Quarterback Peyton Manning came off the bench to help the Denver Broncos grab the top playoff seed in the AFC with a victory over San Diego Chargers on the final day of the National Football League regular season on Sunday.
Manning, returning from injury after being out for seven weeks with a foot injury, rallied Denver for 20 second-half points on the way to a 27-20 home win over the Chargers.
The result was huge for the 12-4 Broncos, who would have missed out on a first-round bye had they lost.
Instead, they will have a week off along with the New England Patriots (12-4), who were relegated to the second seed after losing 20-10 to the Miami Dolphins.
The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns 28-12 to sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card when the New York Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills.
The Jets controlled their own fate, with a win guaranteeing them a spot in the playoffs, but quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick tossed his third interception of the game in the final minute to gift the Bills a 22-17 victory.
The result, coupled with Pittsburgh’s win over Cleveland, left both teams with 10-6 records but the Steelers advanced on the tiebreaker.
The Houston Texans (9-7) claimed their third AFC South title in five years with a 30-6 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Texans will host wild card Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) in the first round, while the Steelers will visit the Cincinnati Bengals (12-4).
In the NFC, the Carolina Panthers (15-1) locked up the top seed and home field advantage, while the Arizona Cardinals (13-3) have the other first-round bye.
The Minnesota Vikings wrestled the NFC North title from the Green Bay Packers with a 20-13 victory in the season finale.
As a result, the Vikings (11-5) will host the Seattle Seahawks (10-6) and the Packers (10-6) will visit the Washington Redskins (9-7) in the first round.
DENVER, Colorado — Peyton Manning came off the bench to relieve an ineffective Brock Osweiler and led four second-half scoring drives, and Denver rallied to beat to San Diego to clinch the AFC West title and the conference’s No. 1 playoff seed.
Relying more on his leadership than his passing arm in his first action in seven weeks, Manning drove the Broncos (12-4) to a pair of field goals by Brandon McManus and on marches that ended in touchdown runs by C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman.
Hillman finished with 117 rushing yards, including a tiebreaking 23-yard touchdown run with 4:44 left. Manning finished 5-for-9 for 69 yards Sunday in his first action since sustaining a foot injury Nov. 15.
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Pittsburgh survived three turnovers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes as the Steelers slipped into the AFC playoffs with a 28-12 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
The Steelers (10-6) earned a wild-card berth as a result of their win and the Buffalo Bills’ 22-17 victory over the New York Jets.
The Browns’ 3-13 record is their worst since 2000 when they were also 3-13. It was their 18th defeat in the last 21 games. Browns coach Mike Pettine is expected to be fired, according to numerous reports. Pettine is 10-22 in two seasons.
Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return.
HOUSTON, Texas — J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus combined for 6.5 sacks and Houston clinched its third AFC South title with a victory over Jacksonville.
The Texans (9-7) closed the season with three consecutive division wins for their first AFC South title since 2012. Houston, 2-5 following a loss at Miami on Oct. 25, won six of eight games following their bye week and will serve as hosts in an AFC wild-card game next weekend.
Watt and Mercilus paced a dominant defense, with Watt regaining his All-Pro form playing without a cast on his broken left hand for the first time in four games. Watt participated with thick protective padding and played like a whirling dervish with three sacks, two deflected passes, eight tackles and a fumble recovery. Mercilus had five tackles and 3.5 sacks, giving him a career-high 12 this season.
GLENDALE, Arizona — In a game that meant next to nothing for Seattle, the Seahawks derailed the hottest team in the NFC with a thrashing Arizona, avoiding a sweep by the Cardinals and handing them their first loss in 10 games.
The Seahawks cruised behind three touchdown passes from Russell Wilson and a franchise-record 139 yards in punt returns by Tyler Lockett.
Both Wilson and Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer wound up on the bench after the score became one-sided.
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Cam Newton made another case for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player honors, and Carolina secured the top seed for the NFC playoffs with a rout of Tampa Bay.
Newton ran for two touchdowns and passed for two more touchdowns for the Panthers (15-1). He finished 21-for-26 for 293 yards without an interception. He wrapped up his day with a 16-yard touchdown strike to Devin Funchess with 7:22 left.
The Buccaneers (6-10) lost their final four games after flirting with playoff contention in early December.
Chiefs 23, Raiders 17
KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Kansas City won its 10th consecutive game by downing Oakland.
The Chiefs opened the season 1-5. They are the first team since the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals to start 1-5 and reach the playoffs.
In the first quarter, Alex Smith connected with Jeremy Maclin on a 25-yard touchdown pass, and then Spencer Ware capped a 12-play drive with a 3-yard run to the end zone. The score was 14-0 with 51 seconds left in the period. Smith finished with two TD passes and two interceptions.
ORCHARD PARK, New York — Coach Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills prevented his former team from returning to the playoffs with a victory over the New York Jets.
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back Karlos Williams rushed for first-half touchdowns and kicker Dan Caprenter made three field goals as the Bills ended the Jets’ five-game winning streak. Taylor was 18 of 28 passing for 182 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
The Jets (10-6) will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 16 of 37 passes for 181 yards, but threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in his first game in Buffalo since he was the Bills’ quarterback in 2012.
CINCINNATI, Ohio — AJ McCarron overcame a slow start to toss two touchdown passes and Jeremy Hill rushed for 96 yards and a TD, helping Cincinnati wrap up the regular season with a victory over Baltimore.
The Bengals (12-4) reached 12 wins for the third time in franchise history. The other two seasons (1981, 1988) both resulted in Super Bowl appearances.
If the Bengals do not earn a first-round bye, they will host the AFC North division rival Steelers in the first round.
Baltimore (5-11) failed to finish the season on a positive note. Quarterback Ryan Mallett in his second Ravens start passed for 292 yards and a touchdown but also had a pair of interceptions.
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — Philadelphia defensive back Walter Thurmond returned an interception 83 yards for a touchdown in a win over rival New York in what could have been Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s final game.
The 69-year-old Coughlin, who led the Giants to two Super Bowl titles in his 12 seasons, has a year left on his contract. The Giants (6-10) finished a third straight losing season and a fourth straight year out of the playoffs.
Interim head coach Pat Shurmur got the win for the Eagles (7-9), who fired Chip Kelly on Tuesday after the team missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
ATLANTA, Georgia — New Orleans safety Jamarca Sanford picked off Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan late in the fourth quarter, setting up Kai Forbath’s 30-yard field goal as time expired.
The Saints’ defense surrendered an NFL record 45 touchdown passes this season, a statistic that cost defensive coordinator Rob Ryan his job. But they will go into the offseason on a high note, after beating the Falcons for the second time this season.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass to tight end Ben Watson, running back Tim Hightower scored on a short touchdown run, and Forbath made two field goals.
CHICAGO, Illinois — If this becomes the final game with Detroit for Calvin Johnson and the final game with Chicago for Matt Forte, they both gave their fans something to remember.
The victory gave Detroit a two-game sweep of Chicago for the third consecutive year and boosted coach Jim Caldwell’s chances of keeping his job as the Lions went 6-2 the second half of the season after starting 1-7.
Johnson caught 10 passes for 137 yards, including a diving catch of a 36-yard Matt Stafford pass for a touchdown in the third quarter. Forte had 110 yards rushing and receiving, and he matched the Johnson touchdown on the next possession by doing a masterful job of tip-toeing down the sideline with a Jay Cutler screen pass for a 23-yard touchdown play that tied the game at 17.
SANTA CLARA, California — Phil Dawson kicked a 23-yard field goal with 3:27 left in overtime, lifting San Francisco past St. Louis.
Dawson made a winner of coach Jim Tomsula in what was likely his last game with the 49ers. According to multiple reports, Tomsula is expected to be fired after this, his first season.
Blaine Gabbert completed 28 of 44 passes for 354 yards, one touchdown and one interception for the 49ers (5-11), who snapped a three-game losing streak. Case Keenum finished 22-for-37 for 231 yards to lead St. Louis (7-9).
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — Fourth- and fifth-string quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley each threw a touchdown pass, leading Indianapolis to a victory over Tennessee.
The win was not enough to extend the Colts’ season. Indianapolis (8-8) officially was eliminated from the playoff picture in a complicated scenario after New Orleans defeated Atlanta. Houston then clinched the AFC South with a victory against Jacksonville.
The Titans (3-13) clinched the No. 1 draft pick by losing their fourth straight. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger fell to 0-10 as a starter.
ARLINGTON, Texas — Kirk Cousins passed for three touchdowns and Washington, the NFC East champion, closed out the regular season by rolling past Dallas.
The Redskins (9-7) head into the playoffs on a four-game winning streak, the team’s longest since 2012. The Redskins will host a wild-card playoff game next weekend.
The Cowboys (4-12) had a merciful end to one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Injuries to quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant began a downward spiral one year after winning the East.
GREEN BAY, Wisconsin — The Green Bay Packers’ four-year reign atop the NFC North is over.
The Minnesota Vikings used a strong defensive effort to beat the struggling Packers 20-13 Sunday night at Lambeau Field to capture the division title.
The Vikings (11-5) won a third consecutive game to earn the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, and they will host the sixth-seeded Seattle Seahawks (10-6) next weekend. Green Bay (10-6) lost its second in a row, fell to the No. 5 seed and will play next weekend at Washington. The Redskins (9-7) won the NFC East.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers helped Green Bay rally from a 20-3 deficit to pull within 20-13 with 5:35 remaining in regulation. Vikings returner Cordarrelle Patterson broke into the clear on the ensuing kickoff, but kicker Mason Crosby stripped the ball around the Green Bay 30, and Packers safety Micah Hyde recovered at the 23.
A 17-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Randall Cobb, a 37-yard long ball to wide receiver James Jones and a 13-yard screen to fullback John Kuhn made it first-and-goal at the 10. A completion for no yards, a 3-yard sack by defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and an incompletion made it fourth down from the 13. After the Packers burned their second timeout, Rodgers’ end-zone pass to Jones was intercepted by Xavier Rhodes.
The Vikings almost gave the Packers another chance on the next play from scrimmage, with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson botching the exchange, but Peterson pounced on the loose ball. Minnesota punted, and Green Bay took the ball at its 42 with 58 seconds to play and no timeouts.
Rodgers converted a fourth-and-10 with a 12-yard completion to tight end Richard Rodgers. A subsequent 1-yard completion to Richard Rodgers made it fourth-and-2. The Packers managed to snap the ball before time expired, but Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary was deflected in the end zone as the Vikings clinched the victory.
The Viking scored the game’s first touchdown with 10:32 left in the third quarter. Taking possession at their 42 after the defense forced a three-and-out on Green Bay’s opening possession of the half, Bridgewater hit receiver Jarius Wright for 11, Peterson ran for 10 and receiver Adam Thielen gained 26 on a fly sweep. On third-and-2 from the 3, Peterson appeared to be jammed up at the line of scrimmage but kept churning to get to the goal line for a 13-3 lead.
Given the inept state of the Packers’ offense, the margin seemed insurmountable barring a big Vikings mistake. And that was exactly what Bridgewater did. On third-and-5 midway through the third quarter, Bridgewater faced pressure from linebackers Mike Neal and Joe Thomas before throwing a left-handed to receiver Mike Wallace. Hyde made a one-handed, backhanded interception at the Minnesota 43.
It didn’t matter, though. On third-and-12, Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen beat left tackle Josh Sitton and swatted the ball away from Aaron Rodgers. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn scooped up the loose ball and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown that gave Minnesota a 20-3 lead with 4:28 to go in the quarter. It was the third defensive touchdown against the Packers in the past two games.