1:14 AM CST, December 23, 2013
On another bizarre NFL Sunday, when Seattle lost at home for the first time in two years, Carolina secured its first playoff berth in five years, and a bunch of left-for-dead teams somehow maintained a postseason pulse, something very typical happened:
Peyton Manning threw touchdown passes.
The Denver quarterback threw four of them in a 37-13 rout of Houston, setting an NFL record with his 51st touchdown pass of the season, eclipsing by one the mark set by New England's Tom Brady in 2007.
But put down the chisel. Manning figures he's only renting the record.
"Brady will probably break it next year," he said.
No matter. Manning wasn't looking for records as much as wins, and Sunday's victory was a big one. The Broncos emerged from the weekend as the only team with a guaranteed first-round bye, although they also lost All-Pro linebacker Von Miller to a knee injury, reportedly a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Seattle had a chance to clinch its division, but the Seahawks were stunned at home by Arizona, 17-10.
With one week remaining, both the Broncos and Seahawks remain on track for the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, although they have teams hot on their heels.
All four division titles have been claimed in the AFC, by Denver, New England, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
But the NFC has yet to crown a division winner.
If San Francisco were to lose at home Monday night to Atlanta, a relative longshot, the Seahawks would win the NFC West. Otherwise, Seattle can win it by beating St. Louis at home.
There are two winner-take-all finales in the conference: Philadelphia at Dallas and Green Bay at Chicago. The winners of those will play host to a first-round playoff game, while the losers are done for the season.
No team in either conference is an overwhelming Super Bowl favorite. Every division winner or leader has lost at least once in the last three weeks.
New England, which clobbered the Ravens in Baltimore, 41-7, is one game behind the Broncos for the top seed in the AFC.
Carolina, which held off New Orleans at home, 17-13, is a game behind the Seahawks.
Among the teams still alive in the playoff picture are San Diego and Pittsburgh, although both would need plenty of help to make it.
Meanwhile, Carolina reminded everyone of an NFL truism: It's not how you start, but how you finish. The Panthers lost three of their first four games, and Ron Rivera's coaching chair was roughly equivalent to the surface of the sun.
"When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people that were jumping off the bandwagon," Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said. "It was a lot of finger-pointing and saying, 'I told you so.' But as a team we stuck together and didn't veer off, and had faith in each other."
People seldom have faith in the Cardinals, who have made the playoffs just four times in 34 years, dating to their years in St. Louis.
But Arizona has won seven of eight under first-year Coach Bruce Arians, and Sunday became the first visiting team to win at Seattle since December 2011, snapping Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson's 14-0 streak at home.
Arians — who last season became the first interim coach to win coach of the year, when he stepped in for cancer-stricken Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis — is once again in the coach-of-the-year conversation, along with Rivera, New England's Bill Belichick, Kansas City's Andy Reid and Philadelphia's Chip Kelly.
Seattle's Pete Carroll lost Sunday to Carson Palmer, one of his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks at USC. Palmer had four interceptions, but made the big play when he had to — a 31-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd with 2 minutes 13 seconds left. That was enough in a staunch defensive battle.
Arians' old team looked good too, as the Colts rolled to a 23-7 victory at Kansas City. Those teams are on track for a rematch, as Indianapolis looks as if it will be the fourth seed, and Kansas City is locked in as the fifth seed. They would play a first-round game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We'll see them again," Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "They've got the upper hand on us right now, because in their minds they think they can beat us. If we go down there, it will be a different story. But we've got to fight our way back."
There's a lot of fight left in the NFL. Strange, just a few years ago the league was wringing its hands about teams clinching too early in the regular season, then coasting into the playoffs by playing out a string of meaningless games. Now, with the playoff picture still fluid heading into the final week, that seems like a different age.
Sign of the times
Manning's 51 touchdown passes in a single season are four more than his father, Archie, threw in his first five NFL seasons combined.
"Don't do that!" Archie said with a laugh after the game, when informed of that during a phone interview.
"We're certainly proud of Peyton. It's been a good two years since they wondered whether he would come back and play or not [after four neck surgeries]. To be able to play on an offense that's that productive the last two years, it's been fun.
"He worked so hard to try to play again, and he wanted to play so badly. We really feel blessed that he's had the opportunity to play some more."
Like his son, Archie said there's a good chance Peyton's record will be broken. (What's more, Peyton still has a game to play.) But the Broncos are also the first team in NFL history to have five players with at least 10 touchdowns. Eric Decker joined that group with two touchdown catches against the Texans.
"That [record] might hang around for a while," the elder Manning said. "It think it's about spreading the ball around, taking what they give you, balancing a running game, and I also think it's unselfishness in a group of players. It also speaks to what Adam Gase, their offensive coordinator, has done. He's a special young guy."
We meet again
Philadelphia plays at Dallas in a winner-take-all game Sunday with the NFC East title hanging in the balance.
That sets up a fascinating chess match between familiar foes Chip Kelly and Monte Kiffin.
Less than a week after Dallas hired Kiffin as defensive coordinator last January, Philadelphia hired Kelly as head coach.
That raised eyebrows because Kiffin and Kelly had some history. In fact, USC's biggest meltdown in 2012 was a 62-51 loss to Oregon, when the Ducks — running Kelly's innovative offense — gained 730 yards against Kiffin's Trojans defense, including 321 on the ground by Kenjon Barner. Oregon's points, yardage and Barner's yards rushing were all records for a USC opponent.
Kiffin got some payback this season when the Cowboys won at Philadelphia, 17-3. Even though Dallas' defensive line was missing three projected starters, the Cowboys harassed Nick Foles the whole day, sidelining him in the third quarter with a concussion.
For the first time this season, San Diego has won three in a row.
The Chargers beat Oakland at home Sunday, and kept their flickering playoff hopes alive by virtue of losses by Baltimore and Miami.
Now, all the Chargers need is a Week 17 encore. They need to beat Kansas City at home, and will keep their fingers crossed that Baltimore loses at Cincinnati, and Miami loses at home to the New York Jets. If all that were to happen, San Diego would claim the No. 6 seed.
OK, so it's a lot to ask.
"All three went our way today, including the one we had our control in," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Same boat next week. We need all three to go our way. The only one we can control is the one here against the Chiefs."
No bailing out Detroit
The Detroit Lions were 6-3 at one point, and they're the only NFC North team that hasn't had to replace its quarterback. Still, the Lions were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday with a home loss to the New York Giants in overtime.
The Lions have lost five of six, blowing fourth-quarter leads in each of those defeats.
"We put ourselves in a bad, bad situation," linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "Unfortunately, we can't dig ourselves out of it now."
Failing to make the playoffs almost certainly spells doom for Detroit Coach Jim Schwartz.
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