Panthers and Patriots realise their ambitions
The Carolina Panthers secured the NFC South title and the New England Patriots ensured a return to the play-offs in the weekend’s NFL action, but there was a blow for the Cincinnati Bengals as quarter-back Andy Dalton suffered a broken thumb.
The Panthers went to 13-0 as they outclassed the Atlanta Falcons to win 38-0 and secure a first-round bye in the play-offs.
Jonathan Stewart ran in a one-yard score before Cam Newton threw touchdowns of 74 and 46 yards to Ted Ginn Jr and a four-yard strike to tight end Ed Dickson in the first half.
Two turnovers in the third quarter set up a Graham Gano field goal and a Fozzy Whittaker touchdown, so Carolina were able to rest several starters, with Derek Anderson taking over from Newton late in the third.
Tom Brady threw touchdowns to Keshawn Martin and the fit-again Rob Gronkowski to help the Pats to a 14-point lead against the Houston Texans before their defence took over, led by Jabaal Sheard.
The pass-rusher exploited Texans right tackle Derek Newton for two strip-sacks of Brian Hoyer, the second setting up a James White touchdown run.
Another sack, the first of Akiem Hicks’ two, sent ex-Patriot Hoyer to the locker room for concussion tests as New England wrapped up a 27-6 win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers won a bad-tempered AFC North clash with Cincinnati 33-20 to close the gap on the divisional leaders to two games.
Dalton’s injury led to fears over the Bengals’ chances should they make the play-offs and, though untried replacement AJ McCarron showed some promise, he threw two interceptions – one returned for a touchdown by William Gay – and DeAngelo Williams ran for two more Pittsburgh scores.
The victory took coach Mike Tomlin to 90 career wins with the Steelers.
AFC West leaders the Denver Broncos failed to score a touchdown as they went down to a 15-12 defeat to their divisional rivals the Oakland Raiders.