The NFL filled out its first 14-team playoff bracket Sunday, a day that also featured the league's eighth 2,000-yard rusher emerge. While the scene in Philadelphia bizarrely overshadowed Sunday's more competitive action, a lot went down in Week 17. Here are the grades from the NFL's regular-season-ending Sunday.
Mike McCarthy's non-challenge of a Dante Pettis touchdown deprived the NFL world of a more interesting scandal -- Jerry Jones seething at the Eagles' game management -- but it helped end a miserable Cowboys season. Despite injuries to Dak Prescott and Dallas' best offensive linemen, Mike McCarthy failed to salvage his Cowboys debut. The nucleus the Cowboys (6-10) paid up to retain over the 2019 and '20 offseasons failed to submit relevant work sans Prescott. McCarthy's defensive coordinator hire (Mike Nolan) cannot be back, and the ex-Super Bowl-winning coach will head to the hot seat far earlier than expected.
COWBOYS GRADE: C
The Eagles' Week 17 tactics will make this Giants season more memorable than it deserves to be. They went 6-10 and lost three straight coming into Sunday's historically odd playoff-qualifying opportunity. The Giants protected their lead, thanks in part to Leonard Williams completing a dominant contract year. The former top-10 Jets pick dropped Andy Dalton three times, giving the interior D-lineman a career-high 11.5 sacks this season. Because embattled GM Dave Gettleman made the peculiar trade for Williams, you can bet the Giants will pay up for the free-agent-to-be -- even if it means letting fellow free agent Dalvin Tomlinson walk.
GIANTS GRADE: B
The Falcons forced zero punts Sunday, and although their Buccaneers rematch was less lopsided than the 17-point margin indicates and their season point differential was only minus-18, they went 4-12 and have needs at most defensive spots. Atlanta also has a quarterback who has not made the Pro Bowl since 2016 on an albatross deal ($40 million-plus cap numbers in 2021 and '22). Can the Falcons afford to use the No. 4 overall pick on a passer when they are bleeding defensively and lack free agent funds? Conversely, can Atlanta pass on a chance to nab Matt Ryan's successor with the highest draft slot it has held since Ryan's 2008 arrival? Big questions for the next GM.
FALCONS GRADE: C-minus
Two targets with ideal skill sets to play with Tom Brady, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown made up for Mike Evans' absence. They combined for 16 catches, 271 yards, and four TDs. Some context is required regarding Brown, who has struggled against good secondaries. His only 70-plus-yard games came against a bad Falcons DB corps. Steelers AB may be gone. But the Bucs (11-5) have an elite insurance option, in the event Mike Evans misses their playoff opener with his knee injury. Godwin and Brown would start for most of this year's playoff teams, and Tampa Bay may not need Evans to topple its first playoff opponent.
BUCCANEERS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: at Washington (Sat.)
Due respect to Derrick Henry's feat, three of the NFL's prior seven 2,000-yard rushers -- including single-season kingpin Eric Dickerson -- did not earn MVP acclaim. Rodgers' 48-TD, five-INT season will ensure Henry falls short as well. Rodgers guided a flawed Packers team (13-3) to home-field advantage and did so with a thinner aerial corps, Davante Adams' presence notwithstanding than he had during his 2011 and 2014 MVP seasons. Rodgers finished off the Bears without Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari, and his four-TD day allowed him to join Peyton Manning as the only players to throw at least 45 in a season twice.
PACKERS GRADE: A | NEXT: bye
They of an 8-8 record and a plus-two point differential, the Bears backed into the playoffs. They went 1-6 against 2020 postseason squads and endured a six-game losing streak. The expanded bracket will allow for more such teams to qualify. Chicago's once-formidable defense allowed another Green Bay onslaught; the Bears gave up 76 points to the Packers this season and allowed 34 to the Lions at home in December. Sneaking into the playoffs may tempt the Bears into giving Mitchell Trubisky another contract, which would not exactly be good news for a defense that will see its cornerstone player -- Khalil Mack -- turn 30 next year.
BEARS GRADE: D | NEXT: at Saints (Sun.)
Arizona's rapid ascent turned out to be a mirage, with the Rams loss dropping the fast-starting team to 8-8. Were it not for their "Hail Murray" sequence, the Cardinals would have lost six of their final eight games. The Cards had no hope with backup Chris Streveler facing a high-end Rams defense, but this swoon showed how dependent they were on Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. For Kliff Kingsbury's offense to take another step, the team needs multiple new O-line starters, especially on the interior, and another Hopkins supporting-caster -- even if Larry Fitzgerald decides to delay retirement again.
CARDINALS GRADE: D
Much of Sunday's game featured an ex-CFL passer facing an Alliance of American Football refugee. Neither Streveler nor John Wolford had thrown an NFL pass prior to Week 17, but the latter fared far better. It helps Wolford had Sean McVay pulling the strings. The Wake Forest alum struggled in the red zone but added a rushing dimension (six carries, 56 yards) and accounted for nearly 300 yards. Given Jared Goff's issues at several points this season, Wolford starting against the Seahawks -- a scenario McVay put in play -- with Cooper Kupp back may not dock the Rams (10-6) as much as expected. Goff's 2021 cap hit is $34.6 million.
RAMS GRADE: A-minus | NEXT: at Seahawks (Sat.)
Winning shorthanded has not proven an issue for the 2020 Saints. Down Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Latavius Murray, New Orleans (12-4) routed Carolina. More importantly, its quarterback -- decked out in the gold pants the organization bizarrely refuses to utilize -- looked in his best form since returning from breaking 11 ribs. Granted, Carolina's defense is rebuilding. But Brees throwing three touchdown passes without his top two weapons bodes well for the playoffs when Thomas and Kamara are expected back. If the Saints (one road playoff win in team history) can avoid a Lambeau Field trip, they are the NFC favorites.
SAINTS GRADE: A | NEXT: vs. Bears (Sun.)
Matt Rhule's Panthers regime made strides, but their three-year, $63M Teddy Bridgewater contract predictably accomplished little. The 28-year-old passer fared poorly against his former team, throwing two of Carolina's five INTs Sunday. Bridgewater's $20M dead-money figure will tether him to the Panthers, who perhaps could have saved some money and gone with Jameis Winston, next season. Bridgewater could serve as a to-be-determined rookie's mentor, but he won enough games to ensure the Panthers (5-11) -- who pick eighth overall -- are out of the mix for this draft's top QBs. And the cautious passer's contract limits the pursuit of a veteran.
PANTHERS GRADE: F
Although most 49er starters spent time on IR or the PUP list, left guard Laken Tomlinson missed just two snaps -- because of a shoe problem -- all season. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey started every game, and Trent Williams wrapped a year marred by COVID-19 by finishing his 49ers debut slate as Pro Football Focus' top-graded tackle. Injury-prone in Washington, Williams put himself in line for a monster extension -- given the Tunsil- and Bakhtiari-changed tackle market -- or (less likely) a free agency payday. This group helped C.J. Beathard and Jeff Wilson lift the 49ers (6-10) to a 10-point second-half lead Sunday.
49ERS GRADE: B
With the Seahawks trailing the 49ers by two scores in the second half, their longest-tenured skill-position cog came through for two touchdowns. Lockett helped Seattle (12-4) to 12 wins for the first time since its 2014 NFC championship season. On a day when D.K. Metcalf posted just 21 yards -- albeit while breaking Steve Largent's single-season yardage record -- Lockett (12 receptions, 90 yards) broke the franchise reception record and became its first 100-catch player. The Seahawks signed their then-WR2 to a $10.6M-per-year extension in 2018. That now-midlevel deal has paid off; Lockett now has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
SEAHAWKS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. Rams (Sat.)
Losing to teams with quality pass rushers -- the Saints, Bears, Rams, and Chiefs -- the Buccaneers have proven vulnerable to this genre of squad. For all its flaws and historically bad playoff resume, Washington (7-9) will have all five of its first-round defensive linemen healthy for the franchise's first playoff game in five years. Chase Young finalized his Defensive Rookie of the Year case with a sack, three QB hits, and a fumble recovery against the Eagles. He finished with 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles; Montez Sweat posted nine sacks and 20 QB hits.
WASHINGTON GRADE: B | NEXT: vs. Buccaneers (Sat.)
The Eagles' decision to bench Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld and throw away a chance at winning on national TV goes beyond the obvious "the Giants should have won more games" argument. Doug Pederson's decision to remove a rookie from his toughest test -- one that was going fairly well amid a rather important evaluation period, given Carson Wentz's status -- for a fifth-year player with no future as a viable NFL passer somehow made a miserable Eagles season much worse. Pederson insisting the Eagles (4-11-1) were trying to win is a George Costanza-cleaning woman-level tough sell, and it deals an unnecessary blow to a Super Bowl-winning coach's reputation and the NFL's competitive integrity.
EAGLES GRADE: F
Mike Tomlin continued his pattern of resting key starters when necessary, leaving his defense without top front-seven cogs T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward. The makeshift crew still gave a fully staffed Browns offensive line trouble, sacking Baker Mayfield four times during a game that did not need to be as close as it was. Only one of those sacks came from a Week 1 starter (Stephon Tuitt), and the final regular-season tally -- 56 -- gave the Steelers (12-4) the sack title for a fourth straight season. Sunday's effort showed Pittsburgh will be trouble for Cleveland in the rubber match and has more life than the December swoon showed.
STEELERS GRADE: B-plus | NEXT: vs. Browns (Sun.)
The Browns snapping an 18-year playoff drought is certainly a major storyline; only the Saints' 20-year postseason hiatus lasted longer than the modern Browns'. But Cleveland (11-5) encountered persistent issues containing Pittsburgh's array of wideouts, despite Mason Rudolph's involvement. The Browns were down their top two cornerbacks, and Denzel Ward's COVID-19 contraction makes his wild-card availability iffy. Rudolph, who ended 2019 with an NFL-worst QBR mark, amassed 315 passing yards. Without Ward, an already shaky Browns defense will have a task on its hands stopping the Steelers' fully healthy receiving corps.
BROWNS GRADE: B | NEXT: at Steelers (Sun.)
The Dolphins should allocate more offseason resources toward helping Tua Tagovailoa on offense, but its more reliable unit faltered at a rather bad juncture. Josh Allen carved up Miami's No. 6-ranked defense, finding his depleted receiving corps at will on three straight second-quarter touchdown drives to make Tagovailoa's Week 17 assignment essentially impossible. Miami (10-6) has worthwhile starters at several defensive positions, but only Xavien Howard and Byron Jones could qualify as top-flight defenders. Additional help will be needed. Fortunately, the Dolphins hold the Texans' first- and second-round picks (Nos. 3 and 36).
DOLPHINS GRADE: F
The Bills (13-3) played Week 17 without Cole Beasley, but Allen had little issue locating Stefon Diggs and John Brown. Allen also found Isaiah McKenzie at key points, and the formerly fumble-prone Bronco closed out his third Bills season with a three-touchdown performance. In addition to hauling in two TD passes to help give the Bills their highest playoff seed (No. 2) since 1993, McKenzie ignited the barrage with an 84-yard punt-return score. The 5-foot-7 talent on a bargain-basement contract finished with six TDs this season. If Beasley comes back for Round 1, and with Kenny Stills a Bill, this receiving corps will ooze depth.
BILLS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: vs. Colts (Sat.)
The Ravens rushed for an astounding 404 yards -- 110 more than any previous Baltimore outing this year and 119 more than any of the record-setting 2019 Ravens ground game managed -- and have J.K. Dobbins in top form going into a revenge game. Dobbins gashed the Bengals for 160 rushing yards on just 13 carries, finishing his rookie year with a 6.0-yard average. The Ravens (11-5) won five straight and outscored opponents 186-89 during the run. A caveat: each win came against a double-digit-loss team or a Myles Garrett-less Browns squad. While the Titans have regressed defensively, the run-dependent Ravens still have questions to answer.
RAVENS GRADE: A-plus | NEXT: at Titans (Sun.)
Bengals owner Mike Brown announced Monday he will not fire his head coach. After the Bengals' 38-3 loss to the Ravens -- the team's eighth 20-plus-point defeat under Taylor -- the franchise will keep a coach that may well be overmatched. The Bengals (4-11-1) have won six games under the young coach, whose scheme -- and the franchise's mismanagement on its offensive line -- led to Joe Burrow's injury. The Bengals gave up an unthinkable 404 rushing yards Sunday and, despite rare dives into the deep end of the free agency pool, were again bad on this side of the ball (26th) this season.
BENGALS GRADE: F
An optimistic view centers on Henry becoming the eighth back in NFL history to surpass 2,000 yards and the Titans having an unrivaled playoff weapon. Pessimism lens: Henry rushed for 250 yards, and it still took a banked-in game-winning field goal to beat a depleted Texans team. The Titans (11-5) will carry a worse defense into the playoffs this season, and while their Henry investment has paid off, he now has 718 touches over the past two seasons. Still, the proven playoff world conqueror finished with the fifth-most yards ever (2,027) in a season and will face a defense he has bludgeoned in the past two meetings.
TITANS GRADE: B-minus | NEXT: vs. Ravens (Sun.)
In 2016, the Brock Osweiler-quarterbacked Texans put a divisional-round scare into a 14-2 Patriots team. That team carried a No. 1-ranked defense. In 2018, Romeo Crennel's unit ranked fourth in points allowed, helping an 0-3 Houston squad voyage to the playoffs. This year's Texans were a defensive abomination, ranking 30th in yards after Henry's latest stampede. With J.J. Watt a clear trade candidate, a defense featuring two high-priced inside linebackers needs a near-complete overhaul -- with no first- or second-round picks and cap relief difficult to come by. In less than 18 months with GM power, Bill O'Brien set the Texans (4-12) back years.
TEXANS GRADE: B-minus
The Jaguars accomplished what they set out to and will likely have Trevor Lawrence under center in September. But in two years, their defense has sunk from top-five unit to worst in franchise history. The Jags (1-15) allowed 492 points -- 43 more than any prior season -- and did not stop their yard-yielding ways after clinching the No. 1 overall pick. Jonathan Taylor rushed for a Colts-record 253 yards on the injury-riddled defense. While Myles Jack, Joe Schobert, and Josh Allen will spearhead next year's defense -- which can be augmented with the second of Jacksonville's two first-round picks and a cap-space war chest -- it will take some doing to overcome 2020's dreadful performance.
JAGUARS GRADE: D-plus
Although Colts-Bills was given the Texans treatment, in being placed in the least desirable playoff timeslot, it the AFC's only fresh matchup in Round 1. And it now involves a breakout running back. Two-touchdown underdogs, the Jaguars trailed the Colts by one score in the second half. But Taylor eclipsing his career-high by 103 yards did the trick of enabling an escape. Taylor rushed for fewer than 30 yards on four occasions in an uneven rookie year, but the ex-Wisconsin superstar with sub-4.4-second 40 speed may now be Indianapolis' best hope of beating a Buffalo team more vulnerable to ground attacks than it is through the air.
COLTS GRADE: B | NEXT: at Bills (Sat.)
Months after debuting against the Chiefs, Justin Herbert showed the AFC West kingpins he did not lose steam. The rookie's 302-yard, three-TD showing -- against mostly Chiefs backups, but still -- completed a record-setting season. Herbert's 31 TD passes are the most by a rookie; so are his 396 completions. The Chargers QB accomplished this without veteran O-linemen for much of the year and with skill-position parts shuttling in and out of the lineup. With Anthony Lynn on the way out, the Chargers have a rather important decision to make to ensure Herbert will be in a position to win. But the Bolts have locked down the main piece to one day challenge the Chiefs.
CHARGERS GRADE: A-minus
Even before benching starters for Sunday's game, a one-loss Chiefs team held a worse point differential than their four-loss 2019 squad held going into Week 17. The 2020 team finished at plus-111. While 14-2 is the best record in Chiefs history, it is their 14th-best point differential. Five 2020 teams sported a greater margin of victory. Thanks to their borderline unfair quarterback, the defending Super Bowl champions continually found third- or fourth-down clinchers to seal unnecessarily close wins. But this year's AFC is deep. A team currently without its starting running back and All-Pro right tackle may be more vulnerable than it would seem.
CHIEFS GRADE: C-minus | NEXT: bye
Despite Adam Gase playing a big role in Joe Douglas becoming Jets GM, the unpopular coach did not make it to Black Monday. This is Douglas' ship now. The Jets' two-touchdown loss to the Patriots wraps Sam Darnold's worst NFL season and gave Gang Green (2-14) the No. 2 overall pick. It appears a trade of Darnold -- drafted by the previous Jets regime -- or a trade of the pick to a QB-needy team is the current thought process. The latter scenario would aid a Jets team with needs everywhere on defense. Regardless of the offseason strategy, it is hard to think of a GM with a longer to-do list.
JETS GRADE: D
Accounting for 21 touchdowns in a strange way -- 12 rushing, eight passing, one receiving -- Cam Newton ensured he will be remembered in New England. But his four-TD day against the Jets still left him with a negative TD-INT ratio (8-10) and the NFL's No. 30 QBR figure. That is exactly the spot Newton averaged from 2016-19, certainly providing a roadblock to a Hall of Fame path that once seemed realistic. The Patriots (7-9) are prepared to move on from the former MVP, amid their most challenging offseason in decades, and Newton will have a tough time landing a franchise-QB contract. Will he agree to another bridge role?
PATRIOTS GRADE: A-minus
No, Kirk Cousins has not delivered what the Vikings sought. This figures to lower their near-future ceiling. But if GM Rick Spielman can fill a couple of his defensive needs the way he replaced Stefon Diggs, the Vikings (7-9) will have a quicker path back to relevance. Justin Jefferson was a borderline superstar this season. The rookie's 133-yard showing in Detroit gave him an even 1,400 for the season. (Diggs' rookie total: 720.) Only one rookie (Bill Groman, for the 1960 Oilers) amassed more yards. Minnesota has major defensive issues, but it nabbed the top receiver in the 2020 class and has Dalvin Cook locked up long-term. This was not entirely a wasted Vikes year.
VIKINGS GRADE: B
Some respect is due for Marvin Jones. Signed shortly after Calvin Johnson's retirement, Jones became the rare non-A-list free agent to play out a five-year contract. The Detroit supporting-caster closed his second NFL deal with the second-best day of his career -- a nine-catch, 180-yard, two-TD outing against Minnesota -- and finished the season with three 100-yard outings in his final five games. A.J. Green's former sidekick delivered three 900-yard slates in Detroit. Jones (31 in March) and Kenny Golladay -- who will demand WR1 money -- are free agents, giving the Lions (5-11) big decisions to make beyond Matthew Stafford's status.
LIONS GRADE: B-minus
The Raiders needed Nelson Agholor far more than expected, with Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards limited as rookies. But Waller solidified his standing as Las Vegas' go-to guy for the foreseeable future. The ex-wide receiver closed his second Raiders season with 654 yards in his final five games -- including 117 against the Broncos, complete with a touchdown and game-winning two-point conversion -- and has not missed a game as a Raider. A brilliant find. Finishing with his second straight 1,100-yard season, Waller is also on a bargain contract ($7.45M per year) after peers George Kittle ($15M per year) and Travis Kelce reset the market.
RAIDERS GRADE: B
The Broncos (5-11) do not have a bevy of needs this offseason. One, as it has for five years, towers above the rest and continues to limit the franchise. Against a perennially bad Raiders defense, Drew Lock threw for 339 yards and two touchdowns. Battling injuries in each of his two seasons and erratic during much of his second slate, Lock has not solidified Denver's perpetual need. Denver will have options -- a QB at No. 9 overall, ponying up to win the Carson Wentz or (if applicable) Matthew Stafford sweepstakes -- but giving Lock a full offseason with Pat Shurmur and his young wideouts, with a better QB2, may be the unpopular route the franchise chooses.
BRONCOS GRADE: B
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.