The Bucs have more to play for than just reaching the postseason. They could win the NFC South.
Credit the kids.
Rookie Cadillac Williams, tight end Alex Smith and tackle Dan Buenning have put Tampa Bay in position to return to the playoffs a year ahead of schedule.
Williams rushed 31 times for 150 yards and a touchdown Saturday in a 27-24 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons.
By eliminating the Falcons from the postseason, the Bucs (10-5) can clinch the NFC South title and at least one home playoff game with a win Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, thanks in part to the Dallas Cowboys' 24-20 win at Carolina.
"That's what you play for. This is everything right here," cornerback Brian Kelly said. "You tell me, going to Disney World in Orlando, that Week 16 you're going to be playing the New Orleans Saints for a division title, you couldn't write a script better than that. Everything's out there. And, you've got Christmas."
Considering that the Bucs lost starting quarterback Brian Griese after a 5-1 start, winning the tough NFC South would be a big accomplishment.
Third-year pro Chris Simms, who passed for 285 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons, has grown up quickly in Jon Gruden's complicated offense.
Meanwhile, the Bucs' aging defense has kept its standards and is ranked second overall in the league. Linebacker Derrick Brooks is heading to his ninth straight Pro Bowl, and defensive end Simeon Rice has led the Bucs with 12 sacks.
"Isn't that a beautiful thing, man? Control," Rice said. "And I'm a control freak. To be in control of your destiny is a beautiful thing."
Said kicker Matt Bryant, "This team has battled through so much for so long. It just shows the heart of this team. We'll take on the world. We've been doing it from the beginning. The world picked us to not do very good, and we've managed to prove the world wrong quite a few times, so we've just got to do it one more time."
Replay vs. Falcons
The Bucs beat the Atlanta Falcons 27-24 on Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining in overtime.
The Bucs tied the game with seconds remaining in regulation on Cadillac Williams' 6-yard touchdown run.
Bucs receiver Edell Shepherd fumbled the overtime kickoff, but Dewayne White blocked Todd Peterson's 28-yard field goal. A low snap contributed to Bryant's shank of a 27-yard field goal in overtime before he hit the game-winner.
--QB Chris Simms saw his streak of passing attempts without an interception end Saturday at 127 when he was picked off by the Falcons' Keith Brooking.
--WR Michael Clayton suffered a turf toe injury in the first quarter and did not return Saturday against the Falcons.
--RB Cadillac Williams rushed 31 times for 150 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta, joining Errict Rhett as the second Tampa Bay rookie to rush for 1,000 yards. Williams (1,097) surpassed Rhett's 1994 rookie total of 1,011 rushing yards.
--RT Kenyatta Walker suffered a sprained right ankle in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against the Falcons. He returned briefly but was replaced in overtime by tackle Todd Steussie.
--FB Jameel Cook scored his first touchdown of the season on a 9-yard pass from Chris Simms against the Falcons.
Chicago BearsHot Topic
For the first time in 10 weeks, and only the fifth time in 27 games, the Bears scored more than 20 points, and they needed most of them to clinch the NFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, hanging on for a 24-17 Christmas night victory over the Packers.
Not coincidentally, it was the first regular-season game quarterback Rex Grossman started after missing 27 games. He ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Week 3 last season, and he fractured his left ankle Aug. 12. Grossman sparked the offense on Dec. 18 while playing just the second half against Atlanta in his first appearance in 15 months.
"Rex definitely showed some improvement," Bears coach Lovie Smith said after the win over Green Bay. "The offense put 24 points on the board; that's a step in the right direction."
It was the Bears' first sweep of the Packers in 14 years, and it will be just their second playoff appearance in 11 years.
"When I first took the job, I talked about beating Green Bay, winning the division and winning a world championship," a triumphant Smith said. "We've accomplished two of those goals right now, and we're in the hunt for the third one."
Most of the current players weren't around in 2001, the last time the Bears went to the playoffs. But Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown, who missed the Packers game with a strained calf muscle, was, and he likes this team better, mostly because of Grossman.
"I'd say we have a team that's five times better than the one in 2001," Brown said, while wearing his NFC North Champions cap. "We're a more complete team, especially now that we've got No. 8 (Grossman) back. He's the guy that is our leader. A guy that we all respect, a guy that we know has all the talent in the world, and we're going to go as far as he takes us. We've got a lot of confidence in him."
Replay vs. Packers
With 1:26 left, Packers wide receiver Donald Driver went 56 yards with a Brett Favre pass to the Bears 35-yard line. With no timeouts left, Favre was sacked for the only two times in the game and then picked off for the fourth time, and the second time by Chris Harris. The rookie safety's final interception sealed the Bears' 24-17 win.
The defense allowed the Packer to pile up a disappointing 365 yards, the highest yield of the season for the NFL's No. 1 unit. Favre (30-for-51 for 317 yards but no TDs) played more conservatively in the early going, peppering the Bears with short completions. And the Bears' normally reliable punt coverage team allowed Antonio Chatman to score on an 85-yard return with 7:54 remaining in the game to turn what was beginning to look like a blowout into a 24-14 contest.
Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs had stepped in front of a Favre pass intended for William Henderson at the Packers 10-yard line and then strolled into the end zone to increase the Bears' lead to 24-7 with 4:01 left in the third quarter, minutes after rookie Robbie Gould's career-long 45-yard field goal.After Packers kicker Ryan Longwell, who later misfired a 39-yard field goal, missed a 38-yard attempt wide right, the Bears wasted no time capitalizing. On their first play, Grossman dropped a perfectly placed bomb into the outstretched hands of Bernard Berrian for 54 yards to Green Bay's 18. Two plays later, Thomas Jones scored on a 2-yard run for a 14-7 lead with 5:05 left before halftime.
--QB Rex Grossman completed just 11 of 23 passes at Green Bay, but they went for 166 yards and a touchdown, despite some drops by his receivers. Grossman came out hot, completing six of nine passes for 119 yards.
--WR Bernard Berrian had a career-best 93 receiving yards on three catches, including a career-best 54-yarder, in the win at Green Bay.
--RB Thomas Jones picked up 105 yards on 25 carries at Green Bay, his first 100-yard game in nine weeks.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad caught five passes for 58 yards at Green Bay but dropped two passes, including a potential touchdown that slipped between his hands. That play could have put the game away late in the fourth quarter.
--PK Robbie Gould's 45-yard field goal at Green Bay was his longest as a pro.
If the Panthers (10-5) are to make the NFC playoffs this season, it likely means they will have to overcome their past demons to do so and beat the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, a place that has been a virtual house of horrors for them over the past decade. The Panthers are 1-9 against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome since coming into the league in 1995.
Atlanta should be a fairly loose team after having been eliminated from playoff contention following an overtime loss to Tampa Bay, its third loss in the past four games. And no doubt Michael Vick should be plenty motivated to gain a little revenge after losing to the Panthers for the first in his career last month.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have to find a way to pick themselves up off the floor after a bitter and controversial defeat.
The Panthers still control their own playoff destiny.
If they win, they're assured at least a wild-card spot. But the only way the Panthers would get a home playoff game is if they beat the Falcons and the Bucs were to somehow lay an egg at home against the New Orleans Saints (3-12).
That's probably not going to happen, so the Panthers are likely staring straight at a wild-card spot and a potential first-round road game against one of three teams -- Tampa Bay, Chicago or the New York Giants.
But a loss could mean no playoffs at all, something that was unimaginable to Carolina fans just three weeks ago when the Panthers were 9-3 and in first place in the NFC South. If Carolina loses, it's possible the two wild-card spots could go to some combination of Washington, Dallas or Minnesota.
The Panthers can still sneak into the playoffs with a loss, but it would require help from others teams, and that's not a something they want to rely on.
Plus, a loss would mean the Panthers would finish the final quarter of the season 1-3, and it's extremely rare for an NFL team to make a run deep into the playoffs after finishing the regular season on a sour note.
"We were in the driver's seat for two out of three weeks, and we didn't take care of the business," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "Our backs are against the wall now."
Added guard Mike Wahle: "Clearly we have to come back (this) week and show something if we want to get into the postseason."
Replay vs. Dallas
The Dallas Cowboys got an early Christmas present on Saturday, while the Carolina Panthers left Bank of America feeling like they got Scrooged by the officials. A controversial running-into-the-kicker penalty on Julius Peppers led to a game-winning touchdown pass from Drew Bledsoe to Terry Glenn with 24 seconds remaining, lifting the Cowboys to season-saving 24-20 victory over the Panthers on Christmas Eve.
After Carolina battled back to take a 20-17 lead on a Jake Delhomme touchdown pass with 2:32 left, the Cowboys quickly drove into field-goal range and set up a 33-yard attempt by Billy Cundiff.
As Peppers and Ken Lucas got a good push into the backfield, Cundiff's kick sailed wide right. But while the home crowd celebrated an apparent victory, a yellow flag rested on the ground near the three tangled bodies of Peppers, Lucas and Cundiff.
Peppers said he didn't touch the ball, but Lucas insisted he did deflect the ball with his left middle finger, which would have nullified any running-into-the-kicker penalty. Replays appeared to show the trajectory of the ball changed, and the Panthers quickly called timeout to give the officials a chance to review the play.
However, the call was not overturned, as the officials ruled the ball was not touched.
"Me and God know that I touched the ball," Lucas said.
--WR Steve Smith was ejected from Saturday's game after grabbing an official. The upside with Smith: He's a tremendous athlete who is highly motivated. The downside: He has a bad temper.
--LB Dan Morgan left the Dallas game after re-injuring his shoulder.
--RB DeShaun Foster was ineffective Saturday against Dallas, held to 68 yards on 22 carries.
--OT Jordan Gross and the Panthers struggled containing Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, who had three sacks and three forced fumbles.
--K John Kasay made both of his field-goal attempts against Dallas, including a 47-yarder. He had missed his previous four tries from beyond 40 yards.
The Seahawks have accomplished all of their regular-season goals, giving coach Mike Holmgren the option of resting key players against the Packers on Sunday. Players seemed to favor sticking with the starters in an effort to maintain momentum and the NFL's longest current winning streak, but Holmgren will decide.
Seattle has won 11 games in a row to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The team is 13-2 overall and 8-0 at home this season, claiming Qwest Field victories over the Giants, Cowboys and Colts. Seattle has the NFC's best record since 2003, winning 32 of 47 games for a .681 winning percentage.
Pro Bowl fullback Mack Strong said the team must keep its focus squarely on the Packers. The game does carry some extra meaning for several Seattle players and coaches with ties to Green Bay. Holmgren spent seven seasons as the Packers' coach. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was a backup quarterback in Green Bay. Several coaches and front-office personnel came with Holmgren from Green Bay to Seattle.
After beating the Colts on Christmas Eve, Holmgren did not immediately say whether he'll start resting starters for the playoffs. But it's safe to assume Seattle won't take undue chances with key players. Losing Hasselbeck, for example, would probably doom the Seahawks to a first-round playoff exit.
"We have reached all our goals that we could reach in the regular season, and now we have to function and prepare for the playoff season," Holmgren said. "Now, we can take a little bit of a breath and get ready for the playoffs."
The Seahawks need to get some key personnel healthy for the postseason.
Wide receiver Darrell Jackson could probably use some down time to let his surgically repaired knee rest. Cornerback Marcus Trufant might need to protect his bruised back, which prevented him from playing the final three-plus quarters Saturday. Cornerbacks Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson are recovering from injuries that have kept them out of recent games; Seattle could have both back for the playoffs. Defensive tackle Chuck Darby, who missed the Indianapolis game, has been slowed by a knee injury.
Resting those players could allow each man to return for the playoffs at closer to full strength.
Replay vs. Colts
The Seahawks overcame a severely depleted secondary to defeat the severely undermanned Colts, 28-13, at Qwest Field. quarterback Matt Hasselbeck completed 17-of-21 passes with two touchdowns while running back Shaun Alexander finished with 139 yards rushing and three scores.
Seattle entered the game without its second and third cornerbacks, a situation that deteriorated quickly when No. 1 cornerback Marcus Trufant left the game with a first-quarter back injury. Fortunately for Seattle, the Colts rested quarterback Peyton Manning after two series, and wide receiver Marvin Harrison did not play at all.
The Seahawks continued their season-long trend of allowing chunks of yardage before buckling down in the red zone. Manning moved the Colts up and down the field on both of his possessions, but the two-time MVP emerged with only three points for his efforts. Seattle scored touchdowns on three of its first five possessions, only to miss several chances at putting away the game.
Seattle's defense finally put the game out of reach when defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs sacked backups Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi, knocking the ball into the air. Defensive tackle Craig Terrill caught the fumble and returned the ball inside the Indianapolis 20 with less than six minutes to play. Alexander followed with his third score of the day, staking Seattle to a 28-6 lead with about five minutes left.
--RB Shaun Alexander bolstered his case for league MVP with a 139-yard, three-touchdown effort against the Colts. With 1,807 yards in 15 games, Alexander leads the race for the NFL rushing title by more than 100 yards. He has 27 total touchdowns, tied for the NFL single-season record set by Priest Holmes in 2003. Alexander has done all this within the framework of the NFL's top-ranked offense, helping the Seahawks win 11 consecutive games while posting a 13-2 record. The sixth-year pro from Alabama has not lost a fumble this season.
--QB Matt Hasselbeck topped 80 percent completions for a third consecutive game. He has completed 59-of-73 passes for 679 yards and nine touchdowns in the last three games. He has thrown only one interception during the stretch. You won't hear Hasselbeck's name in the league MVP conversation, but his numbers stack up nicely with those of the top quarterbacks, and his team has won 11 games in a row.
--TE Jerramy Stevens triggered a $125,000 pay raise for 2006 by catching his 45th pass of the season Saturday against the Colts. Stevens has 16 catches over the last four games. He needs two more receptions to break the franchise single-season record for catches by a tight end. Stevens has a touchdown grab in each of the last three games.
--WR Darrell Jackson saw his reps reduced against the Colts as the Seahawks played it safe with their No. 1 receiver. Jackson had missed practice time with swelling in his surgically repaired right knee. The team wants him to be fresh for the playoffs.--CB Marcus Trufant suffered a bruised back against the Colts and did not return to the game. The team was not yet sure when Trufant might return from the injury. Depth is a concern in the secondary.