New Orleans — Drew Brees found a receiver who hadn’t played most of the season to sustain a late touchdown drive. The Saints’ defense found a way to force two fumbles in the fourth quarter. And New Orleans’ punt-return unit stopped a fake punt less than a yard short of a conversion that might have helped Pittsburgh protect a late lead.
Combine that with some good fortune on decisions by the officials, and it added up to a third straight fourth-quarter comeback for these charmed 2018 Saints, who’ll finish the regular season as the best team in the NFC.
Brees capped a 326-yard passing performance with 2-yard touchdown toss to Michael Thomas with 1:25 left, Sheldon Rankins stripped JuJu Smith-Schuster in the final minute, and the Saints clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs with a 31-28 victory over the Steelers that dealt a significant blow to Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes.
“That’s one thing these guys have done a good job with, coming up with plays when we needed it. We’ve won a lot of different ways this year,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after New Orleans (13-2) reached 13 victories for the third time since he became coach in 2006. “I’m proud of this team. Man, they’ve showed a great resolve – dealt with injuries, dealt with all the adversity you might have in a long season.”
Pittsburgh drove into potential tying field-goal range on its final drive, but Smith-Schuster fumbled while landing on Rankins after a short reception and linebacker Demario Davis recovered.
“One thing you know about this team is we’re resilient,” Rankins said.
Alvin Kamara gained 105 yards from scrimmage and ran for two touchdowns for New Orleans. Receiver Tedd Ginn Jr., playing for the first time since Week 4, caught a 25-yard pass on third-and-20 during the Saints’ go-ahead series.
The late rally came after New Orleans kept it close with two crucial fourth-quarter stops. Safety Kurt Coleman forced Pittsburgh’s first fourth-quarter turnover when he stripped Stevan Ridley and defensive end Alex Okafor recovered in Saints territory.
The Steelers briefly preserved their four-point lead when L.J. Fort blocked Wil Lutz’s 50-yard field goal attempt with 6:16 left. But New Orleans quickly forced a fourth-and-5 and then stopped upback Roosevelt Nix a yard short of a first down when he took the snap on a fake punt with a little more than four minutes to go.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I like the play.”
Ben Roethlisberger passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns for the Steelers (8-6-1), connecting 14 times with Antonio Brown for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh fell into second in the AFC North behind Baltimore and out of playoff position.
The Steelers could still win the division with a victory next week and a loss by the Ravens. Their path to a wild card is unlikely at best because it would require Indianapolis and Tennessee to tie. Pittsburgh’s loss also clinched a playoff spot for the AFC South-leading Houston Texans.
“We’re playing pretty good football, but it might not matter,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously we don’t control our destiny anymore. We have to take care of business next week.
“You can be as skillful as you want on both sides of the ball and special teams, but there is still a small element of luck involved in football. A play here, a play there. If that’s what it is, I don’t know, but it’s the game of football.”
New Orleans went up 24-14 in the third quarter when Kamara dove over blockers at the line of scrimmage, capping a drive highlighted by his career-long 42-yard reception.
But the Steelers seized momentum back with a nine-play, 75 yard drive that included three passes to Brown, the last a 3-yard TD toss. Pittsburgh then took a 28-24 led with on its next drive, which again ended with a TD pass to Brown, who split double coverage by Coleman and Marshon Lattimore for his 20-yard score.
(At) Seattle 38, Kansas City 31: Russell Wilson threw a 2-yard pass to Ed Dickson with 7:31 left for his third touchdown strike, Chris Carson rushed for two scores, and Seattle beat Kansas City to clinch an NFC wild-card berth.
Wilson got the better of Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and helped lead Seattle back to the postseason after missing the playoffs a year ago. Seattle’s has made the playoffs in seven of the nine seasons with Pete Carroll in charge, and six of seven with Wilson at quarterback.
The Seahawks (9-6) can wrap up the No. 5 seed and a matchup with Dallas by beating Arizona in Week 17.
Wilson was 18 of 29 for 271 yards, and the No. 1 running team in the NFL put the game on the arm of its quarterback in the fourth quarter.
Carson rushed for 116 yards, while Baldwin had seven catches for 126 yards and an acrobatic 27-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
Mahomes was 23 of 40 for 273 and three TDs. He had a few of his own magical moments that will enhance his MVP candidacy. But for the second straight week the Chiefs (11-4) were unable to come through with a victory that would have wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the AFC and will go into Week 17 with the chance of being division champs for find themselves on the road for the opening weekend of the postseason.
(At) New England 24, Buffalo 12: The Patriots earned their 10th straight AFC East title with Sony Michel running for 116 yards and a touchdown.
With the Eagles win over the Texans, the Patriots are back in the No. 2 spot in the AFC. A Patriots win over the Jets next week would give New England a first-round bye in the playoffs.
New England (10-5) improved to 7-0 at home this season and became the first franchise in NFL history to earn playoff berths in 10 straight seasons. It also marked the Patriots’ fifth straight win over the Bills and their 26th series sweep of Buffalo (5-10).
Brady went 13 of 24 for 126 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions – his lowest output since he passed for 123 yards in a 2003 loss to the Bills. But with the touchdown he joined Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers with at least 10 seasons of 4,000-plus passing yards. Manning has 14 such seasons, Brees entered the day with 12 and Rivers has 10.
It was Michel’s fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
(At) Dallas 27, Tampa Bay 20: The Cowboys wrapped up the NFC East title when Dak Prescott accounted for two touchdowns and Jaylon Smith returned a fumble 69 yards for a score.
Smith’s long return came after a scrambling Jameis Winston lost the ball on a blind-side sack by Randy Gregory, who also recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown for a 14-point lead late in the third quarter.
The Cowboys (9-6) clinched the division title and their second trip to the playoffs in three years with Prescott and star running back Ezekiel Elliott a week after failing in their first chance with their first shutout loss in 15 years, 23-0 at Indianapolis.
Winston threw for 336 yards in another prolific passing game for the Buccaneers (5-10), who outgained the Cowboys 383-232 but hurt themselves with turnovers and holding penalties. Tampa Bay’s third straight loss clinched the franchise’s fifth season of at least 10 losses in the past six years, a week after the Bucs were eliminated from postseason contention.
(At) Philadelphia 32, Houston 30: Jake Elliott kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired as the Eagles kept their playoff hopes alive.
The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles (8-7) need a win at Washington (7-8) next week and for Minnesota (8-6-1) to lose at home to Chicago (11-4) to get a wild-card berth.
The Texans (10-5) missed an opportunity to clinch the AFC South and also allowed New England (10-5) to take control of the No. 2 seed. But when Pittsburgh lost to New Orleans, Houston earned at least a wild-card berth.
The Texans would secure the division title with a victory against Jacksonville next week. They’d get a first-round bye with a win and if the Patriots lose or tie.
Filling in for the injured Carson Wentz for the second straight week, Nick Foles again played like the Super Bowl MVP who led Philadelphia to a victory over New England. Foles threw for a franchise-record 471 yards and four touchdowns.
Deshaun Watson had two TD passes and ran for two scores for Houston. Watson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Vyncint Smith with 2:04 remaining as Houston rallied from a 13-point deficit.
Jacksonville 17, (at) Miami 7: Blake Bortles came off the bench late in the third quarter with the score tied and provided a spark, helping the Jaguars eliminate the Dolphins from the AFC playoff race.
Bortles took the Jaguars 51 yards for a short field goal and 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. On the next series, Telvin Smith Sr. intercepted Ryan Tannehill’s pass and scored on a 33-yard return.
The Dolphins (7-8) will sit out the playoffs for the 15th time in the past 17 years, and they’ll finish at .500 or worse for the ninth time in the past 10 seasons. The Jaguars (5-10) won for only the second time in the past 11 games.
(At) Cleveland 26, Cincinnati 18: Baker Mayfield threw three touchdown passes to thrill a sellout, holiday-spirited crowd that came out to boo former Cleveland coach Hue Jackson.
Mayfield continued his stellar rookie season, one that took off after Jackson was fired by the Browns on Oct. 29. Mayfield’s 24 TD passes are the third most in NFL history by a rookie, trailing only Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, who both had 26.
With their fifth win in six games, the Browns (7-7-1) improved to 5-2 under interim coach Gregg Williams, who has gone from long shot to legitimate candidate to become Cleveland’s next coach. It’s only the second time since 2007 the Browns have won at least seven games.
The Bengals (6-9), on the other hand, are disintegrating under coach Marvin Lewis. They lost for the sixth time in seven games and are assured of finishing last in the AFC North, a spot the Browns have occupied every season since 2011.
Atlanta 24, (at) Carolina 10: Matt Ryan threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns, and the Falcons handed the Panthers their seventh straight loss.
Ryan found Calvin Ridley for a 75-yard touchdown strike on the first play of the second half for the go-ahead score. He also connected with Mohamed Sanu on a crossing route for a 44-yard score and threw a 1-yard TD pass to Julio Jones in the back of the end zone.
Ridley had three catches for 90 yards and Sanu had five grabs for 81 yards for the Falcons (6-9). Brian Hill had 115 yards on eight carries.
Christian McCaffrey had 21 rushes for 101 yards and 12 receptions for 77 yards for Carolina (6-9) and set an NFL record for receptions in a season (106) by a running back.
L.A. Rams 31 (at) Arizona 9: C.J. Anderson, playing five days after he was signed by Los Angeles, rushed for 167 yards — one shy of his career high.
Anderson, playing in place of the injured Todd Gurley, had a 4-yard touchdown run and other runs of 46 and 27 yards as the Rams (12-3) rushed for 269 yards, most allowed by Arizona on the ground this season.
With the victory, Los Angeles held on to the second-best record in the NFC with one game to go.
Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, in perhaps his final home game, threw the first touchdown pass of his career, a 32-yard toss to David Johnson.
But it was the only trip to the end zone for the Cardinals (3-12), who at 1-7 had the worst record home since they moved to Arizona in 1988. A loss in their season finale at Seattle would leave them 3-13, matching the worst record since that move from St. Louis.
Chicago 14, (at) San Francisco 9: Mitchell Trubisky threw one touchdown pass, Jordan Howard ran for another score and the Bears survived a fight and a late fumble to earn their eighth win in nine games.
Danny Trevathan made a key interception in the fourth quarter and Chicago’s stout defense kept the 49ers out of the end zone to clinch at least the third seed in the NFC playoffs. The Bears (11-4) can earn a first-round bye with a win in the season finale and a loss by the Rams.
Robbie Gould kicked three field goals for the 49ers (4-11), who had their two-game winning streak snapped.
The game turned feisty in the fourth quarter, when San Francisco safety Marcell Harris hit Trubisky after he started sliding on a scramble near the Bears bench. Trubisky’s teammates took exception to the hit and a scuffle ensued with punches being thrown. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman and Chicago receivers Joshua Bellamy and Anthony Miller all got ejected.