First Down/Fourth Down: Broncos trim weaknesses as playoffs approach
Where to start on Denver's 29-16 win over Kansas City?
There was Peyton Manning and his two touchdown passes, sure. And C.J. Anderson's second consecutive standout performance, this one producing 168 yards. There also was the Broncos' defense, which peppered Alex Smith behind DeMarcus Ware's one-sack, one-interception showing.
But for all that, we begin with a kicker.
Rewind to Week 12 when the Denver home crowd booed Brandon McManus following a missed field goal, his third failure in six tries dating back to mid-October. CBS cameras caught McManus' teammates reacting with utter disdain after the shank, and the Broncos wasted little time after their 39-36 win over Miami before working out kickers to take McManus' place.
McManus was already a replacement for 2013 Pro Bowler Matt Prater, who opened the season serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Behind door No. 3, Denver found former Buccaneer Connor Barth. He had been cut by Tampa Bay in August after an Achilles tear cost him the entire 2013 season.
Twenty-three months removed from his last made NFL kick, Barth stepped in with a 5-for-5 performance Sunday night. Granted, none of those makes came from longer than 37 yards, but the Broncos won't nitpick. (The miss that led to McManus' dismissal was from 33 yards out.)
Should Barth provide some stability on special teams, the Broncos could check off another box on their diminishing list of needs. Prater was of great importance during Denver's AFC title run last season -- he was 4-for-4 in the conference championship against New England -- and it stands to reason that the Broncos will have to attempt some high-pressure kicks before all is said and done in 2014.
More winners (and losers) from Week 13's action:
First Down: Xavier Rhodes.
Barring a miracle, the Minnesota Vikings are not going to make the playoffs this season, but they're still playing some noteworthy football at times thanks to a core of youngsters.
Rhodes was the best of the bunch in a Week 13 win over Carolina. The 2013 first-round draft pick totally locked down his side of the field, finishing with zero passes defensed and holding possible Offensive Rookie of the Year Kelvin Benjamin catchless when Cam Newton looked Rhodes' direction.
"I know he doesn’t have a lot of interceptions," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said last week, "but like I’ve said before, for us, there’s a lot to do with contested catches, and if ... your guy is not catching the ball, that’s a big plus too.
"He’s still a young, young guy in the development of where I think his football career can go. It’s nice to have a guy that you can say, 'Hey, you’ve got this guy and let’s go.'"
Fourth Down: The Thanksgiving Day games.
On paper, this was gold. Philadelphia against Dallas for first place in the East; Seattle and San Francisco fighting for their playoff lives; heck, even underachieving Chicago rode a two-game win streak into Detroit.
The result was a total, uh, turkey.
The only game remotely in doubt deep into the fourth quarter was the Seahawks-49ers showdown ... and that was if you considered a 16-point deficit manageable. It wasn't -- Seattle cruised to a 19-3 win, a third double-digit victory following in Philadelphia and Detroit's footsteps.
First Down: San Diego's comeback.
Philip Rivers hit on 75 percent of his passes (24-for-32) when he was not pressured Sunday, per Pro Football Focus. His completion percentage on his 13 passes while facing pressure from the Ravens: 76.9. Thanks in large part to Rivers' herculean effort behind a battered offensive line, the Chargers rallied from 10 points down to steal a critical road win over the Ravens.
A Joe Flacco touchdown with 6:16 left put San Diego into that hole. The Chargers' offense quickly answered with a score of its own -- Rivers to Keenan Allen -- and the defense followed by holding Baltimore to a field goal despite a 72-yard Jacoby Jones kickoff return.
Rivers responded with an eight-play, 80-yard drive to steal a critical road win. Eddie Royal hauled in the game-winner from one yard out with just 38 seconds left.
Said Chargers head coach Mike McCoy: "When you have a quarterback like Philip Rivers, you have a chance to win every game as long as there is time left on the clock."
Fourth Down: Brian Hoyer's future as an NFL starter.
Well, now what?
Back before the season started, the Browns reportedly wanted to sign Hoyer, an impending free agent, to a contract extension. That plan still seemed to be a safe bet when Cleveland was sitting atop the AFC North at 6-3, regardless of Johnny Manziel's presence.
The outlook has changed. Hoyer was pulled Sunday in the fourth quarter of his third consecutive shoddy performance. If Manziel takes the starting job and runs with it for the remainder of the season, the urgency to keep Hoyer around will lessen, especially if Hoyer has his heart set on being a starting quarterback.
First Down: DeAndre Hopkins.
Nine targets, nine receptions, 232 yards and two touchdowns. Count Hopkins' day as the best by a wide receiver so far this season, at least in terms of yards. It was every bit as eye-popping as his stats indicate, too.
Hopkins scored first on a 58-yard bomb and later added a 34-yard score -- the latter an impressive show of his hand strength, as he plucked the ball away from Tennessee cornerback Brandon Ghee.
The remarkable performance propelled Hopkins past the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Fourth Down: Arizona's offense.
Bruce Arians, as always, was blunt in assessing his team's Week 13 performance: "I’m just honest," he said Monday, "When you stink, you stink. You point out how you stunk and get it corrected."
The question is how. The Cardinals' offense has all but vanished since Drew Stanton and Michael Floyd connected on two early touchdowns in Week 11. The resulting 14 points were enough for the Cardinals to drop Detroit, but they have not been so lucky in low-scoring outings at Seattle and Atlanta the past two weeks.
Four more stout defenses await before the regular season ends: Kansas City, St. Louis, Seattle again and San Francisco. Arians will get no relief from quarterback Carson Palmer, who is done for the year, and running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald are fighting injuries of their own.
There is trouble in the desert, with no clear fixes on the table.
First Down: Tre Mason.
The Rams played musical chairs at running back throughout the first half of the season, even holding Mason out of the lineup as a healthy scratch until Week 6. The rookie is entrenched in the backfield now, with a 117-yard, two-touchdown breakthrough against the Raiders the latest argument in his favor.
Mason is on pace to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage despite missing those first five games. His explosive 89-yard touchdown run Sunday should stand as one of the Rams' top highlights of 2014 -- he blew through a huge hole at the line and outraced Oakland's secondary to the house.
Fourth Down: New York football.
New York's NFC representation stumbled first in Week 13. All the Giants did was blow a 21-3 lead and lose to a Jacksonville team that had been 1-10 on the season. The Jets picked up the baton on Monday night, turning Geno Smith into a glorified ball return as they lost to Miami while throwing just eight times over the first 56 minutes of game action.
Both franchises are heading towards sweeping changes in the offseason, likely from the head coach on down.
Sunday brought us our first ever Brady-Rodgers clash. Few casual fans would complain if an encore takes place in Super Bowl XLIX.
Rodgers and the Packers came away with the regular-season victory, a 26-21 win that went right down to the wire. Brady's Patriots were driving for the potential go-ahead score when a sack drove them from the edge of the red zone and into a field goal try. Green Bay then ran out the clock after a Stephen Gostkowski miss.
The two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks finished with a combined 46 completions, 613 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Fourth Down: Blaming RGIII for all of Washington's problems.
To pretend that what is happening in Washington could be fixed merely with a QB switch is downright preposterous. Colt McCoy played a perfectly adequate game Sunday in Indianapolis, overcoming a slow start to finish with 392 yards passing and three touchdowns.
The Redskins still lost by 22 points, mainly because their secondary is an inept mess. Andrew Luck threw for five touchdowns in the game (and could have had more), four of them coming from 30 yards or deeper. Washington also allowed six sacks on offense and coughed up a long, 49-yard touchdown run to Boom Herron on defense.
Dropping Marcus Mariota or Mark Sanchez or whichever quarterback might be on the wish list into the lineup won't make this a 10-6 team. The roster needs substantial help.