NFL Nation: 2013 Week 14 Upon Further Review

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 14

December, 10, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 45-28 win over the Dallas Cowboys:

Cutler's return: Backup quarterback Josh McCown turned in another stellar effort in relief of Jay Cutler, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions to go with a passer rating of 141.9. McCown has thrown for 1,055 yards over his past four starts with eight TDs and only one interception. But with Cutler returning to the practice field last week, it's only a matter of time before the Bears try to bring him back into the starting lineup. And naturally, some will begin to question if McCown deserves to remain the starter because of the way he has performed. Bears coach Marc Trestman has made the team's plans at that position known early in the week to eliminate any chance of the situation festering into something that could cause a distraction. Look for Trestman to make a declaration early in the team's preparation for Sunday's game at Cleveland, too. There's too much on the line to be dealing with distractions.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJosh McCown passed for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys.
McCown knows role: McCown's humility throughout his brief tenure as the starting quarterback should be applauded. Coming off the strong performance against the Cowboys, and a largely successful stint over the past month as the starter, McCown fielded multiple questions concerning whether he deserved the staff's consideration as the possible full-time starter. McCown hasn't wavered on his answers regarding the situation throughout his entire run under center.

"I'm the backup, and Jay's our starter. So if Jay's healthy, Jay should be the starting quarterback. That's really it," McCown said Monday night. "I don't go out here going, 'If I do this, now I'm gonna be the starter.' That's not my mindset. I've told you guys: My mindset is to serve our team as the backup quarterback as best I can, play efficient football, play winning football, and keep us in contention so whenever he takes back over, we're in position to continue to make the playoff run."

Run D still struggling: DeMarco Murray ripped off 99 yards in the first half against the Bears, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt, and that average only increased to 8.1 yards for the game. Murray ran the ball only five times in the second half, but finished with 146 yards. Trestman even acknowledged after the game the Bears "certainly didn't stop the run as much as we would have liked to."

The Bears have allowed 100-yard rushers, including a 211-yard performance by Adrian Peterson, in six consecutive games.

Pass rush just OK: After ramping up the pass rush against Minnesota on Dec. 1 with five sacks, the Bears sacked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo just twice Monday night. James Anderson and Jeremiah Ratliff each sacked Romo, and the Bears did try to manufacture some pressure via the blitz. Of Dallas' 28 snaps in the first half on offense, 14 of those plays were runs. So it was difficult for Chicago to be effective with the pass rush because the Cowboys were so successful running the ball. Dallas averaged 7 yards per attempt in the first half. The Cowboys were able to throw the ball only seven times in the second half because the Bears dominated time of possession.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 14

December, 9, 2013
DENVER -- An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 51-28 loss to the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

Pressure on Peyton: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has been the Titans' best player this season, and a week ago in Indianapolis he was a monster the Colts simply couldn’t handle. In Denver, the Broncos' interior line kept him quiet -- he was credited with one tackle. He told me interior pressure was the key to forcing quarterback Peyton Manning into a mistake. There was none. Manning threw the ball 59 times and he didn’t turn it over. The Titans had the seventh-best pass defense in the league and had allowed eight touchdown passes heading into this game. Manning threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns. The Titans didn’t sack him and hit him just once. That’s hardly the recipe to rattle a big-time quarterback.

[+] EnlargeBernard Pollard
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos put up 551 yards against Bernard Pollard and the Tennessee defense.
Persecution complex: The Titans' secondary was upset over the way the game was officiated, and clearly feel Manning gets the benefit of the doubt from the zebras. Maybe he does get some of it, but calls against the Titans didn’t account for the Broncos’ 51 points. Tennessee needs to be careful about blaming the officials too much, and themselves not enough. They were the victims of a bad call against Bernard Pollard early in the third quarter. But that didn’t unhinge them or determine the game. Sure, Pollard’s been an outspoken critic of rules and officiating. Is that really enough for the league’s officiating department to pick the Titans as a target? I sure don’t think so.

Shuffling backers: The Titans used Colin McCarthy and even rookie Zaviar Gooden some at linebacker on Sunday, and not as the result of any injuries to their regular trio of Moise Fokou, Akeem Ayers or Zach Brown. Maybe they had some great rationale, but it seemed like the sort of lineup fiddling in Week 14 that suggests a team doesn’t have enough in its core guys and needs to mess around to find something. McCarthy made four tackles and Gooden four while Ayers wasn’t on the stat sheet. So maybe it was smart.

Too quiet: The Titans' best offensive weapon is receiver Kendall Wright, who works a lot out of the slot. One of the Broncos' best pieces on defense is nickel corner Chris Harris. Harris did his part to hold Wright to his fewest catches (two) and fewest yards (17) since opening day. Since the Titans’ win in Pittsburgh, Wright has had at least three catches and at least 54 yards in every game. With Delanie Walker out of the lineup with a concussion, the Titans were down one key weapon. Justin Hunter had four catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. No one else had more than two catches or 24 receiving yards.

Upon Further Review: Bills Week 14

December, 9, 2013
TAMPA, Fla. -- A review of four hot issues from the Buffalo Bills' 27-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Bills must take hard look at Spiller: Here we are again. For the fourth time this season, running back C.J. Spiller averaged 2 yards or fewer per carry. Since the Bills did not list Spiller on the injury report last week, it's hard to blame injury for his performance, unless Spiller comes out this week and says he wasn't fully healthy entering the game. Of Spiller's 11 carries Sunday, seven gained 2 yards or fewer, a disturbing trend that puts the Bills at a crossroads with their former first-round pick. Spiller is signed through the 2015 season, but it's going to be hard for the offense to move forward unless Spiller can become a more consistent runner. We saw his explosive potential again Sunday, when he had an 83-yard catch-and-run touchdown called back by a penalty. However, the Bills must ponder whether those plays are worth the harm his running style causes the offense on an all-too-regular basis.

[+] EnlargeStevie Johnson
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Bills have a decision to make in the offseason regarding the future of receiver Stevie Johnson.
Ditto for Johnson: The Bills will need to decide this offseason on wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who is due a $1.75 million roster bonus for 2014. Johnson is the Bills' leading receiver, but that's not saying much within one of the NFL's worst passing offenses. Johnson has been hurt by three factors: (1) inconsistent quarterback play from EJ Manuel, (2) a bevy of injuries that have caused him to miss two games this season and limited him in others and (3) critical mistakes, including a lost fumble near the end of the Bills' loss in Toronto and a pass off his hands that was intercepted by the Buccaneers on Sunday. The Bills must consider, then, whether their quarterback will be better, whether Johnson can stay healthy next season and whether Johnson can limit his costly errors. If not, they might move on with their second-round pick this past April, Robert Woods, as their top receiver.

Hedging Manuel in 2014: The one player who we know will still be with the Bills next season is Manuel. They won't move on from their first-round pick anytime soon. There have been times this season when he has looked promising, particularly three weeks ago against the Jets. Yet that's not enough. The Bills must hedge their bets and contemplate adding insurance for Manuel next season. Whether that comes through drafting another quarterback or signing a veteran backup is a topic for later, but if Manuel is having the same problems at this time next season that we're seeing now, and the Bills haven't improved their depth at quarterback, it will be a tough spot for the franchise. While Manuel has plenty of time to turn things around, there needs to be a backup plan in place going forward.

What about Graham? Like Johnson, the play of T.J. Graham has to be taken with a grain of salt, given the Bills' situation at quarterback. However, for Buffalo's third-round pick last season, Graham seems to be heading nowhere fast. He's a speed threat, no doubt, but the Bills have seen that come to fruition far too few times this season. More specifically, it's easy to get excited about his 40-yard touchdown catch against the Jets or his 47-yard grab against the Bengals, but Graham has exceeded two catches in only one game this season but has gone without a catch in three others, including the past two. You can point to either Graham or Manuel (or both) for such a lack of results, but either way, it's not a good sign for the Bills.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 14

December, 9, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns:

Life without tight end Rob Gronkowski: Players seemed to be coming to grips with the fact they would be without Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the season after he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee Sunday. So the question becomes: "What next?" The Patriots have tight ends Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui on the roster, and could re-sign D.J. Williams, who was released last week. Hoomanawanui has been out since sustaining a knee injury Nov. 18 in Carolina, but appears closer to a return. Regardless, the Patriots won't be the same without Gronkowski, who has unique talents, so offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely have to recalibrate the attack.

Slow starts remain a problem: The Patriots have talked at length about getting off to better starts, but they haven't been able to do so. That should continue to be a point of emphasis as the Patriots are vying to clinch the AFC East championship. As defensive end Rob Ninkovich said after Sunday's comeback, "Not the way you want to win, but we'll take it."

Ridley eased back into the mix: Lead running back Stevan Ridley was charted on the field for 17 snaps (including penalties) in his return to action after he was a healthy scratch Dec. 1 in Houston after multiple fumbles. While Shane Vereen figures to continue to take the majority of snaps at the position, Ridley is now officially back in the rotation along with LeGarrette Blount and possibly Brandon Bolden (inactive Sunday versus Cleveland).

Defense giving up points: Since the bye weekend on Nov. 10, the Patriots have given up 24, 31, 31 and 26 points, with the defense showing vulnerability in multiple areas. Against Cleveland, the big play hurt them as they failed to create a turnover, which is their trademark. Next up are road games at Miami and Baltimore, and they need those turnovers to return to form.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 14

December, 9, 2013
CINCINNATI -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 42-28 win over the Indianapolis Colts:

Whit's move should stick: Offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth proved Sunday afternoon that his move from left tackle to left guard should stick. Naturally, when you ask him about the switch, Whitworth just grins and says he's out to do what's best for the team. If offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to leave him on the line's interior, then so be it. If Gruden watched the same left-side blocking display that the rest of America witnessed, he'd be smart to keep his Pro Bowl left tackle at the new spot. Since sliding into the line's interior last week after left guard Clint Boling was lost for the season with an ACL tear, Whitworth has been part of two of the Bengals' best rushing performances of the year. Against the Chargers last week, they rushed for 164 yards. Against the Colts, they hit 155, paced by rookie running back Giovani Bernard's 99.

'Shifty dude' strikes: After one of his four catches that resulted in a weaving, winding 22-yard scamper, Bernard overheard an Indianapolis defender call him "a shifty dude." It has been a while since the "shifty dude" has had as productive a day as he did Sunday. He collected more than 100 total yards of offense for only the third time this season. The last time was when he went for 104 in the overtime loss at Miami on Halloween. Against the Colts, Bernard had a career-high 148 yards of offense, rushing for 99 yards and catching passes for 49.

Second-year defensive stars: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict once again led the Bengals in tackles. He has done that in all but one game this season. This time around, though, the tackle totals were relatively down. According to postgame stats given to media, he recorded eight. That's a little below his double-digit average of 10.7 tackles per game. Still, it's a sign that the second-year, former undrafted free agent was around the ball. Another class of 2012 signee who contributed greatly in the win was cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. The onetime backup continues making strides in the secondary as he gets awarded more playing opportunities. With another second-year player, safety George Iloka, as well as veteran corner Terence Newman going down with injuries, Kirkpatrick's role could increase if either is lost for any time.

Tate's returns: It can be easy for a return specialist's statistics to get lost in the shuffle in a two-possession game in which his team scored 40 points. (Quick side note: This is the first time in franchise history the Bengals have scored 40 or more points in three straight home games. They had done that in back-to-back home games four previous times.) Still, Brandon Tate was quite effective on the punt return team. His 18.3 yards per return average was his highest this season for games in which he has had multiple punt returns. His four returns also generated an average starting goal-to-go position of 63 yards, meaning the Bengals, on average, started at their own 37 after his returns. His previous season-best in a multi-return game was 61 yards -- the Bengals' 39.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 14

December, 9, 2013
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A review of four key issues from the Atlanta Falcons’ 22-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field:

For starters: Rookie cornerback Robert Alford knew early last week he would start at left cornerback in place of Asante Samuel. The coaching staff remained coy about the decision, although defensive coordinator Mike Nolan implied it was Alford’s time to surpass Samuel. In fact, Samuel didn’t even play, as Alford took all the reps. "I think it’s a big jump for me," Alford said. "I feel good about it. I played good [Sunday]. There were a couple of plays that I can improve on. I’m going to go and watch film and get better each day." Alford played all 71 snaps on Sunday.

Youth movement: Speaking of the young players playing, another rookie defensive back got more reps at the expense of a veteran. When safety Thomas DeCoud left the game with a head injury, Zeke Motta saw his most extensive playing time of the season in his place. Motta had a few hiccups, including slipping in coverage on an 18-yard pass play from Matt Flynn to Jordy Nelson. But Motta showed he could be a sure tackler and finished with six tackles. Also, rookie right tackle Ryan Schraeder finished the game ahead of Jeremy Trueblood, who started. "I think the guys have worked hard, and they deserve the opportunity to go out there and play," coach Mike Smith said of the rookies. "And they need to play in games where there’s something on the line. You want to see how they respond to it. Our No. 1 mission is to win the football game. No doubt about that. But we felt like those young guys had the opportunity to go out and participate in a game for the entire game or most of the game. And that’s what we were looking at [Sunday]." Motta played 55 of 71 snaps on defense, and Schraeder played 42 of 59 offensive snaps.

Running on empty: There was much lobbying all last week for Antone Smith to get more touches at running back based on his explosiveness on every carry. Well, Smith never got going on Sunday after apparently tweaking his knee on special teams. Smith told he was scheduled to undergo an MRI for what was thought to be a patella injury. The Falcons actually ran the ball pretty effectively behind Steven Jackson, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry while gaining 71 yards on 15 carries, including a long run of 22 yards. Jackson left at one point with an undisclosed injury but was able to finish the ballgame. It will be worth monitoring the injury report this week to see where both Jackson and Smith stand in preparation for the Washington Redskins.

Tackling machine: Although rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow's most memorable play from Sunday was his kick assist on Sean Weatherspoon’s 71-yard interception return for a touchdown, Worrilow again put up impressive individual numbers. He finished with 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and one pass defense. It marked the sixth straight game Worrilow had reached double figures in tackles. And he’d be the first to say he missed a couple he should have had. Maybe Worrilow should get some rookie of the year votes.
SAN DIEGO -- An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers' 37-14 win over the New York Giants.

Allen breaks record: Not even a shoulder injury could slow down receiver Keenan Allen, who set a rookie franchise record for receptions in a season with his three-catch, two-touchdown performance against the Giants, Allen’s first multi-touchdown game of the season. The Cal product now has 61 catches for 902 yards and five touchdowns, eclipsing the team record of 59 catches set by LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001. Allen needs 100 receiving yards to top John Jefferson’s rookie single-season receiving-yards record of 1,001 in 1978. Allen finished with three receptions for 59 yards against the Giants, including an impressive 43-yard touchdown reception in which he tightroped the sideline and dived for the pylon for the score. “That’s awesome when you think about all the receivers that have been through here,” quarterback Philip Rivers said about Allen setting the team record.

Woodhead breaks out: Running back Danny Woodhead finished with two receptions for 13 yards and was targeted just three times against Cincinnati last week. The only other games this season in which Woodhead was targeted three times or fewer was against Houston (three) and Miami (two) -- both losses for the Chargers. But Woodhead broke out against the Giants, finishing with four catches for 52 yards, including a 6-yard score and a spectacular 39-yard circus catch where he tipped the ball to himself and hauled the ball in before falling to the ground. Check out the play here.

Turnover eruption: The Chargers managed just seven turnovers through the first 10 games of the season but now have forced seven turnovers in the past three games, including a season-high three turnovers that led to 14 points against the Giants. San Diego is now 4-1 when the team wins the turnover battle.

Happy birthday, Philip: Rivers celebrated his 32nd birthday in style on Sunday with another impressive performance. Rivers completed 21 of 28 passes (75 percent) for 249 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a season-high 137.4 passer rating. Rivers leads the league in completion percentage at 70.3 percent. He now has 26 touchdown passes on the season, joining Drew Brees and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 25 touchdown passes in six straight seasons.

Upon Further Review: Colts Week 14

December, 9, 2013
CINCINNATI -- An examination of five topics from the Indianapolis Colts' loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Locked in at fourth seed: The Colts will finish with the fourth seed in the AFC playoffs barring a collapse from the third-seeded Bengals in their final three games of the season. Cincinnati’s remaining three games are at Pittsburgh and home against Minnesota and Baltimore. The Colts will play the Kansas City Chiefs in the opening weekend of the playoffs if the standings remain the same the rest of the season. The Chiefs (10-3) have a better record than the Colts (8-5), but the game would be played at Lucas Oil Stadium because Indianapolis won the AFC South. A preview of that playoff matchup takes place Dec. 22 in Kansas City.

Shuffling line: The Colts used their fifth different starting offensive line against the Bengals. Mike McGlynn moved back into the starting lineup at guard because Jeff Linkenbach was out and Joe Reitz started for the injured Hugh Thornton at the other guard spot. The negative is that the Colts rushed for only 63 yards -- partially because they fell behind so early -- but the positive is that quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t get sacked and he passed for 326 yards and four touchdowns. Sunday was the first time that Luck threw four touchdown passes without an interception in a game. McGlynn is the likely candidate to go back to the bench once Thornton returns from his neck injury.

Waiting another week: Linebacker Robert Mathis will have to wait at least another week before passing Dwight Freeney as the team’s all-time sack leader. Mathis was nonexistent against the Bengals. He finished with only one assisted tackle. Sunday was only the fourth game this season that Mathis didn’t record a sack. He has 107 career sacks and trails Freeney by only half a sack for the team record

A factor in the backfield: Running back Trent Richardson gained only 20 yards on six carries, but he did have a part in the passing game. He tied his season high in catches with five for 68 yards. The Colts need to make Richardson a bigger part of their passing game because he excelled in that area last season with the Cleveland Browns. He finished his rookie season with 51 catches for 367 yards and a touchdown.

Struggles on third down: So much has been made about the defense’s inability to stop teams on third down, but the offense has its own problem converting on third down. The Colts were 2-of-10 on third down, which is a major reason why the Bengals had the ball 15 minutes more than them. Sunday marked the seventh time in the past eight games that the Colts finished the game converting fewer than 40 percent of their third-down attempts. They were 0-for-6 on third down in the first half against the Bengals.

Upon Further Review: Redskins Week 14

December, 9, 2013
LANDOVER, Md. -- A review of four hot topics following the Washington Redskins' 45-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs:

Shanahan’s status: As Monday began, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan remained employed. He looked exhausted or perhaps resigned to his fate Sunday night when he left FedEx Field nearly 90 minutes after an embarrassing 45-10 loss to the Chiefs. There have been too many recent stories detailing relationships -- Shanahan and Robert Griffin III; Shanahan and Griffin/Dan Snyder and Kyle Shanahan and Griffin -- and too many losses on the field to think this situation can be salvaged. Four years into the regime, the roster still needs a lot of work. The salary-cap penalty didn’t help, but free agency has been mixed for Redskins anyway, so to think it would have solved everything is incorrect. There are reasons to change regimes other than failed relationships. Aside from Griffin, the team leaders have publicly endorsed Shanahan’s return, and privately, players support him as well. But with a 24-37 record, they haven’t backed their support up with the sort of success the organization wanted.

Griffin’s status: On any other Sunday, the fact that Shanahan did not commit to Griffin to start the following week would make huge news. But it got lost in the drama of Shanahan’s job and the dynamics of various relationships. Shanahan would only say they’ll “talk about it later.” If there was no doubt, Shanahan would say so. It could be a moot point, as Shanahan might not even be the one making that decision. And it’s becoming clear he won’t be the one making these decisions in 2014. Still, for now, Shanahan isn’t sure whether he wants Griffin or Kirk Cousins to start against Atlanta. Shanahan is a strong believer in Cousins, and Griffin has been inconsistent at best. It also makes you wonder whether owner Dan Snyder would stand for something like this, knowing the future implications. Playing Cousins to “see what you have” doesn’t make much sense because Griffin remains the future. Just like it doesn’t make sense to bench Griffin just to keep him healthy. If he is the future, he needs to play and play a lot. If you’re not sold on that, then that’s a reason to play Cousins, or maybe also if you want to send a parting shot to the current starter. Regardless, it’s just more drama in Washington -- because there wasn’t enough already.

Special-teams mishaps: Niles Paul was as upset as anyone after Sunday’s game because of the special teams’ performance. He blamed it in part on players’ mindsets, saying that some guys project themselves as future starters, so they don’t prepare right for special teams. The thing is, on punt and kickoff coverage, there aren’t a lot of young players who are even guaranteed of a roster spot next season, let alone a starting job. On kick return Sunday, there were four players who are in their first or second years -- Bacarri Rambo, Jose Gumbs, Josh Bellamy and Trenton Robinson. Rambo already is starting (he was knocked for his special-teams play earlier this season). On punt coverage, 10 of the 11 players have been in the NFL for at least three years. The exception: Robinson. No, it’s not about young guys who don’t get it. Rather, it’s about veterans who don’t do it well. This unit was put together poorly.

Milestone marker: In a bad season, two Redskins offensive players have been consistent producers -- receiver Pierre Garcon and running back Alfred Morris. Both surpassed the 1,000-yard mark Sunday; Morris has now rushed for 1,027 yards, while Garcon has a career-best 1,017 yards receiving. Morris’ overall yardage total won’t match his 2012 number of 1,613 yards, but that’s not his fault. Morris is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has run the ball only 37 times combined in the past three games, two of which were blowouts. He’s also averaged 3.7 yards or fewer in those games as teams focused hard on stopping the Redskins' run game. Still, Morris has had a strong year running the ball in an offense with so much inconsistency. Garcon has posted big numbers, though he doesn’t have many big plays and has caught just three touchdown passes among his 89 catches. His longest catch is 44 yards, a function of a passing game that is either inaccurate downfield or doesn't get enough time to throw certain passes. Garcon is averaging 11.4 yards per catch, his lowest figure in his five seasons as a full-time starter. But he’s done a good job being able to catch and run, especially on screens, and is the lone receiver who worries a defense.

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 14

December, 9, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos' 51-28 win over the Tennessee Titans.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Wes Welker
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesWes Welker's touchdown gives the Broncos four players with at least 10 touchdowns.
Balanced history: The Broncos' offense continues to vex defensive coordinators around the league because of the assortment of options for quarterback Peyton Manning. And when Manning connected with Wes Welker on a 1-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter Sunday, the Broncos became the first team in the league's history to have four players with at least 10 touchdowns. Welker had his 10th touchdown reception of the season on Sunday, while tight end Julius Thomas and receiver Demaryius Thomas each had his 11th. In addition, running back Knowshon Moreno scored a rushing touchdown, giving him 11 total TDs this season (two receiving, nine rushing). The Broncos have been able to move the ball to wherever the single coverage is and adjust to most any defensive approach.

Second impression: One of the most powerful words any of the Broncos have uttered of late has been "defer." The Broncos love to defer when they win the coin flip, so they have the first possession of the second half. Sunday was the sixth time the Broncos have won the coin toss, elected to defer and then used that opening possession of the second half to score a touchdown. The only time they have won the toss, deferred and not scored a touchdown to open the second half was in their loss in Indianapolis. This season, the Broncos have scored on their first possession of the second half nine times -- eight touchdowns and one field goal.

Tamme now slot machine: When Welker left the game just before halftime with a concussion, the Broncos had used a three-receiver set on every offensive snap to that point. After Welker left, the Broncos moved to a two-tight-end look, but still played like a three-wide look because of what tight end Jacob Tamme can do. Tamme took Welker's spot in the slot, which is how Tamme had lined up in the offense last season much of the time before Welker's arrival. Tamme was effective as he finished with 47 yards on five catches. It will allow the Broncos to use that three-wide section of the playbook moving forward with Welker unlikely to play Thursday night against the Chargers.

Special concerns: For the second consecutive week, a mix-and-match group on special teams allowed a big kickoff return. In Kansas City a week ago it was a 108-yarder by Knile Davis, and Sunday it was a 95-yarder by Leon Washington. The Broncos aren't consistently getting off blocks of late, and returners are finding some gaps the Broncos weren't leaving behind earlier this season. Those are momentum plays, the kind, at the wrong time of a season, even the Broncos' offense won't be able to overcome.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals' 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams.

Palmer rested: After not throwing a single pass in practice all week to rest an injured throwing elbow, Carson Palmer registered the second-best completion percentage in Cardinals history Sunday.

He completed 27 of 32 passes, or 84.4 percent, which was the next highest to Kurt Warner’s NFL record 92.3 percent in 2009. It helped that Palmer started 11-for-11.

“I didn’t know that and I didn’t feel that way,” Palmer said. “I really didn’t think about it. I was thinking about the lull we had at the beginning of the second half and being a little frustrated with that.”

Larry Fitzgerald
Back in a groove: It’s been a while since Larry Fitzgerald had double-digit receptions. Almost two years, to be exact. But as Palmer found a rhythm, so did Fitzgerald, catching all 12 of his targets for 96 yards.

“We just had a good connection,” Fitzgerald said. “Everything worked pretty good. As a whole throwing the ball, I think we were pretty effective and we were able to move the ball up and down the field.”

Fitzgerald’s 12 catches were his most since Week 17 of the 2011 season, and one shy of his career high of 13. He’s hit that mark twice, last in Week 6 of 2009 at Seattle. His 12 catches are tied for the most this season among receivers who caught all their targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Fitzgerald knew how close he was to matching his career high.

“I’m very aware all the time of where I'm at,” Fitzgerald said. “But the game was out of reach at that point and I never put myself in front of my team. We did what we needed to do. Hopefully, I can get 13 or 14 next week.”

How the West was won: It took only 15 months, but the Cardinals won an NFC West game, finally. The last time they changed a 0 to a 1 in their division standings was in Week 1 of the 2012 season, in Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s debut. It’s been a long ride since.

“We knew that if we just do what we’re supposed to do, we are a good enough team to win games,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “We just did our part and played the game the way we’re supposed to and limited our mistakes and it shows how good we can be.”

It’s a monkey off their backs, coach Bruce Arians said.

“And you guys can write about something else now,” he added.

Not Cook-ing: There were two focal points for the Cardinals this past week: defensive end Robert Quinn and tight end Jared Cook. Both torched Arizona in Week 1 and both were cooled Sunday, especially Cook.

Cook had 141 yards and two touchdowns in their first meeting but finished with just 49 yards on three receptions.

“I thought our guys did a really good job of matching and mixing and staying with him this time,” Arians said.

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 14

December, 9, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints' 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Back to the road: The Saints (10-3) were awesome Sunday night. And even more impressive than the performance itself was the resilience they showed by bouncing back on a short week, just six nights after a blowout loss at Seattle.

But the Saints know full well that this week’s narrative won’t be about celebrating their greatness. It will be about questioning their ability to take this same show on the road. They’ve got to play at the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, followed by a trip to Carolina in Week 16.

The Saints clearly haven’t been the same team away from the Superdome this season. They’re 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road, where they’ve been outscored 135-113. The St. Louis game should be manageable, since it’s in a dome and the Rams are a 5-8 team. But quarterback Drew Brees was one of many players who cautioned that the Saints can’t afford a letdown.

“They’re a very tough team in that dome, too,” Brees said. “The times that we’ve had to travel there, ’09 we barely squeaked out of there with a win, and they were a winless team at the time, and ’11 they beat the brakes off of us. ... So we’re gonna need our best week of preparation and our best performance. We want to keep this thing rollin’.”

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette
AP Photo/Dave MartinJunior Galette sparked the New Orleans defense with three sacks on Sunday night.
All-time great: Brees was awesome Sunday, too, on a night when he made history. Brees, who threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns, became the first quarterback in NFL history with eight consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. He also became the fifth quarterback to reach 50,000 career yards (joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway).

“We were kidding him that a lot of places, if the quarterback hits 50,000 yards, they would have fireworks, stop the game. And we just kind of had a little nod and an ‘atta boy,’” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But that is a pretty unique feat when you look at the history of our league. ... To be in that class of [five] people now really hits on his consistency, his durability, his availability, along with his skill set.”

Run game passed over: Once again, the Saints relied heavily on their passing game (45 dropbacks versus 14 called runs). But Payton and Brees both said that was the plan going in -- and it was hard to fault that plan when the Saints had so much success. Payton said the Saints saw more man coverage than expected -- and he said he thought Carolina got away with some pass interference that wasn’t called. But the Saints were still able to get their receivers involved more than usual. Marques Colston was especially outstanding with nine catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns (more on him later today).

The more-dominant D: The Panthers’ defense was more hyped going into this game. But the Saints’ defense was the dominant one, allowing just 239 yards and 13 points. Outside linebacker Junior Galette (three sacks) and end Cameron Jordan (two sacks) were especially dynamic. And the Saints started to steamroll the Panthers once they were playing with a big lead. But their two biggest moments came early when they forced Carolina to settle for field goals on its first two drives (a sack by Galette, a tackle for loss by safety Malcolm Jenkins and blitz pressure near the end zone were the three biggest plays).

Upon Further Review: Seahawks Week 14

December, 9, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Seattle Seahawks' 19-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers:

Penalties a problem: The Seahawks have said all year the only way they can lose is if they beat themselves. It’s true, and their Achilles' heel all season has been penalties. Seattle is one of the most penalized teams in the NFL, partially because of their physical and aggressive style of play. But the Seahawks also take way too many careless penalties. Most of the time they are good enough to overcome them, but not on the road against a good team like the 49ers. Seattle had nine penalties for 85 yards, and several of them killed big plays for the offense or kept drives alive for San Francisco. It’s the one weak area of the team that has to improve.

Unleash the Beast: Marshawn Lynch now has gone three consecutive games without topping 100 yards rushing. He ran for 72 yards on 20 carries Sunday, giving him 171 yards rushing on 53 carries in the last three outings for an average of 3.2 per carry. Those are not Beast Mode numbers. His 11-yard touchdown run was the only rushing first down the Seahawks had Sunday, although a penalty nixed one 15-yard run. Defenses are keying on Lynch, but Seattle still needs to win the line of scrimmage and overpower teams up front

Wright hurt: Outside linebacker K.J. Wright suffered a broken foot in the first half and may be out for the rest of the season. Coach Pete Carroll said he thought it was at least a six-week recovery time, which might mean he could return for the Super Bowl if Seattle makes it. But the Seahawks will have to make a decision whether they want to carry Wright on the active roster with the hope of getting him back, or go ahead and place him on injured reserve, which would end his season. Malcolm Smith will move into the starting lineup for Wright. Smith is a solid contributor who has started four games this year and has played in all 13.

Sherman, Thomas, where are you? Free safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman are the leaders of the Seattle defense and two of the best defensive backs in the league, but neither man has an interception in the last five games after picking off four each in the first eight games. The Seahawks rely on these guys to come up with big plays. They need to step up in the last three games of the regular season.

Upon Further Review: Packers Week 14

December, 9, 2013
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A review of four hot issues from the Green Bay Packers' 22-21 win against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Lambeau Field:

[+] EnlargeMatt Flynn
AP Photo/Tom LynnMatt Flynn completed 14-of-16 passes outside the numbers in Green Bay's 22-21 win against Atlanta.
Flynn works well outside: In his first start against the Detroit Lions, Matt Flynn was unable to take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. In his second start against the Falcons, it was clear the plan was to attack the Falcons along the sidelines. Relying heavily on out routes, corner routes and fades -- many of them to his tight ends -- Flynn completed 14 of 16 passes outside the numbers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. More than half of Flynn’s yardage -- 149 of his 258 yards -- came on such passes. The Falcons entered the game allowing the second-highest completion percentage on passes outside the numbers. On the first series, Flynn hit tight end Andrew Quarless for 15 yards on an out pattern. “We had some success early with it, and so we just stuck to our guns,” Flynn said. “We took some shots when we thought it was the right time, but mostly if they’re backing off, there’s no reason to throw deep, especially on a field like that, weather like that. Get [it] in your guys' hands and let ’em go to work.”

Safety dance: It was another rough outing for the safeties. Morgan Burnett gave up a pair of touchdowns -- a 36-yarder from quarterback Matt Ryan to receiver Drew Davis and a 2-yarder from Ryan to tight end Tony Gonzalez, both in the second quarter. On Davis’ touchdown, safety M.D. Jennings missed what would have been a touchdown-saving tackle. On Gonzalez’s touchdown, Burnett bit on the play-action fake, leaving the tight end wide open. Jennings was benched late in the second quarter in favor of Sean Richardson, who played most of the remainder of the game. “They said my role was going to increase a little because I had deserved it, they felt like I deserved it,” said Richardson, a second-year pro who missed the first part of the season while recovering from neck surgery. “I just thank them for the opportunity, and for believing and trusting in me.”

Too early for two, again: For the second time in three games, coach Mike McCarthy called for a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter. After going for it -- and failing -- with 11:42 left in the Week 12 tie against the Minnesota Vikings, McCarthy did it again -- and failed again -- with 12:01 left against the Falcons after the Packers took a 22-21 lead. The fact that it failed both times is irrelevant. That’s just too early in the game to sacrifice one sure point even though a successful two-point play would put the Packers ahead by a field goal. “Obviously, two points makes it a field goal lead,” McCarthy said. “I felt it was kind of a no-brainer at that time.”

Lucky Lacy's injury wasn’t worse: Running back Eddie Lacy's day -- and perhaps his season -- was almost ruined by an ankle injury on the final play of the first half. The play probably never should have been called. McCarthy was clearly intent on running out the clock (there were four seconds remaining), and the play was a run to the left by Lacy for 1 yard. He sprained his right ankle on the play and hobbled to the locker room. He missed the first two series of the second half before he returned with his right ankle heavily taped. When asked whether he regretted not having Flynn take a knee, McCarthy said: “No. There’s other play calls I regret, but I won’t share that with you. That’s for the team.”

Upon Further Review: Giants Week 14

December, 9, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- An examination of four hot issues from the New York Giants' 37-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesEli Manning threw two more interceptions, bringing him closer to a new career high.
Penalties a killer: The Giants were flagged for seven penalties for 72 yards. The worst may have been Charles James' offside penalty that gave Nick Novak a second chance at a field goal (he missed from 41 yards but then made it from 36), but that was just one of four offside calls against the Giants. "There's no excuse for that," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Watch the ball. That's what you do all day long. If you watch us practice, we put a ball on the end of a stick, and the player doesn't move until the ball moves. There's absolutely no excuse for jumping offsides." It's easy to use a word like "undisciplined" to describe a team that gets called for too many penalties, but I think sometimes a team that feels overmatched can start jumping early in an effort to tilt the advantage back in its favor. The Giants have certainly felt overmatched at times this season, and Sunday was a strong example of such a game.

Chargers run wild: The Chargers rushed for 144 yards on 40 carries. Ryan Mathews had 103 yards and Danny Woodhead added 42. Justin Tuck grumbled that the total had more to do with San Diego's number of rushing attempts than anything special they did against the Giants' defense. But the 144 was the second-highest single-game rushing yardage total against the Giants this season (Carolina had 194 in Week 3), and Mathews found holes all day. The Chargers ended up possessing the ball for 36:56, which was the second-highest time-of-possession total against the Giants this season, just behind Dallas' 37:10 in the opener.

Third-down woes: The Chargers entered the game with a third-down conversion rate of 46.4 percent, which was second-best in the league to Denver, and they improved it, going 10-for-15 on third down Sunday. The Giants have struggled with third-down defense all season, and rank in the bottom third of the league in that department. But this was especially bad. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was 7-for-10 for 128 yards and two touchdowns on third down, and that was another huge reason for the time-of-possession edge.

Eli's rough year rolls on: Hakeem Nicks was able to make some plays down the field for a change, and ended up with 135 yards on five catches. But quarterback Eli Manning struggled again, missing some key throws and once again unable to get the offense into a rhythm. The Giants struggled to protect him early in the game, and he took two more sacks to raise his career-high total to 33 for the season. He also threw his 19th and 20th interceptions of the season, putting him five short of his career high in that department with three games to play. He threw a touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Myers for the third game in a row, but Nicks doesn't have a touchdown all season and Victor Cruz hasn't caught one since September.