NFL Nation: rapid reaction 13

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

MINNEAPOLIS -- And down the stretch they come.

With 75 percent of the season in the books, Minnesota has taken control of the NFC North. There have been plenty of ups and downs already in the Black and Blue division, but the Vikings' dominating second-half performance at the Metrodome suggests they are capable of pulling off their first division title since the 2000 season.

Most important, the Vikings are the only team that can win the division without help. They have the toughest remaining schedule, including home games against Atlanta (8-4) and the N.Y. Giants (11-1) to end the season. But after consecutive double-digit victories over Jacksonville and the Bears, you would have to say the Vikings are the only North team playing their best football during the most important part of the season.

The Bears will be left to wonder what might have happened if quarterback Kyle Orton hadn't thrown three second-half interceptions. But no matter what the explanation, the Bears will now need some help -- namely, from the Vikings -- to win a division they have led for most of the season.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) remaining schedule
Dec. 7 vs. Dallas Cowboys (8-4)
Comment: Pittsburgh is 1-2 against the NFC East but could finish .500 against the NFL's toughest division.
Dec. 14 at Baltimore Ravens (8-4)
Comment: This is by far the biggest game in the division. 
Dec. 20 at Tennessee Titans (11-1)
Comment: Pittsburgh probably can't catch Tennessee but could leave an impression if these teams meet again.
Dec. 28 vs. Cleveland Browns (4-8)
Comment: This could be an opportunity to rest players if the Steelers take care of business.
The Pittsburgh Steelers not only made a huge statement, but they positioned themselves to make a deep postseason run with Sunday's 33-10 victory over the New England Patriots.

The win has multiple benefits for the Steelers, who improved to 9-3. They earned a head-to-head tiebreaker over New England (7-5) in the event it ever comes down to it. Pittsburgh also gained a game on the New York Jets (8-4), who lost to the Denver Broncos and remain the biggest threats to the Steelers in terms of playoff seeding.

And the No. 2 seed is a coveted prize this year in the balanced AFC. It would mean a first-round bye and a home game at Heinz Field for Pittsburgh, which potentially would set up a one-game scenario against the Tennessee Titans in the conference title game with a chance to go to Tampa.

What we learned Sunday was the route Pittsburgh's top-rated defense will travel. The Steelers haven't had a bad game defensively all season, and as long as they don't turn over the football, Pittsburgh should be in every game regardless of the opponent and location.

This, along with the win over the Washington Redskins, was among Pittsburgh's most impressive

Baltimore Ravens (8-4) remaining schedule
Dec. 7 vs. Washington Redskins (7-5)
Comment: This is a good time to catch the Redskins, losers of three of their last four.
Dec. 14 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)
Comment: This is a must-win game if Baltimore wants to win the AFC North.
Dec. 20 at Dallas Cowboys (8-4)
Comment: This is the only road game remaining, but it will be a tough one.
Dec. 28 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7)
Comment: This is a very winnable game, which is good because it's probably another must-win.
victories of the season. The Steelers went on the road to Gillette Stadium and won the turnover battle 5-to-1 and halted the hot streak of New England quarterback Matt Cassel, who entered Sunday with back-to-back 400-yard games.

Perhaps the biggest challenge going forward is can the Steelers hold off the surging Baltimore Ravens (8-4), who won their sixth game in seven weeks with an impressive 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals?

Both schedules are rugged. Baltimore and Pittsburgh each play three teams with winning records in its final four games. But the biggest matchup remaining could be against one another when the Ravens host the Steelers on Dec. 14.

The winner of that game may not only earn the AFC North title, but a free pass into the second round of the postseason.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

So much for that late playoff push from the Oakland Raiders.

After the Raiders' impressive win at Denver last week, a few Oakland players said they were still in the race. That talk must end now.

The Raiders followed up their surprising win at Denver with an equally surprising loss to Kansas City on Sunday. As fired up and effective as it was last week in Denver, Oakland was as flat and lackluster against the Chiefs. Oakland is now 3-9. It is not going to the playoffs.

But it is back on track for having the worst six-year stretch in NFL history. If Oakland loses two more time this season it will become the first team in league history to register six straight 11-loss seasons.

While the loss to Kansas City is a killer for Oakland. the win over the Raiders is a rare bright spot for the Chiefs who won for the first time since Week 4. It is just Kansas City's second win in its last 21 games.

The Chiefs took a step backward in the past two weeks as they allowed 84 points, including a franchise record high 54 points last week against Buffalo.

But the Chiefs, who blew three straight games earlier in the season, found a way to finish. The Chiefs are now 2-10 and if it can play well in December, coach Herman Edwards could possibly save his job.

While the loss ends any wild dreams for Oakland, the win gives Kansas City a reason to smile amid a brutal season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Mark the Denver Broncos down as one of the most confusing teams in the NFL.

They just handled the New York Jets, who entered Sunday's game as perhaps the hottest team in the NFL coming off of road wins over New England and previously unbeaten Tennessee.

But the Jets were beaten -- and beaten soundly -- by the Broncos. Yes, the same Broncos who lost by three touchdowns at home last week to lowly Oakland. The Broncos are the only team in the NFL to lose to both the Chiefs and the Raiders. Denver has lost three straight home games. But this win over New York is Denver's third straight road win.

The Broncos couldn't be any more perplexing. The problem for some AFC team is Denver will be a perplexing opponent in the postseason.

Denver's huge win over New York, coupled with San Diego's home defeat to Atlanta, makes it highly probable that Denver will win its first AFC West crown in three years. The Broncos are 7-5 while the Chargers are 4-8. With four games to go, Denver needs a minor miracle.

But who knows, these are the Broncos we're talking about. After last week's loss to Oakland, it looked like the Broncos we're in need of a minor miracle to beat the Jets.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense was too devastating for the New England Patriots to handle.

With the New York Jets in trouble at home to the Denver Broncos, the Patriots had an opportunity to climb back atop the AFC East but lost, 33-10 in Gillette Stadium.

Instead, the Patriots are 7-5 in the tightly bound division, tied with the Miami Dolphins and still one game behind the first-place Jets.

The Steelers overwhelmed Matt Cassel in the cold rain and took advantage of several turnovers. Cassel threw interceptions and was stripped twice on sacks. Matthew Slater also bumbled a kickoff return to set up a Steelers touchdown.

Cassel wasn't helped by his receivers, who let a few big plays hit the turf. Randy Moss dropped what should've been a touchdown at the end of the first half and botched a couple of others. Jabar Gaffney dropped what would have been a long gain in the fourth quarter.

Cassel's final stat line: 19 of 39 for 169 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His streak of 400-yard games wouldn't have remained intact if you added in those 112 yards of interception returns.

Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris combined to rush for 128 yards.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

For the next week, you're going to hear a lot about the NFC South showdown between Tampa Bay and Carolina. But once again, we have to utter the phrase that seemed ridiculous back in August.

Don't forget the Atlanta Falcons.

All year long, new coach Mike Smith has talked about one game at a time. Now, it's time to break that rule and look at the big picture.

The Falcons are 8-4. Carolina and Tampa Bay are each 9-3. Atlanta's remaining games are at New Orleans on Sunday, home against Tampa Bay Dec. 14, at Minnesota on Dec. 21 and homeagainst St. Louis on Dec. 28.

Let's assume for a second the Falcons already beat the Rams. Think they can win one of those other three games? If they do, that makes them 10-6 and probably puts them in the playoffs.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- When the season is over for the San Diego Chargers -- and more and more that date is looking like Dec. 28, the final Sunday of the regular season -- the fault will lie squarely on the team's shoulders.

The Chargers are controlling their own fate and it's not going well. San Diego just fell to 4-8 after its loss to Atlanta. This was supposed to be the time San Diego made its run. Sunday's game was the second in a stretch of three home games. The Chargers were defeated by Indianapolis last Sunday and they host Oakland on Thursday.

Still, the home stretch has done nothing for San Diego, which was flat all game long against the Falcons. Atlanta could have blown out San Diego. It left many points on the field. This game was never really close.

The Chargers can't look back at this game and say they could have won. This wasn't one of these last-minute losses. The Chargers were outplayed and outcoached.

With four games to go, San Diego, which won 25 games combined in the past two seasons, can go 8-8 at best. Unless Denver completely tumbles, the preseason Super Bowl favorite Chargers are going to go down as one of the great disappointments in recent NFL memory.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The hype starts now. The game of the year, maybe the biggest game ever in the short history of the NFC South, will be played Dec. 8 at Bank of America Stadium.

If anyone doesn't already know the NFC South is the best-kept secret in football, they'll figure it out between now and that Monday Night Football game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers will play a game that could go a long way in deciding the NFC South title.

They're both 9-3 and they're both coming off impressive performances Sunday. After three games where they didn't look very good, the Panthers went into Lambeau Field and won. The Bucs found a way to slow down Drew Brees.

Part of the reason why the NFC South may be overlooked at times is because its top two teams, Carolina and Tampa Bay, don't have a lot of big names and neither team plays with a lot of flash.

But put those two teams under the Monday night lights with the division on the line and you can't ask for a better game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

It's safe to assume that Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy will face some second-guessing for calling three consecutive running plays in a goal-line situation late in Sunday's loss to Carolina. The game was tied at 28, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been lights-out in the second half and the Panthers defense seemed confused for most of the second half as the Packers rallied from a 21-10 deficit.

Brandon Jackson gained six yards on the first play, but Jackson and fullback John Kuhn were stopped for no gain at the 1-yard line -- forcing a 19-yard Mason Crosby field goal with 2:19 remaining. The difference between a touchdown and field goal ended up the margin of defeat in an eventual 35-31 Panthers victory.

It's possible that Rodgers was still shaken up after absorbing a late hit from Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers. But given the way the Packers' passing game was producing, you would have liked to have seen at least one throw in that goal-line situation.

Even so, the Packers' special teams deserve just as much blame, if not more, for this loss. Green Bay thoroughly dominated after halftime, but a pair of long kickoff returns from Mark Jones -- for 51 and 45 yards -- set up Carolina on both of their second-half touchdowns.

Stranger things have happened, but it's hard to imagine the Packers' playoff chances surviving this weekend. They will be two games behind whoever wins Sunday night's game between Chicago and Minnesota, and at 5-7. They're on the far fringes of the NFC wild-card race.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Rams, blown away more often than not lately, hung tough and lost a close one for a change. The close call won't do anything to endear Marc Bulger to the St. Louis fans, however.

Bulger tossed three second-half interceptions while completing only 46 percent of his passes with a 4.3-yard average per attempt. His 22.2 passer rating came despite strong production from Steven Jackson in the running back's first game back from injury. The Rams' defense also showed improvement in holding the Dolphins to one touchdown.

Jackson carried 15 times for 72 yards in the first half. He carried only six times for 22 yards in the second half, when Bulger's interceptions prevented the Rams from sustaining drives.

Life could get tougher for the Rams in the short term as they travel to face the Cardinals in Week 14. Arizona will be playing for the NFC West title after an extended layoff.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

No Plaxico Burress?

No problem.

Two days after the club's star receiver accidentally shot himself in the leg in a Manhattan nightclub, the Giants came out and dominated the Redskins at FedEx Field.

The Redskins (7-5) did a nice job of bottling up running back Brandon Jacobs in the first half, but quarterback Eli Manning shredded Washington's secondary. He had a career-high 240 passing yards in the first half, completing passes to six different players.

And once again, Domenik Hixon did his best Burress imitation, only without all the drama. Hixon had five catches for 71 yards and Amani Toomer added five for 85 yards. The success of the passing game might make it easier for coach Tom Coughlin to forget about Burress -- at least for the rest of the season.

Burress wasn't going to play anyway Sunday because of a hamstring injury, but now the Giants are thinking about putting him on the "non-football injury reserved list," according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

For a team that has learned how to win without star players in the past, this almost seems par for the course. The Giants took a 13-7 lead at halftime and then tacked on another touchdown midway through the the third quarter.

The Redskins gave an inspired effort on defense, but the offense's lack of a consistent running game robbed them of any chance to win the game. Running back Clinton Portis was held to 22 yards on 11 carries. He limped off the field on a couple different occasions and wasn't able to return in the fourth quarter.

Trailing 20-7, the Redskins decided to go for it on a fourth-and-1 in their own territory. Right tackle Jon Jansen didn't block anyone, and Giants defensive end Justin Tuck came racing in to make the tackle.

The Giants pretty much have the NFC East crown sewn up as they improved to 11-1. In falling to 7-5, the Redskins fell a game behind the Cowboys in the race for a wild-card spot. In fact, Washington only has a half-game lead on the Eagles, who will play the Giants in the Meadowlands next Sunday. The Cowboys will be on the road in Pittsburgh.

The Redskins need to win three of their next four games to have any serious hope of making the playoffs. The Giants will probably have the option of resting their starters in the final two games of the season. That's not really Tom Coughlin's style, though, so we'll have to see how he plays it.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Pretty it wasn't.

Even so, the Miami Dolphins posted a road victory over the St. Louis Rams, 16-12, on Sunday afternoon in the Edwards Jones Dome.

The Dolphins will enter December two games above .500 and remain in the wild-card hunt. They will play the gagging Buffalo Bills next Sunday in Toronto.

The Dolphins intercepted Marc Bulger three times and gained 327 net yards, spreading the ball around to running backs Ronnie Brown (48 yards) and Ricky Williams (54 yards). Brown scored the game's lone touchdown in the second quarter, capping a 91-yard drive.

Chad Pennington completed only 13 of 26 passes for 133 yards.

It was enough. The Dolphins are 7-5 and very much alive in the playoff race.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

That should pretty much do it.

The Buffalo Bills have a .500 record and are alone at the bottom of the AFC East with only four games to play.

What an atrocious loss. The San Francisco 49ers came into Ralph Wilson Stadium with nothing to play for except a pay check and maybe some jobs in 2009 and beat the flat-lining Bills, 10-3.

So much for that scalding hot 4-0 start. The Bills also were 5-1 and the darlings of the AFC.

The Bills' defense, playing without safety Donte Whitner, cornerback Jabari Greer and Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel, performed well enough for a victory. The Bills gave up only 195 net yards (62 rushing, 133 passing) and just 12 first downs.

But the Bills' offense didn't show up, and kicker Rian Lindell missed two field goals.

Bills quarterback Trent Edwards was awful. J.P. Losman emerged from the bullpen at the start of the second half and mustered a semblance of offense, but not nearly enough. The Bills have stumbled against 3-4 defenses all season. Now they're 1-5 against them.

The 49ers, meanwhile, became the first team in 15 tries to travel three time zones eastward and win.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Displaying the characteristics that turned their season and have them in control of their playoff fate, the Colts were resilient and opportunistic as they found a way to win Sunday, yet again.

On a windy day in Cleveland, Indianapolis couldn't get anything going on offense, losing an early Joseph Addai fumble, two Peyton Manning interceptions and a Manning fumble on a fourth-down at the goal line.

But Dwight Freeney forced a Derek Anderson fumble, Robert Mathis scooped and scored and it was enough for a 10-6 win that moved the Colts to 8-4 and kept them at the head of the AFC Wild Card pack.

Already without safety Bob Sanders (knee), the Colts lost middle linebacker Gary Brackett (ankle) and defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson (hamstring) during the game. Another linebacker, Freddy Keiaho, left the game late with a leg injury.

But as has become their habit, the Colts patched the holes, moved right along and did enough to get the result they needed.

Tony Dungy sounded optimistic leading up to the game about Sanders' potential to return next week against Cincinnati at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Assessments of the new injuries still to come.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The 49ers showed everything they want to be under Mike Singletary in becoming the first West Coast team to win in the Eastern time zone this season.

Running back Frank Gore ran the ball on the 49ers' first five offensive plays. Quarterback Shaun Hill managed the game and struck downfield selectively. Free-agent addition Justin Smith blew up a fourth-and-2 running play in the fourth quarter when the Bills were threatening to score. And when the Bills needed a comeback late, the 49ers' pass rush took over, with Ray McDonald getting pressure and Smith collecting a key sack.

With the exception of a Gore fumble and an untimely penalty, the 49ers were the smarter team in the second half, letting the Bills make the errors. The Bills were the team suffering from shaky quarterback play, bad decision making and questionable game management.

This marked a reversal for the 49ers and a breakthrough performance for Singletary as he builds a case for keeping the job in 2009.

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