By Don Banks
December 02, 2012

BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a tragedy-marred Week 13 in the NFL, but one that treated us to multiple fantastic finishes...

• Well, now, maybe we'll have some division races this season after all. If you thought the (NFC) West was won, think again. Thanks to one pressure-packed burst of overtime action in Sunday's early games, the NFC West isn't over. And that's not the only division that tightened in Week 13. In this season of runaway leaders, the NFC is suddenly drama central.

In the NFC West, San Francisco's 16-13 overtime loss at St. Louis combined with Seattle's 23-17 overtime win in Chicago means the 49ers">49ers (8-3-1) and Seahawks (7-5) are separated by a mere 1½ games with four remaining, one of which is now a hugely anticipated Week 16 showdown at CenturyLink Field.

And roughly the same scenario is now in place in the NFC North, where the Packers' 23-14 home win over Minnesota and the Bears' home loss to Seattle has re-tied Green Bay and Chicago at 8-4, with a potential winner-take-all matchup between those historic rivals slated for Week 15 in Chicago. For now, the Packers have vaulted back into first place in the division and hold the NFC's No. 3 playoff seed due to their Week 2 win over the Bears. But Chicago will get its chance to even the series and make its case for division champion in the rematch.

Even the NFC East might still prove compelling down the stretch, if Washington (5-6) finds a way to win Monday night at home against the visiting Giants (7-4). New York would lead Washington by just one game with a month remaining if the Redskins prevail, giving us more pennant-race intrigue than looked possible just a few days ago.

Bring it on. The AFC might be down to nothing more than a ho-hum battle between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for the sixth and final playoff berth, but the NFC is suddenly where the intrigue is at.

The biggest reversal of fortune on Sunday belonged to Seattle, which finally showed some road-game resolve in beating the Bears, on Sidney Rice's 13-yard touchdown reception with 7:33 left in overtime. The Seahawks entered the game with just one victory away from home this season, and the Bears had just one home loss, but no matter. Rookie Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson led a 97-yard, go-ahead drive late in regulation, and then finished off Chicago with a 12-play, 80-yard scoring march in overtime.

And though Seattle still trails San Francisco in the division, the remainder of the schedule favors Pete Carroll's team. The Seahawks play three of their last four at home, where they are 5-0 this season: Arizona in Week 14, at Buffalo (in Toronto) in Week 15, San Francisco in Week 16 and St. Louis in Week 17. The 49ers have two tough road games (at New England in Week 15 and at Seattle in Week 16), with home dates remaining against Miami next week, and Arizona in Week 17.

And how's this for delicious irony: It was Seattle, the team that in essence stole a win from Green Bay in that Monday Night Football fiasco in Week 3, that helped the Packers this time around, knocking off the first-place Bears and allowing Aaron Rodgers and Co. to reclaim the top spot in the NFC North.

Karma can be a killer, and it can also be your best ally. But whatever it takes, we look headed for a December to remember in the NFC. The races are on. After all.

• It's not as if second-year 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick hit the wall in his third start in place of Alex Smith, but it was easily his worst work of the season. Kaepernick threw for 208 yards and rushed for 84, but he also drew an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone that gave the Rams a safety, and later botched an option pitch to Ted Ginn that wound up a game-tying 2-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins.

It's no surprise 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh isn't backing away from Kaepernick and heading back in the direction of reinserting Smith. Kaepernick is Harbaugh's guy, and if San Francisco kicker David Akers makes a 51-yard field goal in overtime, the 49ers are 9-2-1 and rolling to another NFC West title.

But the loss in St. Louis at least gives a little juice to Smith's backers. Smith might not have been able to rip off that 50-yard rushing gain that Kaepernick did late in regulation, but he also probably wouldn't have taken the safety and gotten sloppy with the ball on the pitch to Ginn. The only thing is, only one man's opinion seems to matter in San Francisco, and it's Harbaugh's.


• And let's not completely overlook the Rams (5-6-1), who improved to an impressive 4-0-1 in the NFC West with their win over San Francisco. With games at Buffalo and home against the Vikings in the next two weeks, St. Louis could still factor in the division race. Especially since the Rams close the regular season with a Week 17 trip to Seattle.

The Rams just seem to know how to defense the multi-weaponed 49ers, and that should stand them in good stead in the division hierarchy in seasons to come. No matter what happens over the course of the next four games, Jeff Fisher's first season leading the Rams has effectively changed the culture of losing and non-competitive finishes in St. Louis.

• How wild is it the Rams and 49ers came within 26 seconds of tying for the second time in four games, which would have been the first time two teams tied more than once in a season since the Eagles and Steelers "kissed their sister'' twice in 1963?

The Rams can thank rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein for not having to go through the emptiness of another tie. He made the game-winning 54-yard kick in overtime, and got St. Louis to the extra period with a 53-yarder late in regulation. He also missed a 58-yard attempt in the game, but is still a dazzling 7 of 11 from 50 yards or longer this season.

The news is not so good for 49ers' kicker David Akers, who could be out of a job after not converting from 51 yards in overtime. Akers is just 7 of 15 from 40 yards or longer this season, and in today's NFL, with long-distance kicking so routine, that won't cut it.

• Every win in December is big for a playoff hopeful, but Seattle's victory at Chicago was made even more crucial by the expected start this week of the four-game suspensions to Seahawks cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. If both suspensions are upheld without being reduced, it means Seattle has to do without both of those talented starters the rest of the regular season.

That just sounds a little easier to survive at 7-5, with three home games remaining, than it does at 6-6.

• All things considered, I think the Kansas City Chiefs handled the unique circumstances of Sunday's game against Carolina about as well as could possibly be expected. The tragedy of Saturday's murder-suicide that involved Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasandra M. Perkins, was felt everywhere at Arrowhead Stadium, but Romeo Crennel and his players went back to work amid their shock and grief and produced their finest performance of the season: A 27-21 defeat of the visiting Panthers.

Football always seems trivial in these situations, and it is compared to the loss of life. But I think the Chiefs at least did themselves proud with their effort, their sense of professionalism, and their ability to focus on the first fledgling step of a return to normalcy.

It was also entirely right that the Kansas City organization did not choose to honor Belcher with a pre-game moment of silence, but instead choose to spotlight the victims of domestic abuse. Belcher's suicide was a tragedy. But not more so than Perkins' murder, and the orphaning of their three-month-old daughter, Zoey.


• That makes it two very strong games in a row for Carolina's Cam Newton, and you can't blame him for the loss in Kansas City. Newton threw three touchdown passes against the Chiefs, and rushed seven times for 78 yards. He's looking like a confident and poised player again, and his late-season improvement might just help convince Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to stay the course and retain head coach Ron Rivera and his staff.

• I would think it'd be obvious to Jets decision makers by now, but that's pretty much it for Mark Sanchez in New York, right? Three-year contract extension or not, Sanchez is not the Jets' long-term answer at quarterback, and his benching on Sunday in favor of third-stringer Greg McElroy only underlines the depths of his descent.

New York's 7-6 win over the reeling Arizona Cardinals was no great advertisement for starting McElroy the rest of the season, but he did drive the Jets to their only score of the game after Sanchez threw three first-half interceptions -- two to ex-Jets safety and Rex Ryan nemesis Kerry Rhodes. Sanchez has committed at least two turnovers in eight of his 12 starts this season, and his sagging confidence level has been patched and re-patched so many times the seams are showing.

Be it Tim Tebow or McElroy starting the final four games of the season, going back to Sanchez at this point seems pointless and a waste of time. New York needs to find its future quarterback, but it's likely Sanchez has already enjoyed his highwater mark as a Jet. On the plus side for Sanchez, he did manage to deftly navigate around the butts of his offensive linemen against the Cardinals.


• Hey, did anyone find Fireman Ed, I mean, Ed Anzalone, in his new seats at MetLife on Sunday? I'm wondering if he tried to sneak down to his old neighborhood once the Jets inserted McElroy and New York took the lead?

• It wasn't always pretty, but the legend of Andrew Luck continues to grow by the week, thanks to his remarkably clutch work in the Colts' 35-33 comeback win at Detroit. Luck had 30 incompletions and three interceptions against the Lions, but he did a heck of a lot of damage with his 24 completions (391 yards and four touchdowns).

The game is obviously never over with Luck around, as the Lions found out the hard way, with Detroit once leading 33-21 midway through the fourth quarter. Luck and Colts receiver Donnie Avery made beautiful music in Detroit, hooking up on a pair of touchdown passes, including the game-winning 14-yarder on the final play of the day.

I've thought Indy was headed for the playoffs since the Colts beat Miami to improve to 5-3 at midseason, but this road win all but locks up a wild-card berth. Indianapolis has games to give, but with a schedule that includes a home date next week against Tennessee (4-8) and a Week 16 trip to Kansas City (2-10), as well as two games against first-place Houston, 10 wins and a postseason slot still seems a given.


• I didn't look it up or anything, but I'm pretty sure no NFL running back has ever rushed for 2,000 yards just 12 months after blowing out his knee. But that's what Minnesota super-back Adrian Peterson can do if he averages 138.5 yards rushing per game over the Vikings' last four games this season.

What a remarkable story Peterson has been this year, and he was his eye-popping self in Minnesota's 23-14 loss at Green Bay. Peterson rushed 21 times for 210 yards, and caught one pass for 10 yards. That's 22 touches, for 220 yards, and a touchdown, and 10 yards a touch usually gets it done in the NFL.

Peterson had runs of 82 and 48 yards against the Packers and now has a league-high 1,446 yards rushing this season in 12 games. He should legitimately be in the MVP discussion. But he's not, not really, because he's a running back in a quarterback-dominated league and his Vikings are just 6-6 and starting to fall out of playoff contention.


• Their recent struggles aside, the Vikings' most pressing concern is that they still really don't know what they have in second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, who was abysmal against the Packers. Ponder completed 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards, but he had two hugely costly picks, one in the end zone and one at the Green Bay 10.

• You can tell nothing is going to come easily in Green Bay this season, but the bottom line is the Packers have won 10 consecutive NFC North games, and that's why they have to have the edge in beating out the Bears for the division title.

But the Packers can't seem to keep their receivers healthy this season, and as soon as they got Greg Jennings back in the lineup after his long rehab from a groin injury, they lost Jordy Nelson with another hamstring issue early in the win over Minnesota. I still like the Packers to make a Super Bowl run out of the NFC, but will they have enough healthy, top-notch receivers to survive the long postseason grind in January?

• So there's a new Titans offensive coordinator in Dowell Loggains, but that's pretty much the same old stinky Tennessee offense. Houston won 24-10 in Tennessee, with the Titans committing six turnovers, five of them by quarterback Jake Locker (three interceptions and two fumbles lost). Houston also sacked Locker six times, and Titans receivers dropped several passes.

Maybe Chris Palmer wasn't really the problem, but it has gotten easier and easier in recent years for embattled NFL head coaches to can their coordinators in midseason. It's usually a scapegoat-type of move, and this was no exception.


• You had to really love football to watch that Jaguars-Bills game in what looked to be a cold, bracing rain in Orchard Park. But at least Buffalo (5-7) isn't just mailing in the rest of its season amid so much disappointment this year. The Bills have won two of their past three games, both at home, and defensive end Mario Williams has at least come alive on the sack front.

Williams had a strip sack of Chad Henne in Buffalo's 34-18 win over Jacksonville, and now has five sacks in his past three games, and six in his past five since undergoing midseason wrist surgery. For the season, Williams has 9.5 sacks, not too bad of a total after starting the year with just 3.5 sacks in the team's first six games.


• Has Drew Brees ever had a week as brutal as this one? The Saints quarterback turned into a pick machine in recent days. Brees entered last Sunday's pivotal showdown against San Francisco with nine interceptions in his first 10 games, and then proceeded to throw seven picks in his next eight quarters, including a pair of pick-6s against the 49ers.

Brees' five interceptions in the Thursday night loss at Atlanta were a career-worst, and his two-game total of seven picks were the same number he threw all season in 2004, the year he led San Diego to a 12-4 record and the AFC West title. Brees had just 14 interceptions last season (he has 16 through 12 games this year), and only 11 in his Super Bowl season of 2009. The Saints, at 5-7, saw their second-half comeback start to wither and die.

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