New Orleans Saints fans celebrates in the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. The Saints won 31-28, clinching the top seed for the NFC and home field advantage for the playoffs. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Column: Winners, losers heading into last week of NFL season

December 24, 2018 - 10:38 am

Winners and Losers.

The big winners in Week 16 were the Saints , Patriots, Cowboys , Seahawks and Ravens. The big losers were the Steelers, Dolphins, Chiefs and Texans.

But wait. Then the Texans became winners hours later, earning a playoff berth as they headed back to Houston on Sunday following a last-second 32-30 loss at Philadelphia that handed the AFC's No. 2 seed behind Kansas City to the Patriots — as if they need any help when the playoffs arrive. Houston sneaked in when Pittsburgh lost 31-28 at New Orleans, though the Texans still could wind up a wild card in the, well, wild AFC South.

Here's a road map as we head into the final week of the schedule.

NFC

New Orleans (12-3) secured home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs by beating Pittsburgh, dropping the Steelers into second place behind Baltimore in the AFC North. The Saints won't be playing outdoors again — the Super Bowl, should they get there, will be inside at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"Knowing that we've done it, knowing that the road comes through New Orleans, that gives us a lot of confidence," Drew Brees said. "Obviously we love playing in the dome. ... We have goals throughout the season and this is one of them."

Also reaching their goal were the Cowboys, grabbing the NFC East with a 27-20 victory over Tampa Bay. Dallas (9-6) will be the fourth seed and host a wild-card game.

"We can't get comfortable," Ezekiel Elliott said. "We can't afford to take a week off next week. We've got to keep working and make sure we're ready for the playoffs."

Chicago (11-4) needs to be ready next week at Minnesota (8-6-1). For one, the Bears have a shot at the second overall slot and a first-round bye with a win and a loss by the Rams (12-3), who are at home for San Francisco. For another, they could deny their division rival a postseason spot; a Vikings win gets them a wild card.

But a Vikings loss and an Eagles win at Washington gets the defending champions (8-7) back into the postseason.

Seattle (9-6) appears destined to play at Dallas in the first round. The Seahawks beat the Cowboys in Week 3 for their first win of what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

They've rebuilt so quickly that Pete Carroll is in the running for Coach of the Year.

"It's not complicated," Russell Wilson said after the 38-31 victory against the Chiefs. "It's hard work, it's having faith. We knew we had to battle throughout the season, it's a journey and we're still not done yet."

AFC

For a decade now, the New England Patriots have owned the AFC East, and they had a huge weekend.

The Patriots clinched their 10th straight division title when they beat Buffalo 24-12. They got an added bonus when Houston fell to drop out of the second seed in the conference, which New England grabbed — with a shot at the top spot.

They are 7-0 in Foxborough — the league's only undefeated team in its own building — and 3-5 on the road.

"We didn't have our best day in the passing game. But it felt good to win. At this time of year, whatever it takes to win, that's what you've got to do," Tom Brady said.

Baltimore (9-6), fresh off its victory at the Chargers on Saturday night, has a half-game lead on Pittsburgh (8-6-1), which has lost four of five. The Ravens will take the North with a home win against Cleveland next week. The Steelers host Cincinnati and need help to get into the postseason from their hated enemy, the Browns.

"We're playing pretty good football, but it might not matter," Ben Roethlisberger said. "Obviously we don't control our destiny any more. We have to take care of business next week.

"You can be as skillful as you want on both sides of the ball and special teams, but there is still a small element of luck involved in football. A play here, a play there. If that's what it is, I don't know, but it's the game of football."

The game of tiebreakers also shows that should the Colts and Titans deadlock at Nashville in the prime-time game to end the season, and the Steelers win, Pittsburgh edges both of them for the final wild card, all at 9-6-1.

In the South, Houston (10-5) is leading Indianapolis and Tennessee by a game. The Texans host Jacksonville (5-10) and could wind up a wild card with a loss and a non-tie in Nashville.

The Chiefs (11-4) and Chargers (11-4) already are in the postseason from the West. That takes up one wild card. But Kansas City, once the darling of the league, could plummet from top overall seed to wild card if it flops versus Oakland next week and LA beats Denver.

Miami was still in the mix before falling 17-7 at home to lowly Jacksonville. Shameful.

What is clear is that there's no overwhelming favorite. It's been a while since a wild-card team, Green Bay for the 2010 season, won the championship. Right now, betting against the likes of the Chargers, Seahawks or Eagles should they get in would be foolish.

___

This story has been corrected to show that Minnesota's record is 8-6-1, not 9-6.

___

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Comments ()