Carolina Panthers' NFC South title one of many Week 17 oddities


It seemed oddly fitting, at the end of a rocky NFL season, that the playoffs would be shaped by a frenetic few minutes of play by Connor Shaw, Chase Daniel and Case Keenum, a team that didn't win for two months seizing a berth, and the worrisome sight of Aaron Rodgers being carted off the field after clutching his left calf. Like its last day, the 2014 season has sometimes been far from pretty and often inexplicable -- read: the New Orleans Saints and the entire Jim Harbaugh psychodrama -- but it has been unfailingly riveting.

Playoff Picture
The playoff picture is set after a crazy Week 17. Who has home-field advantage going into Wild Card Weekend? Check it out

Few situations will attract as much scrutiny as Rodgers' well-being, which will define the NFC playoffs. When he re-entered the game midway through the third quarter, after the Packers had given up a 14-point lead to the Lions during his brief absence, it provided tremendous theater on an already tense day. With snow flurries falling, and Rodgers unable to use his considerable mobility, he drove the Packers for two touchdowns, capping the second with a quarterback sneak, to beat the Lions 30-20. The Lions' offense is sputtering at the worst possible time, just when the team has to travel to Dallas next weekend for the wild-card game. The Lions will be looking for their first playoff win since 1991 -- when they beat the Cowboys.

But when the Packers last won the Super Bowl, following the 2010 season, Rodgers' health was also an issue, after he suffered a concussion late in the regular season. Rodgers' return Sunday didn't just give the Packers the NFC North title, it gave them a critically needed bye week. The All-Pro passer will now have extra time to heal before Green Bay hosts a home playoff game in the divisional round. He indicated after the game that the knowledge that he would get extra time is part of what drove him to try to return against the Lions. His heroics Sunday might have also sealed his case to be the league's most valuable player this season.

There is no first-round bye for the Carolina Panthers, and no winning season either. Whatever. At 7-8-1 after crushing the Falcons in Atlanta, Carolina became the first ever repeat winner of the NFC South. The line between success and disaster in the division was fine and wavering all season. The Panthers did not win a game for a full two months in the middle of the season -- there was a tie and a bye week in there -- but they will host the Arizona Cardinals, who are an NFC wild card and are hoping quarterback Drew Stanton's infected knee is healing quickly. The Falcons woke up Sunday with a chance to be division champions. They went to bed with the knowledge that it was probably coach Mike Smith's last game.

But nothing embodied how quickly fortunes change in the NFL more than Harbaugh. Less than two years ago, Harbaugh was half of an historic installment of a long-running sibling rivalry when his San Francisco 49ers played his brother John's Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. Their competitions had begun as children, when they had sparred over who had to mow the sprawling lawn of their family's home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Late on Sunday, after a frosty and unsmiling bro-hug with 49ers owner Jed York, the 49ers announced that they and Harbaugh had agreed to part ways. Harbaugh's departure had been a foregone conclusion for at least half a season, but it is stunning nonetheless. He rebuilt the 49ers, took them to three consecutive NFC Championship Games and to that one Super Bowl, which the 49ers lost in the waning moments. There may be just a handful of head coaching openings this offseason, but the 49ers' search for Harbaugh's replacement will be the most intriguing because of what it will say about the 49ers' powers-that-be and what they did not like in Harbaugh. Harbaugh will head back to Michigan to coach the Wolverines, presumably now able to hire a lawn service.

His brother, John, is unavailable to perform the job right now anyway. The Ravens, beset by a scandal that rocked the entire league, clinched the AFC's final playoff spot Sunday afternoon when an offense moved on effortlessly from Ray Rice came alive late to beat the Cleveland Browns while San Diego, which needed only to win to get in, lost to Kansas City. The Ravens are the sixth seed and a dangerous one at that. As the third AFC North team in the playoffs -- that division had been the powerhouse of the league all season, helped by a schedule rotation that had them playing the aforementioned sub-.500 NFC South -- they are assured a first-round game against the Steelers. The Ravens lost in both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati during the regular season, but the Ravens have won five of their last seven games and have now made the playoffs in six of John Harbaugh's seven seasons. And they might be the one AFC team that does not look at Gillette Stadium as an impenetrable fortress.

The New England Patriots are the AFC's top seed and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their loss to the Bills on Sunday -- played with nothing at stake and without Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman -- was their first at home since the 2012 season. But if the Ravens beat the Steelers, they would play the divisional round game in Foxborough, where the Harbaugh-coached Ravens have beaten the Patriots twice in three tries during the postseason -- most recently in the playoffs at the end of the 2012 season, the last time the Patriots lost at home in a game that mattered in the standings.

Last year, both top seeds advanced to the Super Bowl, but that's a rarity. Only two of the last 20 Super Bowls featured the teams that held their conferences' top seeds. With Seattle getting the top seed in the NFC again, though, this would seem to be a year in which the home-field advantage will be pivotal. The Patriots have already trounced the second seeded Broncos in Foxborough (they also throttled the Bengals in Foxborough, and the Colts in Indianapolis), and the Seahawks beat the Packers in the season opener (they also beat the Cardinals at home).

The Seahawks' only loss at home was in Week 6, to the Cowboys. Dallas rolled up 401 yards, including 162 yards rushing, casting the team as legitimate contenders for the first time this season and raising doubts about the Seahawks' viability as title defenders. Seattle has since answered those questions and the Cowboys have, too. As the playoffs and the offseason begin, for teams advancing and going home, the questions begin anew today.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.



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