Steelers Win Division Title as Panthers, Ravens Reach Playoffs

The Pittsburgh Steelers clinched the final division title and a home game in the first round of the National Football League playoffs while the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens earned the last two postseason spots.

The Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 27-17 last night in the final game of the regular season to win the American Football Conference’s North Division title and set the NFL’s playoff schedule. The postseason begins Jan. 3 with two games, including the Steelers hosting the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens scored 17 fourth-quarter points to beat the Cleveland Browns 20-10 yesterday and emerge from a pack of four teams vying for the AFC’s last wild-card playoff berth.

The Panthers won 34-3 at the Atlanta Falcons in a showdown for the National Football Conference South Division title, becoming at 7-8-1 just the second team in NFL history to make the postseason with a losing record.

“The record is not important right now because everybody’s slate is clean,” said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina is favored by five points against the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) in the first wild-card playoff game on Jan. 3.

The defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks clinched the NFC West Division title and a first-round bye yesterday with a 20-6 win over the St. Louis Rams. The Green Bay Packers also earned a first-round playoff bye with a 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions for the NFC North title.

The Lions (11-5) will visit the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys in their opening-round game on Jan. 4. The Cowboys are 6 1/2-point favorites at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

After last night’s loss in Pittsburgh, the Bengals (10-5-1) will travel to Indianapolis for a first-round game against the Colts (11-5) on Jan. 4. The Colts closed out their season yesterday with a 27-10 win over Tennessee.

Bye Teams

The New England Patriots (12-4) and Denver Broncos (12-4) are both off during the first round of the AFC playoffs. The Patriots, who already had the AFC East title locked up, lost to the Buffalo Bills 17-9 yesterday. The Broncos capped their regular season with a 47-14 rout of the Oakland Raiders.

“This bye, I think we need it,” said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw three touchdown passes over the final four weeks of the season. “I think we’re a little beat up, physically. I know I am.”

The Steelers (11-5) got two touchdowns from Antonio Brown - - one on a 71-yard punt return and the second on a 63-yard reception with under three minutes left -- to knock off the Bengals and win their first division title since 2010.

With their fourth straight victory, the Steelers set up a third meeting with the division-rival Ravens. The last time the teams played, on Nov. 2 in Pittsburgh, the Steelers won 43-23.

“The intensity is going to be up,” said Brown, who led the NFL with 122 receptions this season. “What better place to be than at home against a division rival.”

Ravens Return

The Ravens, who won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season, are back in the playoffs after missing out last year and starting this season with the off-field distractions caused by the domestic abuse case involving former running back Ray Rice.

Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes in the final eight minutes yesterday for the Ravens (10-6), who benefited from the San Diego Chargers’ 19-7 loss in Kansas City. The Ravens’ comeback from a 10-3 deficit ended the playoff hopes for the Houston Texans (9-7), who ended the season with a 23-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, yet needed a victory and losses by both San Diego and Baltimore to make the postseason.

Chargers Loss

The Chargers (9-7) controlled their destiny entering Week 17, needing a win in Kansas City to make the postseason, yet were eliminated with the loss to the Chiefs and backup quarterback Chase Daniel. Kansas City, which also finished 9-7, needed a win along with losses by Baltimore and Houston to make the playoffs. The Ravens needed to win and have San Diego lose.

“It was a weird situation to be in, playing and not knowing what’s going to happen,” Flacco said.

The Panthers, in a win-and-in game in Atlanta, got interception returns for touchdowns by Roman Harper and Tre Boston in rolling past the favored Falcons for their fourth straight win. Carolina earlier this season went almost two months without a victory and joins the 2010 Seahawks (7-9) as the second team to make the playoffs with a losing record in a non strike-shortened season.

The Panthers are favored against a Cardinals team that lost four of its final six regular-season games following a season-ending knee injury to quarterback Carson Palmer.

In yesterday’s games without playoff implications, the Philadelphia Eagles topped the New York Giants 34-26, the New York Jets beat the Miami Dolphins 37-24, the Minnesota Vikings defeated the Chicago Bears 13-9 and the New Orleans Saints scoring 16 fourth-quarter points to rally past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23-20. With the loss, the Buccaneers finished 2-14 and secured the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

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