CHICAGO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a Week 11 that looked dreadful on paper but wound up playing out as one of the most entertaining Sundays of the NFL season....
• It seemed in real jeopardy for a while there, but now we have a Thanksgiving football feast to look forward to. Now that the mojo just made a comeback in Motown, Thursday can't get here soon enough.
Things didn't look good for the Detroit Lions for the longest time on Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers. Trailing 24-7 in the second quarter, drowning in boos from the frustrated fans in Ford Field, the Lions appeared to be idly watching as their once magical season spiraled out of control.
But then Detroit stopped the flood of turnovers, steadied itself on special teams and rediscovered the offensive execution that sparked that 5-0 start and had Lions fans dreaming of January. The result was a season-saving 49-35 conquest of the pesky Panthers and a much-needed shot of confidence for Detroit just four days before the undefeated Super Bowl champion Packers pay a visit on Thanksgiving, for what should be the Lions' game of the year.
After having lost three of their past four games, the Lions absolutely could not afford another defeat, especially against a Carolina team that came into play with a 2-7 record and an 11-game road losing streak. This was a game Detroit (7-3) had to have to stay at the front of the NFC wild-card chase and to reassert itself as a playoff team in the making.
If all those big plans come to pass this season, Sunday might be the turning point they look back on in Detroit. Not the 20-point comeback in Week 3 at Minnesota or the 24-point rally at Dallas in Week 4. This one, a 17-point comeback against Carolina, was the crucial one. Because now Detroit still has everything within its grasp.
The Lions look like the Lions again, thanks to five Matthew Stafford touchdown passes and a huge day from newly signed running back Kevin Smith, the one-time Lion who returned to Detroit with a bang, rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns and catching five passes for 61 yards and another score.
The Lions' mid-game turnaround was remarkable, because Detroit began by committing turnovers on its first three drives, with Stafford throwing two more interceptions to go with the four he tossed last week in a loss at Chicago. One more errant pass and you have to think the Lions would have considered benching Stafford, who has struggled to throw accurately while wearing gloves due to a broken right index finger.
But Stafford and the Lions somehow stopped the snowball effect and finally showed some much-needed poise in a game they could have easily lost. Detroit is back, and the 49 points the Lions produced against the Panthers are sure to get the attention of the Packers, who haven't lost a game started by quarterback Aaron Rodgers since being upset 7-3 by Detroit at Ford Field in Week 13 of last season. The Lions may be one of the few teams that can match points with 10-0 Green Bay, which has won 16 games in a row, including the playoffs, and adding Kevin Smith's impact to the running game is a vital complement to the potent Detroit passing game.
I'm not expecting a repeat of last December's 7-3 Packers-Lions matchup this time around. The scoring plays and touchdowns should be plentiful on Thanksgiving. If you like offense, it should make for the feast before the feast. Both teams won at home on Sunday, and now we have the showdown we've been awaiting: Packers at Lions, with both teams headed for the playoffs. It's the most meaningful renewal of this rivalry in at least a dozen years or so, and the long wait is almost over.
• The Packers themselves had a close call at home against Tampa Bay on Sunday, but Mike McCarthy's team answered every challenge the Bucs posed in Green Bay's 35-26 win. If the undefeated season does indeed unfold, maybe one of the plays of the year for the Packers was Rodgers' 40-yard touchdown strike to receiver Jordy Nelson on a third-and-4 with 2:55 remaining.
Ahead by a mere two points and close to being forced to punt the ball back to the Bucs, the Packers made the kind of play that champions make. It was Rodgers' third touchdown pass in the game, and his second to Nelson (who had a game-best six catches for 123 yards and those two scores).
This was the type of game that Green Bay would have found a way to lose in recent years, but the Packers now play with supreme confidence and the knowledge that it's the other team feeling the pressure.
• That pressure is perhaps why Bucs head coach Raheem Morris foolishly opted to go for a two-point conversion with Tampa Bay trailing 21-19, after Mike Williams caught a 9-yard touchdown pass just four plays into the fourth quarter. Morris, like a lot of coaches, gambled on the two-pointer too early. The Bucs missed the conversion when tight end Kellen Winslow dropped a pass in the end zone, and instead of being down eight points when they got the ball for their final drive of the game, they trailed by nine and needed two scores to win.
I know there's a chart the coaches all use and trust in terms of two-point situations, but it doesn't have to be that difficult. A good rule of thumb is this: Don't go for the two-pointer until everyone in the stadium knows you absolutely have no other choice.
• It was by no means a complete game the Raiders turned in against the Vikings, but Oakland is now 4-1 on the road and that's an impressive accomplishment for Hue Jackson's team. Carson Palmer is starting to look comfortable in the Raiders offense (17 of 23 for 164 yards, with seven receivers catching passes), Michael Bush was again a stud in the running game (109 yards on 30 attempts), and the Raiders racked up another five sacks against Minnesota.
At 6-4, Oakland is the only AFC West team with its nose above water, and with Kansas City and San Diego in freefall, the Raiders might only have to stave off the Tim Tebow-led Broncos down the stretch to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. About the only downside for the Raiders on Sunday was a familiar one: penalties. Oakland committed 12 for 117 yards and continues to lead the league in that dubious department year after year.
• I know the Bills are still technically in playoff contention at 5-5, but they look done in every way. Everything that bounced right for Buffalo early in the season is now bouncing the wrong way, and the Bills look powerless to stop their slide. Miami's 35-8 humiliation of Buffalo in South Florida on Sunday had to send a chill through all of upstate New York, as another football season slowly withers and dies.
I realize Buffalo has its injury problems, but it in no way resembles the team that started this season 4-1 and played with great energy and resiliency. Buffalo gave up four touchdowns to the Dolphins in the first half, and never seriously threatened to make a game of it thereafter. After getting outscored 28-7 in the first half at Dallas last week, the Bills were in a 28-6 hole at half against the Dolphins. With the third and final game of its brutal three-week road trip next week at the Jets, Buffalo probably hasn't even hit rock bottom yet.
• But break up those Dolphins, who just became the third team in NFL history to start a year 0-7 and then mount at least a three-game winning streak at some point during the season. Miami hadn't won three in a row since the close of the 2008 season, Tony Sparano's first year on the job.
Will this late-season renaissance wind up saving Sparano's job? Probably not, but you can never say never. At least not with the Dolphins playing so well and being one of the hottest teams in the league. And to think Miami would be at 5-5 and at least alive in the AFC wild-card chase if it had managed to hang on against Denver at home and protect a fourth-quarter lead at the Giants in October.
• I thought we were in for another downer of a ride on the Romo-coaster, but Dallas gutted out a 27-24 overtime win at Washington, and now the Cowboys are really rolling. That makes it three straight wins for Dallas, and four out of five. The Cowboys are 6-4 and just a half-game behind the first-place Giants in the NFC East, and if New York gets upset by the Eagles Sunday night, we'd have a tie in the division with six weeks to play.
The Cowboys have two winnable games just ahead, against the suddenly red-hot Dolphins at home on Thanksgiving, and at Arizona in Week 13. That should set them up nicely for a closing four-game drive to the playoffs, including two games against the Giants, home in Week 14, and at New York in Week 17.
Romo is now 18-2 in November as a starter, and he's starting to play with the consistent sense of poise needed by an elite quarterback.
• I think I actually have more respect for the Bengals after seeing them lose narrowly to both the Steelers and Ravens the past two weeks than I did when they were 6-2 and riding high in the AFC North. Cincinnati didn't get it done in the fourth quarter again, but the Bengals don't quit. They turned a 31-14 game into a 31-24 nail-biter, making Baltimore sweat out its seventh win of the season.
And don't count out Cincinnati in the AFC wild-card race either. The Bengals are 6-4, but they've still got three more games they should be favored to win: at home against Cleveland next week, at St. Louis in Week 15, and home against Arizona in Week 16.
• As soon as Week 11 started, I instantly missed Week 10's long list of glamour games. Sunday's schedule looked a little light on elite matchups, with Cincinnati at Baltimore the only early game that featured two winning clubs, and Tennessee at Atlanta the lone late afternoon matchup of plus-.500 clubs.
But Week 11 showed us that looks can be deceiving, as six of the seven early games made for great action, and only the Dolphins' blowout of the Bills registering as a snooze-fest.
With three division leaders on their bye -- Pittsburgh, Houston and New Orleans -- there figured to be a shortage of quality all the way around in Week 11, but the games were competitive and that's what makes for must-see TV. The real silver lining of the week? It was the Colts' bye week too, so we didn't have to suffer through another ugly afternoon of football for Jim Caldwell's winless wonders.
• Got to figure B.J. Raji is going to be hard to live with in the Packers locker room, now that he's a touchdown-maker in the way of William "The Refrigerator" Perry. Something tells me Aaron Rodgers and Co. will find enough ways to keep him humble and hungry for more.
• I know it wasn't illegal, but it certainly was uncomfortable watching Bengals cornerback Adam Jones tackle Ravens receiver Torrey Smith by the hair on that 28-yard catch in the second half of Baltimore's win. I suppose if you're going to wear the look, you've got be willing to take the occasional pain that comes with it.
• After watching LeGarrette Blount rip off that spell-binding and tackle-busting 54-yard touchdown run at Green Bay, I'm thinking the Bucs have the right to ask where that LeGarrette Blount has been all season? Blount made like Marshawn Lynch on the scoring burst, with no less than five or six Packers tacklers getting a shot at him, but failing to bring him down.
• It it a little known league rule that Cleveland and kicker Phil Dawson have to have something funky happen on a field goal try every week? After last week's ground-ball snap on a potential game-winning 22-yard field goal, Dawson this week had a missed late-game 38-yard field goal that may or may not have gone over the top of the right upright. Seems to me that's exactly when you do need the ability to use instant replay on a field goal try, not just when the officials can't quite tell if the ball went inside or outside of an upright.