Patriots lock up top seed in AFC playoffs

Patriots lock up top seed in AFC playoffs
The New England Patriots took a significant step toward yet another Super Bowl appearance on a busy final Sunday of the NFL’s regular season on which the AFC and NFC playoff fields were set. The post-season drama peaked at day’s end, as the Cincinnati Bengals won in improbable fashion in Baltimore to knock the Ravens from the playoffs and put the Buffalo Bills into the post-season for the first time since the 1999 season.

The Tennessee Titans also won their way into the AFC playoffs, while the Atlanta Falcons punched their wild-card ticket in the NFC. The Minnesota Vikings secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed and the opening-round playoff bye that comes with it.

The sixth-seeded Bills will play at third-seeded Jacksonville next Sunday in the first round of the AFC playoffs, while the fifth-seeded Titans play Saturday at fourth-seeded Kansas City. In the NFC, it’s the sixth-seeded Falcons playing Saturday night in Los Angeles against the third-seeded Rams, while the fifth-seeded Carolina Panthers play Sunday at fourth-seeded New Orleans.

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The Patriots and second-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers have first-round byes in the AFC, while the Vikings join the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in being able to sit out the opening post-season weekend in the NFC.

“It’s good to be in this position,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “It’s a good week to really re-evaluate where we’re at and try to put our best out there. It’s the playoffs now and there’s no looking past the next game. So whoever it is, we’re going to have to play really well. Hopefully we can, being off this week, get us back to as healthy as we can be. And I think that would help everybody.”

The Patriots are seeking an eighth Super Bowl appearance and a sixth Super Bowl triumph behind Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. They took care of their final bit of regular season business by beating the New York Jets, 26-6, at home to clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The Patriots will play a conference semifinal at home. If there is a Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC Championship Game, as so many expect, it will be played in New England.

The Patriots avoided the sort of misstep they made two years ago. Then, they lost the regular season finale to the Miami Dolphins and the AFC’s top seed slipped from their grasp. That season’s AFC Championship Game was played in Denver, not in Foxborough, Mass. It was the Broncos, not the Patriots, who advanced to the Super Bowl and dominated the overmatched Panthers. The Patriots did not make the same mistake Sunday.

“I mean, we’re 13-3,” Brady said at his postgame news conference. “That’s the best in the AFC. That’s what we’re playing for, and that’s all that really matters.”

The Steelers rested many key starters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell, in a triumph Sunday over the winless Cleveland Browns. Only a Patriots’ loss to the Jets could have opened the door for the Steelers to vault into the No. 1 seed. The Jaguars were locked into the third seed entering Sunday’s play and the Chiefs were fourth.

The Titans beat the Jaguars, 15-10, in Nashville to end a three-game losing streak and get into the post-season field. It will be the first NFL playoff appearance for Tennessee’s third-year quarterback, Marcus Mariota.

The Bills won in Miami, 22-16. But their post-season drought, the NFL’s longest, would have been extended if the Ravens had beaten the Bengals. That seemed all but ensured when the Ravens rallied from a 24-10 deficit to lead 27-24 in the game’s final minute. The Bengals were down to their last-gasp chance when they faced fourth and 12.

But Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton connected with wide receiver Tyler Boyd for a stunning 49-yard touchdown on that play with 44 seconds remaining and Cincinnati prevailed, 31-27. It was a devastating turn of events for the Ravens, who missed the playoffs for a third straight season. They’d reached the post-season in six of their first seven seasons with John Harbaugh as their coach and Joe Flacco as their quarterback.

The Falcons, the defending NFC champs, got back into the playoffs with a 22-10 victory at home over the Panthers. Carolina’s defeat wrapped up the NFC South title for the Saints despite their 31-24 loss at Tampa.

The Vikings beat the Chicago Bears, 23-10, at home to secure the No. 2 seed and the opening-round bye that comes with it. They’re trying to become the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. And they actually might enter the post-season as the NFC favourite, given the recent struggles of the top-seeded Eagles. They were shut out Sunday at home, 6-0, by the Dallas Cowboys. Quarterback Nick Foles, filling in for injured starter Carson Wentz, threw an interception in a 4-for-11 passing performance before being given the rest of the day off.

The Seattle Seahawks lost at home to the Arizona Cardinals and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 season. They could have gotten in with a victory over the Cardinals and a Falcons’ loss to the Panthers.
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