Turns out the last games of the NFL regular season were filled with firsts for ASN-affiliated players. Most newsworthy, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown became the first receiver in NFL history to catch 125 passes in back-to-back seasons. But equally exciting, at least on a personal level, were James Harris’s first career touchdown, Jonathan Grimes’s first two touchdowns of the season and James Ihedigbo’s first interception of the season.
But all the firsts aside, the biggest ASN-related drama in the NFL in Week 17 was the divergent fates of quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Ryan Fitzpatrick of the New York Jets. Needing only to win to secure their first playoff spot in five seasons, Fitzpatrick’s Jets couldn’t get the job done. Conversely, Roethlisberger proved why he’ll be a Hall of Famer as he led Pittsburgh to a convincing victory against Cleveland. Coupled with the Jets loss, the win put the Steelers into the playoffs.
But it was Brown’s record-setting day that makes him ASN’s Most Notable Player for the final week of the season.
Brown on Sunday became the first receiver in NFL history to have back-to-back 125-catch seasons. He entered Sunday’s game with 123 catches and added 13 more, including his 10th touchdown reception of the season. A veteran out of Central Michigan, Brown finished the season with 136 catches for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was No. 1 in the NFL in terms of receptions and No. 2 in receiving yards, behind Atlanta’s Julio Jones (1,871). Brown’s catches were a critical part of the Steelers’ 28-12 victory against the Cleveland Browns, which helped them clinch a playoff spot.
Roethlisberger and his Steelers entered Sunday not only needing to win, but also needing the New York Jets to lose. They got both. Though Roethlisberger didn’t have his cleanest game of the season — he threw two interceptions — he was prolific enough to guide Pittsburgh past Cleveland. Big Ben (Miami, Ohio) threw three touchdown passes on 24 of 36 passing. The game marked the seventh time this season Roethlisberger threw for more than 334 yards, but more importantly, he kept his eye on the prize – a shot at the postseason. Roethlisberger completed touchdown passes to three different receivers and finished the regular season with 3,938 passing yards, bringing his career total to 42,995.
Fitzpatrick and his Jets couldn’t keep the mojo going Sunday. After winning five consecutive games and putting themselves in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, Fitzpatrick was forced into throwing when he didn’t want to and the Jets lost a shot at a wild-card spot to their former coach, Rex Ryan. The Buffalo Bills barely beat the Jets, 22-17. Fitzpatrick (Harvard) first got the Jets on the board midway through the second quarter when he connected with Brandon Marshall on a 17-yard TD pass. Fitzpatrick also completed a touchdown pass to Eric Decker (21 yards) in the fourth quarter and engineered a drive that ended in a 39-yard field goal. But the three interceptions — all in the fourth quarter — did the Jets in. The Bills scored a field goal after Fitzpatrick’s first pick, and he threw two more on the Jets’ next two possessions, effectively killing New York’s chances of scoring. Fitzpatrick ended the season with 3,724 yards on 319 or 525 passing. He threw for 29 touchdowns.
For one of the only times this season, the Giants made Jennings their featured back. And, oooohhhh, what a great decision. Jennings, a veteran back out of Liberty, had season highs across the board — 27 carries for 170 yards. He scored a touchdown and finished the season with a personal-best 863 rushing yards. After the Giants ditched their running-back rotation four games ago, Jennings has made quite an impression. And he’s embraced the opportunity. “It enables you to get in sync, that’s all,” Jennings told the New York Post. “It allows you to come to the sideline and speak to one of the offensive lineman and say, ‘This is what I felt. This is what I saw. Next time, I’m gonna do X, Y and Z. How do you feel?’ And he tells me. You have that chemistry.” Despite Jennings’ performance, the Giants lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 35-30.
Grimes’s two touchdowns were critical to the Texans clinching the AFC South title. Grimes, a third-year running back out of William & Mary, scored his first two touchdowns of the season, one each on the ground and in the air. He carried the ball four times for 26 yards and had three receptions for 27 yards. Grimes scored on back-to-back Texans possessions in the second quarter. Houston defeated Jacksonville, 30-6.
Antwon Blake (UTEP), James Harrison (Kent State) and Arthur Moats (James Madison) combined to do everything they could to keep the Browns’ offense off the field in the Steelers’ playoff-spot-clinching victory against Cleveland. CB Blake (four tackles) and LB Moats (six tackles) accounted for two of the Steelers’ eight sacks while Harrison, a linebacker, recovered a fumble, had an interception and was credited with two tackles.
In just his second season in the NFL, Harris (Milwaukee) scored the first touchdown of his career, a 15-yard reception in the third quarter that gave the Chiefs a 23-10 lead en route to their 23-17 playoff-clinching victory. The touchdown reception was Harris’ only catch of the game, and his seventh of the season.
The veteran safety out of UMass capped his season with his first interception as the Lions defeated Chicago, 24-20. The pick came at the tail end of the first quarter when Ihedigbo snagged a Jay Cutler TD pass in the end zone. Ihedigbo was also credited with five tackles, giving him a total of 63 for the season.
A fullback out of Harvard, Juszczyk scored his fourth receiving touchdown of the season and eighth of his three-year career in the Ravens 24-16 season-ending loss to Cincinnati. Juszczyk’s 2-yard reception at the tail end of the fourth quarter accounted for the Ravens’ only touchdown of the game. Juszczyk had two receptions for 18 yards. He ended the season with 321 yards on 41 receptions.
Cunningham left his prints all over the Rams season finale. A third-year running back, Cunningham (Middle Tennessee) got plenty of opportunity in the final game of the season, a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, carrying the ball four times for 38 yards and catching three passes for 34 yards. He also helped the Rams get good field position, returning two kickoffs an average of 22 yards. The game was Cunningham’s best in terms of yards and most balanced since Week 1.
Oakland Raiders LB Khalil Mack (Buffalo) had a team-leading 10 tackles (seven solos, three assists) in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He finished with 15 sacks this season, one shy of Derrick Burgess’ 2005 franchise record. … Atlanta Falcons CB Robert Alford (Southeast Louisiana) had a team-high seven solo tackles and a fumble recovery in a loss to the New Orleans Saints. … Ravens CB Kyle Arrington (Hofstra) forced a fumble in Baltimore’s loss to Cincinnati. … Browns LB Craig Robertson (North Texas) had an interception and three tackles in the loss to the Steelers. … Washington Redskins RB Alfred Morris (Florida Atlantic) led all rushers with 100 yards in a 34-23 victory against the Dallas Cowboys. … Jacksonville Jaguars SS Johnathan Cyprien (Florida International) matched a season-high 14 tackles (six solos, eight assists) in a loss to the Houston Texans. … Tennessee Titans rookie Tre McBride (William & Mary) carried the ball for the first time in his NFL career in a 30-24 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. He had one run for eight yards. … New England Patriots backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois) completed his only pass of the season Sunday, an 8-yard toss in the fourth quarter of a 20-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins. … Miami Dolphins WR Greg Jennings (Western Michigan) had four receptions for 74 yards in Miami’s victory against New England. … San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates (Kent State) caught three passes fr 34 yards and a touchdown in the Chargers’ 27-20 loss to Denver. … SS Andrew Sendejo (Rice) did his part to help the Minnesota Vikings win the NFC North with 13 tackles (eight solo, five assists) in a victory against the Green Bay Packers.