FOXBORO, Mass. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from an ugly but engrossing Week 12 in the NFL. ...
• No team in the NFL potentially lost more in Week 12 than the Kansas City Chiefs, whose heady 9-0 start to the season has suddenly given way to consecutive losses, key injuries and a decided lack of invincibility from a defense that appeared to be the best in the league for most of the season's first three months.
The Chiefs' 41-38 last-minute loss to visiting San Diego was painful enough Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. But Kansas City also saw outside linebackers Tamba Hali (ankle) and Justin Houston (elbow) leave in the first half, and just like that, the vaunted Chiefs defense was forced to play without its top two pass rushers, who entered play with a combined 20 sacks.
With Denver (9-2) losing at New England Sunday night, the Chiefs (9-2) will still be capable of taking back sole possession of first place in the AFC West by winning this week at home against the Broncos. But they'll have to play better than they have the past two weeks.
After falling 27-17 in their Week 10 showdown at Denver, the Chiefs shockingly surrendered 31 second-half points to a Chargers team that entered 4-6 and on the fringes of AFC wild-card contention. San Diego rolled Kansas City's defense for 491 yards of offense and 24 first downs, with the Chargers executing at a crisp 50 percent on third and fourth down (8-of-16).
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Kansas City's defense without Hali and Houston was forced to make do with ex-Packers Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses playing at outside linebacker, and the talent dropoff was almost immediately felt. The Chiefs were ahead 14-3 when Houston left the game (Hali was hurt earlier), and Kansas City was outscored 38-24 with both of its leading pass rushers sidelined. Both Hali and Houston will undergo MRIs on Monday.
It's more than fair to point out that the Chiefs' defensive mini-slump probably has plenty to do with the talent level of the past two quarterbacks it has faced: Denver's Peyton Manning and San Diego's Philip Rivers. When they were reeling off their stunning 9-0 start, the Chiefs faced either lightly experienced quarterbacks like Buffalo's Jeff Tuel, Houston's Case Keenum, Oakland's Terrelle Pryor and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert, or journeymen starters like Ryan Fitzpatrick (Tennessee) and Jason Campbell (Cleveland). Their luck on that front was bound to change, and it has. Emphatically.
Another troubling development for the Chiefs defense is that it has suddenly lost its fearsome pass rush, which is starting to expose the team's secondary. Rivers was a superb 27-of-39 on Sunday, throwing for 392 yards and three touchdowns, including a beauty of a game-winner to receiver Seyi Ajirotutu from 26 yards out with 24 seconds left. Until a fourth-quarter Eric Berry sack, the Chiefs had gone 11 quarters-plus without a sack, after racking up a league-high 35 sacks in the first seven games of the season.
The good news was that the Chiefs offense was more explosive against San Diego than it has been for much of the season. Quarterback Alex Smith stretched the field vertically a couple of times to receiver Donnie Avery, and running back Jamaal Charles had a big game in gaining 115 yards with two touchdowns on just 14 carries.
A win next week against Denver likely will take care of a lot of the Chiefs' issues and keep them in the chase for the AFC West title and the AFC's top seed. But if they're forced to play without Houston and Hali for any length of time, Kansas City's pathway to a deep playoff run is going to be considerably more difficult.
• After Week 12, I'm not sure anyone wants to win the NFC North. The Lions still lead the division at 6-5, but they've dropped two in a row to losing teams and spit the bit against two-win Tampa Bay at home on Sunday, falling 24-21 to the streaking Bucs, who improved to 3-8 with their third consecutive victory.
The Bears are 6-5 and fresh off being routed 42-21 by the Rams in St. Louis. Chicago loses the head-to-head tiebreaker to Detroit after being swept in the season series, and this season is starting to head south after the promise of that 3-0 start, which must seem like eons ago for Bears fans. Chicago has lost five of its past eight games, and Sunday's 21-point loss will likely serve to cool down Josh McCown fever to some degree.
The Bears backup quarterback threw for 352 yards with a pair of touchdowns, but he also had an interception and a fumble lost, and somehow couldn't keep pace with a Rams offense that started Kellen Clemens (10-of-22 for 167 yards passing, with one touchdown).
And then there were the Packers, who played five quarters against the rival Vikings at Lambeau Field and could do no better than a 26-26 tie. Green Bay is 5-5-1 and still very much in the NFC North race, but the Packers are 0-3-1 since Aaron Rodgers cracked a collarbone and still can't get quite enough quarterbacking to win a game without their MVP.
Matt Flynn relieved an ineffective Scott Tolzien in the third quarter and nearly rallied Green Bay to a remarkable win. Down 23-7 in the fourth quarter, the Packers forced overtime and then scored first on a short Mason Crosby field goal. But the defense couldn't stop Minnesota on its own overtime field goal drive, and Green Bay missed a great opportunity to pull into a three-way tie for the NFC North lead. It was Green Bay's first tie since September 1987.
The Packers need Rodgers back on the field, and they need him now. The hope remains that he'll be ready to resume playing by Thanksgiving, when Green Bay visits Detroit, with a chance to leap-frog the Lions in the division standings. If not, expect Flynn to get the nod. He did some good things against the Vikings, but in the end, he wound up proving why he has been a career backup, with an arm on the weaker side of the NFL spectrum.
• If the playoffs started today, the AFC would be advancing just five teams with winning records: Denver (9-1), New England (7-3), Indianapolis (7-4), Cincinnati (7-4) and Kansas City (9-2). The battle for the conference's second wild-card berth currently is headed up by Tennessee (5-6), who defeated Oakland after losing five of its last six games.
I don't think the Titans strike fear in any team's heart, but Tennessee has managed to hang around at 5-6 and actually holds some very handy tiebreakers in the AFC wild-card chase. Because of their September wins over Pittsburgh, San Diego and the Jets, the Titans are currently the No. 6 seed in the AFC after winning 23-19 at Oakland. That's not a stranglehold of any sort, but it's not horrible for a team that looked like it was toast a few weeks ago when it lost starting quarterback Jake Locker (foot) for the season.
And with Tennessee getting a crack at the Colts next week in Indianapolis, maybe the Titans will still have something to say in the AFC South race as well. Tough games at Denver and home against Arizona loom after the Titans travel to Indianapolis, and Tennessee has only won back-to-back games once this season.
Titans backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been rocky in relief of Locker, but he was plenty good enough to win against the Raiders, hitting receiver Kendall Wright for the winning 10-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left. Fitzpatrick scorched Oakland for 320 yards and two touchdowns on 30-of-42 passing.
• I know this much: Thanksgiving night just got a little bit more interesting, thanks to Week 12's results. The Steelers and Ravens both won to move to 5-6 and that means their Week 13 showdown on Thursday night in Baltimore just got a little more juice added to it. The Steelers and Ravens are still under .500, but if either had slipped to 4-7 on Sunday, their playoff viability would have entered the longshot category.
In earning their second division win, the Steelers set themselves up for a meaningful final five games of the season, which is more than they could have expected when they were sitting 2-6 at midseason. If it can pull the upset in Baltimore -- and the Ravens likely will only be slight favorites -- Pittsburgh will have picked up a pair of AFC North wins in a five-day span, and fought its way to .500 for the first time all season. That would make the resurgent Steelers a dangerous team to play in December.
• Fans in Atlanta and Houston had a good day, what with the Falcons and Texans improving their chances of landing the No. 1 pick in next May's draft with Week 12 losses. With the Bucs winning at Detroit to improve to 3-8, and the Vikings tying at Green Bay to get to 2-8-1, three teams are 2-9 and vying for the top selection: Atlanta, Houston and Jacksonville, which won its second game of the season in beating the flagging Texans, losers of nine in a row.
Jaguars fans probably are starting to see Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater slip through their fingers, and they might look back on Week 12 as the moment the Texans got their quarterback of the future, and the Jaguars lost theirs. That could wind up being the price of the Jaguars' 13-6 upset victory at Reliant Stadium.
• Another reason why premature speculation is so dangerous in the NFL these days? The Greg Schiano case in Tampa Bay is a vivid example. When the Buccaneers were sitting 0-8, with the Josh Freeman debacle still fresh in everyone's memory, almost everyone had Schiano walking the plank and about to lose his job as the Bucs' second-year head coach. But three wins in a row have changed the dynamic in Tampa Bay (3-8), and it's clear Schiano still has his players playing hard.
So much for the oft-repeated theory that Schiano had "lost'' his locker room. Perhaps not. The Bucs earned their first road win of the season with the upset of the Lions, and it was Detroit that looked like the losing team in this one, throwing four interceptions, having a punt blocked, with five turnovers all told. Maybe Josh Freeman was more of the problem than Schiano after all.
• Bucs receiver Tiquan Underwood can now be known for more than being the guy the Patriots coldly released the day before their Super Bowl loss to the Giants in Indianapolis in February 2012. Underwood, a former Rutgers star who played for Schiano in college, had a career day against the Lions, catching three passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
It was Underwood's 85-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter that gave the Bucs a 24-21 lead and provided the eventual game-winning margin.
• Here's the best development born out by Carolina's 20-16 win at Miami: The Panthers proved they can overcome some mistakes and still notch a victory on the road even when they don't play their A game. Down 16-6 at halftime, Carolina mounted two long touchdown drives in the second half (12 and 14 plays), getting the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard Cam Newton pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 43 seconds left.
The Panthers are showing enough maturity these days to not panic when things don't go their way initially. Newton was especially cool, rebounding from a bad first-half interception and getting hit in the chin by Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake to lead Carolina (8-3) to its seventh straight win. Newton had a 19-yard completion to Steve Smith on 4th-and-10 from the Carolina 20 on the game-winning drive, and earlier converted a 4th-and-1 in his own territory with an 8-yard scramble, ending that drive with a 5-yard scoring run.
Carolina has suddenly learned how to win close games, after dismal results in that respect during the first two-plus years of the Ron Rivera-Newton era.
• And how about that Luke Kuechly? The second-year Panthers middle linebacker has to have a rabbit's foot hidden somewhere in his shoulder pads. For the second game in a row, Kuechly had the good fortune to have a penalty called on him in the end zone reversed. What are the odds? On Monday night, it was Kuechly who was mugging Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the game's final play. And against Miami, the officials picked up a flag after Kuechly was first called for hitting Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews as he tried to catch a touchdown pass in the end zone. It looked like a defenseless receiver or helmet-to-helmet hit, but the flag was picked up and the referee announced that there was no foul.
I'm guessing the AFC East has seen enough of young Mr. Kuechly.
• Credit the Cowboys for getting it done against a Giants team that entered with more than a month of momentum behind it. Dallas improved to 6-5 with the 24-21 win at MetLife Stadium, and maybe it really was inevitable that we'd get a winner-take-all showdown when the Eagles (6-5) visit the Cowboys in Week 17.
Unless they win their final five games of the season, the Giants (4-7) are effectively playing out the string from here on. They gave their fans a bit of a tease with their four-game winning streak, but New York's passing game never really clicked this season, and the Giants couldn't move the ball much except on the ground against the Cowboys.
• What a day for the Rams' 2013 rookie class, and the St. Louis running game. Against a Bears defense that ranks a putrid 31st in stopping the run, the Rams ran wild, gaining 258 yards on 29 carries (8.9 yard average), with three touchdowns. St. Louis had seven runs of at least 10 yards in the game.
And it was a three-headed running game at that for the Rams. Zac Stacy gained 87 yards on 12 runs with a touchdown before exiting with a head injury. Benny Cunningham took over for Stacy and hung up 109 yards on 13 attempts with a touchdown.
And the game started with an unexpected big play from Rams rookie receiver-return man Tavon Austin, who took a handoff in the backfield from quarterback Kellen Clemens, reversed field back to the right and went untouched down the sideline for 65 yards and a touchdown on St. Louis's first possession. It was Austin's fourth touchdown of at least 57 yards in the past two games, with his playmaking ability now fully utilized in St. Louis.
• Here's all you need to know about those unpredictable Colts, who may be the hardest team to figure out in the NFL this season: They went 2-2 against the NFC West this season. But after beating the division's heavyweights in the 49ers and Seahawks, they then lost to the Rams and Cardinals, in resounding fashion. Indy got hammered at home by St. Louis, 38-8 in Week 10, and was drubbed 40-11 by the Cardinals in Glendale on Sunday.
With a two-game lead over the second-place Titans (5-6), whom they play at home next week, the Colts (7-4) likely will be the AFC South champ and probably the third or fourth seed in the conference. But they might be ripe for another one-and-done playoff trip if they don't get their first-half issues figured out.
In their past four games, the Colts have been outscored 93-9 in the first half, somehow still going 2-2 over that span. They trailed Arizona 27-3 at the break on Sunday, and for the second time in the past month, there was no miracle Andrew Luck-led rally to save the day and put a happy face on how Indianapolis played in the opening 30 minutes.
• Want to hear a stunning stat?: Only three teams in the NFC have more wins than the 7-4 Arizona Cardinals, those being Seattle (10-1), New Orleans (9-2) and Carolina (8-3). If the NFL seeded by records alone, the Cardinals would be in the No. 4 slot with five games remaining to play in the regular season.
Arizona rookie head coach Bruce Arians should be firmly in the Coach of the Year debate at this point. After starting 1-2, the Cardinals have won six of their past eight, including four in a row. At the moment, Arizona is in second place in the NFC West, a half-game ahead of 6-4 San Francisco, which plays at Washington Monday night.
How are the Cardinals doing it? Most of their success is due to a defense that is totally legit and underrated for a second year in a row. But against the Colts, the Cardinals looked like a first-rate offense, as well, wracking up a season-high 40 points, with 410 total yards, no turnovers, 27 first downs and 36:49 of possession time. I've been critical of Carson Palmer plenty this season, but he's proving me dead wrong, and he had a great game against the Colts. Palmer threw for 314 yards without a turnover, with a pair of touchdown passes and a passer rating of 114.0.
Suddenly the pressure is on the 49ers to keep pace with Arizona in the NFC wild-card race. The Cardinals are an impressive 5-1 at home, with only a loss to NFC West-leading Seattle in Week 7 marring their record. Arizona plays at Philadelphia next week, and ends its season with games at Seattle and home against San Francisco in Weeks 16-17.
• Good thing the Browns didn't give in to the temptation to trade receiver Josh Gordon back in October. Gordon had a nice month on Sunday against the Steelers, with a single-game franchise record for receiving yardage (237) on a franchise-record tying 14 catches. And they've been playing football in Cleveland for quite a while now. Gordon scored Cleveland's only touchdown in the 27-11 loss.
Gordon, despite missing two games in September due to a league suspension, has 988 yards receiving on 54 catches, putting him within range of becoming the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since 2007. Sunday marked his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season, which is a Browns team record.