- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The 2012 season has been marked by close games. That wasn't the case Sunday.
In a season in which outcomes of eight points or less have been commonplace, only two games fit that description Sunday. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 in overtime and the Green Bay Packers beat the Chicago Bears 21-13 in a game that didn't appear to be as close as the score.
Two more teams clinched division titles. The Packers clinched the NFC North. The Houston Texans clinched the AFC South. Despite an embarrassing loss to the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens clinched a playoff spot.
Thus, the AFC playoff picture became clearer. The Texans, Patriots and Broncos are division winners and battling for the top two seeds and a bye. The Ravens are in but haven't wrapped up the AFC North. The Colts needed a Cincinnati loss to make the playoffs, but they are all but there. The last spot pretty much comes down to who wins the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh next Sunday in Heinz Field.
In the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons have the NFC South and are close to the No. 1 seed. The 49ers and Seahawks are in great position for playoff spots. The Washington Redskins moved a tiebreaker ahead in the NFC East, but it's still a three-way tie with the Giants and Cowboys. The Minnesota Vikings moved into the last wild-card spot temporarily, but the Cowboys, Bears and Giants have the same records.
Here is what else stood out in Week 15.
1. Peaking at the right time: The Falcons needed a statement game. Despite having the best record in the NFC, the lack of respect for the Falcons carried to an extreme when they dropped to No. 5 in ESPN.com's Power Rankings. For what it's worth, I still voted them No. 1. Sunday's 34-0 victory over the New York Giants was just what they needed. At 12-2 and close to locking up home-field advantage, maybe the Falcons will get some respect now.
The Falcons looked like a No. 1 seed Sunday, dominating on offense, defense and special teams. Matt Ryan completed 23-of-28 for 270 yards and three touchdowns. The defense made three key stops on fourth downs.
"Those fourth-down stops are like turnovers,'' Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Gone is the panic from last week, when the Falcons lost to the Carolina Panthers. "Smitty teaches us all the time it's how you respond in those situations,'' Ryan said.
The Broncos won their ninth consecutive game, and their margin of victory during that span is more than 14 points a game. Per normal, the Broncos started slowly, but they blew out Baltimore 34-17. At 11-3, they still have hopes of getting a bye week in the playoffs.
"We try to get better every week,'' Broncos coach John Fox said. "We're not measuring ourselves now. We need to measure ourselves at the end to be the best. Right now, our guys have responded very well to just keep improving every week.''
The key to Denver's victory was its ability to run the ball. Sure, the Ravens didn't have Ray Lewis and were down to backups and special-teams players at inside linebacker. But having Knowshon Moreno rush for 118 yards on 22 carries was huge. The Broncos had balance on the road against a playoff-caliber team. Peyton Manning had to throw only 28 passes. The Broncos had 45 rushing plays.
"It was all set up by the run game,'' Manning said.
The third hot team is the Packers. The key for Green Bay against the Bears was the return of linebacker Clay Matthews, who had been out with a hamstring injury.
"With Clay on the field, we're a different team,'' Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Matthews had two sacks, four tackles for a loss and two additional hits on the quarterback. His return made it easier for the young starters on the defense to play better.
2. Teams in free fall: The Ravens thought they had problems last week after losing back-to-back games to the Steelers and Redskins. As an overreaction, the organization fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and gave quarterback coach Jim Cardwell the chance to call offensive plays for the first time in the NFL.
In Sunday's loss to Denver, the Ravens looked like an offense with a rookie playcaller. They started the game with a fumble and four three-and-outs. It took them until the middle of the second quarter to get a first down. The most embarrassing play came in the final seconds of the second quarter. Caldwell called for a a pass near the sideline from the Denver 4-yard line with 30 seconds left in the half. Chris Harris stepped in front of Anquan Boldin and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.
"That's one of our plays that you kind of get a flat and a fade," QB Joe Flacco said. "It's kind of like going up and clocking the ball. It's kind of like calling a timeout in that situation because it's one of those things that, you know, you catch it and get out of bounds, you catch it in the end zone or you throw it away."
Flacco didn't attribute any of the problems to Caldwell's play calling: "I think it's a matter of us going out there and not doing some of the simple things right early on, and it kind of took us awhile to get into that groove that is really needed to be successful."
Flacco completed 20 of 40 passes for 254 yards, but the Ravens were so far behind that Ray Rice had only 12 carries. The Ravens made mistakes on defense as well. Safety Ed Reed called the game an embarrassment. "I felt it was like Christmas and not for our side," Reed said. "We were in a giving mood." Still, the Ravens lead the AFC North.
Speaking of teams on the decline, what can you say about the Bears? Their loss to Green Bay put them on the outside of the NFC playoff picture. They've lost five of their past six games. They are collapsing. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall broke down emotionally in the postgame media conference. Quarterback Jay Cutler wasn't a factor. He had 107 net passing yards. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had three offensive pass interference penalties, canceling out three catches for 44 yards.
"Everybody involved on offense should be held accountable, even if that means jobs," Marshall said. "It's been this way all year. There are no excuses. We still have two games left. There's still hope, but at the same time we need to be held accountable."
3. Different feel for Texans: The Texans had a business-like approach to Sunday's 29-17, AFC South-clinching victory over the Colts. Coming off an embarrassing, Monday night loss to the New England Patriots, the Texans had their best week of practice and wore down the young Colts.
Last year, the Texans were just happy to win the AFC South, the first division title in franchise history. They clinched with their starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, out with a Lisfranc foot injury.
"This wasn't as exciting as it was last year," wide receiver Andre Johnson said.
Johnson cited the expectations being higher this year, and the Texans brought their lunch pails to Reliant Stadium. They outworked the Colts. The Texans won on all phases on the game. Schaub opened the game with completions of 9 and 42 yards to Johnson, who had 11 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. Arian Foster rushed 27 times for 165 yards. Schaub passed for 261 yards. Houston sacked Andrew Luck five times and limited him to 13 completions and 186 yards. Linebacker Bryan Braman blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown.
"Obviously, we've been working toward that all year," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of winning the AFC South. "To win a 12th game in this league is very difficult to do. It was our type of football. We played good defense all day. I thought we played very solid special teams. Offensively, we were able to run the ball when it counted the most."
That's Texans football. When they mix throwing the ball to Johnson, who has more than 11,000 yards for his career, and get the running plays with Foster, they usually win. But they have more work to do. They know they have to stay ahead of the Patriots to have home-field advantage. They've already learned that winning in New England is difficult. In Houston, it may be a different story.
"You just stick to the game plan," Schaub said. "We had a hard time finding holes in the run game early in the first half and even part way through the third quarter, but then we were able get those 15- and 20-yard runs."
4. All-Day for MVP? Just when you thought it was time to give Manning both the MVP and Comeback Player of the Year awards, Adrian Peterson stunned everyone. He rushed for 212 yards on 24 carries in the Vikings' 36-22 victory over the St. Louis Rams. He now has 1,812 yards for the season. With two games left, he might not only top 2,000 yards, but he might go for the NFL single-season rushing record.
Coming off ACL knee reconstruction less than a year ago, Peterson broke an 82-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career.
Manning is coming off four neck operations and no one thought he'd been 11-3, but Peterson's comeback is one for the ages. He had a 52-yard run toward the end of the game to lock up the victory. Peterson thought his 52-yarder was more important than the 82-yarder because it helped to lock up the game.
"It means a lot, especially coming off the ACL injury," Peterson said of getting to 1,812 yards, his career best.
Peterson said he had his mind on getting 300 yards Sunday. He definitely has Eric Dickerson's 2,105-yard mark on his mind.
Peterson, who truly is humble, said people don't note how hard he works in the offseason. "When you want to be the greatest -- and I have in my mind I want to be the greatest to ever play the game -- you can't talk about it, you got to go out and work," he said.
The Vikings, who are 8-6, play the Texans next week. When Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was told how many yards Peterson had Sunday, Watt's response was "holy smokes." Peterson is smoking.
5. New day in NFC East: The Redskins have turned around a 3-6 start and now stake claim to the NFC East lead after their 38-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns. The Cowboys gutted out an overtime victory over the Steelers to create the three-way tie with the Redskins and Giants. This is the first time since 1999 that the Redskins are in first place this late in the season.
"Well, the main thing is we control our own destiny and you know that," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "So anytime you can control your own destiny with two weeks left, that's all you can ask of your football team. They've worked extremely hard to get to this point. We know the job's not done, and our focus will be on Philadelphia."
The Redskins play at Philadelphia and host Dallas in the final two weeks. The Cowboys host New Orleans next week and finish in Washington. The Giants play at Baltimore next week and host Philadelphia in the final week. The biggest surprise has been the Giants, who fell to third place in the tiebreaker because of a 2-3 record in NFC East games. The Redskins have the tiebreaker because of a 3-1 divisional record.
"We didn't play well, we didn't stop the run, we didn't do anything consistently on offense," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.
The hottest team in the league might be the Seattle Seahawks. They put up a 58-0 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 14. Sunday's 50-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills was even more impressive because it came on the road and it came when the team was down three cornerbacks. Rookie QB Russell Wilson got the offense going with his legs. The defense kept stepping in front of Ryan Fitzpatrick passes. At 9-5, the Seahawks are not only in great shape for a wild card, but they still have a chance to win the NFC West. Fitzpatrick's bad game couldn't have come at a worse time. General manager Buddy Nix said on radio last week the team needs to trade up to get a quarterback. You get the feeling Geno Smith of West Virginia is going to end up on this team next year. Will Fitzpatrick be there, too? Good question. The Carolina Panthers' 31-7 victory over the San Diego Chargers further enhances the chances of Ron Rivera coming back as head coach. A 5-9 season isn't ideal, but the Panthers have been in almost every game. With Cam Newton finishing the season well, the Panthers have hopes of turning things around next year. Newton had two touchdown passes and threw for 231 yards against the Chargers. It was an ugly day for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were shut out 41-0 by the New Orleans Saints. Josh Freeman was terrible. The defense was as bad as normal. Assistant coach Bryan Cox got into a sideline altercation with linebacker Adam Hayward. With the Cowboys' victory over the Steelers, the NFC added to its inter-conference championship. The NFC is 36-24 against the AFC. The Steelers are now 2-4 in games decided by three points. Washington's Kirk Cousins became the eighth rookie quarterback to start a game this season. The Jaguars 24-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins didn't help job security. Chad Henne once again looked bad at quarterback, and it didn't help that he was blown out by the team that drafted him, the Dolphins. At 2-12, Jacksonville ownership will be reviewing general manager Gene Smith and first-year coach Mike Mularkey. The win for the Dolphins was important because it could save the job of general manager Jeff Ireland. He's safe if the team goes 7-9, and it needs one more win to accomplish that. Jay Cutler now has 17 interceptions against the Green Bay Packers since coming to Chicago. The Bears are 1-10 over the past two years when they trail at the half. The Packers need to seriously review where they are with kicker Mason Crosby. He missed two more field goals and now has 12 misfires for the season. It forced the Packers to go for fourth down instead of kicking a field goal from the Bears' 43. Rams guard Harvey Dahl suffered a significant arm injury and will be out the final two games of the season. The Detroit Lions looked as though they were going through the motions in their 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. At 4-10, the Lions have truly regressed. The only bright spot is Calvin Johnson, who caught 10 passes for 121 yards. The Cards ended a nine-game losing streak with their victory. The Redskins suffered some injuries. Center Will Montgomery suffered a MCL strain. Right tackle Tyler Polumbus suffered a concussion.