In order to advance against the odds, the Chargers needed a late missed field goal by the second string Kansas City Chiefs, the Eagles needed a late interception at the Dallas Cowboys and the Packers needed their star player to return from injury and be effective at the Chicago Bears.
When Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collar bone during their home clash with the Bears at the start of November, he would miss seven games of which four ended in defeat for Green Bay. On Sunday, however, one of the greatest quarterbacks of the modern era was given the all-clear against their arch rivals and after a gripping battle, Rodgers fired a 48-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb in the final minute helping his side to beat the Bears 33-28.
Green Bay will host the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round next Sunday evening after San Francisco beat the Arizona Cardinals in an exciting NFC West divisional clash which lost some of its relevance when the New Orleans Saints knocked the Cardinals out of contention. But the 49ers needed a late field goal to secure the win with Phil Dawson hitting the target from 40 yards to make it 23-20 in favour of last season’s runners-up.
Drew Brees inspired the Saints to their wild card clinching victory at home to Tampa Bay, the Big Easy quarterback passing for four touchdowns and running for another as New Orleans won 42-17, setting up a visit to Philadelphia on Saturday for the first NFC wild card game.
That Eagles victory meant it was another gut wrenching end to the season for the Dallas Cowboys whose 24-22 defeat was the fourth NFC East Divisional finale that went against them in six years, their third season in-a-row falling at the final hurdle.
At the top end of the conference, meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks clinched the NFC West title, the number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the play-offs with a 27-9 home victory over the St Louis Rams. They will enjoy a fortnight’s break along with the Carolina Panthers with the Seahawks hosting the lowest seed in the next round. The Panthers clinched their first NFC South title in five years by beating the Atlanta Falcons 21-20.
Meanwhile in the AFC, Sunday’s results mean the Colts will welcome the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday while the Cincinnati Bengals host the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
Kansas City were already guaranteed the fifth seed when they sent out their reserves to play San Diego, succumbing to a 27-24 loss that sent the Chargers through to the post-season by the skin of their teeth with both Baltimore and Miami losing their crucial games.
The Pittsburgh Steelers did their job, beating the Cleveland Browns 20-7 in the hope that all the other contenders would lose. That late drama in San Diego undid their unlikely recovery from an 0-4 start to the season.
The Cincinnati Bengals, meanwhile, were crowned AFC North champions thanks to a 34-17 victory that eliminated the defending Super Bowl champions Baltimore Ravens.
The New England Patriots earned a bye with their 34-20 win at home to the Buffalo Bills and they will host the top seeds to emerge out of the wild card round while the Indianapolis Colts hammered Jacksonville 30-10 but will have it all to do against Kansas City.
Of course even amidst all the drama, Peyton Manning still managed to make his mark on the day’s events, as the Denver Broncos became the first team to surpass 600 points in a season after their 34-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
Elsewhere, the Tennessee Titans’ 16-10 victory over the Houston Texans gave the latter the number one draft pick in May. The Minnesota Vikings beat the Detroit Lions 14-13 during the final game of the Metrodome’s 32 seasons but it wasn’t enough to save the job of coach Leslie Frazier.
Mike Shanahan was also fired as Washington coach, their dismal NFC East season ending in a 20-6 defeat at the New York Giants, their eighth straight loss. It was also announced yesterday that the Glazers fired Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano.
NFC wild-card (home team first) Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints, Saturday, 8pm; Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, 4.30pm; AFC wild-card Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs, Saturday, 4.35pm; Cincinnati Bengals v San Diego Chargers, Sunday, 1pm.