PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight in a dizzying, points-laden Week 13 in the NFL ...
• Officially speaking, the NFC standings say the 9-3 Green Bay Packers are still the No. 2 seed, trailing No. 1 Arizona (9-3) in the race for postseason home-field advantage by virtue of the Cardinals’ edge in terms of conference record (7-2 to 6-3).
But we know better, don’t we? Feel free to ignore the numbers, because your eyes don’t lie. The NFC balance of power just shifted in Week 13, and Green Bay is now the team to beat. The game that signaled that changing of the guard was close but still decisive: Packers 26, Patriots 21, in a Lambeau Field glamor matchup that was every bit the Super Bowl preview it was billed as.
While Green Bay is ascendant, NFC West-leading Arizona is sinking. The Cardinals lost 29-18 at Atlanta on Sunday and have dropped two in a row, their first losing streak of the season. The Packers are peaking at the right time of the year, and Arizona is losing steam while it continues to lose players on offense. And what is now clear is that the road to the Super Bowl will almost certainly run through Green Bay, rather than the Cardinals’ home stadium in Glendale, Ariz., site of Super Bowl XLIX in February.
Arizona, in fact, is suddenly in danger of losing its season-long grip on the NFC West, with resurgent Seattle (8-4) just a game behind the Cardinals and coming on fast. The Seahawks beat Arizona in Seattle last week and could overtake the Cardinals in the Week 16 rematch in the desert. Arizona backup quarterback Drew Stanton, we have learned, is no Carson Palmer. And next-man-up mantra aside, the Cardinals without receiver Larry Fitzgerald -- and with running back Andre Ellington newly injured -- aren’t deep enough in playmakers to compensate for the high-profile absences.
Green Bay, by comparison, continues to soar behind the magical season being turned in by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league’s leading MVP candidate. In facing New England’s Tom Brady for the first time as a starter, Rodgers was a dominant 24-of-38 (63.2 percent) for 368 yards and two touchdown passes, again steering clear of interceptions and posting a sizzling 112.6 passer rating on a frosty afternoon in Titletown.
The Packers are on the best roll their storied franchise has seen since 2011, when they tore through the regular season at 15-1 and obliterated most opponents in their path. They are now 6-0 at home this season, with four consecutive victories and an 8-1 mark in their past nine games. And the best might still be to come for a Green Bay team that never trailed against the Patriots, running out to a 13-0 first-quarter lead and building a 23-14 advantage at the half.
The Packers' toughest games are behind them now. While the NFC top-seed contenders like the Cardinals, Seahawks, Eagles and Cowboys all have some tough games remaining, the Packers have a relatively easy slate in December: home against Atlanta (5-7) next week, at Buffalo (7-5), at Tampa Bay (2-10) and home against Detroit (8-4). The Lions have already beaten Green Bay this year, but that was long ago and far away, in Week 3, just before the Packers started putting it all together.
The Cardinals finish the season in much more challenging fashion, with a visit from Kansas City (7-4) next week, then at the pesky St. Louis Rams (5-7) on the Thursday night of Week 15, followed by NFC West games against Seattle (8-4) and at San Francisco (7-5). The Packers have the inside track on hosting the NFC playoff field, and their advantage at home is the league’s greatest this season.
As November comes to a close, Green Bay is in control and has started to leave the rest of the NFC behind. No matter what the standings might still say, the Packers are the team to beat.
• Maybe it was Sean Payton who planted that NFL Network report on Sunday morning that said New Orleans was preparing to take a quarterback high in the 2015 draft, as an acknowledgement that the Drew Brees era may be nearing its end. If so, what a masterstroke by the Saints head coach. Sheer brilliance, Sean.
The 35-year-old Brees didn’t look ready for retirement or replacement on Sunday in Pittsburgh, did he? Motivation can come from many different sources in the NFL, but something sparked Brees to a vintage performance in New Orleans' crucial 35-32 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field. Dealing with as much criticism and scrutiny as he has ever endured in his nine-year tenure in New Orleans, Brees responded with five touchdown passes, no turnovers and a gaudy 140.0 passer rating in strafing the shell-shocked Steelers defense.
New Orleans started the game by punting on its first three drives, and it ended the game with two more punts on its final two possessions. But in between, the Saints looked liked the potent Saints of old, scoring touchdowns on five of six drives to build a 35-16 lead less than five minutes into the fourth quarter. The Steelers made it close late, but it was all cosmetic from that point on.
And here's the most remarkable aspect of Brees' game: He did it all without Jimmy Graham, never once even throwing in the direction of his all-world tight end, let alone completing a pass to him. Instead, Brees’ primary target was second-year receiver Kenny Stills, who had a career day with five catches for 162 yards (32.4 average), including a 69-yard catch-and-run on 3rd-and-10 that blunted a Pittsburgh rally late in the third quarter and silenced the Steelers crowd. Five different Saints hauled in touchdown catches, with Stills joined by tight end Benjamin Watson, fullback Erik Lorig and receivers Marques Colston and Nick Toon.
And it wasn’t just Brees who looked reborn on Sunday. The beleaguered Saints defense did its part, holding the Steelers to an early 6-0 lead on a pair of field goals when the outcome could have been far worse and picking off Ben Roethlisberger twice. The second of those came on a superb play by defensive end Cameron Jordan, who batted a Big Ben pass and then caught it, returning it to the Steelers' 15 early in the third quarter. Maybe Payton and Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can’t stand each other’s company these days, as was reported by CBS on Sunday, but both sides of the ball delivered for New Orleans against the Steelers, and winning can smooth over nearly everything in the NFL.
At 5-7, the puzzling Saints remained tied for the NFC South lead with Atlanta, which was a surprise winner itself on Sunday, upsetting the visiting Cardinals (9-3). The Saints have now won their last two road games after losing three in a row at the Superdome. But the reality is this: If New Orleans can win next week at home against the pathetic Panthers (3-8-1) and then again in Week 16 against the visiting Falcons, that should be enough to win the lowly NFC South at 7-9. Nothing has come easily for the Saints this season, but the path to the playoffs, be it ever so humble, is at least now clearly defined.
• For what it’s worth, Payton didn’t duck any questions in the postgame about his reportedly "rapidly deteriorating" relationship with Ryan. And he took aim at CBS, which aired the report that he and Ryan "don’t like each other."
"It’s been outstanding," Payton said of his relationship with Ryan. "He and I get along and are doing great. ... But those are the Sunday splash reports. When you’re in this business, on Sunday you have to have something that everyone reads, regardless of if it’s truthful or not."
Payton said the fact that he and Ryan both get animated on the sideline and have heated exchanges doesn’t mean they're headed for a divorce.
"That’s me," Payton said, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "That doesn’t mean I’m looking for a [new] defensive [coordinator]."
Don’t be fooled by the sideline optics. If the Saints defense rallies and finishes the season strong and the team makes the playoffs, that will likely be enough to save Ryan’s job, whether Payton and he are best of buddies or nowhere near it.
• If the Saints are maddeningly difficult to figure out, what does that make the Steelers, who have now lost seven games to teams with losing records since the beginning of 2013? This season, the Steelers (7-5) have been beaten at home by the 0-3 Bucs and 4-7 Saints and have lost on the road to the 1-8 Jets.
Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland all lost on Sunday in the AFC North, falling 1 1/2-games behind the first-place Bengals (8-3-1), who somehow survived 14-13 at Tampa Bay in a game they probably deserved to lose. The Steelers are again looking every bit as average as their 8-8 finishes of the past two seasons indicate, and with two more games still to play against Cincinnati (next week at the Bengals, at home against them in Week 17), the playoffs are suddenly looking pretty dicey.
Pittsburgh currently sits ninth in the AFC, behind eighth-seeded Baltimore (7-5) and seventh-seeded Buffalo (7-5) in the group of teams on the outside looking in. And if the Steelers go on to miss the postseason for a third consecutive year, this loss to the reeling Saints might be remembered as the crucial game that got away.
• Remember the historic game Roethlisberger had against the Colts (522 yards passing, and six touchdowns) just five weeks ago? Where did that Big Ben go? Roethlisberger was 32-of-58 against the Saints for 435 yards and two touchdowns, but he was missing high all game long and said it wasn’t due to the effects of hitting his throwing hand and wrist on something in the second quarter. He threw two interceptions and consistently missed open receivers on plays that could have helped the Steelers stay close to the Saints when the visitors went on their scoring spree in the second and third quarters.
"It was just one of those games where the ball was coming out high," Roethlisberger said. "They tipped a lot of balls, more than usual. I have to make those throws early on that I didn’t make today and I usually do."
• Pittsburgh invited a host of 1974 Steelers to town this weekend for a 40th anniversary celebration of the franchise’s first Super Bowl champion. I wonder what the members of the Steel Curtain defense thought about Pittsburgh’s present-day defense once Brees got warmed up and shredded it for five touchdown passes on six mid-game possessions? I’d pay way more than a penny for those thoughts.
• I don’t consider it out of the question that Browns head coach Mike Pettine could turn back to benched starting quarterback Brian Hoyer next week at home against Indianapolis, but I think Cleveland is much more likely to finally toss the keys to first-round pick Johnny Manziel now that its playoff chances are starting to dim.
Hoyer has clearly hit something of a wall, throwing six interceptions and just one touchdown in the past three games. He tossed two more picks in the Browns' 26-10 defeat in Buffalo, getting himself yanked with 12:01 remaining in favor of Manziel. With Pettine willing to open up Pandora’s box, it may be very difficult to close it again and go back to the struggling veteran.
"Sometimes you just need change for the sake of change, and it’ll still come down to a staff decision when we make the evaluation," Pettine said.
Fair enough. But the 7-5 Browns are now approaching must-win territory, and the signs seem to indicate Hoyer might have taken Cleveland as far as he’s capable of taking them. Manziel did provide a spark to the offense, leading an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with 54 yards passing and another 13 yards on a pair of runs, including a 10-yard touchdown scamper.
"We get together and say who gives us the best chance to win," Pettine said. "So far, Brian’s been the answer to that question."
So far. But maybe not any longer. Johnny Football’s long-awaited moment appears to be at hand in Cleveland.
• Well played, Marvin Lewis. Well played.
The Bengals' 12th-year head coach appeared to make a major blunder with 26 seconds remaining in the game and his team leading by a single point, challenging a call he had no right to challenge. But the end result was game-changing, because while Cincinnati cost itself a timeout due to the disallowed challenge flag, that stoppage allowed the officials to review a play in which the Buccaneers illegally had 12 men on the field, wiping out a 21-yard reception that probably would have led to a game-winning field goal. The Bengals (8-3-1) ended up winning 14-13 and now lead the rest of the AFC North by 1 1/2 games thanks to Week 13 losses by Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore.
As badly as Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton played, throwing three interceptions in the first half, Cincinnati has won a franchise-best three straight road games in a span of three weeks and has now given itself a cushion ahead of a very challenging December: Pittsburgh at home, at Cleveland, Denver at home, at Pittsburgh. If the Bengals can split those four games, 10-5-1 should be good enough to win the ridiculously competitive AFC North.
• Absolutely nobody helped their playoff chances more on Sunday than the Chargers, who hung up 21 fourth-quarter points to rally to a dramatic 34-33 win in Baltimore, where the Ravens hadn’t lost since Week 1. San Diego trailed by double digits three different times in the game but found a way to get it done in crunch time, and the Chargers now have a much rosier outlook in terms of their postseason chances.
The difference between 8-4 and 7-5 among this year’s crowded group of AFC wild-card contenders is significant, and San Diego is now in the No. 5 seed position at 8-4, with a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the 7-5 Ravens. The Chargers' win also keeps the pressure on the first-place Broncos (9-3 after Sunday night's win over Kansas City) in the AFC West and for the moment allows them to jump over the Chiefs (7-5) into second place.
San Diego obviously can’t relax given its brutal season-ending schedule, but the win over Baltimore makes the road to the playoffs a bit more plausible. The Chargers stay home the next two weeks to take on New England and Denver, then finish the season at San Francisco and at Kansas City. Getting to 10 wins and a likely playoff berth looks much easier at 8-4 than it would have at 7-5.
• It’s hard to take Baltimore seriously as a Super Bowl contender given the Ravens’ porous and injury depleted pass defense. Philip Rivers dropped a 34-of-45, 383-yard, three-touchdown day on Baltimore, and when the Chargers had to move the ball late, they motored right down the field against the Ravens, going 80 yards on eight plays in less than two minutes.
Baltimore had no answer for second-year receiver Keenan Allen, who caught 11 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns. A pass interference call on cornerback Anthony Levine in the end zone with 46 seconds remaining was the game’s pivotal play. Rivers instantly made Baltimore pay for that mistake, finding Eddie Royal from one yard out on the following play for the game-winning touchdown.
Once upon a time, the Chargers were a weak road team that rarely won on the East Coast. But the win at Baltimore made San Diego 3-3 this season away from home, and the Ravens had been 11-0 at home against West Coast teams before Sunday’s late-game turn of events.
• It’s not as if Colt McCoy made the case for why he should be the long-term starter at quarterback in Washington, but it was enlightening to see him show the elusiveness and improvisational skills that Robert Griffin III once displayed on that highlight-reel 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Logan Paulsen in the third quarter of Washington’s 49-27 loss at Indianapolis.
On the play, McCoy rolled right and eluded three different Colts' tacklers, then found Paulsen for the score while being hit from behind by one of the Indy defenders. I probably would have given McCoy the start next week at home against St. Louis based on that one play alone, but Washington head coach Jay Gruden liked more of what he saw of McCoy than that. McCoy "competed," Gruden said, and the former Browns' starting quarterback finished with a fairly impressive 392-yard, three-touchdown, interception-free game.
Washington has way more problems than just at quarterback -- see the secondary and offensive line -- but McCoy was at least more a part of the solution than of the problem on Sunday.
• I know the rest of the NFL isn’t going to want to hear this, but Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has himself another big-time weapon in rookie receiver Donte Moncrief. Luck threw for 370 yards and a career-best five touchdown passes against Washington, and two of them went to Moncrief, who totaled just three catches, but finished with 134 yards and touchdowns of 48 and 79 yards.
That’s a heck of a game to get from your No. 3 receiver, with Moncrief behind T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne. If there’s a Super Bowl sleeper in the AFC, it has to be Indianapolis, which looks headed for another 11-win season and can hang up big point totals with almost anyone.
• As I’ve said since late last season whenever the topic has arisen, Tom Coughlin deserves to leave on his own terms in New York, with his head held high. But the best work of his 11-year Giants tenure is clearly behind him, and if you think he’s going to get this team turned around and headed back to the ranks of Super Bowl contention, you’re not paying attention at this point.
The Giants blowing a 21-point lead at Jacksonville, losing 25-24 to the one-win Jaguars, has to be the low point of the Coughlin era. It was the largest comeback in Jaguars history, and this should be the game that starts tipping the scales against Coughlin returning in 2015.
It’s not all Coughlin’s fault that New York has dropped a league-worst seven in a row and is 3-9, but he and Giants general manager Jerry Reese should both be on the hot seat. That’s the way the NFL works, even if you own two Super Bowl rings.
• This J.J. Watt MVP chatter isn’t just a gimmicky little idea that might capture the imagination of a handful of voters who like the sound of considering a defender. It’s getting more legitimate by the week. Watt had yet another monster day in Houston’s 45-21 destruction of Tennessee, with two sacks, six quarterback hits, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and his third touchdown catch of the season as a tight end (from one yard out). He’s now the first defensive lineman since 1944 -- that would be the NFL’s World War II era -- to have at least five touchdowns in the same season. This two-way player thing isn’t just a novelty with Watt.
I’m not sure I’ll cast my MVP vote for Watt over the likes of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. But he’s giving me something to seriously think about, and there’s still a month left for his candidacy to gain steam.
• After the 52-0 beating St. Louis administered to Oakland, I think it’s only fair that the Raiders must cede any claims to the Los Angeles market to the Rams, who were up 38-0 with more than five minutes left in the second quarter.
Proving that last week’s win at home against Kansas City was a pure fluke, the Raiders couldn’t quite reproduce that upset against the other NFL team from Missouri. The Rams have alternated wins with losses in their past seven games, but that 4-3 span includes victories over Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, and now they’ve proven they can beat bad teams, too.
If you’re last-place St. Louis, you must dream of being in this year’s NFC South, where that 5-7 record would good enough for first place in the league’s worst division. The Rams are the first last-place team in NFL history that no one wants to play.
• I think the Vikings are getting the hang of this playing in the cold thing again. And it’s good to see, because Minnesota being an indoor team in its Metrodome era always seemed like one of the league’s biggest incongruities. They’re Vikings, for crying out loud. They’re supposed to thrive in the elements.
The Vikings certainly did that at home against Carolina on Sunday, beating the Panthers 31-13 in a game that featured a kickoff temperature of 12 degrees, the seventh coldest in franchise history. Minnesota’s victory was built around some solid play by rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but the centerpiece of the performance was the twin blocked punts the Vikings returned for touchdowns in the first half -- the first team to manage that in one half since Detroit did it in September 1975.
The Panthers looked like they didn’t even want to come outside and play in the frigid conditions, and that’s the home-field advantage Minnesota was hoping for when it set up shop for two seasons at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium.