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Sunday, December 8, 2013
Updated: December 9, 6:35 PM ET
Week 14: Hanging tough

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh summed up Sunday's 29-26 victory over the Minnesota Vikings perfectly.

"Will we ever see another game like that again?" Harbaugh said.

Maybe not. There were five touchdowns in the final 125 seconds. The lead changed five times and the plays couldn't have been much bigger. Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta caught a 1-yard touchdown pass. Toby Gerhart had a 41-yard touchdown run for the Vikings. Baltimore's Jacoby Jones had a 77-yard kickoff return for a score. Vikings WR Cordarrelle Patterson caught a 79-yard touchdown pass from Matt Cassel. Joe Flacco drove 80 yards in 41 seconds and hit Marlon Brown with the game-winning, 9-yard touchdown pass. Overall, the six lead changes in the fourth quarter were the most in NFL history.

To follow up Harbaugh's point: Will we ever see a Sunday like we did in Week 14? It was the best Sunday of the year and the drama was amazing. You had it all: snow and late comebacks; Denver's Matt Prater set an NFL record with a 64-yard field goal; New England Patriots QB Tom Brady rallied from a 12-point deficit with two touchdown drives in the final 2:39 in a 27-26 victory over the Cleveland Browns.

The subplot to the day, though, was how three teams kept their playoff hopes alive. Baltimore did it with its victory over Minnesota. The Miami Dolphins gutted out a 34-28 victory over Pittsburgh.

The ultimate survivor was Green Bay. The Packers held off the Atlanta Falcons 22-21 to stay in the thick of things. They are 6-6-1 and only a half-game behind the Detroit Lions in the still-open NFC North race.

"We finally decided to stand up and make plays when we needed to," Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said.

The Packers bought themselves time. Aaron Rodgers might be able to return in Week 15 after the team went 1-3-1 without him. Rodgers is recovering from a broken left collarbone that hasn't been cleared for contact.

So far, Seattle, Denver and Indianapolis have officially qualified for the playoffs, and more teams will clinch next week. Still, Week 14 was one for the ages.

Here's what we learned in Week 14:

1. Contenders miles apart: Cincinnati Bengals officials paid close attention to the New England-Cleveland outcome because they have their eyes on the AFC's No. 2 seed. Somehow, the Patriots pulled out a victory in the final minutes after the Bengals dominated the Indianapolis Colts 42-28. For the moment, the Bengals (9-4) have the one-game edge and the tiebreaker over Indy for the No. 3 seed, but the gap seemed so much larger on the field.

The Colts are a mess at the moment. Their defense gave up 430 yards on 30 plays. Andrew Luck threw for 326 yards, but the Colts' offense isn't the same without Reggie Wayne. The running game continues to struggle, too (only 63 yards on 12 carries). But the biggest difference is depth. The Bengals are significantly better. One example is on the offensive line. Bengals left guard Clint Boling suffered an ACL tear last week, and right guard Kevin Zeitler was injured Sunday. Marvin Lewis had solutions. He moved Andrew Whitworth, a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle, to left guard and put Anthony Collins at left tackle. It can be argued the offensive line improved. The Bengals ran for 155 yards and three touchdowns.

"It gives us another strong man inside who began his career there," Lewis said of moving Whitworth to left guard. "We have two very athletic guys side by side."

The Colts don't have such roster answers. After losing Wayne, their offense dropped more than six points a game because they're counting on the uninspiring receiving group of T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Bey is being phased out because of his drops. There were four total drops by Colts receivers Sunday. The Colts were down two starting guards because of injuries. Luck remains one of the most-hit quarterbacks in the league, and there is no running game.

Indianapolis officially clinched the AFC South despite the loss. The Tennessee Titans' loss at Denver gave them the Colts the division, but they can't feel too good about where they are as a team.

2. Old-school football: In what was expected to be a physical game, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Seattle Seahawks, 19-17, to stay alive in the playoff race.

The 49ers were just a little tougher than the Seahawks Sunday. They ran for 163 yards on 33 carries, including 110 by Frank Gore on 17 carries. The Seahawks had 86 rushing yards on 23 carries.

In the big picture, the 49ers' win doesn't change much. The Seahawks lead the NFC West by two games and can clinch in the next two weeks. If the 49ers meet the Seahawks again, it will be in Seattle. The Seahawks have won their past two home games against the 49ers by a total of 55 points. The 49ers have won their past two home games against Seattle by a total of nine points.

Nevertheless, if you want two candidates to go into Seattle and get a victory, the two would be San Francisco and Carolina. The reason is the ability to run the ball. The Seahawks might find stopping the run tougher because they lost linebacker K.J. Wright to a broken bone in his foot. He could be out for six weeks.

"This is a great learning opportunity for us in an adverse situation," Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said.

Rob Gronkowski
Without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' offense is far less formidable.

3. Can't understate loss of Gronk: It was a great comeback by the Patriots, but they suffered a loss that could kill their Super Bowl hopes. Earlier this week, I calculated the impact tight end Rob Gronkowski has on Tom Brady's offense. In the six games Gronk missed at the beginning to the season, the Patriots averaged only 20.83 points. In Gronkowski's first six games, the Patriots averaged 32.83 points.

Gronkowski suffered on Sunday what is believed to be a torn ACL, which would end his season and potentially kill the Patriots' chances of going to the Super Bowl. Naturally, Bill Belichick wouldn't discuss injuries, but his tone sounded as though he was at a funeral.

"I don't know what the circumstances are, but we're all there with him,'' Belichick said. "We love him, and he's a big part of this team.''

Brady completed only 2 of 5 passes to Gronkowski in the three quarters before he suffered the injury, but the attention defenses give to covering Gronk opens up the rest of the offense. Shane Vereen caught 12 passes for 153 yards. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman combined for 10 catches for 100 yards. Brady was able to complete 32 passes even without his best two rookie receivers -- Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who were inactive because of injuries. With Gronk likely gone, though, the two-tight end set is gone. Mike Mulligan was the only tight end not named Gronkowski catch a pass Sunday.

No one doubts the resilience of the Patriots. Brady is a champion. Belichick is brilliant. They have an offense that keeps finding ways to win, but they also have a vulnerable defense that sometimes has as many as five rookies on the field. And they probably don't have Gronk. If New England falls to the No. 3 seed, its playoff run might be a short one.

4. From the hot seat to the red-hot seat: A 3-10 season naturally would put Mike Shanahan on the hot seat for the Washington Redskins. But a 45-10 blowout loss at FedEx to the Kansas City Chiefs and an ESPN report that Shanahan emptied his office during last year's playoffs moved Shanahan into Gary Kubiak status. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair decided during a flight back from Thursday night's loss to Jacksonville to fire Kubiak following an 11-game losing streak.

No one can guarantee Shanahan will make it through this week as head coach. A Redskins public relation executive said Shanahan would address the ESPN story after the game. Shanahan didn't.

"It's not the right time or place to talk about my relationship with Dan Snyder," Shanahan said.

Things were so hot at the end of the game that Shanahan wouldn't commit to Robert Griffin III as next week's quarterback. RG III was 12-for-26 for 164 yards and was sacked five times.

Snyder has a tough decision. He could fire Shanahan this week and leave him in the mix for the Houston job. If Shanahan were hired by Houston, it would take Snyder off the hook for the coach's 2014 salary. He could wait until the end of the season and ask Shanahan to fire his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and then hope Mike quits. We learned Sunday that the situation is worse than we thought.

5. Sloppy in the snow: The snow in Philadelphia made conventional football impossible. There was so much snow on the field, coaches couldn't call for extra-point kicks. It was two-point conversion or bust. The Eagles won 34-20, and once again, self-inflicted miscues cost the Detroit Lions.

The Lions had seven fumbles, including five fumbled snaps. They had three lost fumbles. Matthew Stafford completed only 10 of 25 passes for 148 yards, and the running game couldn't generate much. Of course, it didn't help when Reggie Bush re-injured his calf in the pregame warm-ups and couldn't play.

Because of their sloppy ways, the Lions once again kept the NFC North race in play. The Lions are 7-6. The Packers are 6-6-1 and the Chicago Bears are 6-6 awaiting a Monday night game against the Dallas Cowboys. This was a game in which the Lions needed the defense to step up, and it didn't. Detroit gave up 299 yards rushing. The defense committed six penalties, including four pre-snap. Discipline remains a problem with this defense.

On the flip side, the Eagles and Chip Kelly are making a serious run at the NFC East title. Nick Foles might have thrown his first interception of the season, but he managed the game a lot cleaner than Stafford did. LeSean McCoy broke through the Lions' defense for 217 rushing yards and two touchdowns. At 8-5, the Eagles are for real, and Kelly's offense showed it can function in the bad weather because it runs the ball so well.

SHORT TAKES

Aside from Rob Gronkowski, the other major injury story is the mid-foot sprain of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson. Peterson had to be taken to a nearby hospital for an MRI and X-ray. His status is unknown. ... Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy once again was a big factor in a 27-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills. He had his seventh sack of the season and dominated the middle of the field. ... With most of the games played in cold weather, how strange was it for the Bucs and Bills to play in 82-degree conditions and have seven turnovers -- including six interceptions -- and 19 penalties? ... Even though Robert Griffin III had the worst throwing day of his career, the Redskins' defense had its own problems. Kansas City RB Jamaal Charles had 19 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown, but 74 yards came after contact. Redskins tackling was terrible. ... Jets QB Geno Smith finally broke out of his slump in beating the Oakland Raiders 37-27. Smith completed 16 of 25 passes for 210 yards and his first touchdown since October. He did a nice job on the deep pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he completed 3 of 4 passes, including a touchdown, on throws of that went at least 15 yards in the air. Coming into the game, he had three touchdowns and 11 interceptions on those throws. ... The Jets were so down on starting wide receiver Stephen Hill that they made him inactive even though he was healthy. ... Victories by the Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and the Ravens cut the NFC's lead in the interconference race to 31-27, but the Buccaneers' win leaves the NFC within only two victories of clinching the inter-conference battle. ... The Cardinals easily beat the St. Louis Rams 30-10, but loss of free safety Tyrann Mathieu to an ACL could hurt them down the stretch. He was in the race for Defensive Rookie of the Year. ... So much for Peyton Manning being frozen in cold weather. He completed 39 of 59 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns. The windchill was minus-7 in Denver. Manning now has 4,522 yards and 45 touchdowns. ... It was fitting that the Chargers eliminated the New York Giants from the playoffs with a 37-14 victory. The Giants went 1-3 against the AFC West; the AFC West went 11-5 against the NFC East.