The NFL’s playoff picture might be muddled in the middle. At the top, it’s crystal clear, thanks to the Patriots and Falcons.
New England became the first team into the postseason, locking up its eighth playoff berth in 10 years with a 36-7 pounding of the Chicago Bears on a snowy, blustery, bone-chilling Sunday at Soldier Field.
Atlanta beat Carolina 31-10, and if Minnesota defeats the New York Giants on Monday night in a postponed game that was moved to Detroit, the Falcons clinch a spot.
Tom Brady threw for 369 yards and two touchdowns in New England’s fifth successive win. The Patriots (11-2) grabbed a 33-0 halftime lead and gave coach Bill Belichick his 174th career win, putting him in a tie for 10th place with Mike Holmgren.
Brady was brilliant again despite the brutal conditions, picking apart the league’s third-ranked defense. He completed 27 of 40 passes and went without an interception for the eighth straight game.
“They don’t cancel football games very often,” Brady said. “It’s not like baseball. We don’t play out there in San Diego all the time.”
At Charlotte, Michael Turner ran for 112 yards and three touchdowns, Matt Ryan threw for another and NFC South leader Atlanta (11-2) held onto the best record in the conference.
“With three NFC games left, it’s important. All the games are big now,” defensive end John Abraham said. “All the games can put us in a good situation. We’ve got Seattle, then New Orleans and Carolina again. We want to have that home-field advantage and for us, we have to keep winning.”
Elsewhere Sunday, Jacksonville stayed on top of the AFC South by outlasting Oakland 38-31; Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati, 23-7; Philadelphia downed Dallas 30-27; Detroit stunned Green Bay 7-3; New Orleans took St. Louis 31-13; San Diego routed Kansas City 31-0; Miami defeated the New York Jets 10-6; San Francisco romped over Seattle 40-21; Tampa Bay beat Washington 17-16; Arizona took Denver 43-13; and Buffalo beat Cleveland 13-6.
On Monday night, the Giants face Minnesota at Ford Field after the Vikings’ Metrodome home had the roof deflate during a blizzard, and Baltimore is at Houston.
The weekend began with Indianapolis edging Tennessee 30-28.
Patriots 36, Bears 7(equals)
One week after annihilating the Jets 45-3, the Patriots had no mercy for Chicago (9-4), which nonetheless remained atop the NFC North even with its five-game winning streak smashed.
Deion Branch caught eight passes for a career-high 151 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. Wes Welker had eight receptions for 115 yards and the Patriots totaled 475 yards while holding Chicago to 185.
“It was a chess match, and he said checkmate,” Bears safety Chris Harris said of Brady.
Falcons 31, Panthers 10(equals)
The Falcons built a 17-0 halftime lead, survived a brief hiccup to start the third quarter, and cruised to their seventh straight win. Abraham and Kroy Biermann each had two sacks as the Falcons became the latest team to shut down the NFL’s worst offense.
Jonathan Stewart rushed for a season-best 133 yards, but lost a fumble on Carolina’s first play from scrimmage to set up Atlanta’s first TD. Things didn’t get much better for rookie Jimmy Clausen and the NFL-worst Panthers (1-12), who dropped their seventh straight.
Jaguars 38, Raiders 31(equals)
At Jacksonville, David Garrard threw three touchdown passes, Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings each topped 100 yards rushing.
The Jaguars overcame a 10-point deficit to win for the fifth time in six games, setting up a critical AFC South game at Indianapolis next week.
Jacksonville (8-5) stayed a game ahead of the Colts. The Raiders (6-7) lost for the third time in four weeks and might be done with postseason contention. But Darren McFadden rushed for 123 yards, including a 36-yard TD with 1:53 to go.
Then Jones-Drew won it with a 30-yard run just 19 seconds later.
Steelers 23, Bengals 7(equals)
At Pittsburgh, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley returned interceptions of Carson Palmer for touchdowns as Cincinnati dropped a franchise record 10th straight game.
The Steelers (10-3) couldn’t get into the end zone on offense despite dominating time of possession — a 9½-minute drive produced no points — but it didn’t matter against the Bengals (2-11).
Cincinnati matched the David Shula-coached 1993 Bengals by losing 10 consecutive games in the same season. The overall franchise record is 11 consecutive defeats from 1992-93.
Eagles 30, Cowboys 27(equals)
DeSean Jackson had 210 yards receiving, including a 91-yard, go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Visiting Philadelphia (9-4) ended a three-game skid to its NFC East rival and moved a half-game ahead of the Giants in the division race. Dallas (4-9) fell behind in the opening minutes, yet kept it close and even led 20-14. But Philadelphia was relentless, dropping the Cowboys to 3-2 under interim coach Jason Garrett. They are guaranteed their first losing season since 2004.
Jackson’s performance helped mask an otherwise rocky outing by Michael Vick: two interceptions, matching his season total, and trouble converting on third downs. Dallas sacked him twice and blasted him with hard hits all night, including one that drew a penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Lions 7, Packers 3(equals)
At Detroit, Drew Stanton threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Will Heller midway through the fourth quarter, and Green Bay couldn’t come back without an injured Aaron Rodgers.
Detroit (3-10) snapped a five-game losing streak and a 19-game skid against the NFC North, the NFL’s worst slump within a division since the merger four decades ago.
Green Bay (8-5) lost Rodgers, knocked out in the second quarter with his second concussion this season. Matt Flynn couldn’t compensate.
Saints 31, Rams 13(equals)
At New Orleans, Dew Brees threw for three scores, Malcolm Jenkins returned one of his two interceptions 96 yards for his first career touchdown, and New Orleans won its sixth straight game.
Marques Colston had a pair of touchdown catches in traffic as the Saints (10-3) raced to a 14-0 lead and never trailed. Lance Moore made a 31-yard touchdown catch.
Brees finished 25 of 40 for 221 yards and was intercepted twice.
Rookie QB Sam Bradford scored the only touchdown on a short keeper for the Rams (6-7).
Chargers 31, Chiefs 0(equals)
At San Diego, Philip Rivers threw two touchdown passes to Malcom Floyd. The four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers (7-6) pulled within one game of the Chiefs (8-5). Rivers was 18 of 24 for 226 yards and the Chargers outgained the Chiefs 426 yards to 67. Kansas City had only five first downs. It was San Diego’s first regular-season shutout against the Chiefs, who played without quarterback Matt Cassel, who didn’t travel after having an emergency appendectomy Wednesday.
Cassel’s backup Brodie Croyle completed 7 of 17 passes for 40 yards and was sacked four times in his first start since the 2009 opener.
Dolphins 10, Jets 6(equals)
The Dolphins turned two early turnovers into their only points at the rainy Meadowlands. Much of the game was played in a downpour, which made for inept offense in the sloppy conditions. The Dolphins gained 131 yards, with Chad Henne passing for only 55, yet improved to 7-6.
The Jets (9-4) moved the ball better, picking up 286 yards. But Mark Sanchez’s fumble led to the only touchdown, Brandon Marshall’s 6-yard reception in the first quarter. Earlier, Nolan Carroll’s interception set up Dan Carpenter’s 47-yard field goal.
By far the most effective player on the wet field was Dolphins punter Brandon Fields. He finished with 10 kicks for a 50-yard average.
49ers 40, Seahawks 21(equals)
At San Francisco, Alex Smith threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns in a triumphant return to the starting lineup following a five-game absence. The Niners (5-8) muddled up the ugly NFC West race even more and moved within a game of division leaders Seattle (6-7) and St. Louis. The 49ers looked much more like the team predicted to win the division after an unbeaten preseason.
Matt Hasselbeck went 27 for 42 for 285 yards and two TDs, but threw four interceptions and lost a fumble as Seattle had turnovers on five of six possessions during one stretch.
Buccaneers 17, Redskins 16(equals)
A flubbed extra point attempt with 9 seconds to play kept host Washington from tying the game. The Redskins pulled within a point on Santana Moss’ 6-yard touchdown catch, but Nick Sundberg’s slightly high snap on a wet field went through holder Hunter Smith’s hands.
The Buccaneers (8-5) broke a two-game losing streak. It was also the fifth time this season Josh Freeman has won a game with a fourth-quarter comeback. He hit Kellen Winslow for a 41-yard scoring pass with 3:47 to play.
Ryan Torain ran for 172 yards for Washington (5-8), 158 in the first half.
Cardinals 43, Broncos 13(equals)
Jay Feely became the fourth kicker in 40 years to run for a touchdown and added a career-best five field goals to help host Arizona end a seven-game losing streak. Rookie John Skelton completed 14 of 36 for 141 yards with no interceptions and had at least four passes dropped in his first NFL start.
The Broncos (3-10) had six turnovers, including three interceptions by Kyle Orton, in their eighth loss in nine games. It was an uninspired debut under interim coach Eric Studesville, promoted from running backs coach when Josh McDaniels was fired last Monday.
Tim Hightower rushed for 148 yards for Arizona (4-9).
Bills 13, Browns 6(equals)
Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Nelson, then Leodis McKelvin made a late interception to preserve the win. Rian Lindell hit field goals of 30 and 19 yards to help the Bills (3-11) snap a three-game losing streak against Cleveland (5-8), which was eliminated from playoff contention. McKelvin intercepted Jake Delhomme’s pass with under 4 minutes left at the Bills 32, and Buffalo was able to run out the clock.
The Browns’ offense was so inept, it didn’t cross midfield in five second-half possessions.