The Washington Redskins completed the National Football League playoff puzzle by beating the Dallas Cowboys 28-18 on Sunday to bring down the curtain on the regular season and set up an intriguing wildcard playoff matchup.
With the victory the Redskins claimed the NFC East crown for the first time since 1999. They will host the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday in a post-season clash featuring two of the league’s dynamic young talents and rookie of the year candidates in quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
Griffin befuddled the Dallas defence by running for 63 yards and a touchdown but the Redskins quarterback was overshadowed by his rookie running back team mate Alfred Morris, who found the end zone three times while rushing for 200 yards on 33 carries.
The Seahawks closed out the campaign with a fifth straight win beating the St. Louis Rams 20-13. Wilson dove over from the one with 1:39 to play for the game winning score after throwing for his 26th touchdown to tie Peyton Manning’s record for most touchdown passes by a rookie.
The other NFC wildcard game will see North division rivals the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers renew hostilities on Saturday at Lambeau Field.
Blair Walsh booted a 29-yard field goal as time expired to earn the Vikings a heart-stopping 37-34 home win over the Packers and a playoff berth and deny Green Bay the NFC’s second seed and a first round bye.
The AFC matchups will have the surprising Indianapolis Colts visiting the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday and the Cincinnati Bengals taking on the Houston Texans on Saturday.
For sheer drama, the Vikings and Packers left the Cowboys and Redskins a tough act to follow as they engaged in a furious seesaw battle that was not decided until Walsh, the Vikings’ rookie kicker, drove the ball through the uprights sending the Mall of America Stadium crowd home for a happy New Year.
While Walsh clinched the victory it was Adrian Peterson who did most of the heavy lifting. The Vikings’ dynamic running back rushed for 199 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries, including a punishing 26-yard romp to set up the winning field goal.
If there was one disappointment for the capacity crowd it was watching Peterson fall just nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.
Peterson, coming back from a career-threatening knee injury, terrorised opposing defences this season by rushing for 2,097 yards, the second most ever behind Dickerson who rumbled for 2,105 in 1984.
“Ultimately we got the W (win) and that was our main focus coming into the game,” Peterson told reporters as a wild celebration erupted around him.
“I said coming into the game, if it (the record) happens, it will happen but don’t focus on it.
“It will be good to play another week.”
In Denver, Peyton Manning tossed three touchdown passes as the Broncos secured top seed in the AFC and a first round bye by extending their winning streak to 11 games with a 38-3 demolition of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The New England Patriots will also have next weekend off after shutting out the Miami Dolphins 28-0 to take the AFC’s number two seed while the Texans watched their road to the Super Bowl get a little bumpier.
The Texans began the day as the top placed team in the AFC but watched it all slip away with 28-16 loss to the inspired Colts, who had head coach Chuck Pagano back on the sidelines for the first time in three months after undergoing cancer treatment.
A day of drama began with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants battling to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Needing a win over the Philadelphia Eagles and plenty of help from other teams the Giants came out firing on all cylinders at a bitterly cold MetLife Stadium, charging to a 35-7 halftime lead then coasting to 42-7 victory.
A sputtering New York offence that scored a total of 14 points the previous two games, scored three times in the opening quarter, Eli Manning finding Rueben Randle with a pair of touchdown strikes and David Wilson for another.
Manning tossed two more in the second half, giving the Super Bowl most valuable player five touchdown passes in a game for the first time in his career.
It wasn’t nearly enough, though, with the Giants needing the Chicago Bears, Vikings and Cowboys all to lose to extend their season.
The suspense ended early as Chicago held on to tame the Lions 26-24 with the help of four field goals from Olindo Mare.
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who set a single season receiving record last week, came up just short in his bid to become the first to reach the 2,000-yard plateau, grabbing five passes for 72 yards to finish the season with 1,964 yards.
The NFC West division title was also decided on the final day, San Francisco 49ers grabbing the crown ahead of the Seahawks with a 27-13 win over the Arizona Cardinals.