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Week 15 Snaps: Instant classic shows Panthers, Giants couldn’t be less alike

The resilient and resourceful Panthers, no matter the challenge or the particulars, find ways to win. The Giants, meanwhile, are the league’s reigning enigma.

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest that disturbing but dramatic fight-fest that took place in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium Sunday afternoon...

• In the span of four wildly eventful quarters, in the most epic game of the NFL’s 2015 regular season, the Panthers and Giants both vividly showed why they occupy such divergent spots in the NFC’s pecking order this year. The resilient and resourceful Panthers, no matter the challenge or the particulars, find ways to win. Even if some of their obstacles were self-created, like that 28-point second-half lead they gave away.

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The Giants, meanwhile, are the league’s reigning enigma. They can dazzle and disappoint in equal quantities, but ultimately they find a way to lose games at the very end. It’s their calling card to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and nobody has remotely mastered the art of the bitter loss that leads nowhere like Tom Coughlin’s maddening squad. With a defense that simply cannot be trusted, New York is as unpredictable as it gets in the NFL.

We hold these truths to be self-evident in the wake of Carolina 38, New York 35, a game that pushed the Panthers to an eye-popping 14–0 and dropped the Giants to 6–8 and the brink of playoff-race extinction:

— If the league doesn’t suspend Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for that nearly game-long meltdown he had in retaliation against Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, the NFL can save all the “We care about player safety” talk. It would ring beyond hollow. Beckham drew three personal fouls and basically targeted Norman for injury multiple times, including a helmet-to-helmet cheap shot that should have warranted him an instant ejection in the third quarter. Your move, Park Avenue.

— Beckham dropped an easy touchdown pass early in the game and then acted like that failure was everyone else’s fault. He comported himself like a spoiled brat for much of the game, and the Giants’ coaching staff deserves some serious blame for letting his out-of-control tirade continue. As do the game officials. And his late-game heroics in helping the Giants forge a 35–35 tie do not absolve any part of his behavior. He shouldn’t have even been on the field at that point. The game comes with highs and lows, and if Beckham can’t handle that reality, if he has to have a center stage starring role at all times, he’s never going to last long enough in the NFL to fulfill his potential for greatness.

Beckham Jr. puts on undisciplined display in reckless spats with Norman

— I don’t see how Panthers quarterback Cam Newton loses the MVP voting after that tour de force performance. With all due respect for the superb seasons turned in by Tom Brady, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson, Newton has been a unstoppable force of nature this year, and his 340 yards passing, five touchdowns and 100 yards rushing against New York represented the signature performance of his five-year NFL career. A man among boys does not pass for hyperbole this season with Newton. Put the game’s biggest piece of hardware in his column and leave it there.

— What Tom Coughlin accomplished in his 12-year tenure with the Giants is undeniable, and those two Super Bowl rings will always glitter. But Coughlin’s teams have been chronic underachievers for four seasons now, and Sunday’s display of key penalties, drops and lack of discipline is painfully familiar by now. I wrote this for the first time late in the 2013 season, but Coughlin’s work in New York is done and there’s no more telling example of that than Sunday’s excruciating loss. The Giants under Coughlin aren’t going to magically reinvent themselves at some point. They are who they are, and it’s not near good enough. And after Sunday’s display of temper by Beckham, the idea that Coughlin is an old-school, disciplinarian coach seemed laughable. Coughlin was just a bystander while his No. 1 receiver was coming unglued.

— I hope Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of names bandied about as the NFL’s coaching hiring season opens soon. I don’t know for sure if Shula will be a success as a head coach in this league, but his work has been consistently creative and impressive this season, never more so than that superb third-and-one call on Newton’s 37-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen in the third quarter. The design and execution of that play was exquisite, and that has been the story all season long for the Panthers on offense.

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— All in all, Carolina’s Jr. outdid New York’s Jr. The Panthers got six catches for 85 yards and two touchdown catches from Ted Ginn Jr., while Beckham Jr. produced six grabs for 76 yards and a single touchdown, the game-tying effort that preceded Graham Gano’s game-winning 43-yard field goal for Carolina at the final gun. And Ginn didn’t embarrass the organization in the process of building his statistical line for the day.

— At Atlanta and home against Tampa Bay is all that’s left in the Panthers’ quest for 16-0. With their karma, who can not like their chances now? Especially since Carolina just went to the Giants’ home ballpark and won 38–35, the exact score of that classic Week 17 matchup between New England and Coughlin’s team in 2007? Of course, it was New York that won the Super Bowl that season, not the 18–0 Patriots, so perhaps that’s not the best of omens.

• This is an example of how the NFL manages to give us the theatre of the absurd on an almost weekly basis: Brandon Weeden just quarterbacked the Texans into first place in the AFC South. A failure on the last-place Cowboys earlier this season, when he replaced injured starter Tony Romo in the lineup, it turns out Weeden was simply on the wrong Texas NFL team at the time.

Just when you think the league is at maximum capacity on the amazement front, along comes Weeden to do what no Texans quarterback before him has done: Win in Indianapolis, where Houston is now 1–13 in its franchise history. The Texans trailed 10–0 when Weeden entered but wound up winning 16–10.

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At one point Sunday, we had the Colts playing No. 3 option Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback while Weeden, the Texans’ fourth different quarterback this season, was under center for Houston. Whitehurst spent much of this season as a reserve in Tennessee before being waived in early November. Weeden spent a good chunk of the season in Dallas but is now in position to take over Houston’s starting job, with T.J. Yates feared to have suffered a season-ending knee injury and Brian Hoyer still recovering from a concussion he suffered last week against New England.

• It was a really nice story for a while this season, but I’m not sure I want to keep watching Hasselbeck play in Indy. The 40-year-old has taken a pounding on a weekly basis of late, and he was knocked out of the game again Sunday, leaving briefly due to a back injury suffered when he took a crushing blow in the pocket. He came into the game with a painful rib injury, and it’s fair to wonder how much more his body can take.

Maybe Andrew Luck will be ready to resume the starter’s role for the Colts (6–8) next week at Miami. But it may be too late for Indy anyway, and for embattled Colts coach Chuck Pagano. Indianapolis trails Houston by a game with two weeks remaining, and the Colts look poised to miss the playoffs for the first time in the four seasons Pagano has been on the job.

• No more Kirk Cousins jokes in Washington. He has to be re-signed. Daniel Snyder’s team has been a revolving door at quarterback in his 17-season ownership tenure, but Cousins may be the unlikely guy to end all that instability. He dissected the Bills’ defense in Washington’s 35–25 victory, a win that improves Jay Gruden’s club to 7–7 and puts it in charge of the NFC East. Washington can win the division by beating Philadelphia at home next Saturday, no matter what the Eagles do Sunday night against visiting Arizona.

Cousins gives Washington another reason to commit in win vs. Bills

It’s time to admit former Washington coach Mike Shanahan knew what he was talking about when he raved about Cousins earlier this year and promised that Washington would be glad it started him over the benched Robert Griffin III. Cousins knows how to keep the chains moving, and his 22 of 28 passing produced 319 yards and four touchdowns—his team-record sixth 300-yard game. He also ran for a touchdown. And the turnover issues Cousins had have ceased, too. Washington has given the ball away just three times in its past four games, and Cousins has tossed 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions over the past eight games. Since his last pick at home, Cousins has thrown for 15 touchdowns.

• I know the final margin was only 10 points, but it felt like the Bills mailed it in for the most part in Washington. They trailed 28–3 before rallying and making a game of it. The Bills were eliminated from playoff contention at 6–8, but in reality it feels as if that happened about three weeks ago in a late-November loss at Kansas City.

Pretty ironic that Bills coach Rex Ryan has a fairly effective offense and a quality quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, but he can’t seem to field an effective defense, which has always been his field of expertise. Buffalo has some work to do with that defensive roster, and I’m not sure Ryan has enough players willing to go to the wall for him. All this season’s defense will be known for ultimately is underachievement and undisciplined play.

• Maybe beating up on a succession of AFC lightweights isn’t doing the Chiefs any real favors in the long run. Kansas City won its eighth straight game, trouncing Baltimore 34–14 on the road, but I’d like see more offensively from Andy Reid’s team. The Chiefs won’t be playing cupcakes in the playoffs, and while I was willing to forgive last week’s 10–3 slog-fest in the rain at home against San Diego, Kansas City still didn’t generate much momentum against the Ravens’ injury-depleted defense.

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The Chiefs produced just 15 first downs against Baltimore, with 277 total yards and 164 net yards passing. Kansas City’s best offense was its defense, with Tyvon Branch returning a fumble 73 yards for a first-quarter touchdown and rookie cornerback sensation Marcus Peters putting the game away with a 90-yard pick-six in the fourth quarter. Peters had two interceptions, giving him seven this season, and he has scored on two of them. That’s the most overall interceptions for any rookie since 1992.

Eight consecutive wins after five straight losses is an NFL first, and for that accomplishment the Chiefs should be proud. But Kansas City needs to step it up on offense if hopes to slug it out in January with the likes the Patriots, Broncos, Bengals, Steelers or Jets.

• As if Ravens fans haven’t suffered enough this season, somebody in Baltimore decided to inflict those gold pants on them? Did the Steelers have a garage sale on some of their hand-me-downs? All those injuries, all those close losses, and all that Matt Schaub and Jimmy Clausen. Enough is enough.

• Gritty win by the Jets Saturday night in Arlington, finding a way to squeak out a 19–16 decision against Dallas and improve to 9–5, staying firmly in the AFC wild-card picture. But having Randy Bullock as a kicker going into the playoffs would make me nervous if I were a New York fan. He’s 16 of 19 on field goals this season (with both the Texans and Jets), and that’s not too shabby. But he’s only 18 of 21 on extra points this year and missed one against the Cowboys. That’s the kind of little flaw that could get you beat in heartbreaking fashion next month.

• Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater picked a fine time to turn in the best game of his nascent NFL career, and the Vikings just keep right on winning the games they’re supposed to win this season. It’ll be hard for Minnesota (9–5) to miss the playoffs now, and the Vikings can get the clinching job done themselves against the Giants (6–8) next Sunday night at home.

The best news to come out of Minnesota’s 38–17 win over visiting Chicago was Bridgewater throwing a career-high four touchdowns and running for a fifth. Bridgewater had a 154.4 passer rating, absorbed just one sack and connected with seven different Vikings pass catchers.

The worst news in Minnesota’s win was seeing running back Adrian Peterson twice leave the game with injuries that bear watching. He hurt both an ankle and a shoulder, and although he returned to the game from both, it’s hard to see the Vikings as a threat in the postseason if the league’s leading rusher is playing at considerably less than full strength.

• Maybe in the first month-plus of the season—when the Falcons were 5–0 and the Jaguars were in the midst of a 1–5 start—a 23–17 loss at home to Atlanta would have represented a moral victory for Jacksonville. But it didn’t feel that way on Sunday, given that the Falcons came into Sunday on a six-game losing skid and the Jaguars have been hot offensively of late, hanging 42 points up in the second half against the Colts last week.

The Jags are somehow still barely alive in the AFC South race at 5–9, two games behind first-place Houston (7–7). But the loss essentially seals the deal for Jacksonville, which can’t possibly get to .500 this season, after winning just seven games combined in 2013 and ’14.

• With four losses in their past seven games after a 7–0 start, some collars have to be getting tight in Denver (10–4). But the Broncos’ biggest concern coming out of a 34–27 defeat at Pittsburgh isn’t the Brock Osweiler vs. a healthy Peyton Manning quarterback question. It’s the issue of what happened to that No. 1-ranked defense? The Broncos built leads of 20–7 and 27–10, but Denver’s supposedly shutdown defense still wasn’t up to the task of putting the game away.

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Pittsburgh’s offense is possibly the best in the league at the moment, and Denver was missing both of its starting safeties (Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward) due to injuries. But the Broncos’ defense still came up surprisingly small in the second half, with Ben Roethlisberger torching Denver for 380 yards and three touchdowns in the game, on 40 of 55 passing. The Broncos hadn’t given up a 300-yard passer all season before Sunday. Antonio Brown was virtually unstoppable against Denver’s secondary, catching 16 passes for 189 yards and a pair of scores.

Pittsburgh is indeed the proverbial dangerous team if it makes the playoffs, and that now looks likely. The Steelers only have to beat the sad-sack Ravens and Browns to qualify at least as an 11–5 wild-card team, most likely as a No. 6 seed that would draw the No. 3 seed Broncos for a first-round rematch, this time in Denver.

• The Bengals understandably kept the training wheels on with A.J. McCarron, but you knew they would. Subbing for the injured Andy Dalton, McCarron was plenty good enough in his first career start, helping Cincinnati win 24–14 on the road in San Francisco to clinch the franchise’s fifth consecutive playoff berth.

Nothing short of a playoff win is acceptable in Cincinnati this season, of course, but remember, before they did it in 2011–12, the Bengals had never made the postseason even back-to-back years. So improving to 11–3 and staying two games ahead of Pittsburgh with two weeks remaining is something to celebrate, especially since Cincinnati’s backup quarterback was ready for his close-up.

McCarron was a fairly cautious 15 of 21 for 192 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. He’ll have to step up his game a bit when Cincinnati travels to Denver for next Monday night’s matchup of AFC powers, but it would help if the Bengals’ running backs did the same. Jeremy Hill had two one-yard touchdowns, but he and Giovani Bernard churned out just 64 yards on 33 attempts, less than 2.0 per carry. That isn’t going to cut it going forward with McCarron under center.

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• The Chargers won their first two home games this season, and their final one, but everything else was pretty much a lost cause for San Diego (4–10), which might have closed out its 55-season stay in town with a 30–14 thrashing of the visiting Dolphins on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.

The last game in San Diego might wind up being the greatest game in the improbable NFL career of scat-back Danny Woodhead, who caught three Philip Rivers touchdown passes and scored once on the ground, the Chargers’ first rushing touchdown this season in 289 carries.

Potential relocation isn’t the problem in Miami, but the Dolphins (5–9) are still stuck in the same old rut of mediocrity as another playoff-less season ends. Miami has gone just 4–6 in interim head coach Dan Campbell’s 10-game stint, with six defeats in the past eight games. I think the only way he gets the full-time gig is if the Dolphins brass can’t entice someone they think is an obvious upgrade.