The Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers rounded out the National Football League’s 12-team playoff field by pulling out wins in the closing minutes on the final day of the regular season.
The Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers and defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens missed out on chances to make the postseason, which begins the weekend of Jan. 4-5 with four games.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned for Green Bay after missing the past seven games with a broken collarbone and threw a 48-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass with 38 seconds left yesterday to lift the Packers to a 33-28 victory over the Bears. The victory gave the Packers (8-7-1) the National Football Conference North Division title and first-round playoff matchup at home against the San Francisco 49ers (12-4).
“When that ball came down and he got in the end zone, it was just pandemonium,” said Rodgers, who escaped a rush from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers before lobbing the deep pass to Randall Cobb in the closing seconds.
The defending NFC-champion 49ers, who closed the regular season with six straight wins yet finished one game behind the Seattle Seahawks in the West division, are listed as 2-point favorites, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook.
The Eagles will host the weekend’s other NFC game after holding on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 24-22 last night in a matchup to decide the East division title. Nick Foles threw two touchdown passes for the Eagles (10-6), who stopped a two-point conversion attempt by the Cowboys with three minutes, 57 seconds left and added an interception with 1:43 remaining to seal the win.
Philadelphia is a 2 1/2-point favorite at home against the New Orleans Saints (11-5) and Drew Brees on Jan. 4.
“It’s going to be a good one,” said Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin, who had the late interception of Cowboys backup quarterback Kyle Orton. “They have a lot of weapons. We’re going to be amped, we’re back at home and it’s going to be one for Philly. We have to get back to work on Monday.”
The Seahawks (13-3) and Panthers (12-4) have byes in the first round after earning the NFC’s top two seeds.
The Chargers snagged the last playoff berth in the American Football Conference by erasing a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and beating the Kansas City Chiefs 27-24 in overtime yesterday.
San Diego (9-7) had the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a win after the Dolphins and Ravens both lost earlier in the day. Miami (8-8) was beaten 20-7 by the New York Jets and scored a total of seven points in its final two games, while Baltimore (8-8) lost to the Cincinnati Bengals 34-17 to miss out on the postseason for the first time since 2007.
The Steelers had the slimmest chance to make the postseason of any team in contention yesterday, needing a win over the Cleveland Browns and losses by Miami, Baltimore and San Diego. The Steelers (8-8) won 20-7, and the Dolphins and Ravens both lost before the Chargers rallied past the Chiefs to end Pittsburgh’s season. Kansas City missed a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left in the fourth quarter and San Diego won it in overtime on Nick Novak’s 36-yard kick.
“We never gave up, we kept fighting and believed in what we were going to do and how it was going to turn out,” Chargers first-year coach Mike McCoy said. “I would have never scripted it that way, but we’ll take the win any way we can.”
The Chargers, winners of four straight games, next travel to Cincinnati to face a Bengals team that’s 8-0 at home this season. Cincinnati (11-5) was the last team to beat the Chargers, winning 17-10 in San Diego on Dec. 1 and is listed as a 7-point favorite for the Jan. 5 rematch.
The Chiefs (11-5), who already had a playoff berth locked up, visit the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) in the AFC’s other first-round playoff game. The Colts are 2 1/2-point favorites on Jan. 4, according to the LVH SuperBook.
The Denver Broncos (13-3) and New England Patriots (12-4) are off this week and will both host playoff games in the second round after earning the top two seeds in the AFC.
“We’ve had our goals all along,” said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who yesterday broke Brees’s single-season NFL record for passing yardage and extended his mark for touchdown passes to 55. “This is why you work hard in the offseason. This is why you lift weights and have the offseason program –-- to give yourself an opportunity to play in the postseason.”
The NFL’s four divisional playoff games are scheduled for Jan. 11 and 12, with the two championship games the following week. The Super Bowl is scheduled for Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.