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.
The Kansas City Chiefs throttle the Redskins in Landover, MD by the final count of 45-10. KC showcased their dominance in this one, and scored twice on return touchdowns. One came from Dexter McCluster, who actually had an amazing 175 return yards on the day. The other was a kickoff return for a touchdown by Quintin Demps. The two combined for an amazing 321 return yards on the afternoon. These 321 return yards were actually more than 10 teams had in total offense on this football Sunday. If the return game was not enough, the Chiefs defense also forced two fumbles (one of which they were able to recover). They also intercepted Robert Griffin III once and racked up six team sacks. Jamaal Charles also went bonkers on the ground, running for 151 yards and a touchdown. KC ran the ball for a dazzling 193 yards in this game and simply dominated the listless Redskins. This loss caused their owner, Dan Snyder, to release comments such as these. This game simply shows the disconnect and dysfunction of this Washington team. It is always tough to lose by 35 points, but things become worse when everybody in the locker room is on opposite sides with regards to the teams future. On the flip side, the Chiefs feel nothing but optimism as the pick up their tenth win of the year. A wild card spot is all but a lock for them this year and they have a chance to secure a playoff spot next week against the Raiders in Oak-town.
The New York Jets score a season-high 37 points in a shootout win over the Oakland Raiders at home. Geno Smith threw his first touchdown pass since Week 7 in this game and completed 16 out of his 25 passes. Amazingly, these 16 completions in this game were more than his last two games combined (where he had just 13 completions). He also threw for 219 yards, which actually compares favorably to the yardage he has thrown for over the past three weeks (a combined 259 yards). Simply put, Geno had himself a day, outshining his previous performances by a mile. Matt McGloin wasn’t awful in this game, but he wasn’t transcendent either. He tossed a couple of touchdown passes as well as an interception. Terrelle Pryor threw five passes and completed two of them for 20 yards in his limited action. Surprisingly, fullback Marcel Reece had a big day against the stingiest run defense in the league (heading into this contest). He ran for 123 yards, including a 63 yard touchdown scamper. Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings were sidelined in this one due to injuries, so his production was huge. It was not enough, however, as the Jets benefited from a blocked punt returned for a touchdown as well as two touchdown runs from Geno Smith and Chris Ivory. The offense did pretty well on this day and Gang Green keeps its slim playoff hopes alive with this win (snapping a three-game losing streak). They will now defend their 6-7 record on the road against Carolina. A loss there would all but bury their playoff hopes. Oakland will try to stop the Chiefs next week at home, a team that exploded for 45 points against the Washington Redskins in inclement weather.
The New Orleans Saints get better in a hurry at home over the Carolina Panthers, 31-13 the final. After being embarrassed on the road in Seattle, Sean Peyton, Drew Brees, and company return to the dome and dominate one of the better teams in the NFL, proving that they are an elite team. The Carolina defense came into this game having allowed just two first half touchdowns through their first twelve games this season. They surrendered three to the high-octane New Orleans offense in the second quarter alone. In the meantime, their offense just could not keep pace. The game started out promisingly enough when Cam Newton lead the team down the field on two consecutive drives (ending in field goals). However, from that point forward the Saints simply throttled them and were able to score 31 unanswered points.
To me, outside of the fact that the Saints were able to gain yardage at will against the best defense in the NFL, the story of this game was the coverage by their secondary. Cam Newton had a lot of time to throw the ball (save a few plays). Rob Ryan brought a lot of pressure his way in this game, and the offensive line was able to pick it up most of the time. The only problem was that none of the Carolina receivers were able to get open. Newton was forced to check the ball down to Greg Olsen a whole lot and was unable to stretch the field vertically. If you think about it, this has been the one knock on the Panthers all year long. They are able to sustain drives due to a strong running game, but they lack explosive plays down the field. When you are engaging in a shootout with a team like the Saints, big plays are a must and if you cannot get them, it does not set you up in a good position to win. Steve Smith was shut down for a majority of the game, until the fourth quarter when he was able to score on a 17 yard touchdown. The Saints did a great job jamming him at the line and made it tough for him to get out of his breaks. This forced Cam to look elsewhere to throw the ball. Unfortunately nobody created much separation as the New Orleans corners shut the outside of the field down. Of Newton’s 34 attempted passes, 29 of them were underneath and only three passes were attempted 15+ yards down the field outside of the numbers (none of which were completed).
Marques Colston proved to be the Panther killer on the night (as far as offense is concerned). He caught nine passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Many of these catches came on third down situations and they helped the Saints extend drives and convert them into points. Jimmy Graham also proved to be a tough assignment. Luke Kuechly (linebacker) did the best he could with him in the middle of the field but was unable to keep pace with him. This would have to be Kuechly’s biggest weakness; he typically struggles covering the tight ends in the middle of the field. It’s not that he can’t run with them, it is just that (at times) he uses the wrong technique and either cannot get enough depth (in zone coverage) or leverage (in man coverage). Teams have been attacking him with their tight ends this year and it will continue until he can clean this up.
Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan were menaces in this game. They had a combined five sacks (three going to Galette and two to Jordan). The tackles (Jordan Gross and Byron Bell) really struggled with their feet and technique when these two began speed rushing. They were each able to get around the outside and track Cam Newton down with their speed. This is really the bread and butter of the New Orleans Saints. They will clog the middle of the pocket, not allowing the quarterback to step up into it. Then these two bullets will come screaming off the edge to drag the QB down. This defensive strategy worked to perfection in this game (of course, it was helped out by the coverage in the secondary). Newton did not have much of a chance in this game and when you cannot sustain drives on the road at the Super Dome, you will be buried quickly, as the Panthers were in this game.
This win for the Saints does not guarantee them the NFC South, but it does give them a great shot locking this division up. These two teams will square off again in two weeks up in Charlotte and if New Orleans can win next week (on the road in St. Louis) and again at home in Week 17 against Tampa Bay, they will win the division (even if they lose to the Panthers in Week 16). In other words, it is going to be a long-shot for the Panthers to win the NFC South. Therefore, they need to go to work with securing a wild card spot. This quest will start next week when they take on the highly unpredictable Jets at home. Then, after the Saints, they will finish up their season on the road. A 12-4 or 11-5 record is a good possibility for these guys, and that should be enough to give them a playoff spot. So, this loss only kills their aspirations for a division crown, not a playoff spot overall.
The Seahawks and 49ers renewed their rivalry in the bay area, and what a game it was. The two quarterbacks got a chance to showcase their stuff and each of the defenses were flying around for four full quarters and it made for a compelling game. In the battle of QB’s, you would have to say that it was almost dead even. Russell Wilson was outstanding, throwing for 199 yards and a touchdown. On Seattle’s final play of the game, he did lob the ball down the field and it was intercepted by Eric Wright, but in that situation you can forgive him as he was simply trying to make a great play in a desperate situation. Colin Kaepernick played pretty well also. He made one bad throw (and paid for it inside the red zone as he was picked off by Byron Maxwell). Other than that one blemish, you could say he pieced together his best game since Week 1 of this season. Kap threw a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis at the end of the second quarter and amassed 175 yards through the air and 31 on the ground. Wilson accounted for 201 yards of offense while Kaepernick totaled 206.
Defensively, the game was also a near deadlock. San Fran’s “D” surrendered 264 total yards while Seattle gave up 318. Even though the Seahawks gave up 54 more yards, they only allowed one touchdown on the afternoon. Otherwise, the defense stood tall in it’s own territory (forcing four Phil Dawson field goals, all of which were made). I thought that the Seattle corners looked very good in this game. As per usual, they were very physical at the point of attack and were jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. Frisco’s wide-out, Anquan Boldin, had a nice day. He made a couple of strong hands catches and ended up with six grabs for 93 yards. On the other side, the ‘Hawks leading receiver was tight end Luke Willson. he had three catches for 70 yards, including a long touchdown of 39 yards (the first of his career). Marshawn Lynch accounted for the other Seattle touchdown, this coming on the ground from eleven yards out. In my opinion, the San Fran defense (under the direction of Vic Fangio) did a great job in this game. They allowed just three 20+ yard plays. Seattle came into this game second in the league in big plays, and the Niners did a good job in coverage (from the secondary) to cut down on the amount of big play opportunities.
The biggest difference in this game was the blocked punt by Kassim Osgood in the first quarter of this one. That’s right, we are about to give some love to the special teams. Osgood split the gap and blocked Jon Ryan’s punt, setting the 49ers up at the Seattle 34 yard line. Even though the Seahawks were able to hold San Fran to a field goal on the drive, it hurt them in the long run. Those three points were just enough to give Jim Harbaugh and company the spread necessary to steal a win at home from the previously 11-1 Seahawks.
Besides the loss, the most alarming thing for Seattle was the amount of penalties they were called for. That is, by far, the biggest weakness of this team. Many of the flags they draw do come from being over-aggressive, however and I doubt Pete Carroll is about to discourage that type of play. These guys just need to find a happy medium and continue to play aggressively while not warranting a penalty flag. It can be done, and these guys are good enough to do it. However, at this point, being penalized nine times for 85 yards is a pretty big deal. This is something that will need to change.
For the 49ers, their biggest play of the game came late in the fourth quarter. Down 17-16 with 6:20, Frank Gore was able to pop a 51 yard run. San Francisco was able to drain 5:54 of clock en route to kicking their go-ahead field goal with just :26 left in the game. At the time, I thought the best way for the 49ers to win the game would be to see them drain a ton of clock while getting the go-ahead score. Even with a spectacular defense, I’ll bet Jim Harbaugh did not want to see Russell Wilson with the ball in his hands with the game on the line. So, the fact that they were able to score with little time left was huge. Gore’s big run put them in position to kick a field goal, and the Colin Kaepernick eight yard run on a third and seven was monumental in the outcome of this game. It allowed the Niners to drain another (about) 1:13 off the clock, making the comeback situation for Seattle nearly impossible.
So, the Seahawks fall on the road to the 49ers once again. They have not been able to win on the road against them since 2008, and with this loss they are yet to clinch the division. A win would have guaranteed them the NFC West and a first round BYE in the playoffs. However, they have a few more shots at accomplishing those goals as it seems inevitable that Seattle will achieve both by the season’s end. Anyways, this is a huge win for the Niners. They are now in a good position for a wild card spot with a record of 9-4. Sitting in the sixth seed, they are a game up on their next closest competitors (with one of those being Arizona, a team they will play on the final weekend of this season). Simply put, this was a must-win game for the 49ers, and they got the job done. This has to be a huge boost of confidence for a very good team that seems like it is gaining it’s footing down the stretch of this 2013 season.