From 3-0 to dangling by a thread, the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens understand the twists and turns of an NFL season. The key is to end the schedule on the rise, something both teams did Sunday by claiming AFC wild cards.
New York (9-7) routed the Bengals 37-0 in likely the final game at frigid Giants Stadium, setting up a repeat next Saturday in Cincinnati. It will be one of three rematches on the opening weekend of the playoffs.
"Now we've got to take our show on the road and get it done," rookie coach Rex Ryan said.
Baltimore got its spot with a 21-13 victory at Oakland. The Ravens (9-7) will play Sunday in the only matchup that's not the same as this weekend when they visit New England (10-6).
"I just like seeing this team fight," star linebacker Ray Lewis said. "I think one of the reasons why there's so much more optimism this year is all the things we've been through."
Dallas has been through a lot of hills and valleys, too, and the final chapter was a 24-0 romp over Philadelphia to win the NFC East. The teams meets again next Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium, with Dallas having swept the Eagles as both finished 11-5.
"This ballclub has done a good job of putting its best foot forward when it has to," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "We haven't arrived and we haven't accomplished anything. This is a step in the process to continue to get to where we want to go."
Also on that path are the NFC West champion Cardinals and wild-card Packers. Green Bay blitzed Arizona 33-7 to finish 11-5, and the teams get each other in the final game of next weekend on Sunday afternoon.
"They've got a lot to think about," Green Bay defensive end Johnny Jolly said of the Cardinals. To which Arizona DT Darnell Dockett replied: "I guess if they want to celebrate it they can go ahead. But us personally, we know we've got some work to do and our main focus is next weekend."
Not focusing on next weekend are Indianapolis (14-2) and San Diego (13-3), the top two AFC seeds, and New Orleans (13-3) and Minnesota (12-4), the NFC's top teams. They have byes. The Chargers won their final 11 games, the only one of the four clubs with a week off that surged into the postseason.
The Saints lost their last three games and the Colts dropped the last two. The Vikings lost three of the final five.
The Jets aren't looking at their two late-season wins as gifts. One week after the Colts benched Peyton Manning and many other starters in the second half and saw New York rally to beat them, the Bengals (10-6) were lifeless in their season finale.
Plus, a bunch of teams that had to lose to keep the Jets alive cooperated down the stretch.
Ryan emphasized the journey from 3-0 to 4-6 and then into the playoffs.
"This wasn't our goal to make the playoffs. Our goals are much higher," he said. "We were 4-6 and we had a mission with the team. It went from impossible to improbable, back to impossible and then to inevitable."
The Ravens, for whom Ryan was the defensive coordinator before being hired by the Jets, followed a similar path. From their quick start, they slipped to 3-3. When they got to 8-6 and controlled the wild-card race, they lost to defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh.
Baltimore didn't falter against the Raiders, eliminating the Steelers from contention as well.
"We've had so many ups and downs, we've had so many close games, and now we go forth 0-0," Lewis said. "That's the type of message I was trying to tell my teammates before this game. In my 14 years, I've never had a pretty road to the playoffs. It's always been a grind, but there's no better thing than having that grind and getting to advance."
For the second straight year, the Eagles-Cowboys showdown was a rout. This time, Dallas did the damage.
"They're going to know us, we're going to know them," Romo said. "After winning like we did today, we're probably going to see a completely different team next week because I don't think they liked what they saw today. That's why I think we're going to see every blitz ever invented."
A year ago, the Eagles kept the Cowboys out of the postseason with a 44-6 victory in the season finale. That gave Philly a wild-card spot and the Eagles rode it to the NFC title game, where they led late before Arizona rallied to reach the Super Bowl.
"It's kind of embarrassing," tight end Brent Celek said of the loss. "I didn't expect to come down here and play like this. We're lucky we have another opportunity to play again. That's all we can ask for."
Minnesota's 44-7 rout of the New York Giants gave Brett Favre and the Vikings their first-round bye.
"It's proof of what we're capable of doing," said Favre, who completed 25 of 31 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns in less than three quarters without a turnover. "Where it takes us from here, I have no idea. But it was definitely a momentum boost and confidence."
Houston has never been to the playoffs and its 9-7 record this year makes for its first winning season. It beat AFC East winner New England 34-27 Sunday.
Out of the playoffs are the Steelers, who finished 9-7.
"I'd rather we go out with a win than a loss," said Ben Roethlisberger, who threw three touchdown passes in a 30-24 victory at Miami.