Beware the late entries.
It took the Colts and the Ravens 17 weeks, but they reached the playoffs by winning their regular-season finales Sunday.
Pity the Texans and the Chargers. The latecomers are carrying confidence in bulk.
First it was the Ravens outlasting the Browns, 26-24, at home to claim the AFC North and the team’s first playoff berth since 2014.
By night, it was the Colts beating the Titans, 33-17 for the AFC’s final wild-card berth.
Nothing has fazed Frank Reich, the first-year Indianapolis coach. His team started 1-5, and finished 10-6. They needed to beat the Titans in a de facto playoff, and they did.
The Ravens, having won six of their last seven, host the Chargers next in a rematch of a game the Ravens won, 22-10, two weeks ago; the Colts head to Houston having won nine of their last ten games.
Baltimore boasts the No. 1 defense in the league. That unit managed to slow Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield long enough to pick off the final pass attempt of his stellar rookie season in order to secure the berth. The Ravens blitzed their way into the postseason one year after losing to Cincinnati on a fourth down play in the season finale.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson provided the lightning for the Ravens. On Sunday, he threw for 179 yards and rushed for another 90 yards. His legs weren’t the only ones that carried the Ravens. Tailback Kenneth Dixon did his part, too, as he finished with 117 yards — including a 37-yard burst — on the day.
With that balance, they will be prepared to battle the Chargers (12-4) once more.
The Colts are coming to Houston with a healthy Andrew Luck. He threw for 285 yards and 3 touchdowns in the win at Tennessee. In Week 4, he threw for 464 yards in an overtime loss to the Texans.
Luck knows he will have to have another big game to counter Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins. He also knows he will have to evade J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
Nothing has deterred Luck and the Colts. Much like the Ravens, they turn the calendar looking more like contenders than just a pair of latecomers.
Something special in Philly
Don’t start greasing the lampposts in Philadelphia just yet, but the defending champions managed to slip into the playoff field with a 24-0 win over Washington.
“We’re not sneaking in,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We’re here to do some damage.”
The Redskins put up little resistance as Eagles quarterback Nick Foles completed 28 of 33 passes for 221 yards, a pair of touchdowns and a pick.
After starting the season 4-6, Philadelphia won five of its last six games, including the last three straight, to clinch a wild-card berth. Next up will be the Bears, who helped the Eagles by beating the Vikings in their final game.
Minnesota, meanwhile, failed to reach the playoffs after starting the season as a Super Bowl contender. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who signed a three-year deal worth $84 million in the offseason, completed 20 of 33 passes for 132 yards against the Bears, who finished 12-4.
The Bears defense also collected four sacks of Cousins, who also got in an argument with wideout Adam Thielen on the sideline following an incompletion. Cousins and Thielen were both animated as Cousins motioned to demonstrate where he felt Thielen should have run his route on the right side of the field.
“I want to have more of those conversations,” Cousins said. “I actually liked the passion back and forth. I want to do more of that. I want to let us both be who we are and have those discussions because he’s the guy we can do that with going forward.”
Minnesota went 8-7-1 during a campaign that included the firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo during his first season.
Patience of a Saint
Teddy Bridgewater may have lost value by stepping on the field.
He started the Saints’ season finale because New Orleans (13-3) had locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC prior to the regular season finale, and starter Drew Brees rested on the sideline against the Panthers.
Bridgewater, 26, completed 14 of 22 passes for 118 yards and struggled throughout the 33-14 defeat. It was his first start since the playoffs that followed the 2016 season as he missed two years due to a knee injury that threatened to end his career. He threw a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but was also picked off. He was sacked twice.
“Honestly, I just wanted to get back into the rhythm of playing football. That was my biggest goal today,” Bridgewater said. “Having good energy, good tempo, in and out of the huddle. And I think we did a good job of that today. That was my biggest goal coming into today — just getting back into the rhythm, calling plays, looking those guys in the eyes and instilling confidence into those guys. And it was a fun feeling.”
Bridgewater will be a free agent.
The Saints have a bye and will host Philadelphia, Dallas or Seattle in the divisional round on Jan. 13.
Play of the Day
It was fourth down from the Packers’ eight-yard line for the Lions, and the field goal unit was on the field. Kicker Matt Prater appeared ready to attempt a 26-yard field goal, but then he received a direct snap. Tight end Levine Toilolo was lined up out wide left, and no Packer covered him. Prater received the snap, looked left and threw a high spiral for Toilolo, who had not scored all season, in the left corner of the end zone. It was completed as Packers coaches pointed to the tight end.
“Basically I was trying not to screw it up,” Prater said. “It worked out, so it was fun.”
Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso launched himself at a quarterback one last time in 2018, and this time he was ejected from the contest after trying to knock Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen into the new year.
On third down and nine midway through the third quarter, Allen rolled right out of the pocket during the Bills’ win over the Dolphins, and darted 10 yards to pick up a first down before sliding. Miami defensive end Andre Branch chased after Allen from behind, and got two hands on the quarterback. Alonso came up from the secondary, and failed to hit Allen squarely. Alonso also did not pull up as Allen gave himself up. …
Jaguars vice president Tom Coughlin’s postseason commenced with a statement of distaste regarding running backs Leonard Fournette (foot/ankle) and T.J. Yeldon, neither of whom played in the 20-3 loss at Houston. Both players looked disinterested in the game, and Coughlin said, “They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.”
Fournette did not play in eight games this season due to injuries and discipline issues. Afterward, team owner Shad Khan gave Coughlin, general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone votes of confidence moving forward. Khan noted Coughlin would have the final decision on Caldwell and Marrone. …
Following a third straight trying season, Tampa Bay cut ties with head coach Dirk Koetter following Sunday’s loss to the Falcons. The Bucs went 5-11 this year and 19-29 in Koetter’s tenure. … Arizona is on the clock. The Cardinals learned that they will pick first in April’s draft when Seattle kicker Sebastian Janikowski converted a 33-yard field goal at the buzzer to beat Arizona, which finished 3-13.
1. Josh Allen, Bills QB
Pick your poison. The rookie rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another 224 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Bills past the Dolphins, 42-7, at home. Pardon the one interception and sack for nine yards.
2. Julio Jones, Falcons WR
The Falcons finished strong with a third straight win as Jones hauled in nine balls for 138 yards and a touchdown to beat the Buccaneers, 34-32.
3. Baker Mayfield, Browns QB
Ol’ No. 6 completed 23 of 42 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns in chasing the Ravens all the way into the final minute. Mayfield’s 27 touchdowns on the season established a record for a rookie in the NFL.
Quote of the Day
“Mahomes … he’s got my vote … for whatever I’m voting for.”
— Raiders coach Jon Gruden on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the MVP candidate who threw for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Kansas City beat Oakland, 35-3.