New England Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher (52) drops Buffalo Bills wide receiver Derek Hagan (80) to the field after a pass in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday Jan. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
NFL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
(All times EST)
Saturday, Jan. 7
Cincinnati at Houston, 3:30 p.m.
Detroit at New Orleans, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 8
Atlanta at New York Giants, Noon
Pittsburgh at Denver, 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 14
Atlanta, N.Y. Giants or New Orleans at San Francisco, 3:30 p.m.
Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Denver at New England, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 15
Pittsburgh, Denver or Houston at Baltimore, Noon
Detroit, Atlanta or N.Y. Giants at Green Bay, 3:30 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 22
Sunday, Jan. 29
NFC vs. AFC
Sunday, Feb. 5
Updated: January 5, 2012 11:50AM
The Giants won their way into the playoffs in the NFLs’ final game. Denver and Cincinnati backed their way into the postseason.
Sparked by Victor Cruz, New York’s newest football star, the Giants won the NFC East title Sunday night by beating the Dallas Cowboys in their showdown. Cruz sped 74 yards for one touchdown and, when Dallas got within seven points, made a leaping 44-yard catch on third down to set up a clinching field goal in a 31-14 victory. New York (9-7) also sacked Tony Romo six times to sweep the season series with the Cowboys (8-8).
The Giants won three of their last four games after a four-game slide dropped them to 6-6. Cruz was a big factor in each win, had a 99-yard catch-and-run score last week against the Jets, and made six receptions for 178 yards against the porous Dallas defense.
“It’s amazing, man,” Cruz said. “Growing up here and having seen the run in 2007 and the not-so-great runs, just to be a part of the team and the history is amazing. It’s been an amazing roller-coaster ride.”
New York, which last won the division in 2008, will host Atlanta (10-6) next Sunday at 1 p.m. EST. Dallas goes home.
“It’s extremely painful and it’s a damn shame,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “We have a good team and I thought we would be going to the playoffs, but that didn’t happen.”
Even without any Tim Tebow heroics, the Denver Broncos won the AFC West.
They did it despite falling 7-3 to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday because San Diego knocked off Oakland 38-26. The Broncos and Raiders tied for the division lead at 8-8, but Denver won on the tiebreaker, better results in common games.
Baltimore (12-4) took the AFC North and a first-round bye as a No. 2 seed when it outlasted Cincinnati 24-16. Even though the Bengals lost, their 9-7 record earned them a wild card in a head-to-head tiebreaker over Tennessee, the only other team with that record in the AFC. The Bengals beat the Titans 24-17 in November.
Pittsburgh (12-4) is the other wild card, but lost both games to the Ravens this year to finish second in the division. The Steelers, who beat Cleveland 13-9, will be at Denver next Sunday at 4:30 p.m. EST.
Cincinnati visits Houston (10-6) at 4:30 p.m. EST Saturday.
“It’s kind of weird,” Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton said. “Obviously, we didn’t get it done today, but we still have a chance.”
Tebow’s late-game magic helped Denver turn around its season, from 2-5 to the top of a weak division. He struggled mightily as the Broncos lost their last three games, but they are playoff-bound for the first time since 2005.
“It’s obviously a little bittersweet right now,” Tebow said. “We obviously would have loved to have won that game to have a little momentum going into the playoffs. But I think it’s still a special thing what we accomplished — to come back and win the AFC West is very special.”
They did it at the expense of the archrival Raiders.
“It’s obviously frustrating when you hear the other outcomes of other games and know what was there to be had just makes it that much worse, that much more difficult,” Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer said.
By winning every game in the second half of the season, the Patriots own home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. By losing their last three games, the New York Jets won’t be going to a third straight conference title game.
The Patriots (13-3) earned the right to stay at home throughout the AFC playoffs after a 49-21 victory over Buffalo, which led 21-0. It should be comforting to them, except the Patriots have lost their last two home playoff games, and their last three postseason games overall.
“It depends on how we play,” three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady said. “It’s great playing at home. It’s great to have a bye. But I think we have to concentrate here this week on what we need to do to play our best football in a couple weeks.”
The Jets (8-8) finished a late-season collapse with a 19-17 loss at Miami to fall out of contention. They dropped their final three games after taking control of the AFC’s final wild-card spot.
“We played well in spurts this season, but we weren’t consistent enough,” said quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was among the most inconsistent Jets. “You have to ask yourself the tough questions and clean things up for next season.
“It doesn’t feel good now, but we’ll come back and be just fine.”
San Francisco (13-3) is just fine thanks to a turnaround season. Under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers will be the No. 2 seed in the NFC behind Green Bay (15-1) after a 34-27 win at St. Louis.
“I’ll sit back and watch the games. Let the games begin,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “My mind is about to go on a whole new phase, that’s the way I see it. We’ve just got to keep growing, keep trucking.”
New Orleans (13-3) is seeded third after a 45-17 win over Carolina. The Saints will host Detroit (10-6), which lost at Green Bay 45-41, next Saturday night at 8 p.m. EST.
Atlanta (10-6) defeated Tampa Bay 45-24 and is seeded fifth in the NFC.