By the laws of logic and the serendipity of the NFL season, no team "controls its own destiny" in the race for the final AFC postseason spot.
All four contenders need help. The Dolphins need the fewest factors to work in their favor. The Steelers need the most. The Ravens have the toughest Week 17 opponent -- a Bengals team that has yet to lose in Cincinnati. If Miami and Baltimore both stumble, San Diego is sitting pretty.
It's not just the AFC wild-card picture that is unsettled. The Chiefs (No. 5 seed) are the only team in either conference locked into place. The other 11 spots are fluid.
Credit the gerrymandering schedule conductors for bringing us to a crescendo as we approach season-finale weekend. If this December's events are a sign of things to come, the insipid practice of resting key starters down the stretch will go the way of the two-way player.
Here's what else we learned on Sunday:
1. Sean Payton dared Cam Newton to beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Newton obliged. After a poor performance throughout the game, Newton made three perfect throws to lead the Panthers on a 65-yard, 32-second drive to win the game. The Panthers survived a knee injury from Steve Smith and seven three-and-outs to win the game.
2. Payton had too much faith in his defense and not enough in Drew Brees. The Saints got the ball back with under two minutes to go, needing just one first down to win the game. Payton decided to call three straight runs into the line of scrimmage. A similar strategy hurt Payton against New England early in the season.
3. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis both had incredible interceptions for the Panthers. Their ability to pursue in run support and make plays in coverage make them as versatile as any linebacker duo in football. Kuechly wouldn't have my Defensive Player of the Year vote, but he probably won some support Sunday with an electric performance. He had 24 tackles. 24!
1. The Cardinals kept their playoff hopes alive by sending Russell Wilson to the first home loss of his career. To reach the postseason, Arizona will need help. In addition to beating San Francisco at home in Week 17, the Cardinals need the 49ers to lose to the Falcons on Monday night or have the Saints fall to the Buccaneers in the season finale.
2. Regardless of the Cardinals' postseason fate, Bruce Arians deserves Coach of the Year consideration for the second consecutive season. Arians told reporters earlier this week it was a different Arizona team that was trounced 58-0 in Seattle last season. After Sunday's game, Arians quipped: "I guess we are 65 points better than last year."
3. No one disputes CenturyLink Field as the NFL's biggest home-field advantage, but the Seahawks have now been beatable in three of seven home games (Titans, Buccaneers, Cardinals) this season. Seattle will still wrap up the NFC's No. 1 seed as long as it takes care of business while hosting the Rams next week.
1. Appropriately enough, Denver clinched the AFC West and a first-round bye on the strength of Peyton Manning's record-setting arm. The Broncos already were the first team in NFL history to feature four different players with at least 10 touchdowns (Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Knowshon Moreno). With Eric Decker's two scores Sunday, they now have five players in double digits. It's indicative not just of their offensive firepower, but also of the most balanced, pick-your-poison aerial attack in history.
2. The news wasn't all positive for the Broncos. Pass rusher Von Miller, the second-most valuable player on the roster, exited with a knee injury and quickly was ruled out for the game. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport confirmed Miller will undergo tests Monday. There's fear that the injury is significant, per The Denver Post. The Broncos did go 6-0 in Miller's early-season absence, but that was with key defensive players, such as Derek Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, Wesley Woodyard and Rahim Moore, healthy.
3. One first-half play perfectly encapsulated Matt Schaub's struggles this season. Afforded plenty of time to throw on a boot-action call, Schaub threw high to put his fullback in danger of a big hit on a play that would have gone for three years had the pass been accurate. According to Pro Football Focus' metric, Schaub has averaged a ridiculously low 5.8 yards per attempt on play action this year. For comparison's sake, Manning leads the NFL at 12.2 while Case Keenum is sixth at 9.9. Schaub has reached the visor-and-clipboard stage of his career.
1. New England's undermanned defense shouldn't be able to hold any opposing offense scoreless through three quarters. But the Ravens made a ton of mental errors, Joe Flacco missed a number of passes and the recent progress in the running game evaporated. Flacco's knee injury might have affected his accuracy.
2. The Patriots offense didn't do much in the second half, but Tom Brady was extremely sharp before halftime. New England, so poor in the red zone all year when Rob Gronkowski is not on the field, was 3 for 3 on Sunday. The Patriots were committed to running the ball all day and racked up 154 yards on the ground. New England dominated both lines of scrimmage, which was a surprise.
3. With all that said, the final score was misleading. Baltimore had more total yards. New England was never threatened, but they put up 21 points in the final 2:05 of garbage time.
1. Miami's playoff hopes took a hit after the Dolphins cratered hard on both sides of the ball. Ryan Tannehill and company came out of the gate like a corpse, starting 0 for 5 on third downs before going into halftime with just 56 yards on offense compared to 205 from the Bills. The team that beat the Patriots last week must have missed the plane.
2. Buffalo's pass rush was dominant. The Bills racked up seven sacks and 10 quarterback hits to set a single-season franchise record with 56 takedowns on the year. Buffalo was especially effective raiding Tannehill on third down. In a huge spot, Miami's overwhelmed offensive line shriveled up.
3. Bills rookie pass-catcher Robert Woods was ejected for throwing a punch at Dolphins safety Reshad Jones. With Stevie Johnson inactive and Marquise Goodwin lost to a knee injury, Lewis was left tossing the ball to Chris Hogan and Scott Chandler. It's either good or bad news for Bills fans that Lewis, to the naked eye, can do anything EJ Manuel can do.
1. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton allowed Andrew Luck to air the ball out early. Luck attempted 37 passes, completing 26. At one point in a pivotal second quarter, Luck attempted 10 consecutive passes. The Colts' offense is much more fluid when it isn't bogged down by a soggy running game. The Chiefs' nonexistent pass rush aided Luck's good afternoon.
2. We spent the last week praising Alex Smith's newfound confidence to extend the field. Sunday he reverted to throwing field darts. Smith was highly ineffective, going 16-for-29 passing with two interceptions and a fumble. It took until midway through the fourth quarter for the Chiefs to enter the the red zone. Smith promptly threw a terrible pick.
3. Donald Brown once again proved he's the Colts' best playmaker in the backfield. He had a 33-yard touchdown catch and run on a great play design and a 51-yard touchdown gallop. The TD run was the Colts' best of the season. Andrew Luck should spike the ball in protest every time Hamilton calls a run for Trent Richardson outside of garbage time.
1. Robert Quinn continued to make his Defensive Player of the Year push with three sacks and three tackles for loss. He now has 18 sacks on the season, setting a Rams franchise record. He has our vote.
2. Tampa's offensive line is one of the worst in football. Mike Glennon had been pressured more times per-play than any quarterback in the league entering the day, and he was sacked seven times in St. Louis. Their running game was even worse, with Bobby Rainey held to 37 rushing yards on 20 carries. Tampa's entire offense was held to 170 yards on 56 plays.
3. The Bucs have lost three of four games, with all the losses by multiple scores. That's not an endorsement for Greg Schiano making progress.
1. For the first time in franchise history, the Bengals will advance to the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Sunday's Ravens loss secured homefield advantage for Cincinnati in the playoff opener. That's especially important considering Andy Dalton's splits this season. Leading his team to a 7-0 home record, Dalton has essentially channeled Peyton Manning at Paul Brown Stadium and Eli Manning on the road.
2. Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey has been an underrated playmaker in the second half of the season. He's a significant upgrade on Rey Maualuga in passing situations. Rey opened the game with a strip-sack of Matt Cassel that led to a short BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown. Rey followed that up with a second-quarter pick six on Cassel.
3. With apologies to Adrian Peterson, rookie Cordarrelle Patterson is vying for the title of "most exciting player on the roster." At least three of his kickoff returns looked they had a chance to go the distance. He finally found the end zone late in the game on a 35-yard carry out of the backfield. The next coaching staff will have to make it a priority to feature Patterson's run-after-catch skills as a major part of the offense.
1. During his pitch to keep his job, Titans coach Mike Munchak probably won't use Sunday's game tape as an example of good play. In the second half, Tennessee finally ran the ball with the attitude Munchak wants, finishing with 182 total yards on the ground. However, much of the game was characterized by a cacophony of missed tackles, terrible passes, penalties and uninspired play -- especially in the first half. It was a road win, but there was little future on display for Tennessee.
2. Even without Cecil Shorts, the Jaguars still have young playmaking receivers. Mike Brown and Kerry Taylor did a good job of getting off press coverage against good Titans cornerbacks. Chad Henne threw multiple touchdowns for the fourth consecutive game -- the first time in his career. Henne's not the future, but Jedd Fisch's offense proved it can move the ball even without playmakers at key positions.
3. A great moment took place in the first quarter when retiring 14-year Jaguars center Brad Meester lined up at tight end and caught his first career pass for a 9-yard gain in his final home game in Jacksonville. Classy move by Gus Bradley and Fisch.
1. This is why Tony Romo is impossible to figure out. Seven days ago, he threw two awful interceptions to complete his team's collapse against the Green Bay Packers. On Sunday, Romo was the driving force in a season-saving win. He did it on one leg (after injuring his knee on Dallas' penultimate drive) and threw one of the most important touchdown passes of his career on 4th-and-goal from the 10 with 1:16 to play. Romo was insanely clutch. Today, anyway.
2. Romo bailed out Jason Garrett, who was set up for another tidal wave of criticism for his continued reluctance to commit to the run. The Redskins scored 14 points on back-to-back Dallas turnovers in the third quarter during a stretch in which DeMarco Murray was completely ignored. Murray even approached Garrett after a Romo interception that set up Washington's final touchdown. You can imagine what he said.
3. Murray's occasional disappearing act is especially hard to make sense of because he's playing the best football of his career. The running back finished with 111 total yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. The Cowboys have a legit "Big Three" in Romo, Murray and Dez Bryant. They need to make the most of that.
1. Rex Ryan: Motivational genius? The coach reportedly told his players the "word on the street" was he would soon be fired. The Jets responded by outplaying the Browns and moving to 7-8 on the season. Forget about getting fired, Ryan deserves a raise if he can get this group of ham-and-eggers to .500.
2. No casualties on the GenoCoaster this Sunday -- a Christmas miracle! Geno Smith committed no turnovers for just the third time all season. Smith threw two scoring passes to David Nelson and iced the game with a 18-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. It's a performance that will be remembered during the offseason evaluation process.
3. We haven't heard a peep about Rob Chudzinski's job security, and perhaps that's fair considering what the first-year coach inherited. That said, the Browns delivered a grim performance against a mediocre Jets team and have now lost six straight games. With a trip to Pittsburgh on tap, the Browns are staring at another 4-12. Almost impossibly, the Browns have loss either 11 or 12 games in six consecutive seasons. Where's the progress?
1. The end is near for Jim Schwartz. The Lions coach needed to guide his team to the playoffs to keep his job -- something that's obviously not happening. Detroit has missed the postseason in four of five seasons under Schwartz. Changes are coming.
2. Matthew Stafford won't be part of those changes in Detroit. Still, there's no hiding the fact that Stafford stunk out the joint in back-to-back games with his team's season on the line. Stafford didn't throw a touchdown pass, couldn't get Calvin Johnson involved, and threw a fourth-quarter pick six that swung the game. Stafford's career is circling a cul de sac.
3. Reggie Bush was supposed to set all kinds of career highs playing in Detroit's dynamic offense. In reality, the only career high Bush has set is lost fumbles. He now has four of them after putting another one on the turf on Sunday. FOX cameras showed Bush looking forlorn on the sideline after the turnover. He couldn't have felt much better after watching Joique Bell handle the bulk of the workload the rest of the game.
1. The Steelers' map to the playoffs: Win next Sunday against the Cleveland Browns paired with Week 17 losses by the Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers. Chances aren't great, but it's a scenario Mike Tomlin would've signed for in a second back when the Steelers were 2-6.
2. Eddie Lacy was delivering another big performance before being knocked out the game after re-injuring his ankle. But the real eye-opening performance came from his counterpart. Le'Veon Bell ran with purpose all game, becoming the first Steelers running back to go over 100 yards in 23 games. Lacy deserves the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but the Pittsburgh hit on one with Bell.
3. Matt Flynn made two big mistakes in the final minutes, one physical and one mental. The Packers quarterback lost a fumble inside his own 20-yard line with two minutes to play, setting up Pittsburgh's go-ahead score. Then, with the Packers on the Steelers' 6 with 10 seconds to play, Flynn burned too much time after officials restarted the game clock. He got off just one play (an incomplete) pass, when he should've had time for two.
1. The Chargers must win next weekend and get losses from the Dolphins and Ravens to earn the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. The Bolts host the Chiefs, whom they topped in a 41-38 shootout in Week 12. The Ravens visit the Bengals and the reeling 'Fins visit the Jets. The Chargers have a good shot at playing in January.
2. Darren McFadden played for the first time since Week 13 and scored his first touchdown since Week 8. But he rushed just four times for eight yards, while Rashad Jennings nabbed 10 carries. The workload is likely a harbinger of things to come with McFadden in a contract year. He's missed six games this season with an assortment of injuries.
3. Eric Weddle continued his excellent play, highlighted by a nifty second-quarter interception. Raiders QB Matt McGloin telegraphed a pass that Weddle easily diagnosed. The 2011 Pro Bowl safety deflected the throw with his outstretched left arm, dove, popped the ball skyward with his right arm, and then corralled it as he laid flat on his stomach. Weddle could be headed to a second Pro Bowl, with two of five ATL writers voting for him on their ballots.
1. The outcome sets up a winner-take-all divisional showdown in the NFC East and NFC North for these two teams moving in opposite directions. Whereas the Eagles have won all four games against NFC playoff hopefuls since the start of November, the Bears are just 5-7 since their 3-0 start.
2. The return of seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs did nothing to solve the Bears' run defense woes. The Eagles rushed for 289 yards, the most allowed by Chicago all season. Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Eddie Lacy better seek Mister Miyagi's magic touch to get his ankle ready for a heavy workload.
3. On top of an uneven Week 15 performance, Jay Cutler laid an egg with a miserable performance on national television. Since coach Marc Trestman had already backed himself into a corner with his support of Cutler, he had little choice but to stay the course. Citing the fact that "no one played well enough to win in all three phases," a less than enthusiastic Trestman confirmed after the game that Cutler will start against the Packers.