Throwing in the towel on the 2013 season would have been the easy way out for the Buccaneers, Jaguars and to a lesser extent Vikings. All of those teams have been out of the playoff picture for weeks; Tampa Bay and Jacksonville hit the halfway point looking like they'd challenge 0-16.
So, a little credit is due those franchises for refusing to play for next year -- as in, shutting it down now for a better draft slot and more hope in the future.
Instead, the Bucs and Jaguars are as hot as any team in football shy of Carolina or Seattle. Both have won three out of four games, with Jacksonville claiming win No. 3 on Sunday in Cleveland.
"It’s not so much what happens to us," Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley said. "It’s more what happens inside. We’re growing that aspect. When you have a victory like this in a tight, close game like this, it helps in that process.”
Minnesota has shown some gumption over the past two Sundays, too. The Vikings narrowly missed an upset win at Green Bay last week, settling for a tie, and then they turned around and dropped the playoff-hungry Bears this week. The pessimist would say that any wins from teams like the Buccaneers, Jaguars and Vikings simply will hurt them in the draft -- if the season ended today, those teams would be picking fifth, third and sixth, respectively.
But building any sort of momentum now could help in the future, especially for young teams. Plus, the teams that are still chasing down playoff spots will thank those also-rans for their efforts. The Jaguars' first win, over Tennessee, aided Indianapolis' division title run; Minnesota's victory Sunday did the same for Detroit.
Players are paid for the full 16-game season. It's heartening to see squads willing to lay it on the line despite having nothing tangible to play for.
• First Down: Justin Tuck.
Justin Tuck's glory days may be far behind him, but he proved Sunday night that he still has a little left in the tank. Tuck sacked Robert Griffin III four times, topping his sack total from the first 11 games of this season (2.5) and matching his number from 2012.
"You know what, coach always says just keep pounding the rock," Tuck said. "The numbers aren't there, but we rushed hard tonight and it just kind of came together for us."
Washington had absolutely no answer for him off the edge, and Tuck even chased down a running Griffin from behind for one of his sacks. It was a dominant effort in a must-win game for the Giants.
• Fourth Down: Robbie Gould.
We know it's not always sunshine and puppy dogs out there for kickers -- Alabama's Cade Foster, for example, has been the subject of some extreme vitriol after his tough Saturday -- and they often take (and maybe deserve) heat when they can't deliver. Perhaps Bears fans can cut Robbie Gould a little slack this week.
Normally about as accurate as they come, Gould pushed a 47-yarder wide right in overtime Sunday, eventually leading to a Bears loss. That miss, however, came less than 24 hours after Gould's wife gave birth to the couple's first child. Gould himself did not arrive in Minneapolis for the game until the early morning on Sunday.
The miss was extremely costly for a Bears team scrapping for its playoff life. (Coach Marc Trestman has also taken heat for the miss given that it came on second down.) Maybe Gould's wild day will stand up as evidence that there are more important things in this world.
• First Down: That Canada game.
The NFL's trips to London have resulted in ugly games more often than not. Toronto was more fortunate Sunday, despite drawing a slightly meaningless game between the then 2-9 Falcons and 4-7 Bills.
The two underachieving teams traded points all afternoon, with Atlanta tying the game at 31 in the closing moments and then winning with a field goal in overtime. The 39,000 or so who showed up got their money's worth.
• Fourth Down: Jeff Triplette's crew.
A late-game officiating gaffe Sunday night did not cost the Redskins as much as, say, their inability to catch passes or block Tuck. Still, there was no hiding that the officials botched a key sequence in the closing moments ... and then offered little in the way of a suitable explanation for why.
After Griffin completed a pass to Pierre Garcon near midfield in the final two minutes, the chains on Washington's sideline moved forward as if signaling a first down. Then, after an incompletion on the subsequent play, the Redskins found out they actually were facing a 4th-and-1.
"I told [the official by the Washington sideline] I wanted a measurement because I knew it was close, and he said, 'No, it's first down,' and he moved the chains," Washington coach Mike Shanahan said. "That was quite disappointing."
Referee Jeff Triplette later admitted that "the stakes were moved incorrectly," but said he did not stop the clock to remedy the error because the Redskins were out of timeouts. Even if Washington would have benefited from an extra break there, it is Triplette's responsibility to get that situation correct. He did not, and the Redskins had every right to be upset.
• First Down: Eric Decker, Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery.
How about 30 catches, 684 yards and eight touchdowns for this trio on Sunday? Gordon became the first player in NFL history to top 200 yards receiving in back-to-back regular-season games, while Decker found the end zone four times in his team's critical win at Kansas City.
• Fourth Down: Trent Richardson.
The Colts apparently are ready to admit they screwed up in trading for Trent Richardson. He was benched in favor of Donald Brown on Sunday, with Brown carrying the football 14 times to Richardson's five in a win over Tennessee. Amazingly, Richardson's 19-yard performance was only his third worst this season.
• First Down: The Detroit Lions.
Without even playing on Sunday, Detroit took a huge step toward its first division title and home playoff game since the 1991 season. The Lions can thank the Minnesota Vikings for that boost, since it was their win over Chicago that left Detroit standing alone atop the NFC North at 7-5.
And with a season sweep of the Bears in their back pocket and the Packers sitting at 5-6-1, the Lions essentially have a two-game lead in the division with just four weeks left.
• Fourth Down: Marcus Cooper.
Cooper, a seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft, was a pleasant surprise for the Chiefs over the first half of the season. Since, he's hit the wall -- especially against the Broncos.
Denver threw at Cooper early and often in its Week 11 win over Kansas City, then did so again on Sunday. The result: Decker's monster day, with Cooper unable to do anything defensively throughout the afternoon.
• First Down: Ryan Tannehill.
Rather quietly, Miami's quarterback has put together a decent year and is in the midst of a strong four-game stretch. Sunday, on the road against the Jets, Tannehill posted a career-high 331 yards passing as his Dolphins claimed an important (and dominant) 23-3 victory.
Over his past five outings, Tannehill has completed just shy of 66 percent of his passes, with Miami posting a 3-2 mark in that stretch. As a result, Tannehill's team is 6-6 with a shot at the AFC's final wild-card spot.
• Fourth Down: Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Titans had an opportunity Sunday in Indianapolis to claw back into the AFC South race. Instead, with No. 1 QB Jake Locker still on the shelf, they botched that chance behind an unsteady effort from Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick finished with a 78.6 completion percentage two weeks ago against the Colts, in his first start as Locker's fill-in. Sunday, he was a mere 21-of-37 (56.8 percent) with three interceptions. The game was there for the taking for the Titans. Their inability to take advantage all but clinched the AFC South for Indianapolis.
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