The Dallas Cowboys’ defense was exposed once again in a windy city beatdown courtesy of the Chicago Bears. On the night that Mike Ditka’s number was retired, dah Bears won in an old fashioned way; the way that Bears teams in the past would have won… okay, maybe not so much. They scored on every one of their drives (minus the kneel-down to end the game), and their defense played better. Obviously they still have a long way to go though. DeMarco Murray went nuts on them in the first half and was exploding on to the second level with great consistency. This rush defense really needs to be shored up if the Bears hope to make a run towards the playoffs. Two of their next three opponents can run the ball very well (with the exception of Cleveland, whom they will play next week). If Chicago cannot stuff the run, it will be tough for them to hang in games like they did on Monday night. Let’s be honest, they will not be playing the Dallas defense every week, so Josh McCown cannot expect to just heave the ball up for grabs in the end zone like he did on a couple of occasions (like that score he lobbed to Alshon Jeffery; sweet catch, by the way). On the other side, the Cowboys simply must get better on defense if they hope to keep pace with the Eagles in the NFC East. They are now one game behind them, however since they were able to defeat them in Philly earlier this year they still hold the tie breaker, meaning that the ‘Boys still control their own destiny. We shall see how this defense responds next week when the (likely Aaron Rodgers-less) Green Bay Packers come to town. To me, it was clear that their defense let them down in Chicago. Offensively they are a solid group, but that “D” is embarrassing to watch on a weekly basis. Injuries do play a huge part in this, but the great teams still find ways to cope regardless.
The New York Giants see their playoff hopes fly out the door in a crushing loss to the Chargers on the road. For the Bolts, they still have a faint heartbeat on the season since they sit at 6-7. The New York defense, which had been playing so well over the last two months, was absolutely picked apart by Philip Rivers. San Deigo could not be stopped in this game; they punted just once and only lost one fumble. The Chargers scored on all of their other drives (outside of the three Charlie Whitehurst kneel-downs to end the game). They possessed the ball for nearly 37 minutes and were pretty good on defense in their own right. They forced three turnovers and allowed just 338 yards on the game. The reason why the Giants got destroyed was simple: they could not get off the field on third down situations. The Bolts were an amazing 10/15 on the money down (with one of those failures being a kneel-down). When you cannot get off the field, you are going to have a tough time winning games. So, this formula has been proven successful by the Chargers so far this year; when they can sustain drives, they typically do well. That is why the team looked so crisp on Sunday. Now, they are going to have to continue this success and perhaps step it up a bit as the team travels to Denver on a short week to take on the Broncos (on Thursday Night Football). Their season will be on the line in that game. For Big Blue, their ultimate goal right now has to be getting to 8-8. That would still feel good for a team that started the season 0-6 at one point. If the team loses two or three of their final games, they may also lose their head coach, Tom Coughlin.
The Arizona Cardinals receive a pick-me-up with a hearty win over St. Louis on Sunday. Their defense was at it again, forcing two interceptions (one of them being a pick-six), four sacks, and a safety. The one black cloud from this game was the fact that the team is going to lose their rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu for an extended period time (for he tore his ACL and LCL). The LCL tear is what will keep him sidelined for longer since that is typically more serious than a regular ACL tear. Outside of that, this was a huge win for the Cardinals. They will need to win out and get a little help to make the playoffs as a wild card team in the NFC, but at least they are in the running. A win against the Rams does have to feel pretty good overall because it snaps their eight game losing streak within the division (that which was the longest in the league). The Rams will have to take on the Saints next week in a game that could turn out to be pretty one-sided, but then again, stranger things have happened.
Matt Prater’s record setting 64-yard field goal lifts the Broncos to a dominant win over the Titans at home. Peyton Manning is going to have to ice that magical right arm of his after this game; he threw the ball 59 times and completed 39 of those passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns. It is time to put to bed that theory that he cannot play in cold weather. I always thought that stat was a bit of an anomaly. With that being said, it does not excuse what may or may not happen in the playoffs this year. To Denver and the rest of the NFL, playing well in January is the ultimate test. Anyways, when John Fox returned to the sidelines for this game, he had to be thrilled with his team scoring 31 points in the second half as they blew yet another opponent out at home. The Titans came out on fire, taking a quick 14-7 lead in the first quarter. From the second quarter on, Tennessee was outscored 41-14 (keep in mind, Denver was able to add another field goal in the first). Luckily for Mike Munchack and company, they will not likely have to keep up with a prolific offense when they host the Cardinals next Sunday, with their playoff hopes on the line. The Titans are really up against the wall with a record of 5-8. Winning out for them is a must if they hope to even be in the playoff discussion. The Broncos have now clinched a playoff spot with the AFC West crown coming their way (in all likelihood) in the next coming weeks. The #1 seed will probably fall to them for the second straight season.
By virtue of a Tennessee Titan loss this weekend, the Colts have clinched the AFC South and at least the #4 seed, despite losing to the Bengals in Cincy. So it is truly a bittersweet loss for them. What stood out to me in this game was the ineptitude of the Indianapolis defense. They could not stop the Bengals in this game, especially not in the second half. There have been stretches over the course of this season that the Indy defense has looked bad, and that is not something that will bode well for them in the playoffs. On the other side of this, Andy Dalton seems to be returning to his October-form. He accounted for four touchdowns and really played well in the second half of this game. Cincinnati has a great defense and an elite wide receiver in A.J. Green with a respectable running game. If Dalton can play like this on a consistent basis, there is not much this team can’t do. I’d like them to go pretty far in the postseason. Andrew Luck did the best he could in this game; he threw for 326 yards and four scores. Da’Rick Rodgers had a couple of those scores with 107 receiving yards. It is possible that Indy has found something with this guy. We will have to see how his role expands next week when the team hosts the Texans. I would be concerned if I were a Colt fan, but for now I guess you can feel happy that the team is making the playoffs for the second straight year. After all, anything can happen when you throw all of the records out the window.
The Steelers playoff hopes are dealt a serious blow as the team loses at home to the Dolphins, 34-28. They nearly pulled off a miracle finish, but Antonio Brown was unable to keep his feet in bounds and Pittsburgh was unable to complete the comeback because of it. Ryan Tannehill performed admirably under less-than-ideal conditions on the road. He threw for 200 yards and three touchdowns while making just one mistake in the game. Charles Clay, who is quietly having himself a great season, caught two of those touchdown passes. He also managed to catch seven passes for the second straight week, and was an eyelash short of his second career 100 yard receiving game (he had 97 in the game). He was the difference maker in this one. On the other side of the field, Ben Roethlisberger played pretty well also. He found Antonio Brown five times for 137 yards and a touchdown. This guy really deserves to be a part of the Pro Bowl, he is having an excellent season. Unfortunately it does not appear to be helping his team get to the playoffs. The Steelers are now 5-8 and will have to win out and seek help to get into the tournament. They will host the Bengals next Sunday night. The Dolphins are still on the outside looking in as the #7 seed, and are lucky to have won this game in my opinion. Nevertheless, they will be competing with Baltimore for that final wild card spot. The Ravens own the tie breaker over them, but Miami has a favorable schedule down the stretch. The ‘Phins will play the Jets and Bills in their final two games while the Ravens will be forced to play the Lions and Bengals. Each team will have to play the Patriots. The Dolphins are not in an optimal position, but they are by no stretch out of it. This win will go a long way for them in helping them return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Tampa Bay defense dominated the Bills in this game. They did not allow a single touchdown on the afternoon and absolutely harassed E.J. Manuel. They sacked him an astounding seven times and intercepted him four times making his return to Florida a very forgetful one. Mike Glennon did not play very well for the Bucs; he completed just nine passes (out of the 25 he attempted) for just 90 yards with a couple of interceptions. He did throw two touchdown passes though, neutralizing his mistakes. Bobby Rainey ripped an 80 yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage and from that point forward Tampa Bay did not look back. They just leaned on their defense to ruin the game for Buffalo as the team won its fourth game of the season. Greg Schiano may be coaching for his job in the team’s next two teams. If the Buccaneers can win two out of their next three contests and finish the year with a record of 6-10, I think he will be coaching next year. This will be a tall task though. Their remaining schedule is brutal: they draw San Francisco at home next week, St. Louis on the road, and finish the year on the road against New Orleans. Perhaps a strong showing in all three could be enough to save his job, but I’m not convinced. The Bills have three games left to erase the sour taste they have in their mouths from the last month and a half of the season. This will start with a game against Jacksonville on the road next week and contests at home against the Dolphins and @ New England to end the year. These are all winnable games for them, so a 7-9 record is not completely impossible.
This was a huge win for the Packers. They are still waiting on the return of Aaron Rodgers and did well enough to win this game in the process. With Detroit’s loss this last week and this Green Bay win, it places the Pack just a half game behind the Lions in the standings. Ladies and gentlemen, this NFC North race is far from over! Eddie Lacy had a nice game on the ground in this one. He accounted for 90 total yards on offense with a touchdown. Meanwhile, Matt Flynn played pretty well. He threw for 258 yards and a touchdown. This was a far cry from his 139 yards from a week ago. Apparently all he needs to perform well is a bit of cold weather and some snow (see his 480 yard, six touchdown game against Detroit in 2011). Also, the Packer defense did a good enough job holding off a Falcon comeback. They shut Atlanta out in the second half of this game and scored 12 unanswered points down the stretch to take a narrow lead. Obviously the Falcons weren’t playing for anything besides pride in this contest, but a win would have been nice for moral support. Instead, the deferred the win to a needy Packer team who could put this “W” to good use, especially if Aaron Rodgers comes back to play next week against Dallas. If #12 can make a return, my bet is on Green Bay to win the NFC North. The Lions and Bears really missed a golden opportunity to run away with the division, and now they will have to deal with the pesky Pack down the stretch of this season.
This game was absolutely insane; one of the best in recent memory. There were six fourth quarter lead changes and five touchdowns in the final 2:05 of it. Going into the scoring frenzy, the game was 12-7 in favor of the Vikings and from that point forward the two teams traded long touchdowns. The final score came with four seconds left, when Joe Flacco hit Marlon Brown in the back of the end zone for the game winning touchdown. It was an incredible catch, one of the best all year long. This helped the Ravens to win their fourth out of their last five games and bring the team’s record to 7-6. However, there have to be concerns following the frantic final two minutes of this game. Their defense allowed the Minnesota Vikings, who, mind you, did not have Adrian Peterson to fall back on, to score two long touchdowns. Without A.P., one would think that the Minnesota offense does not stand a chance, but they were able to make a couple of big plays despite his absence. So, Ravens fans should be concerned about the defense’s lackluster effort in crunch time. That said, they can feel very good about Joe Flacco’s performance under the gun. It was, dare I say, 2012 playoffs-esq. He showed a lot of composure and responded to each of those long touchdowns with scores of his own. It really was something to watch. Now the Ravens will head to Detroit to play the Lions next Monday night in a colossal game for the playoff hopes for each team. The Vikings will play the team that beat those guys this week, the Eagles, at home. They will look to spoil Philly’s playoff hopes in that game while hoping that Adrian Peterson is a full-go for that one. Early indications show that he could be fine, but we will know more as the week progresses.
All of the ingredients were in place for a Cleveland Brown upset in this game. They held a 26-14 lead with less than three minutes left, the Patriots had lost Rob Gronkowski for the game (and now for the season, but more on that in a bit) and were in a tight situation. However, a quick score coupled with a successful onside kick allowed them to steal an extra possession in this one. Down the stretch, a questionable pass-interference penalty was called against Joe Haden and it set New England up for the go-ahead score at the one yard line. Say what you want about the interference call (which was, in my opinion, a bad one), but the Browns should have never allowed the game to get to that point. They really choked down the stretch and were heart-broken on the final play of the game when their kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 58 yard field goal. It was a hard loss for Cleveland, and gives further reason for their fans to feel blue around this time of year. See: exhibit A. Even though they won, the Patriots do have to be concerned about the state of their team. This is the second straight week in which they played down to the level of an inferior team and they lost their star tight end Rob Gronkowski in the process. In the upcoming games, this might end up killing them. Now teams don’t have to worry about double covering a big target in the middle of the field and they can now focus on stopping guys like Shane Vereen from leaking out of the backfield (this guy is a beast by the way; he had 12 receptions in this game). This could significantly hinder the offense going forward. So, the win does feel nice, but it comes with a very lofty price. The Pats are, once again, going to have to overcome a huge injury to a star player. The team had just started playing better with Gronk’s return too, so his absence from the lineup will likely be a very hurtful one.