NFL Nation: 2013 Week 14 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Dallas Cowboys

December, 9, 2013

CHICAGO - A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 45-28 loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday.

What it means for the Cowboys: With this embarrassment, the Cowboys now find themselves chasing the Philadelphia Eagles, and they need to win intervening games versus Green Bay and at Washington to make sure the Week 17 meeting at AT&T Stadium is for the NFC East title.

If they can, they will be in their third straight de facto NFC East title game to close the season. If they can't, owner and general manager Jerry Jones will have to reassess his statement that Jason Garrett will be the coach in 2014.

It's December, so the Cowboys struggle because that's what they do. Tony Romo has taken the brunt of the criticism for that record, but Monday's loss falls squarely on the defense. Josh McCown threw for four touchdowns and ran for another score. Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall did whatever they wanted against whomever they wanted. Matt Forte ran for more than 100 yards.

If there was ever a sign that Monte Kiffin should be out as coordinator after this season, it was this game. It's one thing to get lit up by Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. It's quite another to have it happen against a backup quarterback, even if McCown had been playing well in Jay Cutler's absence.

Stock watch: DeMarcus Ware, falling. Last week, Ware said the strength had finally returned to the quadriceps that kept him out for three games. But he was invisible versus the Bears before he was gifted a sack in the fourth quarter. Ware has two sacks since his return but is likely to see his streak of having at least 10 sacks in a season end at seven.

There's no defense in Dallas: Blame the injuries all you want, but Rob Ryan at least had an injury-riddled defense competitive last year. Kiffin has had to deal with injuries, but he had zero answers for the Bears.

The Cowboys allowed 24 points in Monday's first half. Only New Orleans and Denver had more against the Cowboys in an opening half (28 each). The Cowboys allowed 32 first downs. Only New Orleans (an NFL-record 40) and Denver (34) had more. The Cowboys allowed 498 yards. Only San Diego (506), Denver (517), Detroit (623) and New Orleans (625) had more. It's the fourth time a quarterback has had four touchdown passes against the Cowboys.

In the first half, the Bears had 12 plays of at least 10 yards. They scored quickly (a 37-second drive) and they ate up clock (90 yards, 8:10).

They did whatever they wanted to do.

Hurt again: Sean Lee made his return to the lineup after a two-game absence because of a hamstring injury but he could not finish the game after suffering a neck injury with 12:33 left in the third quarter.

Lee returned briefly for five plays before he went to the locker room for the rest of the game. Lee has yet to play a full season in his career because of injuries. He is the best playmaker on the defense, but even with him the defense has not been close to adequate. Imagine how bad things would be if Lee missed even more playing time?

The Cowboys might be about to find out.

Hey, a running game: Let's get about the only positive the Cowboys had from Monday's game: They ran the ball well. DeMarco Murray ran for 145 yards on 18 carries. He now has 842 on the year and has a shot at reaching 1,000 for the season.

But why be positive on a night like this?

What's next: The Cowboys return to AT&T Stadium on Sunday to face the Green Bay Packers. The biggest question is whether Aaron Rodgers will make his return from a collarbone injury. If he does, the task is much more difficult. The Cowboys are 5-1 at AT&T Stadium this season, but the Packers have some good memories there as well, having won Super Bowl XLV there.

Rapid Reaction: Chicago Bears

December, 9, 2013

CHICAGO -- A few quick thoughts on the Chicago Bears' 45-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night at Soldier Field.

What it means: Game on for the Detroit Lions in the NFC North title race. The Lions slipped up by losing at Philadelphia on Sunday and opened the door for Chicago to get back into the race. The Bears kicked it open by destroying the Cowboys. The Lions close the season with Baltimore and the New York Giants at home, before playing the finale at Minnesota on Dec. 29. One Lions mistake could lead to the Bears sneaking away with the division if they can maintain momentum.

Take advantage of the smallest mishaps: That's what the home team did in the first half. After Chicago took a 17-14 advantage on Robbie Gould's 27-yard field goal with 1:38 left in the first half, the Dallas Cowboys had three incompletions on the ensuing drive, which allowed the Bears to take possession again with 47 ticks remaining.

Instead of sitting on the three-point lead, the Bears mashed on the gas with Josh McCown hitting Alshon Jeffery -- who was being draped by two defenders -- for a 25-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left to go up 24-14. With the quick score, the Bears went into the locker room at the half with momentum.

What was better for the Bears is they got the ball back to start the second half, and scored on that drive as well to go up 27-14 on a Gould 34-yard field goal.

Potent WRs: Jeffery and Brandon Marshall became the first set of Chicago receivers to gain 1,000 yards apiece since 1995 (Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham). Jeffery entered the game with 70 catches for 1,109 yards, but Marshall needed 10 yards against the Cowboys to reach 1,000.

With Marshall leading the way with 100 yards on six receptions, the duo combined for 184 yards and a TD.

McCown pinpoint accurate: McCown started Monday night's game by connecting on 8 of 10 passes for 145 yards on throws traveling more than 10 yards in the first half. The quarterback's eight deep completions in the first half tied the most McCown had completed in one game.

McCown's play allowed the Bears to reel off 24 points in the first half, which is quite a difference considering the Bears hadn't scored more than 23 points in any of their previous four outings leading into Monday night.

McCown finished with a passer rating of 141.9, completing 27 of 36 passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions to go with a rushing TD. He's passed for 1,055 yards over the past three games with eight TDs and only one INT.

What's next: The Chicago Bears take the day off Tuesday before returning to the facilities to begin preparations Wednesday for Sunday's game at Cleveland. The Bears face a short turnaround in the first of back-to-back road games before the Dec. 29 season finale against the Green Bay Packers.

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 8, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

What it means: This win was about as big as it could get for the Saints. At 10-3, they’re now in great position to win the NFC South and secure the conference's No. 2 seed. Just as important, they quickly got their mojo back after a humbling loss at Seattle six nights ago. Not that there was any concern that the Saints lacked confidence. But to come out and give such a dynamic performance on both sides of the ball on a short week spoke a lot about the Saints’ ability to respond to adversity.

The Saints will play at Carolina (9-4) again in two weeks. Even if they split the series, the Saints would win the tiebreaker if both teams finish 12-4. The Saints need to win any two of their final three games to clinch the NFC South (at St. Louis, at Carolina, vs. Tampa Bay).

Brees hits 50,000: Saints quarterback Drew Brees became the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 50,000 yards in his career -- joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway. He also set an NFL record with his eighth consecutive 4,000-yard season. And he reached both thresholds with an exclamation point -- completing 30 of 42 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers.

The Saints have won 13 consecutive night games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, including the playoffs. In those games, Brees has thrown for 43 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Stock watch: Nobody was more clutch for the Saints than Marques Colston. He had a monster night, with nine catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. But his biggest catch was his first one -- a terrific, reaching grab for 21 yards on third-and-9 in the first quarter. The Saints were in danger of going three-and-out on their first two drives before Colston made that catch. From that point on, they took off.

Colston has had one of his quietest seasons this year, with only 596 yards and two touchdowns coming into the night. But he proved again that he’s available as a go-to guy for Brees when needed.

Racking up sacks: Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette had three sacks, and end Cameron Jordan had two. Jordan, who seems like a shoo-in for his first Pro Bowl, now has 11.5 sacks this season.

What’s next: The Rams (5-8), the Saints' next opponent, have lost two straight games, including 30-10 at Arizona on Sunday. But they've had some impressive wins in an up-and-down season. So the Saints can’t fall asleep at the wheel -- especially on the road, where they've been inconsistent this season.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 8, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 31-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

What it means: That the winning streak ends at eight. That the Panthers (9-4) got a taste of what New Orleans got from the Seahawks six days ago on "Monday Night Football." Nobody should be surprised. The Saints (10-3) have been doing this to almost every team in the Superdome this season. The key for Carolina will be to bounce back next week the way New Orleans did after its 34-7 loss to Seattle. The Panthers likely need to win at least two of their three final games to get into the playoffs as a wild card. Arizona is lurking at 8-5, and the Cardinals own the tiebreaker based on a 22-6 victory over the Panthers on Oct. 6. Winning the NFC South is almost out of the question now. It would take New Orleans losing two of its final three -- including in Charlotte on Dec. 22 -- and Carolina winning out.

Stock watch: The defense that was ranked No. 2 in the league, No. 1 in scoring with 13.1 points allowed per game, was made to look very average by Saints quarterback Drew Brees & Co. The Saints had 21 points at halftime -- more than any other team scored against Carolina during the eight-game winning streak. Wide receiver Marques Colston looked uncovered much of the game, particularly over the middle, where he caught a couple of touchdowns. The front four got little pressure on Brees, who completed 30 of 42 pass attempts for 313 yards and four touchdowns. The Panthers hadn't given up but three touchdowns period in the past four games and hadn't given up more than two in a game all season. They were allowing only 289.8 yards total per game.

Stock watch II: Cam Newton really wasn't a factor, which is something you haven't read for eight straight games. The Saints kept him bottled up, sacking him five times and holding him completely in check until a late-game touchdown pass. He got back into his habit of holding the ball way too long, which led to a few of the sacks.

Missed opportunities: The Panthers had two opportunities in the red zone in the first quarter and got only two field goals out of it. On the second they had first-and-goal from the 10 with a 3-0 lead and a chance to make a statement. When they didn't, New Orleans did.

No good: The Panthers were so out of sync that place-kicker Graham Gano, who had missed only two field goals all season, missed a 49-yarder in the third quarter that he normally makes with his eyes closed in ideal conditions like this.

What's next? The Panthers return home to face the New York Jets. It will be the first time the teams have met since 2009, when the Jets won 17-6 at home. The Jets lead the series 3-2.

Rapid Reaction: San Francisco 49ers

December, 8, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO -- A few observations from the San Francisco 49ers' 19-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday:

What it means: The 49ers got the stink of two bad back-to-back losses to Seattle off their minds. This was a great game, and it will serve the 49ers well heading into the postseason. They proved they could beat a good team. The 49ers were 1-4 against teams with winning records going into Sunday's game. The 49ers are now 9-4, and the Seahawks fell to 11-2. Could we see a rubber match in Seattle in January? I would be surprised if we don't.

Dawson is hot: 49ers kicker Phil Dawson had four field goals, including a 22-yarder with 26 seconds to go. He has made 20 straight field goal attempts, a team record.

Stock watch: Anquan Boldin continued to benefit from the presence of Michael Crabtree. Boldin had six catches for 93 yards. He had nine catches last week. This could be a key component for the 49ers moving forward.

Gore comes through: Frank Gore, who had three straight slow games, had a 51-yard run on the 49ers' final drive to setup Dawson's game winner.

Third-down defense wanes: The 49ers' defense has been terrific all season, but if there has been an issue, it is the occasional lapse on third down. The Seahawks made three big conversions on third down. It's something the 49ers need to clean up.

Flag day: This was a physical game and it wasn't always clean. The Seahawks were penalized nine times for 85 yards and the 49ers seven times for 70 yards.

What's next: The 49ers travel to Tampa to play the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has improved lately. It is 4-9 and 3-4 at home. The 49ers are 7-0 against teams with losing records.

Rapid Reaction: New York Giants

December, 8, 2013

SAN DIEGO -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' 37-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers:

What it means: The Giants fell to 5-8 with three games left to play and therefore cannot finish with a winning record. Since the Eagles and Cardinals won, this loss eliminated the Giants from playoff contention. Obviously, they hung in longer than could have been expected after starting the season 0-6. But that 0-6 start meant they couldn't afford any more stinkers. And this was a stinker.

Stock watch: Run defense, DOWN. A Giants strength for much of the season, the run defense failed the Giants in this game. They went into the game concerned about Danny Woodhead because he and the manner in which the Chargers use him are different from any running back they'd yet faced. And Woodhead had a big game. But so did Ryan Mathews running between the tackles.

Nicks Watch: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, a nonfactor in the passing game for most of this season, had catches of 51, 37 and 28 yards in the game. The middle one was a Hail Mary short of the end zone at the end of the first half. The other two were deep downfield in traffic. Nicks was able to outfight defenders for the ball all three times but still isn't separating from them. He also had a couple of drops on shorter patterns, though each of those seemed to be thrown a bit behind him. And he briefly left the game in the second half with some sort of leg injury. Nicks will be a free agent at the end of the year and is likely in his final month as a Giant.

Tuck Watch: Justin Tuck, also a pending free agent, had two sacks after collecting four last week in Washington and is now up to 8.5 for the season. Unlike Nicks, Tuck appears to be making an inspired case to stay.

Turnover redux: Eli Manning threw his 20th interception of the season and had another potential pick overturned by replay review. The Giants are the only NFL team with at least one turnover in every game this year.

What's next: The Giants return home, where they will host the Seattle Seahawks in a 1 p.m. ET game at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. The Seahawks are tied with the Broncos for the best record in the NFL.

Rapid Reaction: Seattle Seahawks

December, 8, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO -- A few thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 19-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Candlestick Park:

What it means: Seattle’s NFC title goals will have to wait at least one more week. The 49ers showed they can get it done, at least at home, against the best team in the league and their division rivals. This was a game the 49ers needed to win much more than the Seahawks did, and it showed.

Stock watch: Seattle’s run defense failed when the Seahawks needed it the most on a 51-yard run by Frank Gore late in the fourth quarter that set up the winning field goal for the 49ers. … It was clear early on that the 49ers were going to test Seattle cornerback Byron Maxwell, and he took his lumps at times. But he also came up with a touchdown-saving interception in the third quarter, the first pick of his NFL career. … Seahawks receiver Golden Tate had another solid day, with six receptions for 65 yards and a 38-yard punt return that set up a third-quarter field goal.

Costly penalties: The Seahawks have won games this season despite their penchant for too many penalties, but it hurt them Sunday on the road against a quality opponent.

Willson’s best game: Maybe he was happy about his Rice Owls on Saturday clinching their first conference title in more than a half century. Whatever it was, Luke Willson had his best day as a pro. The rookie tight end had a big first half with two catches for 68 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown in the second quarter when he ran right by 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and was wide-open over the middle.

What's next: The Seahawks play their final road game of the regular season against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. A victory would give Seattle a franchise-best six road wins this season. The Seahawks hope this game is a preview of the place where they will return in six weeks for the Super Bowl.

Rapid Reaction: San Diego Chargers

December, 8, 2013

SAN DIEGO -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 37-14 victory over the New York Giants.

What it means: San Diego recorded its largest margin of victory this season. The Chargers move to 6-7 and are tied with the New York Jets (6-7) and a game behind the Baltimore Ravens (7-6) and Miami Dolphins (7-6) for the final AFC spot with three games to play.

Manning sputters: In his first game back in San Diego since 2005, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning struggled, finishing 20-of-32 for 259 yards, a touchdown pass and two interceptions. Manning was loudly booed by fans at Qualcomm Stadium when he took the field. Manning, who spurned the Chargers in the 2004 draft, is 0-3 in his 10-year career against San Diego.

Melvin Ingram solid in return: In his first game in nearly a year coming off anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery in May, Ingram unofficially played 13 snaps. Ingram had trouble containing the run a few times and finished with just one tackle. But he left the game healthy, which is the most important thing for the Chargers.

Stock watch: Running back Ryan Mathews gained 103 yards on a season-high 29 carries, as the Chargers controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Mathews eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fourth time this season.

What’s next: The Chargers travel to Denver for the team’s final road game of the season, a Thursday night contest at Mile High Stadium at 5:25 PT.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 8, 2013

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 30-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

What it means: For the second week in a row, the Rams suffered a decisive loss to an NFC West opponent on the road. What's more, the loss moves the Rams to 5-8 on the season and puts them on an almost certain trajectory to a last-place finish in the division.

While the Rams have been playing without starting quarterback Sam Bradford since Week 7, they appear to have fallen behind yet another team in the NFC West. Before the season, many believed the Rams to be a sleeper to challenge Seattle and San Francisco for divisional supremacy. Instead, it's Arizona that has embraced that role, leaving the Rams searching for scraps.

The season-opening win over the Cardinals seems like a lifetime ago and remains the team's only divisional win against four losses only a season after going 4-1-1 in the same division. Perhaps most worrisome for the Rams is the real possibility that whatever improvements they believe they have made still aren't enough to keep them from the NFC West basement.

Stock watch -- up: Receiver Stedman Bailey -- Although his numbers don't leap off the page, Bailey has earned more playing time with his sharp route-running and consistent hands. He finished with three catches for 46 yards, but it's more instructive to note that he's the team's most reliable and trustworthy pass-catcher. It's been a rough year for Rams receivers, but Bailey is at least emerging as something of a bright spot in the final weeks.

Stock watch -- down: The Rams' secondary -- This isn't anything new, but be it scheme, personnel or a combination of the two, the Rams' defensive backfield continues to struggle. With cornerbacks playing plenty of soft coverage and drawing flags when they were more aggressive, Arizona's Carson Palmer made everyone forget he's battling an elbow injury. Palmer threw for 269 yards while completing 27 of 32 passes with a touchdown.

Clemens' rough day: It was established early that the Rams would have trouble running the ball, leaving the offense in the hands of quarterback Kellen Clemens. After some early success with bootlegs and rollouts, the Rams didn't have much more through the air. Once the Rams fell behind, Arizona deployed its seemingly endless variety of pressure packages and began battering Clemens.

When all was said and done, the Cardinals sacked Clemens four times and hit him seven, according to unofficial statistics. He was under fire plenty of other times and will certainly be sore on Monday.

What's next: A two-game western road swing comes to an end with the Rams returning home for the holidays for back-to-back games at the Edward Jones Dome. That's the good news. The bad news is the Rams welcome another tough opponent in the New Orleans Saints. Improving Tampa Bay follows just before Christmas to wrap up the NFC South portion of the schedule.

Rapid Reaction: Arizona Cardinals

December, 8, 2013

A few thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams.

What it means: It's hard to tell. The Rams played badly enough that it almost didn't matter how well the Cardinals performed. However, the defense is getting better each game and manhandled the Rams at the line of scrimmage, especially in pressuring quarterback Kellen Clemens. On offense, the Cardinals' line played among its best games of the season, holding Robert Quinn and Chris Long at bay. Some of the small improvements were progress, such as how the offensive line, in particular Bradley Sowell, corralled Quinn.

Stock Watch: For being questionable, quarterback Carson Palmer sure didn't look like he had an injured throwing elbow. He threw for 269 yards and one touchdown but he kept the passes relatively short, hitting Larry Fitzgerald for 96 yards on 12 passes. Palmer's elbow didn't appear to bother him as he was quick and timely with his passes. The week of rest looked to have helped Palmer.

Mathieu out: Tyrann Mathieu's knee injury looked gruesome as it happened on the field and even worse in replay. He left the game in the third quarter on a cart and did not return. If he can't play the rest of the season, Arizona's defense will take a hit of its own. Mathieu was a versatile safety who could play in base and nickel, but could also line up at cornerback, a skill Rashad Johnson -- Mathieu's replacement -- lacks. The Cardinals will also miss Mathieu's explosiveness and big-play capability.

Defensive points: Anytime the defense can add points, the odds of winning go up. On Sunday, Arizona's defense scored eight on its own: A safety by John Abraham and a pick-six by Karlos Dansby, his second in as many home games. Without the eight points, the Cardinals would've been sweating a 15-10 lead for most of the game.

What's next: The Cardinals head to Music City next Sunday to play the Tennessee Titans.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 8, 2013

DENVER -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 51-28 win over the Tennessee Titans:

What it means: With the win, the Broncos, in largely throw-first mode for much of the day despite a kickoff temperature of 18 degrees, kept their hold on the top spot in both AFC West as well as the race for home-field advantage in the AFC. The Broncos are 11-2, with the New England Patriots (10-3) and Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) right behind in the AFC. The Broncos have swept the Chiefs already this season.

Stock watch: It always seems to come down to a kicker at some point in the postseason for any Super Bowl hopeful, and the Broncos continue to feel good about the range and accuracy of Matt Prater, even in a season when the Broncos have scored so many touchdowns. His NFL-record 64-yard field goal on the last play of the first half was his 20th made field goal of at least 50 yards in his career with the Broncos.

Mix it up: With injuries starting to impact the depth chart on defense, the Broncos continue to search for answers on that side of the ball. They used a variety of personnel groupings that didn't include two of their starters much of the time. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho were replaced by Paris Lenon and Omar Bolden, respectively, much of the time in the base 4-3 defense. Woodyard and Ihenacho were not injured and played regularly on special teams. The Broncos also used Quentin Jammer at cornerback in the base defense in place of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Both sides of the coin: The Broncos keep hoping linebacker Von Miller can consistently be the kind of impact player he was last season. Miller took a terrible roughing-the-passer penalty in the second quarter, a clear helmet-to-helmet hit on Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick that likely will cost Miller some money. But he also tipped a pass in the third quarter that resulted in an interception and forced a Chris Johnson fumble in the fourth quarter that safety Mike Adams recovered. He added a sack.

What's next: A battered and bruised team gets a short week late in the season. The Broncos host the San Diego Chargers on Thursday, a game Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker is unlikely to play in after leaving Sunday's game with a concussion.

Rapid Reaction: Tennessee Titans

December, 8, 2013

DENVER -- Rapid reaction from the Tennessee Titans' 51-28 loss to the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

What it means: The Titans can’t have a winning season after dropping their eighth game of the season. At 5-8 they’ll have to win three in a row to avoid a losing season. Again the Titans played well for a segment of the game Sunday but showed an inability to maintain it and finish. Tennessee is hardly the only team to struggle against the Broncos. But the Titans had put themselves in position where they needed to pull an upset, and they could not. They've lost seven of their past nine.

Stock watch: Alterraun Verner has been excellent at cornerback this season, but against Peyton Manning and a quality stable of receivers, Verner got called for three penalties. One was declined. It was far from his best day in coverage.

Gutsy call: I really liked the fourth-and-1 play call in the second quarter. Ryan Fitzpatrick faked a handoff to Chris Johnson, rolled with Johnson and hit him with a little pass that CJ turned into a 28-yard gain. The Titans went on to score a touchdown that put them up 21-10. Things went south after that.

Bad flag: I don’t think the officiating went strongly against the Titans. But the personal foul against Bernard Pollard in the third quarter was for a hit to the shoulder of Eric Decker, and it simply did not warrant a flag. It was a key play on the opening drive of the third quarter when Denver marched to a go-ahead TD that made it 27-21. The Titans never got the lead back.

What’s next: The Titans host the Arizona Cardinals in a late-afternoon kickoff at LP Field for their final NFC West matchup of the season. They are 1-2 against the division so far.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 8, 2013

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 27-26 loss to the New England Patriots:

What it means: Could a loss be more crushing? The Browns followed a teeth gnasher against Jacksonville with a spirit breaker in New England. Although Cleveland was up 26-14 with 3:04 left, Tom Brady somehow led the Patriots to two scores and the win. Oh, the Pats also recovered an onside kick in that time and got the benefit of a pass-interference call in the end zone in the final minute. Does anyone doubt anymore what folks refer to when they say OIC -- Only In Cleveland?

Stock watch: The Browns do have heart, and they do believe in their coach. No team could play in New England the way the Browns did without both those traits. The Browns were woeful a week ago against Jacksonville. They were the exact opposite against the Patriots. It’s hard to explain the NFL sometimes. Brady is the virtuoso of quarterbacks, and he plays his best when the games mean the most. The Browns nearly flipped that script -- but Brady came through (again) when it mattered most.

Bounce back: Jason Campbell had 391 yards and three touchdowns on a day when there was doubt he would even be on the field. Campbell brought some calm back to the Browns' offense, and he avoided Brandon Weeden's turnover bug. Campbell took care of the ball and did enough to keep the Browns in the game, then led the Browns on an impressive 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter to score a touchdown that should have sealed the game. Not bad for a guy whose first full practice in 11 days was the Friday before the game.

Ward takeout: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was the victim of a low hit from safety T.J. Ward, and the NFL rules. There used to be an unwritten rule in the NFL not to hit a guy low from behind. But the NFL has legislated so severely against the high hit that players now aim low. That’s what Ward did to Gronkowski, and the result was what appeared to be a serious lower right leg injury to the Patriots' standout tight end.

Gordon’s mastery: It’s tough to find the words to describe the way Josh Gordon has played the past four games. He’s done everything, as he did in New England, where his day included an 80-yard touchdown, a 34-yard run on a reverse, and a clutch first-down catch on third-and-17 in the fourth quarter with Aqib Talib draped all over him. He has played like a superstar -- a 22-year-old superstar.

What's next: The Browns return home to face the Chicago Bears for the final home game of the season.

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

December, 8, 2013

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts on the New England Patriots' stunning 27-26 comeback win over the Cleveland Browns:

What it means: Everything. Not the outcome of the game, which was another amazing Patriots comeback that was only solidified after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff was short with a 58-yard attempt at the final gun. Tight end Rob Gronkowski being carted off the field midway through the third quarter with a serious leg injury is a season changer for New England. Gronkowski is that much of a difference-maker. In the postgame news conference Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "Rob was taken to the hospital for a observation and evaluation on his injury. That's all I have on that."

Measuring Gronkowski's impact: Since his return to action on Oct. 20, Gronkowski almost single-handedly changed the Patriots' offense. The Patriots were 22nd in points per game before Gronkowski returned; they were seventh entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 30th in red zone efficiency without Gronkowski; they were 11th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 19th in passing yards per game without Gronkowski; they were 10th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 16th in first downs per game before Gronkowski returned; they were fifth entering Sunday's game.

Where the Patriots go from here without Gronkowski: Assuming tests reveal what many assume -- that Gronkowski will be out for the season with a leg/knee injury -- the Patriots won't be able to find a player to replace his production. They'll need to find new ways to create offense, such as what we saw in parts of the second half with running back Shane Vereen becoming a greater part of the passing offense. From a pure 1-for-1 personnel standpoint, tight end D.J. Williams -- who was released on Wednesday -- could be brought back to add another tight end, along with Matthew Mulligan and recovering Michael Hoomanawanui (knee).

Unbelievable comeback: Gronkowski's injury cast a cloud over a remarkable comeback. How do the Patriots keep digging themselves into an early hole, when it seems the game is lost, only to pull it out? It's one of their most redeeming qualities -- they are hard to knock out and play all 60 minutes (and sometimes beyond). This was simply stunning, requiring an onside kick to be recovered with one minute remaining -- and the benefit of what looked like a generous 29-yard pass-interference penalty -- to set up the winning touchdown. Wow. Patriots fans have seen some of the ugliest football the Patriots have ever played this season ... and also some of the most remarkable comebacks.

Where's the protection? When considering why the Patriots' offense struggled as much as it did, after crediting the Browns' defense, one area to look at from a New England perspective is inconsistent offensive line play. Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure at various points in the game. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins, arguably the two best linemen on the team, were beaten for sacks.

Stock watch -- coaching staff: Falling: One week after being praised for its in-game adjustments, the Patriots' staff finds itself in this category, as the Patriots sputtered out of the gate with another slow start. Something isn't getting through.

Ridley back in the mix with 17 snaps: After he was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston because of ball-security issues, running back Stevan Ridley was active and used as part of a committee with Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. Ridley was the third player in the mix, as we counted him on the field for 17 snaps (including penalties).

What's next: The Patriots travel to South Florida to face the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 15 (1 p.m. ET).

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 8, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 34-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Steelers' season is all but over after the defense failed to protect several second-half leads and Ben Roethlisberger couldn't conjure up any late magic at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger was masterful for much of the second half, but he couldn't engineer a drive after twice getting the ball with less than four minutes left in the game and the Steelers needing a score to keep their season alive. The Steelers almost scored a miraculous touchdown on the final play of the game, but Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds at the Dolphins' 11-yard line after a series of laterals. The Steelers are 5-8, and even if they win out, they would need a ton of stuff to happen just to have a chance of sneaking into the AFC playoffs as the second wild card.

Stock watch: The defense provided a big play that gave the Steelers their first lead in a back-and-forth second half, but it also cost them a game that they could not afford to lose. Shoddy tackling and an overall lack of discipline allowed Dolphins such as tight end Charles Clay and backup running back Daniel Thomas to shred the Steelers' defense. They combined for three touchdowns, and Thomas rushed for 105 yards on 16 carries while Clay had seven catches for 97 yards. Clay scored the winning touchdown when neither Troy Polamalu nor Cortez Allen could get the third-year man down after he had caught a pass in the flat.

Switcheroo: LaMarr Woodley returned to the lineup but not the position he has primarily played since becoming a starter in 2008. The Steelers kept Jason Worilds at left outside linebacker, where he had shined in Woodley's absence, and the fourth-year veteran justified coach Mike Tomlin's decision to flip his starting outside linebackers, as Worilds recorded a pair of sacks, including a key one early in the fourth quarter. The Steelers started Woodley but eased him back into action as he split time at right outside linebacker with rookie Jarvis Jones.

An emerging star: Cameron Heyward is playing as well as anyone on the Steelers, and he showed in the first half alone why the third-year veteran has emerged as a cornerstone of the defense. Heyward seemed to be in on every Steelers tackle, and he had six of them in the first two quarters. The former first-round draft pick also sacked QB Ryan Tannehill and batted down a pass in the first half.

Shades of the Iron Bowl: The most exciting play of a rather drab first half happened on the final play -- and evoked memories of the play of the year in college football, a 109-yard touchdown return that Auburn used to beat No. 1 Alabama. It started when Polamalu caught a 52-yard field goal attempt 8 yards deep in the end zone. Polamalu weaved his way to the 30-yard line and threw the ball back to nose tackle Steve McLendon before getting tackled. McLendon flipped the ball to Ike Taylor, and the former college running back made his way to the Dolphins' 40-yard line before getting tackled.

Next up: The Steelers play their final prime-time game of the season next Sunday when they host the Bengals for an 8:30 p.m. ET game. The Bengals improved to 9-4 by beating the Colts, and only an epic collapse will prevent them from winning the AFC North.


Roster Advisor


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