First Down/Fourth Down: Ravens' Dumervil closing in on sack title
Adios, Peter Boulware. Heads up, Michael Strahan.
With a dominant 3.5-sack effort in Baltimore's 28-13 win over Miami, Elvis Dumervil passed Boulware to become the Ravens' single-season sacks record-holder, his total of 16.0 topping Boulware's 15.0 from 2001.
Three games remain in the regular season, and Dumervil sits 6.5 sacks behind Strahan's NFL record. The odds are against Dumervil, sure, but another performance like the one he delivered Sunday would change the picture. Baltimore's edge-rusher was downright unblockable, as Miami tackle Dallas Thomas found out, pressuring Ryan Tannehill seemingly every time he dropped to throw.
"He'd be the first to tell you that it's not just a one-man show," head coach John Harbaugh said. "It's because of all those other guys who are rushing as well ... and then the coverage, of course."
Whatever the explanation, Dumervil was as disruptive in Week 14 as any player shy of J.J. Watt has been in a game this season. The win that he helped secure moved Baltimore to 8-5, very much alive for a wild-card spot or the AFC North title.
More of the best and worst from Week 14:
First Down: Jonathan Stewart.
The Panthers have continued to commit money to their backfield -- more than $14 million of their 2014 cap belongs to DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. The returns on that investment had been negligible in 2014 until Sunday, when Stewart carved up New Orleans for 155 yards with a 69-yard touchdown in Carolina's 41-10 win.
The outing accounted for about 27 percent of Stewart's rushing total for the year (now at 563 yards) and was his best showing since a 206-yard day in December 2009. Of course, the Saints' defense was ... uh ... not great. Cam Newton piled up 83 yards on the ground and added a fight-sparking touchdown himself.
"I feel as if anybody could have run it," Newton said. "There were no moves I made. I wasn't touched until I got in the secondary."
Fourth Down: The 10- or 11-win NFC team that misses the playoffs.
It's almost inevitable now. Arizona and Green Bay already have crossed the double-digit threshold in victories; Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia and Seattle are all sitting on nine. Add it up, and we could have six teams with double-digit wins fighting for five playoff spots since the decrepit NFC South still gets to send its champion onward.
Not that the Cardinals need any reminding, but they sat out last year's postseason despite a 10-6 record. Some team will feel the same misery this season -- possibly even the Cardinals again, should they fail to knock off St. Louis, Seattle or San Francisco over the season's final weeks.
A renewed debate about the fairness of a sub-.500 playoff team, which the NFC South is likely to produce, will not be far behind.
First Down: The Rams' defense.
The 1945 Cleveland Rams opened their NFL championship season by pitching back-to-back shutouts against the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears. Sixty-nine years and two cities later, the Rams matched that defensive feat. St. Louis held Washington scoreless Sunday after a 52-0 shutout of Oakland in Week 13. All told, it now has been 128 minutes and 39 seconds of game action since any team put up points on Jeff Fisher's club.
"When you’re getting the turnovers and you’re getting the third-down stops and you’re stopping the run, that gives you a chance," Fisher said at his Monday press conference.
Fourth Down: Kansas City's beef with the referees.
Why did the Chiefs lose in Arizona?
"The reason why we lost is the refs didn't go our way," running back Jamaal Charles said after the game.
Is that complaint justified? Well ...
Two critical calls worked against Kansas City in the second half of its 17-14 setback. The first came when tight end Anthony Fasano was called for offensive pass interference, negating a 19-yard touchdown reception. (Alex Smith threw an interception on the next play.) Then a key Travis Kelce reception, which would have put the Chiefs into field-goal range, was overturned and ruled a fumble recovered by the Cardinals -- a decision based on murky evidence, at best.
"I can't comment on the officials," Reid said. "We all have to do our jobs and do them to the best of our ability. Go on to something else, besides the officials. I don't have anything good to say."
First Down: Julio Jones.
Let's hope the hip injury Jones suffered running himself ragged Monday night turns out to be a minor one, because the Falcons' receiver is doing some special work right now. Jones posted 259 yards receiving in his team's loss to the Packers, an Atlanta single-game record. He also bumped his season receiving total to 1,428 yards, tops in the league and best ever for a Falcons receiver.
Atlanta also still finds itself leading the NFC South, in spite of a 5-8 record. Trying to clinch the division without Jones might be asking too much.
Fourth Down: Peyton Manning's touchdown streak.
After throwing a touchdown in 51 straight games, Manning was shut out Sunday. The good news for him is that Denver won anyway, holding off Buffalo 24-17. Less promising is that the Broncos' passing attack has struggled in back-to-back weeks now -- Manning threw for just 173 yards (and two interceptions) against the Bills after Kansas City held him to 179 yards in Week 13.
First Down: The Seahawks.
The champs are back and, by the looks of it, here to stay for the duration of the 2014 season. That's bad news for the rest of the NFC, where Super Bowl hopefuls may have been counting on the Seahawks' struggles during a 3-3 start to continue.
But the past three weeks have been domination. Seattle put the clamps on Philadelphia's offense Sunday for a 24-14 win on the heels of holding Arizona and San Francisco to a combined six points over Weeks 12 and 13.
Fourth Down: San Francisco's play-calling.
"I thought when we were running the ball, we were doing a great job," 49ers running back Frank Gore told the San Francisco Chronicle of his team's early approach against Oakland. "The O-line was coming off the ball. We were having success."
And then ... nothing.
The 49ers again bailed on Gore and the running game, a puzzling decision that has happened in several games now this season. Gore had nine carries for 52 yards over the first two and a half quarters Sunday; he had three attempts for 11 yards from then on.
Ignoring Gore on the ground put more pressure on quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is playing about as poorly right now as we've seen in his NFL career. San Francisco has to find its balance again on offense, and fast. Barring a 3-0 finish (and possibly even with one), the 49ers will miss the playoffs.
First Down: Pittsburgh's playoffs hopes.
The AFC North -- a funhouse mirror of a division race -- shifted again Sunday, thanks in large part to Pittsburgh's impressive win in Cincinnati. Trailing 21-16 entering the fourth quarter with their division title hopes on life support, the Steelers responded with a 25-0 run to close the game.
Just like that, Pittsburgh improved to 8-5, jumped up to the No. 5 seed in the playoff race and gave itself control of its own AFC North destiny. Win out, complete with a Week 17 victory over Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh takes the crown.
Fourth Down: Tennessee's losing streak.
A difficult offseason awaits in Tennessee, where the wheels have come off during Ken Whisenhunt's first season as head coach. The Titans now have lost seven straight games (the latest a 36-7 beatdown at the hands of the Giants), the franchise's longest losing streak since the 1994 Houston Oilers dropped 11 in a row en route to 2-14.