Week 16 provides more questions, not answers
Just when you thought it was safe to look toward the playoffs, Week 16 of the NFL schedule threw a bunch of stuff out of kilter.
Carolina's unbeaten season ended. New England's injuries and defensive holes made it look especially vulnerable.
Pittsburgh lost control of its postseason chances by falling to perhaps the league's most banged-up team, the Ravens. That created an opening for the Jets, who grabbed it by beating an opponent with a winning record for the first time in 2015.
Seattle lost for a third time at home and could be looking at the NFC's sixth seed. Green Bay again looked discombobulated, like a team headed for a first-round exit.
Some clarity emerged, too: Washington eliminated the possibility of a losing team taking the NFC East, and Arizona again appeared to be the league's most-balanced squad in its romp past the Packers.
But the number of questions raised by results in the penultimate week of the season certainly outnumbered any answers provided.
''There are no magic words that need to be said,'' Cam Newton insisted after the Panthers fell to 14-1 - and saw any semblance of invincibility disappear. ''We don't wave a magic wand or anything like that. We got our (butt) kicked today and to a degree we deserved it. Offensively, defensively, and special teams, I'm talking with a mirror in front of my face.
''There are some plays that we left out there. We knew it. Yet we know what we are capable of. We are 14-1 right now. We put ourselves in the situation where we can use this as fuel.''
Count on plenty of other NFC teams using what they saw from the Panthers at Atlanta as fuel, too. The problem is, with all six of the conference's playoff qualifiers determined, only the Cardinals seem particularly formidable right now.
And the AFC might be even more jumbled.
Questions, questions, questions:
-Were the Panthers playing above their heads for most of the season and now have been exposed somewhat? They are a good team with a dynamic quarterback performing at his best, and several other standouts such as linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, cornerback Josh Norman, and tight end Greg Olsen. But are they championship quality?
-Can the Patriots find enough healthy bodies to make a run at defending their title? They look especially beatable in the secondary, and the offensive line is struggling to keep Tom Brady upright - a key to success for New England. Brady might be the best quarterback the NFL has seen in turning so-so players into formidable performers, but can he really do that with, as he said after Sunday's loss, ''guys coming in off the street to play.''
-Pittsburgh looked like a potential wild-card team no one would want to face, with an unstoppable offense, enough defense, and terrific coaching. Then came Sunday's flop at Baltimore. Explaining it away as a rivalry game doesn't work in this case because these Ravens are so undermanned. Did the Steelers throw away their opportunity to do damage in January?
-Like Pittsburgh, Seattle was peaking as the postseason approached, something the Seahawks mastered the past two years. Only Arizona appeared to have more uniformity on offense, defense and special teams.
But the Seahawks' dud against underwhelming St. Louis can't be explained by it being a bad matchup, even though the Rams always give Seattle problems. Will the lack of a running game without injured Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls be the downfall for the two-time NFC champs?
-Most perplexing is the spiral the Packers are on. They began with six victories, including wins over Seattle and Kansas City. Then they went into a three-game slide and, despite subsequently winning four of five - one on a last-second desperation heave from Aaron Rodgers to Richard Rodgers against Detroit - issues remained, mainly on offense.
At Arizona on Sunday, the Packers looked like amateurs. Now they must beat Minnesota at Lambeau Field, where they already have lost to the other two NFC North teams, Detroit and Chicago, or become a wild card.
''We are professionals. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard and play better. Everybody has to play better,'' Aaron Rodgers said.
Can they? Just another question to ponder heading into the new year and the season finales.
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