LANDOVER, Md. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a less-than-artistic Week 14 in the NFL.
BURKE: BEST & WORST OF WEEK 14
• The Atlanta Falcons are going to the playoffs, and the Chicago Bears probably will get their ticket to the dance punched one of these days, too. But who do they scare? Both teams appear to be paying a price for the weak schedules they played earlier this season, and it's becoming rapidly apparent that they inspire little confidence as January looms.
The Falcons fell behind 23-0 at Carolina on Sunday, rallied a bit, and ultimately succumbed 30-20 to a Panthers team that nearly beat them Week 4 in the Georgia Dome. As Greg Hardy, the talkative Carolina defensive end, noted last week, the Panthers looked every bit the better team in their division matchup with Atlanta. If nothing else, the Falcons had to exit Week 14 with a sense of wounded pride, watching Hardy and his team back up those big words.
As for the Bears, they're approaching fraud territory in my book after losing 21-14 at Minnesota on Sunday. Chicago started 7-1 against a tissue-soft schedule, but has gone 1-4 since stepping up in weight class in terms of its second-half slate of opponents. And you can't blame a season-ending Jay Cutler injury on this slide, Bears fans. Cutler missed six quarters of action due to a concussion, or parts of losses to Houston and San Francisco, but he has been fully functional and partly responsible in Chicago's back-to-back losses to Seattle and Minnesota.
Cutler did leave the game against the Vikings with a reported neck injury, being replaced by Jason Campbell with three minutes to go, but it was his two interceptions against Minnesota that accounted for 14 Vikings points and essentially made the difference in Chicago's first loss to its division rival in seven games.
The Vikings (7-6) are now just a game behind the Bears in the NFC wild-card fight, with Chicago currently owning the sixth seed in the conference and also holding only a one-game advantage over both Dallas and Washington (7-6). If the Bears do make it to the postseason, they're looking more like a one-and-done qualifier all the time.
Same goes for the 11-2 Falcons, even though they're still in line for the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC. And we know one-and-dones are Atlanta's specialty in the postseason, having done just that three times (2008, 2010, 2011) in the first four seasons of the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. The middle of those two first-game playoff dismissals came as the top seed, against sixth-seeded Green Bay in 2010, and it wouldn't register as a stunner to see the Falcons pull a repeat.
At the moment, I can count at least six NFC teams that are playing better ball than Atlanta these days: The Giants, Redskins and Cowboys in the East, the Packers in the North, and the 49ers">49ers and Seahawks in the West. Not all of them will make the playoffs, of course, but each of them could give Atlanta a game, which should make Falcons fans plenty nervous as they size up January's tournament. Especially since quarterback Matt Ryan, once a leading MVP candidate, has cooled considerably: four touchdown passes and seven interceptions in his past four games.
Next week is big for the Falcons and the Bears, with a well-timed opportunity to re-establish some confidence and momentum as the playoff fight continues. Atlanta is home against the Giants (8-5) and Chicago plays host to Green Bay in the game that could decide the NFC North title. Win those games, and the Bears and Falcons might still force us to view them with fresh eyes. But in Week 14, Atlanta and Chicago didn't look like anyone's idea of a Super Bowl contender. Both are playing as if they've already peaked and played their best ball of the season, and that deflating pattern is far too familiar for Falcons and Bears fans.
• Here's the only thing I absolutely know about the 2012 NFL season: Whomever finishes second in the Comeback Player of the Year voting has a legitimate gripe. How do you possibly do justice to either Denver's Peyton Manning or Minnesota's Adrian Peterson if you don't split the award between them? Neither deserves to be slighted.
Peterson continued his monster 2012, racking up 154 yards rushing and another two touchdowns in the seven-point win over the Bears, on a career-high 31 carries. That gives him 1,600 yards and leaves him needing to average about 133.4 yards per game over the final three weeks to reach the 2,000 mark.
After all the conventional wisdom he shredded in the NFL with his record rehab from major knee surgery, how can anyone bet against him?
VIKINGS 21, BEARS 14: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Speaking of gambling, I wouldn't lay money on the Steelers any time soon. In its past six games, Pittsburgh, supposedly that model of NFL consistency, has beaten the defending champion Giants on the road, lost at last-place Cleveland, won in Baltimore (where the Ravens had triumphed a league-high 16 times in a row) and lost at home to the sad-sack Chargers, breaking San Diego's four-game losing streak. And lest we forget, there were those early season losses at Oakland and Tennessee by Mike Tomlin's up and down team.
But with Baltimore and Cincinnati also losing on Sunday, the Steelers are still the AFC's sixth seed in the playoff race entering Week 15 -- and darn fortunate to still be in such good position. Unless the Jets (6-7) somehow pass them, the Steelers will likely be playing for the AFC's second and final wild-card berth at home against the Bengals in Week 16.
CHARGERS 34, STEELERS 24: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Carolina is 3-3 and playing much better since its horrible 1-6 start, and Cam Newton has rebounded very nicely from his earlier struggles this season. I have to think Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has noticed, and Carolina head coach Ron Rivera might be in the process of extricating himself from the hot seat in Charlotte.
Maybe we're a week or two too early in that assessment, but Newton's continued strong play has to be the best sign that Rivera and staff might be worthy of a third season in Carolina. The decision might come down to whomever the Panthers hire as a new general manager, with that person usually being allowed to bring in his own man as head coach.
But Newton's development is the most important factor here, and that's why continuity might carry the day in Charlotte. Newton threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Atlanta, and rushed for 116 more and another touchdown. That made him the first player in league history with at least 250 yards passing, 100 yards rushing, a touchdown pass and a touchdown run in the same game.
During the Panthers' 3-3 "run,'' Newton has produced 15 touchdowns and just two turnovers. Those are the kind of numbers he was expected to hang up all season long, after his Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2011. But better late than never.
PANTHERS 30, FALCONS 20: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• While Rivera's team has responded, what must Arizona management think of head coach Ken Whisenhunt's inability to stop the bleeding in the desert? The Cardinals were humiliated 58-0 at Seattle, the most one-sided defeat in club history. And there have been a lot of embarrassing losses in the Cardinals' ignominious three-city history.
Could this really be the same Arizona team that beat the Seahawks 20-16 in Week 1? That's a 62-point swing in terms of margin of victory in the series this year, and Arizona's losing streak grew to nine games after that mirage of a 4-0 start. A new head coach and new starting quarterback look like musts for the 2013 Cardinals.
SEAHAWKS 58, CARDINALS 0: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Break up the Browns. They routed the visiting Chiefs 30-7, building a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2009. Pat Shurmur is another head coach whose odds of surviving in his job looks better all the time. Cleveland's 5-8 record is a tough 5-8, with five wins in its past eight games and two narrow losses to Dallas and Baltimore in that span. The Browns also haven't won a game by at least a 23-point margin since 2003, and their defense continues to impress.
BROWNS 30, CHIEFS 7: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Like the Chiefs in Week 13, the Cowboys showed impressive focus in the face of a team tragedy on Sunday, winning 20-19 at Cincinnati, despite still trying to digest the car accident death of practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown on Saturday.
Dallas has won four of five after being 3-5 at midseason, and now stays home for two weeks to face the Steelers and Saints, who are not as intimidating as they looked when the schedule came out in April. If Dallas can at least split those games, its Week 17 trip to Washington could be for a playoff berth.
COWBOYS 20, BENGALS 19: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• So the Jets didn't bench Mark Sanchez again this week, but they've certainly busted him down to game-manager quarterback until further notice. With Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell rushing for a combined 155 yards and two touchdowns on 39 attempts in New York's 17-10 win at Jacksonville, nobody really noticed who was playing quarterback for the Jets.
Sanchez was 12 of 19 for 111 yards with a lost fumble, but after where he's been in recent weeks, that passed for soaring overachievement. It's remarkable given the state of disaster their season has been, but with games remaining at Tennessee (4-9), against San Diego (5-8), and at Buffalo (5-8), the Jets could hang around in the AFC wild-card race until the very end.
JETS 17, JAGUARS 10: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Who really needs the oft-injured Kenny Phillips in New York if Giants safety Stevie Brown keeps this up? Brown was up to his old takeaway tricks in the blowout of the Saints, with two picks of Drew Brees and a forced fumble.
Brown wasn't even on the radar screen of many Giants fans in the summer, but he now leads the team with seven interceptions and has become New York's big-play defender. It seems whenever Tom Coughlin's team needs to get the football on defense, Brown is the guy who delivers.
GIANTS 52, SAINTS 27: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• What a wild day in the NFC East. All four teams won in Week 14, but only the Giants took the drama out of things with that 52-27 rout of the visiting Saints. The other three NFC East clubs all won on the final play of the game:
Washington beat Baltimore 31-28 on Kai Forbath's 34-yard field goal in what became sudden-death overtime.
Dallas won 20-19 at Cincinnati when Dan Bailey nailed a 40-yard field goal at the gun in regulation.
And the Eagles won for the first time since September, surviving 23-21 at Tampa Bay as Nick Foles connected on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin as time expired.
• San Francisco held serve and maintained its lead over Seattle in the NFC West with a 27-13 homefield win against Miami, and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had to like the work he got from Colin Kaepernick in just his fourth career start.
Kaepernick was an accurate 18 of 23 for 185 yards, but it was his 50-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run that really adds a new element to the San Francisco offense. Yes, Alex Smith had that big fourth-quarter touchdown run against the Saints in the playoffs last season, but that wasn't a major part of his game, snapping off big gainers with his legs. Kaepernick has now busted a long run in two consecutive games, and he gives defenses an extra dimension to worry about.
49ERS 27, DOLPHINS 13: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• The Colts have come so far so fast this season that they're already adept at winning ugly, when they don't play their best game. Isn't that only supposed to come to an accomplished, playoff-contending team three or four years into its run?
Indianapolis managed to beat the reeling Titans 27-23 at home, even though Andrew Luck threw a pick-6 to Tennessee linebacker Will Witherspoon and finished just 16 of 34 for 196 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Luck helped the Colts rally from a 13-point second-half deficit, and now has a ridiculous six fourth-quarter comebacks as a rookie. With Indy holding a two-game lead over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC wild-card race, a playoff-clinching win could come as soon as next week at Houston.
COLTS 27, TITANS 23: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS