First Down/Fourth Down: Cam Newton's big moment, LeSean McCoy and more
If a quarterback has "elite" skills and often plays like he's "elite," how long do we have to wait before we bump him up into the pantheon of the league's best at his position? Often, we reserve judgement until said quarterback delivers a huge win under pressure.
Cam Newton might have made his case on Sunday.
He's had far more impressive outings than his Week 16 showing versus New Orleans (13-of-22 for 181 yards and one TD, six yards rushing), but there's no statistical substitute for the ending. With his team down by three and just 55 seconds on the clock, Newton led a rapid five-play, 65-yard drive that took barely half a minute. He completed three passes on it: a 37-yarder to Ted Ginn, a 14-yarder to Greg Olsen and, finally, a 14-yard, game-winning TD toss to Domenik Hixon.
Newton and his Panthers still need to win in Week 17 to wrap up the division. However, driving a stake through the Saints' hearts with everything on the line ought to buy Newton a lot more leeway in the discussion of his accomplishments.
More of the best and worst from Week 16:
First Down: The NFL's TV partners.
The NFC North will be decided on the season's final weekend. So too will the NFC East. And possibly the NFC West. Four teams, including the defending champs, are still alive for the last AFC wild card, while another three are fighting for two NFC spots.
Had Week 16 played out differently, Week 17 would have consisted mostly of teams jostling for playoff positioning. Instead, there will be high drama from the 1 p.m. ET hour until the night-game slot next Sunday night.
Fourth Down: The Dolphins and Ravens.
Not quite playoff-worthy performances here. The two leaders in the race for the AFC's sixth seed, Miami and Baltimore, were waxed by a combined 60-7 on Sunday. The only points between the pair came on a fourth-quarter Joe Flacco QB sneak, a play that only briefly stemmed the tide of a 40-7 Patriots victory.
Miami, meanwhile, bit the dust in wintry conditions at Buffalo. The league's worst pass-protecting line coughed up seven more sacks -- including one that forced Ryan Tannehill from the game -- and the Dolphins mustered just 103 total yards in a 19-0 shutout defeat. Tannehill posted a measly 45.6 QB rating; his replacement, Matt Moore, was even worse at 27.1.
First Down: LeSean McCoy.
Debate if you must the decision to use McCoy into the fourth quarter of a blowout victory Sunday. But the Eagles' running back refused to slow down en route to another 133 yards rushing. With one week left in the regular season, McCoy's 1,476 yards on the ground are just 36 shy of the Eagles' record (Wilbert Montgomery: 1,512) and have him with a nearly 200-yard cushion over Jamaal Charles for the league lead.
"Every player dreams of winning the Super Bowl," McCoy said after Philadelphia's 54-11 win over Chicago. "Running backs dream of getting the rushing title."
Fourth Down: Seattle's home mystique.
OK, so no one's going to want to play at Seattle in the playoffs. But the Cardinals at least dented the perception that it's impossible to win at rowdy CenturyLink Field, scoring a well-earned 17-10 victory. It was the first home loss for the Seahawks since Week 16 of 2011.
The Cardinals did it with defense, keeping Marshawn Lynch mostly in check and holding Russell Wilson to 11-of-27 passing. Should the Rams repeat the feat by pulling off an upset in Week 17, the Seahawks could surrender the NFC West -- and playoff home-field advantage -- at the last moment.
First Down: Robert Quinn.
Speaking of the Rams ... Odds are Quinn will not sack Wilson 4.5 times in Week 17 to match Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5. He's still done enough over the first 16 weeks to thrust his name into Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
Quinn added three more sacks Sunday, against Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon in a 23-13 win. In just his third NFL season, he might be able to take aim at Strahan's mark again in 2014.
Fourth Down: NFL officials ... again.
The refs are a repeat Fourth Down honoree this season, but they've earned it. This week, the lowlight came on a bizarre blocked field goal-turned-automatic first down for the Packers, as the officials ruled that Pittsburgh never had possession during that play -- despite Ryan Clark scooping up the football and lateraling it to a teammate.
Perhaps worse yet, there's seemingly at least one play a week that looks different to viewers at home than it does to NFL refs checking replays. This week, take your pick: Junior Hemingway's apparent fumble in Kansas City, which was ruled incomplete and then upheld; or Arizona's late interception, off a wild ricochet, which seemed incomplete. That one was upheld, with no indisputable evidence. And while the Cardinals call likely was right under the circumstances -- no angles showed clear evidence the play should have been reversed -- there is growing concern over the ability of NFL officials to get rulings right.
First Down: Indianapolis versus the big boys.
There may not be a harder team to figure out in the entire league than the Colts. There also may not be a more dangerous team come playoff time, given what Indianapolis has done against the NFL's upper echelon in 2013. Sunday, they manhandled the Chiefs in Kansas City 23-7 -- the Colts' 10th win of the season and their fourth over legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Previously, Indianapolis had won in San Francisco, knocked off Seattle and ended Denver's perfect start.
Fourth Down: Arizona's luck.
Already mentioned how impressive the Cardinals were in stealing a win at Seattle. Unfortunately for them, even a Week 17 win to get to 11-5 on the season might not be enough for a playoff spot. That's a pain that ought to be made even worse by the fact that the NFC North champ will hit the postseason at somewhere between 9-7 and 8-7-1, and that the Cowboys could sneak in despite currently sitting at 8-7.
First Down: Pierre Garcon.
Though the results on the scoreboard have not been there in a disappointing Washington season, don't blame Garcon. With 11 catches in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys, Garcon bumped his season reception total up to 107 -- breaking Hall of Famer Art Monk's longstanding mark of 106. Garcon's previous career-high had been 70 catches, so the 2013 season certainly marks a breakthrough for Washington's No. 1 receiver.
Fourth Down: Jim Schwartz.
Put aside the fact that had Detroit beaten one of Tampa Bay, Baltimore or the New York Giants at home in recent weeks, it would have taken the NFC North lead into Week 17. Schwartz's Detroit journey took a real turn Sunday in that OT loss to New York, when a FOX camera appeared to catch him turning and shouting an obscenity or two at fans booing the Lions for running out the clock in regulation.
That incident, which Schwartz did not deny in his postgame press conference, coupled with the subsequent loss might have been the nail in his Motor City coaching coffin.