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The Bears get serious, the Falcons' dome invincibility, more Snaps

Musings, observations and the occasional Week 12 insight as we thankfully get treated to another eventful Sunday of NFL action ...

• It took until Thanksgiving weekend, but the Bears just won over a bunch of believers. For those skeptics (me included) who have been waiting all season for Chicago to garner a genuine respect-earning victory, it just arrived! We can't keep sneezing at the Bears' won-loss record anymore. Not after they improved to an eye-opening 8-3 in light of their 31-26 slap-down of Michael Vick and the previously high-flying Eagles.

Chicago's easy schedule, to this point, made no difference on Sunday. The Bears were the better team by a comfortable margin for most of the game, and they were the first defense all season to make Vick look stoppable. The Eagles quarterback still threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns, but most of the real damage came after Chicago had built a 31-13 lead after three quarters. Vick was sacked four times and actually threw an interception -- his first since December 2006, when he was still the Falcons franchise quarterback.

Both teams came into the game with matching three-game winning streaks, but only Chicago survived. Combined with Green Bay's 20-17 loss at Atlanta, the Bears now lead the NFC North by a full game, plus the tiebreaker over the Packers (7-4). The Eagles slipped to 7-4, tying them with the Giants, who they beat last Sunday night in Philadelphia.

The Bears slowing down Vick's magic carpet ride was the game's biggest headline, but Chicago's offense was the real story of the day. Despite being sacked four times by Philly, quarterback Jay Cutler threw four touchdowns without an interception, and the Bears running game chipped in with a solid 131 yards on 28 carries.

Who knows if the Bears can keep winning into January's playoffs, but I'm now convinced they're going to get the opportunity to find out. Collecting 10 wins in this year's NFC should punch a playoff ticket, and Chicago took a major step toward reaching that threshold on Sunday. With tough home games against the Patriots and Jets still on the schedule, as well as road trips to Minnesota and Green Bay, two more wins in the final five weeks hardly seems beyond Chicago's reach.

Lovie Smith and his underappreciated team have offered no apologies for their better-than-expected record. But you have to admit, Sunday was the first time their why-not-us refrain started to sound plausible. In a wide-open NFC, this team belongs in the mix.

• Absolutely no one in the NFL has a home-field advantage like Atlanta this season, and it's beginning to look like the Falcons are going to put that edge to good use. Atlanta improved to a league-best 6-0 at home with that razor-thin 20-17 win over Green Bay, and now the Falcons have every right to start dreaming of a playoff run in which they don't leave the Georgia Dome until it's time to pack for the Super Bowl in Dallas.

Which is getting to be a very familiar strategy for Super Bowl-bound teams in the NFC. The Saints and Cardinals, the two most recent NFC champions, play in domed stadiums, like the Falcons. Though Arizona actually won a road playoff game at Carolina two years ago, two of their three postseason wins en route to Super Bowl XLVIII came at home, where its University of Phoenix Stadium has a retractable roof.

Last year, of course, the Saints earned homefield and rode it to two home-dome playoff wins and the first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. All told in 2009, four of the five NFC playoff games were won by indoor teams -- Arizona in the first round, Minnesota and New Orleans in the divisional round and the Saints again in the title game.

Indoors is where it's at of late in the NFC, and securing the NFC's top seed would obviously be huge for the Falcons, with quarterback Matt Ryan now 19-1 as a starter at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta simply doesn't lose at home, and it seemingly has perfected the art of winning close games in its dome. The Falcons have won five of their six home games by seven points or less this season, and when you throw in their 27-24 overtime win at New Orleans in Week 3, they're 7-0, with six nail-biting victories, in a dome setting.

The Falcons are the NFC's only nine-win team, and they'll be taking at least a one-game lead in the conference race as they embark on a three-game December road trip through Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle. If Atlanta can keep its cushion alive until the Saints come in for a visit in Week 16, coach Mike Smith's resilient team may be in position to lock down the NFC's top seed and start planning to stay home for a potential playoff party in January.

• After back-to-back impressive road wins at the Jets and Vikings, the Packers couldn't maximize their opportunities against the Falcons and saw their four-game winning streak snapped.

Though Aaron Rodgers was remarkable on the game-tying touchdown drive that made it 17-all with 56 seconds remaining, it was his second-quarter fumble at the goal line that really changed the course of the game and put the Packers into uphill-climb mode all day. It was Rodgers' first fumble of the season and Green Bay's first turnover in weeks.

At 7-4, the Packers remain close to Chicago in the NFC North race. But it's looking more and more like the division title won't be decided until the Bears play at Lambeau Field in a Week 17 showdown (Jan. 2) that should make for some very frosty football.

• With the season maybe hanging in the balance, that was a pretty impressive 15-point fourth quarter for the Giants against those plucky Jaguars. New York was down 17-6 in the second quarter, and still trailed by eight points heading to the fourth quarter, but found a way to win a game it had to have, 24-20.

But credit turnover-prone quarterback Eli Manning for playing a smart, efficient game (14 of 24, for 226 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions), and making things happen in the clutch with a pair of fourth-quarter scoring passes (26 yards to Mario Manningham, 32 yards to Kevin Boss).

In this year's NFC, the Giants' 7-4 record puts them firmly in the playoff race. But there's still plenty of work to be done in the coming three weeks. New York is home against Washington, at Minnesota, and home against Philadelphia in Weeks 13-15.

• As football fights go, that donnybrook between Houston receiver Andre Johnson and Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan (why is it always Finnegan?) was a beauty. There were some very real punches thrown in the fight, and most seemed to be landing on the back of Finnegan's head. With both players ripping off each other's helmets, the brawl featured some fists meeting faces, rather than facemasks.

That Finnegan, he'd fight his mother. Johnson isn't exactly known as a hot head, but both players richly deserved their ejections this time.

• Clearly, Texans cornerback Glover Quin learned the lesson of his failed Hail Mary defensive strategy from two weeks ago. Don't knock it down. Catch it, and remove the element of the lucky bounce. Quin had three interceptions against the reeling Titans, after having none in the first 25 games of his career. All three of Quin's picks came against Tennessee's rookie quarterback, Rusty Smith, who was making the first start of his career.

• If you were doing a week-by-week temperature reading of whose case for 2011 gets stronger or weaker in the eyes of Titans owner Bud Adams, you'd have to say Vince Young had a better day than head coach Jeff Fisher. The Titans dropped their fourth in a row after starting 5-2, and are now in last place in the AFC South, trailing Houston (5-6) by the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Titans aren't out of in that division -- but they're in trouble.

Without the injured Young in the lineup, the Titans offense sunk to new lows in a 20-0 loss at Houston. Smith, the team's third starting quarterback of the season, was just 17 of 31 for 138 yards and the three aforementioned interceptions.

• Sorry, but Buffalo's Stevie Johnson made like Stevie Wonder on Sunday against the Steelers, dropping that perfectly thrown game-winning touchdown bomb in overtime. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick couldn't have handed the ball to Johnson any nicer, and yet Johnson flubbed the pass that would have given Buffalo (2-9) a third consecutive victory after an 0-8 start.

Johnson found out on Sunday why the NFL stands for Not For Long, because after he was the hero with three touchdown catches at Cincinnati last week, he had five drops at home against the Steelers, playing the goat this time around.

• A penny for Randy Moss's thoughts about now. It's been quite a season so far for Moss. The longer the year goes, the further he continues his descent in the standings. From the Patriots to the Vikings to the Titans, Moss suddenly possesses some kind of reverse Midas Touch.

How smart do the Patriots look now? They were 3-1 with Moss and tied for first place with the Jets. Now they're a resounding 9-2 and rolling. The Vikings were 1-2 without Moss, then acquired him and lost three of four games. Since cutting him, Minnesota is 2-2. The Titans were 5-3 and in first place without him, and are 0-3 and coming apart at the seams since Moss arrived.

• Speaking of non-factors in Tennessee, how is it possible that any defense, let alone Houston's, could hold Titans running back Chris Johnson to five yards on seven carries?

This just in: Johnson is not reaching his goal of an NFL-record 2,500 yards this season. At this rate, he may not crack 1,000. Johnson has 973 yards through 11 games, after rushing for 2,006 yards in '09.

• Wow, an actual road win for the Childress-less Vikings. Minnesota hadn't won away from the dome in more than a year, since Brett Favre and the Vikings made it a sweep of the Packers last November.

Smart move by interim Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier to get his team back to a more Adrian Peterson-centric approach on offense. Why depend on the pick-happy Favre, who entered Sunday with 17 interceptions in 10 games?

Frazier didn't even go away from that approach when Peterson left the game in the second quarter with an injured right ankle, after gaining 36 yards and scoring a touchdown on six carries. Minnesota just started handing off to rookie Toby Gerhart, and ex-Stanford star rumbled for a career-high 76 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.

Ironically, it was Favre's rushing skills that iced the game. No. 4 picked up a first down with a 3rd-and-8 scramble with just more than two minutes remaining, then went running and jumping around in his typical Favre celebratory fashion. Proving once again that when he wants to, Favre can overcome the two broken bones in his foot, not to mention his sinus infection/case of pneumonia.

• With the Redskins seemingly destined for third place in the NFC East, does anyone really have reason to get excited about Donovan McNabb coming back for another year in D.C?

With 11 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a QB rating that has been stuck all season in the mid-70s, has McNabb really provided much of an upgrade over the departed and often-vilified Jason Campbell? I don't see it.

• Even though the episode didn't cost him his job (for now), on my scorecard, Josh McDaniels lost no matter which way you look at the Broncos video-taping saga.

McDaniels clearly has been damaged in the eyes of Denver team owner Pat Bowlen for not reporting the taping violation when he first learned of it, a move that eventually embarrassed the Broncos organization and cost $50,000 in fines. The decision certainly calls into question McDaniels' judgment, and with a 5-15 record in his past 20 games in Denver, McDaniels doesn't need any more examples of poor decision-making than the ones he has already exhibited.

McDaniels also might be facing some dissent on his own coaching staff in light of the taping scandal. There was a FOX report Sunday that indicated McDaniels had not done himself any favors with his peers by fingering team video shooter Steve Scarnecchia. Even if Scarnecchia deserved the blame for his so-called rogue act, it doesn't help a coach's standing in his own building to throw staffers under the proverbial bus.

McDaniels also likely didn't endear himself to his former boss, New England head coach Bill Belichick. According to FOX, when McDaniels met with his coaching staff on Friday to explain the video-taping incident that had landed his team in trouble, he portrayed it as nothing like the practices that were discovered in New England in 2007.

"That was practiced, that was coached, that was worked on (in New England),'' said McDaniels, according to FOX.

Ouch. That one might leave a mark on the Belichick-McDaniels relationship.

And lastly, let's not forget that McDaniels and his Broncos lost the game against San Francisco in London last month, so there wasn't any advantage gained on any possible front.

• Remember September, when the Chiefs had a running game and little else on offense? Those days are gone. Matt Cassel threw four touchdown passes in Kansas City's 42-24 win at Seattle, and of course, three went to the team's touchdown machine, receiver Dwayne Bowe, who now has 13 scores in his past seven games.

Bowe torched the Seattle pass defense for 13 catches for 170 yards, which accounted for almost 73 percent of Cassel's 233 yards passing. But it's not like Kansas City has forgotten how to run the ball, too. Jamaal Charles gained 173 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, with Thomas Jones contributing another 68 yards on 20 attempts.

If Kansas City can get Indianapolis to beat San Diego (5-5) Sunday night, the Chiefs' playoffs hopes will really soar. Kansas City would hold a two-game lead plus the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Chargers with just five games remaining.

• We finally have the NFC West playoff race that we deserve. Seattle and St. Louis are 5-6, and yet tied for first place. The Rams hold the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of their 20-3 win over the visiting Seahawks in Week 4, but the teams will meet again Week 17 in Seattle.

San Francisco and Arizona (both 3-7) will square off Monday night in Glendale (can't wait for that kickoff), with the winner taking over third place, just a game behind the division's co-leaders.

This could be fun. In a slow-down-to-stare-at-a-car-crash sort of way.

• If the fraud label fits, the Raiders might have to wear it. The Raiders were in first place in the AFC West two short weeks ago, but Oakland looks like a pretender in light of that 33-17 home loss to a so-so Dolphins team.

Losing 35-3 at Pittsburgh is one thing. But getting chewed up by a Miami team that was 5-5 and coming off a shutout loss at home is quite another. With the Chiefs winning big at Seattle to improve to 7-4, the Raiders are now 5-6 and starting to fade in the AFC West.

And don't look now, but Tom Cable's guys have to go to red-hot San Diego next week, where the Chargers will be looking to avenge their 35-27 loss at Oakland in Week 5.

Even worse in some ways for the Raiders, Cable's move back to Bruce Gradkowski provided no spark, and now Oakland looks as confused as ever when it comes to its quarterbacking. Going back to Campbell at this point will only continue the see-saw effect that Oakland has been engaged in for most of the season.

Maybe the Raiders should just let rookie receiver/return man Jacoby Ford play Wildcat quarterback. Good things happen when Ford has the ball.

• Pretty triumphant return to the Miami lineup for Chad Henne (17 of 30, 307 yards and two touchdowns). But how come the third-year Dolphins quarterback -- and the rest of the team, for that matter -- can't produce at home? Miami is a remarkable 5-1 on the road, and just 1-4 at home.

• Strange three weeks for the Steelers and their fans. Dismantled at home by the Patriots in Week 10. Routing a first-place Raiders team at home in Week 11. And then struggling to put away a 2-8 Bills team in overtime on the road, despite once leading Buffalo 13-0.

Pittsburgh (8-3) enters next week's divisional Sunday night showdown in Baltimore in position to win and compete for one of the AFC's top two seeds. But I'm still not sure who the Steelers really are.

• The Ravens did what they had to do and took care of business at home Sunday against Tampa Bay, winning 17-10. Now the game of the season awaits 8-3 Baltimore: Next week's Sunday night showdown with visiting Pittsburgh, the team the Ravens must get past if they want to avoid going the difficult wild-card route for a third consecutive January.

Baltimore already won at Pittsburgh in Week 4, so a victory next week really represents the chance for John Harbaugh's team to grab a two-game lead with four games remaining. Steelers-Ravens trails only Colts-Patriots in terms of rivalry intensity, and I expect nothing short of one of the NFL's top three games of the year next week at M&T Bank Stadium.

• I'm sure Jake Delhomme had a few things to prove to the Panthers, who last spring released him after seven seasons. But I didn't see any vindicating victory on his part in Cleveland's 24-23 win over 1-10 Carolina. Delhomme (245 yards, zero TDs) threw two interceptions and fumbled once.

All that proved was that John Fox and the Panthers made the right call when they let the turnover-prone veteran hit the free-agent market.

• Even bad football teams have good players, and Carolina has found itself a legit play-maker in second-year running back Mike Goodson, who had his third consecutive impact game.

Goodson didn't make it a third consecutive 100-yard rushing day, but he had a team-best eight catches for 81 yards, and added 55 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. And, he simply will not be brought down on some runs.

• It's got to be the nightmare that every Jets fan is praying doesn't come true: New York releases Danny Woodhead and then sees him come back to make the game-deciding play next week at New England, giving the Patriots the inside track to the AFC East title.

The way Woodhead has it going, it could happen.

• There's not an AFC passing defense around, Jets included, that can shut down Tom Brady the way he's throwing the ball these days. Seeing No. 12 starting to pitch perfect games (158.3 rating) in late November is very bad news for the rest of the conference.

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