress.
The Browns joined Washington, Carolina and the Giants as teams officially in need of a new coach. ESPN reported that the Jacksonville Jaguars plan to fire Doug Marrone, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is expected to let Jason Garrett go. The Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions have announced they’ll be retaining Dan Quinn and Matt Patricia.
The Browns opening creates more speculation about Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, who coached Mayfield in college and is known to be a favorite of Jones. But one NFL player who played for Riley said he would “bet a lot of money” that Riley remains at Oklahoma to continue building the Sooners.
Jameis Winston capped an insane season in perfect fashion. On the final snap of a bizarrely historic year, Winston threw an overtime pick-six to Falcons linebacker Deion Jones. The interception made Winston the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 interceptions and 30 touchdowns in the same season. Winston also threw for 5,109 yards, which ranks eighth all-time and makes him the eighth quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. The names he joined: Manning, Brees, Brady, Roethlisberger, Mahomes, Marino and Stafford.
Winston’s season was the quarterbacking version of filling a cup with every kind of soda in the soda fountain. The Buccaneers, who finished 7-9 and haven’t made the playoffs since drafting Winston first overall in 2015, have an interesting decision to make on Winston, whose rookie contract ran out the second he threw his 30th interception.
The quarterback carousel is going to spin like crazy this offseason. The list of quarterbacks not under contract next season includes Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Winston, Eli Manning and Ryan Tannehill. Joe Burrow will almost certainly be the first pick in the draft. Cam Newton, who has one year remaining on his Panthers contract and faces questions about his health, could be available in a trade. Jon Gruden may be willing to trade Derek Carr and choose his own quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. Depending on who is running the Jaguars and what they think of Gardner Minshew II, Foles could be available again.
The number of teams in need of quarterback help and the unusual number of qualified signal callers available will create a wild offseason. On Sunday, Rivers illustrated the emotional weight of some of those likely changes. Rivers, 38, has played his entire career with the Chargers, but he told reporters he would play elsewhere before he retires.
Robert Griffin III returned. The Ravens had no reason to play hard or play well, having wrapped up the top seed in the AFC. They still steamrolled the Steelers, 28-10, even though Pittsburgh entered with its playoff hopes alive. Baltimore rested Jackson and handed the reins to Griffin — “a player who’s been to the pinnacle,” Harbaugh said — to make his first start in three years.
Griffin rushed eight times for 50 yards and completed 11 of 21 passes for 96 yards, but Harbaugh lauded him for how he operated the Ravens’ intricate offense. Afterward, coaches gave Griffin a game ball.
“I don’t know when I’ll get an opportunity to start again, and that’s why I wanted to have fun,” Griffin said. “I’ve never really been a first-down-signal guy. But I was today.”
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