Entering the final day of the National Football League season, the identities of 10 of the 12 playoff teams were set. So that meant Sunday determined the two final postseason berth winners as well as all of the playoff matchups.
The lucky teams who will play another day turned out to be the Carolina Panthers, winners of an NCAA-style elimination game with the Atlanta Falcons, and the Baltimore Ravens, whose 10-6 record earned them a wild-card spot in Pittsburgh.
In the AFC, New England already had wrapped up the No. 1 seed before its loss to Buffalo, and Denver earned a week off with a win over Oakland on Sunday. Indianapolis will be at home next week, as will Pittsburgh. The Steelers defeated the Bengals, sending them on the road to play the Colts.
The NFC was a scramble, as five teams had 10-5 records entering Sunday. Seattle earned the first seed with a win, while Green Bay took the NFC North championship and the second seed (with its accompanying week off) with a victory over the Lions.
The Lions will open the playoffs in Dallas (a winner on Sunday) next week, while Arizona is off to Carolina to face the Panthers.
Game of the day
Panthers 34, Falcons 3
Why the Panthers won: Roman Harper and Tre Boston returned interceptions for touchdowns to set the tone for Carolina, which romped to the NFC South title in what was essentially the first round of the playoffs for the teams. A 33-yard fumble return by Thomas Davis set up another score. The Panthers finished the game with six sacks.
What it means: It’s the second straight playoff appearance for Carolina, the first time that has happened in franchise history. The Panthers (7-8-1) have the worst record of any playoff team since 2010, when the Seahawks went 7-9. However, they will come into the postseason on a roll, having won their last four games. The Falcons reportedly have hired an outside company to search for coaching candidates, which could be a clue about the future of current head coach Mike Smith.
Ravens 20, Browns 10
Why the Ravens won: Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes in the final eight minutes to pull out the game. The Ravens scored the final 18 points of the game. When the Chargers lost to Kansas City, Baltimore was assured of a trip to the playoffs.
What it means: With Johnny Manziel fined and Josh Gordon suspended reportedly because of a Friday night party, the Browns ought to have an interesting offseason.
Chiefs 19, Chargers 7
Why the Chiefs won: Chase Daniel did a good impression of the injured Alex Smith, throwing for 157 yards without an interception for the Chiefs. Kansas City’s Justin Houston had four sacks to run his season total to 22, setting a franchise record. San Diego’s Branden Oliver, formerly of the University at Buffalo, ran for 71 yards and a touchdown.
What it means: Baltimore fans can send thank-you cards to Kansas City for knocking the Chargers out of the playoffs. The Chiefs will play the what if? game after missing the playoffs by a game this season.
Steelers 27, Bengals 17
Why the Steelers won: They scored 13 straight points at the end of the second quarter to take control of the game. Pittsburgh had virtually no running game, but Ben Roethlisberger threw for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns to keep the offense moving.
What it means: Both teams have tough assignments next week. Is hosting Baltimore much better than playing in Indianapolis? We’ll find out in slightly less than a week.
Packers 30, Lions 20
Why the Packers won: Shades of Willis Reed and Curt Schilling – Aaron Rodgers made a dramatic recovery from a calf injury to lead Green Bay to a division crown. Rodgers left after throwing a first-half touchdown pass to Randall Cobb. He limped back on to the field in the third quarter with the score tied, 14-14. The Packers took control from there. Rodgers finished 17 of 22 for 226 yards.
What it means: The Packers finished the regular season 8-0 at home. They’ll get to play at least one playoff game at the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, and Rodgers will have a chance to rest for an extra week. The Lions missed on a great chance to claim their first division title since 1993.
Seahawks 20, Rams 6
Why the Seahawks won: The defending champions played like the defending champions, particularly on defense. Five of Seattle’s last six opponents scored fewer than 10 points down the stretch. The Seahawks scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a 9-yard run by Marshawn Lynch. Bruce Irvin returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown to wrap things up.
What it means: Someone will have to go into Seattle and knock off the Seahawks to prevent them from going back to the Super Bowl. They won their last six games after having some issues midway through the season in finishing 12-4. The Rams may try to figure out how to get out of the tough NFC West.
Cowboys 44, Redskins 17
Why the Cowboys won: They set two team records on the way to their eighth road win of the season. DeMarco Murray broke Emmitt Smith’s rushing record, reaching 1,845 yards, and Dez Bryant caught two touchdown passes to run his total to 16 (Terrell Owens had 15).
What it means: The Redskins have about eight months to figure out their quarterback situation for next year. They may need it all. The Cowboys get ready for a visit next week from the Lions.
Broncos 47, Raiders 14
Why the Broncos won: The fired-up Raiders team that defeated the Bills in Oakland was nowhere to be found in Denver this week. C.J. Anderson ran for three touchdowns, while Peyton Manning completed 21 of 37 passes for 273 yards. But he didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the second time in four weeks after doing so in 51 straight games.
What it means: The Broncos get to rest a week. The Raiders finished 3-13 in yet another poor season, and reports about changes at general manager and coach already have started.
Texans 23, Jaguars 17
Why the Texans won: Case Keenum threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns as Houston finished a seven-game improvement from their 2013 record of 2-12. The Texans’ J.J. Watt had three sacks, a safety and a forced fumble to complete his campaign for the league’s MVP trophy.
What it means: Since Baltimore won, Houston just missed out on a playoff spot. Jacksonville was one of four AFC teams to have four or fewer wins this season. The NFC had only two.
Nothing at stake
49ers 20, Cardinals 17
Why the Niners won: Colin Kaepernick threw a go-ahead 3-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Miller late in the third quarter for San Francisco. A couple of 49ers hit statistical milestones along the way. Anquan Boldin went past 1,000 yards receiving for the season. Running back Frank Gore had 144 yards to run his total over 1,000 yards. It’s the eighth time in 10 seasons that Gore has reached that number.
What it means: The postseason speculation about NFL coaching changes officially began right after the game, when Jim Harbaugh announced he would not return as head coach of the 49ers. He did not say if he was fired or resigned. Meanwhile, Arizona missed a chance to win the NFC West this weekend.
Colts 27, Titans 10
Why the Colts won: Even though Indianapolis was locked into the fourth playoff spot and had nothing at stake, they were good enough to beat the Titans. Andrew Luck of the Colts threw for 160 yards and two touchdowns in a half of work. He broke Peyton Manning’s team record for passing yardage in a season.
What it means: The Titans will have the second pick in the NFL draft; they probably will be scouting quarterbacks in the weeks ahead.
Eagles 34, Giants 26
Why the Eagles won: QB Mark Sanchez went 23 of 36 for 292 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception as Philadelphia won its 10th game of the season. Jordan Matthews had eight catches for 105 yards and one touchdown. The Giants couldn’t outscore the Eagles, even though Eli Manning threw for 429 yards and two Giants receivers topped 150 yards.
What it means: The Giants have missed the playoffs for three straight years; let the guessing game begin as to whether this was Tom Coughlin’s last game as coach.
Jets 37, Dolphins 24
Why the Jets won: New York’s air attack tore apart the Dolphins defense. Geno Smith was 20 for 25 for 358 yards, and had a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. Eric Decker caught 10 passes for 221 yards; the first Jet receiver to go past 200 yards since Rich Caster in 1972.
What it means: It’s a nice going-away present for Jets coach Rex Ryan, who probably will be dismissed in the near future. He reportedly already has cleaned out his desk. The Dolphins finished 8-8, and thus finished in third place in the AFC East – a game behind Buffalo.
Vikings 13, Bears 9
Why the Vikings won: The Vikings have been having trouble lately doing enough to win games, but this time they hung on against the Bears. Teddy Bridgewater threw a touchdown pass for his 10th straight game, as the rookie seems to have a hold on the starting job.
What it means: The Bears finished last in the NFC North, which could mean major changes are coming on and off the field. The Vikings were two games ahead at 7-9.
Last shall be first
Saints 23, Buccaneers 20
Why the Saints won: Drew Brees kept throwing after three earlier interceptions. His touchdown pass to Marques Colston with less than two minutes to play gave the Saints the lead for good.
What it means: The Bucs will have the first overall pick in the NFL. They can start debating between quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston early Monday morning.
News wire services contributed to this report.