First Down/Fourth Down: AFC North bracing for the tightest of finishes
What already had been for years an intriguing three-team brawl between the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers has turned into a division-wide slugfest thanks to the Browns' emergence. With Pittsburgh sitting on a Week 12 bye, the other three AFC North teams all picked up road wins -- Cincinnati at Houston, Cleveland at Atlanta and then Monday night, Baltimore at New Orleans.
As a result, the AFC North standings are about as tight as can be: Cincinnati leads at 7-3-1; everyone else is deadlocked at 7-4. And the following four games are yet to come on the NFL schedule:
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
Cincinnati at Cleveland
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Cleveland at Baltimore
All could (and probably will) go a long way toward determining which and how many AFC North teams make the playoff field.
The division has enjoyed the benefit of playing the downtrodden NFC South and the mediocre AFC South in conference-crossover games. The AFC North did its part and won most of those games, setting up for a race to the finish line.
More on Week 12 around the NFL:
First Down: The Patriots' secondary
Johnson drew Revis on occasion during Detroit's 34-9 loss Sunday, but he more often than not found himself lined up across from physical 6-foot-4 CB Brandon Browner. That matchup left Revis to cover the shiftier Golden Tate, a strategy which emphasized just how deep and versatile the Patriots' secondary can be this season.
"That receiving corps is awesome," Browner said, via the Boston Globe. "I played with Golden Tate in Seattle; I knew of his ability. He’s like a running back once he gets the ball in his hands, and everybody knows about Megatron. You get up for these guys, man."
Tate and Johnson saw 21 targets between them, resulting in eight catches for 155 yards and, more importantly, zero touchdowns. Browner made a couple of nice plays against Johnson to force incompletions, while Revis seemingly showed up everywhere Matthew Stafford looked -- he even swatted a pass away from TE Eric Ebron on a deep crossing route.
While the Patriots' offense keeps rolling, their talented defense has been almost as impressive during this seven-game win streak.
Fourth Down: NFC South
Turn 180 degrees away from the ultra-competitive AFC North and you will find this division. What a complete mess.
Very plausible scenarios exist that have the Falcons walking away as the NFC South champs at 5-11. Carolina could take it home at 5-10-1. Even the 2-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers remain in the hunt, a mind-boggling proposition that hammers how just how wretched the South has been in 2014.
Overall, the four teams here are a combined 13-30-1 on the year. Take out the games played within the division (Atlanta is 4-0, for example, against its South rivals) and the Bucs, Falcons, Panthers and Saints have pulled off all of six victories.
Someone has to win. And that team still will host a playoff game, regardless of how awful its regular-season record is.
First Down: Anquan Boldin
Quick, is Anquan Boldin a Hall of Famer?
Before you say no, consider for a moment that Boldin now sits tied for 15th all-time in career receptions (922) and 20th in yards receiving (12,169). He also has eight postseason touchdowns and was instrumental in the Ravens' Super Bowl title two years back.
Boldin probably will fall short of the Hall in the long run, mainly because he really never has been considered among the top handful of active receivers. Few, though, have been as consistently good throughout as long a career as Boldin has had.
The 49ers' reliable receiver came through again Sunday: nine catches for 137 yards and a touchdown, all highlighted by the toughest 29-yard reception you'll ever see. With San Francisco trailing Washington by three in the fourth quarter, Boldin hauled in a pass, absorbed a ferocious hit from Ryan Clark and picked up extra yards. Clark wound up injured on the play.
It was nothing new for Boldin, who has made a career of getting the job done.
Fourth Down: Michael Vick
After helping his team to an upset of Pittsburgh, Vick hinted that the Jets could have won more games this season had he been the starting quarterback all along.
Are we sure about that?
Vick put on one of the poorest offensive displays of the season Monday night, in a 38-3 loss to Buffalo. Before hobbling off the field and ceding his spot back to Geno Smith, Vick completed 7-of-19 passes for 76 yards and an interception. He also took several sacks, at one point allowing Mario Williams to chase him down from behind, perhaps the most glaring evidence yet that 2014 Vick is light years away from Vick in his prime.
"I’m a professional, so I’m going to watch the film and see what I can do better," Vick said. "How I can help this football team? I love playing the game of football. That’s all I can say now."
First Down: The Eagles' balanced attack
Stacked up against the rest of the league, LeSean McCoy and the Eagles' run game is having a decent year. They're currently sitting at No. 12 in yards rushing, while McCoy is on pace for 1,250 yards. Just seven backs (led by McCoy himself at 1,607 yards, topped that mark in 2013).
Still, Philadelphia expects far more from its offense -- and especially McCoy -- than simply being good.
The performance turned in by Chip Kelly's team Sunday vs. Tennessee might have pushed the needle in that direction. McCoy rushed for 130 yards on 6.2 yards per carry, his second-best average of the season. The Eagles generated 462 yards of offense in all, en route to a 43-24 win.
Mark Sanchez may continue to be a bit unpredictable at quarterback. Getting McCoy rolling, however, would take a ton of pressure off of Sanchez and fully open up Kelly's intricate playbook.
Fourth Down: Miami in the fourth quarter
Playing the "What if?" game does little for a team's psyche in the midst of a playoff chase. But there will be plenty of time for the Dolphins to contemplate their regrets should they miss the postseason.
While Miami is still very much in the wild-card hunt at 6-5, it is a defensive stop here or there from being 9-2 and locking horns with New England in the AFC East. Three times this season -- vs. Green Bay, at Detroit and Sunday at Denver -- the Dolphins have crumpled in the fourth quarter, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
They led by 11 headed to the final frame this past weekend only to watch the Broncos hang a 22-spot on the board. A late Jarvis Landry touchdown did little beyond making the final score more tolerable, 39-36.
"We've won a lot of games double-digits in the six wins we've had," Miami coach Joe Philbin said this week, via the Sun Sentinel. "We've had some good margin-of-victory in those games, but you look at the last three losses we've had and what are they by, three, four and three points. We have to find a way to win some of those games.
"A year ago, I think we won a bunch of those games. This year, not so much and we have to do better."
First Down: Latavius Murray
The requisite spark for Oakland's Thursday night upset of Kansas City came courtesy of a 2013 sixth-round draft pick with all of 10 career NFL carries.
Murray opened the scoring in that game on an 11-yard burst, then added a 90-yard TD run -- the longest ever allowed by the Chiefs -- to stake the previously winless Raiders to a 14-0 lead. His night ended shortly thereafter due to a concussion, but Murray's work set the stage for the Raiders' 24-20 victory.
"We put him in there early and got him going early," Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano said. "The way he ran the ball today, he earned more snaps. No doubt about it."
Fourth Down: Arizona's and Seattle's pass blocking
The alternate option here is to put both teams' defensive fronts on the "First Down" list. In the Seahawks' 19-3 win Sunday, the NFC West foes combined for 10 sacks -- a whopping seven by Arizona of Russell Wilson. The barrage up front for both Wilson and Cardinals QB Drew Stanton was nonstop, although it took until the second quarter before Wilson was dropped behind the line.
The floodgates opened once Arizona broke through. The Cardinals dropped Wilson for a sack on five of his first nine dropbacks to open the second quarter, including on consecutive plays prior to a blocked Steven Hauschka field goal.
First Down: Green Bay in the trenches
Already mentioned the Eagles' offense above. When that unit is clicking, few teams in the league can match its ability to shift seamlessly between the run and pass. Green Bay (and its Week 13 opponent, New England) is on that list.
The Packers issued a reminder of that Sunday, riding Eddie Lacy to a 24-21 road win in Minnesota. Despite being under the weather, Lacy toted the rock 25 times for 125 yards and a touchdown. Head coach Mike McCarthy also tasked him with grinding out the clock late, even with the option of keeping the ball in Aaron Rodgers' hands.
Who knows what the Lambeau Field weather will look like in the Packers' three remaining home games or in any playoff games played there. Being able to rely on Lacy could be the ticket to a Super Bowl run.
Fourth Down: Josh McCown
The return of McCown and Lovie Smith to Chicago was all going pretty well for a bit -- McCown hit Mike Evans for a touchdown, led a nice drive before the half and Tampa Bay took a 10-0 lead.
By the time McCown completed his first pass of the third quarter, he had been sacked twice, fumbled twice (Chicago recovered one) and had thrown an interception, while the Bears had run off 21 unanswered points. A somewhat controversial Vincent Jackson fumble put the finishing touch on a miserable third quarter for the Buccaneers.
"We came out and started the game the way we wanted to," McCown said, "and the third quarter killed us."
McCown finished the game with 341 yards passing, but his three turnovers proved too much to overcome.