Sunday, December 23, 2012

Colts, Bengals Clinch Final Two AFC Playoff Spots with Victories

Heading in to today there were two playoff spots remaining in the AFC and three teams in the hunt. At 9-5, the rookie-led Indianapolis Colts were just one victory away from clinching one of the two open AFC wild card seeds. Cincinnati (now 9-6) and Pittsburgh (now 7-8) were both facing off in hopes of capturing that final spot.

Tip-toeing away from Heinz Field with a 13-10 last-second victory, the Bengals managed to eliminate its AFC North foes from playoff contention and snag the final spot earlier today.

Thanks to a late Ben Roethlisberger interception and a 43-yard field goal from freshly-signed kicker Josh Brown, the Bengals defeated the Steelers despite managing just 14 yards on the ground, as a team.

This marked the second consecutive week that Roethlisberger threw a costly interception late in the game, leading to three straight losses and five over the last six weeks of play. The only win since an overtime victory over Kansas City on November 12? A Charlie Batch upset over the playoff-bound Baltimore Ravens at the beginning of the month.
Cincinnati struggled mightily on offense throughout their 6th road win of the season, combining for 267 total yards and turning the ball over three times (also forced 3 on defense). Andy Dalton threw for 278 yards but was sacked six times and threw two picks in his fourth multi-interception game on the season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had run for 100+ yards in four of his last five games with three touchdowns, while combining for the second-most rushing yards in the league over that five game span. But Pittsburgh limited him to all 14 of Cincy's rushing yards on 15 carries and no touchdowns.

The only Cincinnati touchdown of the day was off another Roethlisberger mistake, coming on a 17-yard interception touchdown by Leon Hall towards the end of the 1st quarter.

With two struggling offenses and three combined missed field goals, it was clear that the winner of the game would have to be the team that makes the least-critical mistakes. And that was Cincinnati. Making big plays when it mattered most, Andy Dalton got the team in field goal range following Roethlisberger's second of his 2 picks of the game and Brown made up for his missed field goal earlier and kicked the game-winner through the uprights with :04 to play, sending Cincinnati to the postseason.

With the Ravens (9-5, already clinched a playoff berth) facing the 8-6 New York Giants at home, the AFC North division may end up coming down to next week's Baltimore/Cincinnati match-up in Cincinnati next Sunday. Win against the G-Men, and the Ravens win the North. But if the Giants pull out a victory on the road, the North division will come down to the final week of the season. That's what we all want, right? Makes things a bit more exciting during Week 17 games.
As for the Colts, rookie Andrew Luck stole the show this afternoon. Though it took him and Indy's offense all game to finally put the Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) to bed, Luck managed to steal the show in front of the Arrowhead Stadium crowd.

Just one year old, Cam Newton's rookie passing yards record has already been surpassed. Luck's 205 yards against Kansas City's 7th-ranked pass defense was enough to pass Newton's 4,051 yard total from 2011. He's now at 4,183 for the season, and can shatter the record with another 200-300 yards next week against division foe Houston.

The game-deciding touchdown came with just over four minutes to play in the game and culminated with a 7-yard touchdown pass to veteran wideout Reggie Wayne, the 21st TD pass of Luck's season and career. The drive 73 yards on 13 plays and ate up over six minutes of the game clock. Indy's 24th ranked defense forced a 3&out from KC's Brady Quinn the following drive to seal the playoff-clinching victory just one season after the franchise was 2-14 and at the bottom of the league.

A loss from Houston (12-3) and a win from New England (11-4) and a possible win from Denver (11-3 but leading Cleveland 14-3 in the second quarter) could possibly result in a shake-up of the AFC seeds. One thing we do know for sure at the moment, however, is that Indy and Cincy are in the postseason, and Indy will be either a 5th or 6th seed.

The road for Cincinnati will be clearer once the New York/Baltimore match-up is in the books later on this evening...Baltimore currently leads 14-7 at the end of the opening quarter.

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