BALTIMORE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 15 overflowing with the season's most meaningful games thus far...
? I don't think there's really any argument about what came first this season in Washington: Robert Griffin III or the Redskins' belief in themselves? But no matter. What Sunday proved is that these resurgent Redskins are about more than just the spectacular feats of their confident and dynamic first-round rookie quarterback.
That's what Washington's fifth consecutive victory and rookie backup quarterback Kirk Cousins' superb relief job in the place of an injured Griffin taught us in Week 15. The Redskins were without their offensive catalyst thanks to last week's knee sprain, and yet they didn't break stride whatsoever, going on the road to dismantle a Cleveland Browns team that had won three in a row and four out of five at home.
What a remarkable turn of events we've seen unfold in Washington, where just six weeks ago Mike Shanahan's team stood 3-6 and was seemingly ready to focus on next year. RGIII fireworks or not, the Redskins didn't seem capable of making any real noise in this season's Super Bowl tournament. At that same point, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants were 6-3, at least three games ahead of everyone in the division, and looking like they'd cruise to another NFC East title.
But that was then, and this is now. If you had to pick out the proverbial "hot team'' that could ride a late-season roll all the way to an unlikely Super Bowl ring, a'la the Packers in 2010 and the Giants in 2011, how could you choose anyone but these Redskins? They're 5-0 since their Week 10 bye, in control of the top spot in the division at 8-6, and only have to beat two teams they've already handled this season (at Philadelphia in Week 16, home against Dallas in Week 17) to wrap up their first NFC East crown since 1999.
The Giants? They were trounced 34-0 at Atlanta on Sunday, their fourth loss in the past six games, and now find themselves in the throes of yet another mind-boggling second-half swoon. Washington, New York and Dallas are all 8-6 and tied in the East, but the Redskins have a tiebreaker over the Giants based on their better division record (3-1 to 2-3), and win a three-way tiebreaker based on being 2-1 so far in games against the Giants and Cowboys.
Griffin's celebrated arrival may have changed what seemed possible in Washington, but this team just won the two most important games of its season the past two weeks thanks to Cousins, the fourth-round luxury pick from Michigan State. In his first NFL start, Cousins threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns in the 38-21 win at Cleveland, just seven days after leading Washington to an overtime-producing touchdown and a game-winning field goal against Baltimore at FedEx Field.
Somewhat like the Redskins themselves this season, Cousins started somewhat shakily, missing his first three pass attempts and throwing an interception that helped set up a one-play Browns touchdown drive. But he steadied himself and found receiver Leonard Hankerson on a 54-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to tie the score at 7-7 and give Washington the confidence that it could win, even with its second-best rookie quarterback.
Doctor's call or not, the Redskins playing and winning without Griffin was the best thing that could have happened to Shanahan's team, which just assured itself of its first non-losing season since going 8-8 in 2008. Because now the Redskins know they're not just Griffin's cast of extras and traveling partners, and they have the belief that the entire roster is the reason for this renaissance in D.C. Griffin may be back next week to lead them once more, but the Redskins understand they can get where they want to go even if they don't have their young superstar to blaze the trail.
Washington is in control of its playoff drive, and its five-game winning streak (its longest since 2007) is no fluke. The Redskins are playing better than anyone else in the NFC East by far, and they know their margin of victory is slight enough to require their best each and every week. Griffin might have started the ball rolling this season in Washington, but Cousins and the rest of a rather self-less roster have kept it going. And you get the feeling these Redskins are nowhere near being done yet.
That's not enough, of course, for Falcons head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. Nothing but postseason success will suffice for them. But after last week's embarrassment at Carolina, Atlanta (12-2) needed to re-establish its credentials as the NFC's likely No. 1 seed, and destroying the defending Super Bowl champs by nearly five touchdowns is a pretty good way to do it.
Ryan especially needed a strong game, and his three-touchdown, 270-yard showing was much more reminiscent of his first-half MVP-level play this season, rather than the uneven showing of the past five or six games. If nothing else, if the Giants and Falcons should meet again in this year's playoffs, Atlanta won't enter that game carrying around the burden of last January's postseason outcome.
? New York's loss was so complete in Atlanta that it reminded me of the Giants' low-point in the 2011 regular season: That 49-24 Week 12 humiliation they endured at New Orleans. Maybe Tom Coughlin's team simply doesn't like to play on the road in domes against NFC South opponents.
I didn't have the Giants making the playoffs this season when I made my preseason predictions, because I thought some sort of post-Super Bowl malaise would descend upon them at some point. And perhaps it has. But I'm not ready to write off New York, because I made that mistake last year after covering that blowout loss in New Orleans. And we all know how the Giants responded from that galling defeat, going on to win their second Super Bowl ring in five seasons.
? The unraveling of the Bears' season continued Sunday at home against Green Bay, and the more I watch Lovie Smith's team, the more I'm convinced they lack the mental toughness that Mike McCarthy's Packers display. Chicago had the kind of first half of the season that should allow a team to roll into the postseason without breaking too much of a sweat, but five losses in the past six games have almost erased the advantages the Bears' 7-1 start afforded them.
The Bears never remotely stepped up their game when their schedule grew more challenging in the second half, and they clearly can't beat the Packers, who have downed them six straight times, and eight out of nine. Both teams have had plenty of injury concerns this year, but only Green Bay has prevailed through them and remained resilient. The Bears wilted again, just as they did last season when a 7-3 start turned into an 8-8 finish.
Smith's future has to be somewhat of an open question in Chicago, with first-year general manager Phil Emery in charge of evaluating what went wrong. If Chicago doesn't make the playoffs (it trails both the Giants and Vikings in the race for the second NFC wild-card berth with two weeks remaining), it'll mean Smith's teams missed the playoffs in five of the past six years. And being just the second team to start a season 7-1 and not make the postseason in the 12-team playoff era (1990-on) wouldn't help Smith's cause either.
? The Packers this season have never really approached the same juggernaut they were in last year's 15-1 magic carpet ride, but there's something to be said for winning close games, sometimes in less than artistic fashion. It helps a team keep its edge, and that can often serve it very well in the playoffs, when the games naturally grow tighter and the competition level improves.
You have to like what you've seen of Green Bay since the Week 5 upset loss at Indy, which dropped the Packers to 2-3. They've won eight of nine since that eye-opening defeat, and only the Giants have proved capable of solving them.
Green Bay still has a problem at kicker to get fixed before January. Mason Crosby missed both of his attempts at Chicago, from 42 and 43 yards, and his confidence has to be badly shaken at this point. But all told, the Packers are in good position to make another Super Bowl run, and the NFC North title they locked up Sunday should steel them for the playoffs. Green Bay's ride was never easy this season, but sometimes doing things the hard way is the best way.
? With apologies to Devin Hester, Adrian Peterson is ridiculous. Peterson cranked out a 212-yard rushing day in the Vikings' 36-22 win in St. Louis, and that gives him a jaw-dropping 1,313 yards in his past eight games -- the most by any runner over an eight-game span in NFL history.
For the season, Peterson is at 1,812 yards, leaving him 293 yards shy of tying Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL rushing record of 2,105. It sounds absurd, but you have to like his chances, especially since Peterson has topped 200 yards rushing twice in his past three games. He only needs to average a "mere'' 147 yards to break Dickerson's 28-year-old mark.
The Vikings play at Houston and home against Green Bay, and the Texans won't be easy to run against. But the NFC North champion Packers might be resting starters in Week 17, and he already torched them for 210 yards in early December.
? I think we can put the whole road game bugaboo to bed in Seattle, and leave it there. The Seahawks hung up another 50-point game in Week 15, this time burying the Bills 50-17 in Toronto. That makes Seattle 3-5 on the road this year, with two consecutive wins to close out its away schedule. With a 6-0 mark at home, it has games against San Francisco and St. Louis still to come at CenturyLink Field.
What a force the Seattle offense suddenly is. The Seahawks beat Arizona 58-0 last week, and just joined the 1950 New York Giants as the two most recent teams to rack up at least 50 points in consecutive games. Seattle owns a 108-17 edge in its past two wins, which I'm pretty sure beat the spread handily. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was at it again, rushing for three first-half touchdowns and also throwing for a score in the opening 30 minutes against the beleaguered Bills.
? I used last week's NFL power rankings to declare New England and Denver the only two possible AFC Super Bowl teams, and the Broncos didn't do anything but further convince me with their 34-17 win at Baltimore. Peyton Manning had a decent, but far from great game, and the Broncos still won by 17 points on the road, boosting their NFL-high nine-game winning streak.
Denver is showing signs of great balance, getting a second straight 100-yard rushing game out of the once-forgotten Knowshon Moreno (118 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries), and limiting Baltimore's offense to just 278 yards, without allowing a Ravens first down until eight minutes remained in the first half.
Add in the team-record 98-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Chris Harris, and Denver got contributions from almost every segment on its talented roster in Baltimore. The Patriots beat the Broncos handily in Week 5, but Denver hasn't lost since. Manning vs. Brady in the AFC title game in Foxboro. Or Denver. We don't care about the where. But once more, for old time's sake.
? That was a nerves-calming win for Houston at home against the Colts. After the egg-laying the Texans executed at New England last Monday night, all the pressure in the world was on Gary Kubiak's team to finally lock down the AFC South title and keep those underdog Colts (9-5) at bay. After all, Indy has already overachieved this season, and it all feels like gravy from here on out for Andrew Luck and Co.
But Houston (12-2) needed a convincing win, and got one, 29-17, maintaining its grip on the No. 1 seed in the AFC. To no one's surprise, potential NFL Defensive Player of the Year winner (I'm pretty sure he has my vote at the moment) J.J. Watt took over the game when the Texans needed him most.
Watt is Houston's unquestioned team leader, more so than quarterback Matt Schaub, receiver Andre Johnson or running back Arian Foster. And Watt did what team leaders do in big games, coming up huge. His 10 tackles included six for loss, with three sacks and a forced fumble on the Houston 1. Foster ran for 165 yards, but it was Watt's monster day that set the tone for the division-clinching Texans.
If the Cowboys hope to make the playoffs, they likely need to go 2-0 on out, beating the visiting Saints next week and the Redskins on the road in Week 17. With Washington drawing a trip to reeling Philadelphia next week, Dallas isn't going to get any breaks. The loss at home to the Redskins on Thanksgiving is the difference between Washington being in command of the division rather than the Cowboys.
A three-game winning streak is a nice accomplishment for Dallas, given its recent struggles in December. But unless it grows to five, the Cowboys will probably be on the outside looking in at the NFC playoffs for the third consecutive season, and fourth time in five years.
? It would have been a heck of a year in Tampa Bay if the NFL played a 10-game regular season. Did any team have the air go out of the balloon quite like the Bucs in the past month? Tampa Bay slid to 6-8 with its 41-0 meltdown at New Orleans on Sunday, and now has lost four in a row after that hopeful 6-4 start to the season.
And that's not the worst news. Fourth-year Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman seems to have regressed once again, with a brutal four-interception game against the Saints (plus a lost fumble). That's going to bring out the Freeman doubters once more, and perhaps give the Bucs a decision to make this offseason regarding their inconsistent quarterback.
About the only place Tampa Bay showed any fight against the Saints came on the sideline, where defensive assistant coach Bryan Cox and linebacker Adam Hayward engaged in a second-quarter shoving match. Linebacker Jacob Cutrera reportedly played referee and broke up the skirmish, and head coach Greg Schiano gave the episode his distinct seal of disapproval.
? How bad are the Lions as 2012 draws to a close if the Arizona Cardinals can rough them up 38-10 in Glendale? You can talk about Buffalo, Philadelphia, San Diego, Carolina and Kansas City all you want, but Detroit is the most disappointing team in the league in my eyes. The Lions did go to the playoffs and win 10 games last season, a feat none of those other underachievers managed.