MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The handshakes and backslaps exchanged in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room late Sunday afternoon were gestures of consolation, not celebration, before players quietly slipped out the back door at the end of another disappointing season.
Miami was eliminated from the scramble for the AFC’s final wild-card berth by the New York Jets, who thrived in the role of spoilers against their archrivals and won 20-7. The Dolphins blew an early lead to complete a December collapse that will keep them out of the playoffs for a fifth straight year.
"It’s definitely going to take a little while to get over this one," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said.
New York’s Geno Smith led three long scoring drives, ran for a touchdown and threw for 190 yards, while two interceptions by rookie Dee Milliner and one by 35-year-old Ed Reed prevented a Miami comeback.
The Dolphins (8-8) squandered a shot at their first postseason berth since 2008 by losing the final two games to non-playoff teams, including a shutout defeat at last-place Buffalo. It was a dismal end to a roller-coaster season that included a four-game losing streak, a bullying scandal that drew national scrutiny, and a December surge that briefly left the Dolphins in control of their playoff destiny -- but turned out to be a tease.
"Our record is 8-8, and that’s the definition of average," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "We felt like we could be a much better than average team, so we’re disappointed. We messed up in the last two games. We’ve just got to live with that."
The Dolphins were outscored 39-7 in those final two games. Now owner Stephen Ross must decide whether to shake up a regime led by second-year coach Joe Philbin and sixth-year general manager Jeff Ireland.
The Jets (8-8) celebrated as though they’re playoff-bound but will sit out the postseason for the third year in a row. After the game, owner Woody Johnson announced that coach Rex Ryan would return for a sixth season in 2014.
Ryan, whose future had been in question, said Johnson gave him the news before the game. When players were told afterward, they cheered in the locker room.
"I’ll say this -- I love being the head coach of the New York Jets, plain and simple," Ryan said. "You put everything you’ve got into it. I never wanted to go out this way. We’ve missed the playoffs three straight years, and that bothers me, no question."
The Jets made sure they were joined on the postseason sideline by Miami. The only points of the season’s final two weeks for the Dolphins put them ahead 7-0 in the second quarter, but the Jets rallied by mounting touchdown drives of 71 and 80 yards on their final possessions of the first half.
When Smith scored on a 7-yard, third-down keeper up the middle with 3 seconds left for a 14-7 lead at halftime, an excited Ryan ran on the field to celebrate with his players.
Fans were booing in the first half and streaming for the exits in the final minutes. Smith drove the Jets 63 yards to set up a field goal that gave them a 17-7 cushion with 4:18 left, and on the next play Reed grabbed a deflected pass for his 64th career interception to all but seal the victory.
Milliner stopped a Miami threat in the third quarter with a diving interception of Tannehill one play after Mike Wallace dropped a potential touchdown pass that would have tied the game.
The Jets played like a team with nothing to lose, which they were, and eager to spoil Miami’s season. They kept the Dolphins off balance with swarming defense and imaginative play-calling, including 294-pound defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson’s 1-yard plunge for his second rushing touchdown this season. Running back Bilal Powell threw a 30-yard completion to set up the Jets’ field goal.
Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline left the game in the first quarter with a left knee injury, while Wallace and Tannehill found it difficult to click all day. Tannehill overthrew an open Wallace deep, and Wallace slipped and fell on Milliner’s first interception.
They did combine for a 5-yard touchdown to cap an 89-yard drive. But the Dolphins’ running game sputtered, as usual, and Tannehill finished with a woeful passer rating of 42.1.
STEELERS 20, BROWNS 7
PITTSBURGH -- Le’Veon Bell ran for 90 yards and a touchdown and Pittsburgh maintained its unlikely pursuit of a playoff berth.
Ben Roethlisberger passed for 179 yards and a touchdown against two interceptions as the Steelers (8-8) won their third straight to avoid the franchise’s first losing season since 2003. The victory also continued a furious second-half rally by the Steelers, who went 6-2 over the season’s final eight weeks to fuel an improbable run at the AFC’s final postseason spot.
PANTHERS 21, FALCONS 20
ATLANTA -- Cam Newton threw two touchdown passes, Greg Hardy had a team- record four sacks and the Panthers clinched the NFC South.
The Panthers (12-4) earned a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one game as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
COLTS 30, JAGUARS 10
INDIANAPOLIS -- Andrew Luck threw for 282 yards and one touchdown, Robert Mathis reclaimed the NFL sacks lead and Adam Vinatieri joined the 2,000-point club.
The AFC South champs have won three straight, matching their longest streak of the season. Indy (11-5) finished with a 6-0 mark against division foes and has outscored its last three opponents 78-20.
TITANS 16, TEXANS 10
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Chris Johnson ran for 127 yards and a touchdown in what might be his last game with the Titans, a win that may help coach Mike Munchak’s argument to stay on the job in 2014.
With their 14th straight loss, the Texans (2-14) clinched the No. 1 selection in next May’s draft for the next head coach owner Bob McNair hires.
The Titans (7-9) scored 16 straight points in snapping a five-game home skid that was their longest since leaving Houston for Tennessee in 1997. They also won a second straight game for the first time since September, when they started 3-1.
GIANTS 20, REDSKINS 6
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York’s Jerrel Jernigan caught a 24-yard touchdown pass and ran 49 yards for another score in what might be Mike Shanahan’s final game as Redskins coach.
Shanahan has not only seen the Redskins (3-13) finish the season with an eight-game losing streak just a year after winning the NFC East, but his future is uncertain because of his shaky relationship with oft-injured franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III.
VIKINGS 14, LIONS 13
MINNEAPOLIS -- Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson scored two more touchdowns, including the go-ahead catch in the end zone in the fourth quarter, and the Vikings won their final game at the Metrodome after 32 seasons.
With the Vikings (5-10-1) and the Lions (7-9) out of the playoffs, both coaches also faced the possibility of their last full day with their teams. Jim Schwartz fell to 29-52 in five years with the Lions. Leslie Frazier raised his record with the Vikings in three-plus years to 21-33-1. Each of them has reached the playoffs once.
The building will be torn down next month to make room for a new domed stadium on the same site.