Wild finish to thrilling regular season sets the stage for playoffs

The final Sunday of the regular season marked the first time since 2005 that 16 NFL games were played in one day -- and this rare occasion was accompanied by some extraordinary results. Week 17 of the regular season usually produces its fair share of upsets, blowouts and last-minutes decisions, and that was certainly the case in 2008.

» Three winning field goals, two with no time left and one with one second remaining. Two of the kicks clinched division titles (Minnesota, Carolina). The other (San Francisco) helped Mike Singletary receive a new contract and lose his interim label.

» Three blowouts, two of which occurred in winner-take-all games to make the postseason: Philadelphia by 38 over Dallas; San Diego by 31 over Denver. The third was Pittsburgh by 31 over Cleveland.

» Three upsets -- most notably, the Raiders' road win over Tampa Bay to knock the Buccaneers out of the playoffs. The Buccaneers' loss meant that Chicago had a chance to be the final wild-card team in the NFC with a win over Houston and a loss by Dallas, but the host Texans prevented that from happening with a 31-24 victory.

In all, 693 points were scored on the final Sunday of the season, and nine of the 16 games saw teams combine for 50 or more points.

The 2008 season will go down as one of the greatest of all time, with seven new playoff teams. None of those seven teams had winning records last year -- four had losing seasons and three finished at .500 -- and three of them finished in last place in 2007. Three of the four teams with the most wins last season -- New England, Dallas and Green Bay -- failed to make the playoffs. The fourth team in that mix, Indianapolis, made it as a wild-card team.

The dash for cash and glory starts this weekend with four wild-card games. Before we look ahead to that action, here's a quick look back at some of Sunday's key games:

Miami 24, N.Y. Jets 17

From one win in 2007 to 11 victories in 2008 -- Miami's 10-game improvement has happened just once before, when Indianapolis went from 3-13 to 13-3 in 1999. The Bill Parcells magic worked again. Miami brought in a new coach and a new quarterback, then started the season with two losses and faced a road trip to New England. The Dolphins ended the season having to play four of five games on the road -- and they won all five games and clinched the AFC East with this season-finale win over the rival Jets. Miami ended up plus-17 in turnover margin. Chad Pennington had a career year -- eight games with a passer rating of 100 or better, completion rate of 67.4, and an overall rating of 97.4. Led by Jake Long, the 2008 draft class came through. Additionally, the top draft pick from 2007 (Ted Ginn Jr.) and the key free-agent pickup from '07 (Joey Porter) both played great. The Dolphins also made some very good offseason trades. In Sunday's game, Miami was able to score on offense (a 27-yard pass to Ginn) and defense (a 25-yard interception return by rookie Phillip Merling) within 15 seconds in the second quarter. The Dolphins held the ball for almost 35 minutes and had a plus-3 edge in the turnover battle.

Atlanta 31, St. Louis 27

Mike Smith had never been a head coach at any level. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was thrown into the starting lineup from opening day. Free-agent acquisition Michael Turner had just 228 carries in his previous five NFL seasons. So what happened? Turner set a record for the biggest single-season improvement in touchdowns scored -- finding the end zone 17 times this season after scoring once in 2007. Ryan took every offensive snap. Atlanta improved from 23rd to sixth in total defense and the Falcons scored 391 points (up from 259 last season).

The Falcons won on Sunday despite being minus-3 in takeaways and holding the ball for 10 minutes less than the Rams. In addition to Ryan and Turner, one player who deserves a lot of respect -- and could be a factor in the postseason -- is running back Jerious Norwood. He makes big plays in the return game and as a change-of-pace complement to Turner. He's scored three touchdowns in the last two weeks. One of his two scores in Sunday's game was a 45-yard run. There were seven lead changes in this game, with the Falcons hanging on to win. It was an unbelievable season from a team that most people (myself included) figured would not win for more than five games.

Philadelphia 44, Dallas 6

Many NFL observers picked Dallas for the Super Bowl this year after the Cowboys won 13 games in 2007. They had a top-10 offense and defense, and returned 13 Pro Bowl players from a team that scored 455 points and had a positive turnover margin. After all the good things in 2007, they proved to be underachievers in 2008. Sunday's loss in Philadelphia was one of the worst games in Dallas history. The Eagles won by making their third-down conversions and turning consecutive turnovers into points at the end of second quarter and start of the third quarter. The rout was on from there. The Eagles scored 41 consecutive points over that span.

The Cowboys have a big job in the offseason. They need to add some players who can bring more competitiveness to the team -- and they will have to do this without a first-round pick and with limited cap space.

New England 13, Buffalo 0

The magic number for New England was not 11. They beat the Bills for the 11th straight time to win their 11th game of the season, but it wasn't enough to make the playoffs. The Patriots are the first team since Denver in 1985 to win 11 games and fail to make playoffs. Sunday's game was played in winds up to 55 mph. New England passed the ball just eight times, the fewest attempts this season, but the defense and running game had enough to secure the win. Home losses this season to division rivals Miami and the New York Jets really hurt New England, but then the nail in the playoff coffin occurred when Dallas couldn't beat Baltimore at home in Week 16.

The Patriots had new stars emerge this season -- linebacker Jerod Mayo on defense, quarterback Matt Cassel on offense. How they handle the Cassel situation will be one of the most interesting issues of the offseason. One thing is certain: Playoffs or no playoffs, Bill Belichick did a truly amazing coaching job this season given the number of key players who ended up on IR.

Extra points

Peyton Manning played just one series in the Colts' win over Tennessee, completing seven of seven passes for 95 yards -- enough to put him over 4,000 yards for an NFL-record ninth time. Marvin Harrison, with seven receptions in that game, now has 1,102 for his career, passing Cris Carter for second on the NFL's all-time list (Jerry Rice is No. 1 at 1,549). … Saints QB Drew Brees passed for 386 yards in the loss to Carolina and finished the season with 5,069 yards -- the second-best total in NFL history. It also gave him 10 games with 300 or more yards, tying him with Rich Gannon for the most such games in one season. … DeAngelo Williams rushed for 178 yards, giving him a Panthers single-season record of 1,515 yards. Stephen Davis had the old team record of 1,440 yards, set in 2003. … Roddy White had 44 yards to give him 1,378 receiving yards for the season, breaking the Falcons team record that was set by Alfred Jenkins in 1981. … Derrick Ward rushed for 77 yards, giving him 1,025 for the year. Ward and Brandon Jacobs are the fourth set of running backs in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards apiece in same season (1985 Browns, 1976 Steelers and 1972 Dolphins were the other teams to boast such a pair). … Arizona WR Steve Breaston finished the season with 1,006 yards. Along with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, Arizona becomes the fifth team in NFL history to have three 1,000-yard receivers. … Detroit has dropped 18 consecutive road games to Green Bay. In the loss to the Packers, Detroit became the first team ever to allow two 100-yard rushers (Ryan Grant, DeShawn Wynn) and two 100-yard receivers (Donald Driver, Greg Jennings) in the same game. … Lastly, Raiders owner Al Davis missed only his second game since he became involved with the franchise in 1963.

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