• Don't make the mistake of trying to grade the Saints' 22-17 cliff-hanger of a win at Tennessee in aesthetic terms. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective and potentially valuable. New Orleans needed this kind of gritty victory: outdoors, in December, against a quality opponent, on a day when the Saints offense played well but was missing its "A'' game in the red zone.
Because if Sean Payton's team intends to fight its way back indoors in early February, for the big Roman numeraled affair in Indianapolis, it's going to have to prove it can win outside in January, in the hostile environments that likely await in San Francisco and Green Bay.
And that's where Sunday came in handy, as a confidence-builder for a Saints team that likely is going to have to deal with adversity, second-half lead changes and momentum swings, and perhaps the kind of furious finish that its win over the Titans (7-6) featured.
Maybe the Saints aren't the same team outdoors as they are in their home dome, but that doesn't mean they can't still prevail in harsher, less comfortable conditions. Against the wild-card contending Titans, New Orleans showed some mettle in turning in a strong defensive performance, especially against the run, which has been a weakness at times this season. The rejuvenated Chris Johnson looked a lot like the sluggish CJ of the season's first 10 weeks or so, gaining just 23 yards on 11 carries against the Saints, with a long gain of 9.
Even more inspiring by the Saints was a late-game fourth-and-1 stop of Tennessee on a Jake Locker sneak attempt, a play that gave the ball back to New Orleans at the their own 24 with 2:18 remaining. That stuff didn't ice the game, but it showed that the Saints defense has a backbone, a perception that was then reinforced when New Orleans stiffened and turned the Titans away on the final three plays of the game from the Saints 5.
You have to feel better about the Saints in the NFC playoffs as a No. 3 seed after this win, because on a day where Drew Brees and Co. drove the ball all game but didn't dent the end zone until the fourth quarter, they still found a way to scratch out 114 yards on the ground (on 26 carries, for a 4.4 average) and hang 22 points on the board.
Add it all up: Solid defense, a reliable running game and quality special teams work usually constitute a handy blueprint for playoff-style football. If New Orleans couldn't get that done in Tennessee, what hope did it really have for handling the 49ers or Packers on the road next month?
Alas, the Saints' win did feature some of the components that we've come to expect every week from New Orleans. Roof or no roof, grass or turf, Brees threw for 337 yards on 36 of 47 passing, with at least one touchdown pass in his 40th consecutive game. Brees had two big scoring strikes of 35 and 28 yards to receiver Marques Colston in the fourth quarter, and that tandem seemingly could connect on asphalt or quick sand.
To be sure, New Orleans had its road issues earlier this year, losing at Green Bay, Tampa Bay and St. Louis in the first eight weeks of the season. But the Saints are now 4-3 on the road, and they've won five games in a row to improve to 10-3, giving Payton his third consecutive double-digit win season in New Orleans, and fourth overall.
It wasn't a masterpiece, but Sunday in Nashville was just what the doctor ordered for New Orleans, as it begins its preparation for January. For a Saints team that hadn't played outside since Week 6 at Tampa Bay, and hadn't won outdoors since Week 5 at Carolina, the fresh air did them some good.
• Let's give it up for the Houston Texans, who clinched their first playoff berth, won their first division title, and earned their first 10-win season, all in one fell swoop on a memorable Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati. The Texans have won seven in a row, but arguably none of them were more improbable than Houston's 20-19 comeback victory against the Bengals, which wasn't settled until Kevin Walter's six-yard touchdown catch with two seconds remaining. The Texans had trailed 16-3 at the half, and 19-10 entering the fourth quarter.
And move over, Tim Tebow, at least a little bit, because the NFL has another young quarterback hero who's turning into a Cinderella story. Houston rookie T.J. Yates led the Texans on their history-making, game-winning drive, keeping the march alive with a 17-yard scramble on third-and-15. Yates started slowly against the Bengals, but finished on fire, completing 26 of 44 passes for 300 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Not bad work for your second career start.
Like the rest of the AFC elite class (Steelers, Ravens and Patriots) did in Week 14, the Texans improved to 10-3 with their win. That keeps them in the fight for a first-round bye and a divisional-round home game, and Houston may make things more interesting than I first anticipated in the playoffs in that scenario. No matter what transpires, these are the best of days for the 10-year-old Texans, and the long wait for some renewed football glory in Houston is officially over.
• Pop quiz: When was the last season Houston made the NFL playoffs? If you said 1993, give yourself a gold star. That was the final chapter of seven consecutive postseason berths for the Houston Oilers, who were coached by Jack Pardee and quarterbacked by Warren Moon. The Oilers missed the playoffs in their last three seasons in Houston, left town for Tennessee in 1997, and it took the expansion Texans from 2002 until 2011 to get invited to the dance.
• I meant it when I said there were some frantic finishes to Sunday's early games. In four instances a team was trailing by a touchdown or less inside of their opponent's 10-yard line with fewer than 30 seconds remaining: Washington at home against New England; Tennessee at home against New Orleans; Minnesota at Detroit; and Houston at Cincinnati.
Only the Texans finished the deal and won, thanks to Yates' touchdown pass to Walter. In Washington, Rex Grossman had a pass go through the hands of receiver Santana Moss and get picked off by Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo with 22 seconds remaining. In Nashville, Locker absorbed a three-yard sack as time expired at the Saints 5. And in Detroit, the Lions survived when Vikings second-year quarterback Joe Webb fumbled deep in Detroit territory, setting off a Keystone Kops-style chase for the bouncing ball as time expired.
• Speaking of the final play of the Lions' razor's edge victory over Minnesota, how does the NFL explain the officials missing that blatant facemask that went uncalled against Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy, who snapped Webb's head around rather severely?
The play brought to mind memories of the 2009 playoffs, when Aaron Rodgers had his facemask ripped by Cardinals safety Michael Adams and fumbled a ball that Karlos Dansby gathered and returned for the game-winning overtime score. What's wrong with adding that kind of play to the list of those that can be reviewed? I'm sure the Vikings would vote for passage about now.
• The Patriots survived a slug-fest in Washington, but there was nearly a slug-fest of a different sort on the New England sideline, when quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien took turns screaming at each other in the wake of Brady throwing a fourth-quarter end zone interception to Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson.
Brady seemed to be ticked off at the effort or execution by Patriots receiver Tiquan Underwood on the pick, and O'Brien seemed to be taking issue with Brady's decision-making on the throw. Whatever the case, it got heated enough that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick eventually had to come over to help cool things down.
Belichick, the voice of reason. That's when you know we're through the looking glass.
• New England doesn't want to take its bend-but-don't-break approach on defense any further than it did against the Redskins. Washington rolled up 463 yards of offense, held the ball for 36-plus minutes, and could easily have upset the Patriots without a few costly penalties and drops.
When you factor in the 21 points New England gave up to Indy last week in the fourth quarter of the Patriots' 31-24 win, and the 27 points the Redskins scored in Sunday's first two and a half quarters, that's a 48-point onslaught New England's defense allowed in about 52 minutes or so of action.
That won't get it done come playoff time in Foxboro. Belichick has some things to fix on defense in New England, and he's running out of time to make it happen.
• Another day, another monster game from Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who snagged six passes for 160 yards and two more touchdowns, making him the league's all-time record holder for most TDs by a tight end in one season (15).
Is there a tougher one-on-one matchup in the league right now than the Patriots' second-year tight end? Defenders simply can't tackle him, and on the second of his two touchdowns in Washington, Gronkowski pulled away from the grasp of Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan like the rookie was standing still.
• Jake Locker and Tennessee's comeback against the Saints came up short, but the Titans rookie quarterback has some moxie to him. He's still a bit raw at times, but you can tell he scares a defense, and he's got impressive presence at this stage of his development.
I hope Locker gets a chance to start a game this season in Tennessee, because his 13 of 29 passing for 282 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans showed real promise.
• The Falcons woke up in time to get out of Carolina with a hugely critical win, but I still can't figure Atlanta out this season. Their inconsistency has become their most consistent trait.
Atlanta trailed the Panthers 23-7 at halftime and looked headed for a second straight lackluster road loss. But the Falcons scored the game's final 24 points in the second half, with Matt Ryan throwing three of his four touchdown passes in the final 30 minutes. Roddy White, Jacquizz Rodgers and Julio Jones (two) all had touchdown catches for the Falcons, just like they drew it up this offseason.
At 8-5, Atlanta is headed for 10 wins and an NFC wild-card berth because Mike Smith's streaky club still has home games against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay (both 4-9).
• Last week, it was the NFC wild-card contenders who didn't seem to want it, with Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and the Giants all losing, as well as NFC East leading Dallas. But this week it was the AFC wild-card contenders who came up small. The Jets managed to win at home against punchless Kansas City, but the Bengals, Titans and Raiders all came up small.
It's playoff drives in reverse.
• The Jets are going to the playoffs again, but for the second year in a row, it'll be without valuable safety Jim Leonhard, who will reportedly miss the rest of the season after blowing out his right knee in the win over Kansas City.
Leonhard is a versatile talent, and he's responsible for making defensive on-field calls for Rex Ryan's team. He won't be easily replaced, but at least the Jets have some experience playing down the stretch and in the postseason without him. Leonhard broke his leg in practice last year and missed the final five games and the playoffs. His absence was cited as one of the factors that weakened New York in its bid to overtake New England in the AFC East last December.
Without Leonhard, who is one of the Jets' team leaders, look for either Eric Smith or Brodney Pool to fill his safety slot, and rookie Jeremy Kerley will likely resume returning punts. Leonhard just took that job back in recent weeks after Kerley had fumbling issues.
• Said it last week, too, but the Broncos are going to the playoffs. Book it. Their win at home against Chicago combined with Oakland getting routed at Green Bay means Denver has a commanding lead in the AFC West. The Broncos are 8-5 and the Raiders are 7-6, with Denver also holding the tiebreaker over Oakland based on a superior AFC record. That amounts to a two-game lead in the division with three games remaining.
Tebow Time and playoff time, one and the same. Can't wait.
• And break up the Cardinals. Arizona (6-7) has won five out of six, and it just stunned the 49ers, beating the NFC's No. 2 (at the moment) 21-19 in Glendale. San Francisco (10-3) blew a 19-7 lead and has lost two of its past three games, perhaps portending a quick playoff exit.
The 49ers loss is great news for the Saints, who now need to pick up just one more game on San Francisco to leapfrog Jim Harbaugh's team into the No. 2 seed slot in the NFC.
• The "Good'' Eagles made a return showing for their game at Miami on Sunday, and believe it or not, there's still some hope for Philadelphia in the NFC East race. The Eagles are 5-8, and would have to win at home next week against the Jets, at Dallas in Week 16 and home against Washington in Week 17. Then they'd need some help. How much help? If Dallas (7-6) loses two of its last three, and the Giants (7-6) go 1-2, the 8-8 Eagles would win the division.
Remarkable. And not entirely implausible.
• I don't think Raheem Morris can survive this meltdown in Tampa Bay. That's seven losses in a row for the Bucs (4-9), and if you can make the Jaguars look like they have a potent offense, things are furiously headed south for you.
• Speaking of anemic, did I read that right, that Kansas City had four yards of offense in the first half of its loss to the Jets? Four? Palko Fever. Catch it.