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Sunday, November 10, 2013
Week 10: Seahawks closing in

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The playoff picture is taking shape.

In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks took a major step toward winning the No. 1 seed by going on the road and beating the Atlanta Falcons 33-10. In the AFC, the Denver Broncos took care of business by beating the San Diego Chargers 28-20 on the road to stay within one game of the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs for the No. 1 seed.

The Broncos host the Chiefs next Sunday night, but the Broncos have to hope that a low hit on Peyton Manning won't affect his ability to prepare.

The big winner was the Seahawks. They knew the Falcons game could be tough. They were down three starting offensive linemen -- tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini and center Max Unger. They've lost wide receiver Sidney Rice for the season and Percy Harvin has yet to play a down because of a hip operation.

But none of that stopped Seattle from delivering a beating. The Seahawks physically won on both sides of the ball. It was important for the Seahawks to win the ground battle after giving up 205 and 200 yards rushing in the past two weeks. The Seahawks rushed for 211 yards, led by Marshawn Lynch's 145. The Falcons rushed for only 64.

Imagine the tension for Broncos coach John Fox, resting in North Carolina recovering from heart valve surgery, when Manning reached for his right leg after a low hit late in the game.

Manning said he's pretty sore and he was hit twice during the game in the lower part of the body.

"I imagine I will be pretty sore tomorrow," said Manning, who will have an MRI on his ankle Monday.

Here's what we learned in Week 10:

1. Bay Area blues: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh talked about a sinking feeling after a stunning, 10-9 home loss to the Carolina Panthers. What's become clear is the 49ers didn't get the job done in assembling a wide receiving corps. Though they traded for Anquan Boldin, the 49ers decided to bide their time until Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree returned from the physically unable to perform list. As it turns out, the waiting game may have cost them the NFC West. Sunday's loss put the 49ers at 6-3, 2½ games behind the Seahawks with a tough game coming up next week in New Orleans.

Manningham made his 2013 debut Sunday (Crabtree is targeting the end of the month), but he caught only three passes for 30 yards. Colin Kaepernick had only 46 net passing yards. During the game, tight end Vernon Davis was lost with a concussion and couldn't return. The 49ers were stifled.

It's been well known all year that the 49ers' wide receivers can't get separation when they face good man coverage secondaries. The Panthers aren't blessed with great corners or safeties, but their defensive front seven makes up the difference. The 49ers had only 151 yards of offense against the Panthers and were 2-for-13 on third downs.

"We will do what we do and bounce back," Harbaugh said. But that sinking feeling leaves the 49ers tied for a wild-card spot with a Panthers team that has won five straight.

Matthew Stafford
A healthy Matthew Stafford gives the Lions a huge advantage in the NFC North.

2. NFC North's last quarterback standing: The Chicago Bears had an immobile Jay Cutler for about 58 minutes of Sunday's 21-19 loss to the Detroit Lions. The Green Bay Packers are down to Scott Tolzien, who was on the Packers' practice squad early last week. The Lions have a one-game lead in the NFC North and a healthy Matthew Stafford. But even if Stafford were to go down, the Lions might survive because they have one of the best backups in football, Shaun Hill, who is 13-13 as a starter and averages 21.5 points a game during those starts.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson said it would be on him for not having the right backup. Well, it's on him. The Seneca Wallace-Tolzien tandem just wasn't good enough in a 27-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The weird part is Packers coach Mike McCarthy plans to start Tolzien against the Giants next week and it's not necessarily because of Wallace's injury. Things are that bad for the Packers.

Sunday, the Lions survived being the Lions. Josh McCown came off the bench with 2:22 left in regulation when Chicago coach Marc Trestman determined the Bears needed a more mobile quarterback for the final drive. Cutler, who missed only one full game with a torn groin muscle, injured an ankle in the second quarter. McCown produced a 74-yard touchdown drive but couldn't connect with Dante Rosario on the two-point conversion attempt. But then came the flag, a 15-yard roughing-the-quarterback penalty on defensive end Willie Young.

"That's stuff we can't keep doing," Stafford said. "We talk about it every week, week in and week out."

The Lions stopped Matt Forte at the 1-yard line to save the win and give Detroit its first division lead since 1999. The division is the Lions' to claim. They are 6-3, they have swept the Bears, they have the league's sixth-easiest closing schedule and Stafford is healthy.

There was an interesting strategic twist that aided the Lions' offense. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called more plays than usual out of a three-receiver formation with Jeremy Ross and Kris Durham stacked on the right side. That left tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Calvin Johnson on the left side. The stack forced a safety to the Ross-Durham side and forced another safety to stay in the middle of the field.

"That creates air for Calvin," Stafford said. Johnson usually has difficulty against Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. Johnson caught six of 17 passes thrown toward him for 83 yards and two touchdowns.

3. Lowering playoff expectations: Colts QB Andrew Luck is a master of the comebacks, but there was no way he could overcome a 35-point deficit to the St. Louis Rams. Indianapolis lost 38-8. The Cincinnati Bengals overcame a 17-point deficit to the Baltimore Ravens but lost in overtime 20-17. Those losses could end up costing the Bengals and Colts the No. 2 seed and a bye in the playoffs. New England sits at 7-2 with the AFC's No. 2 seed; the Patriots gained ground Sunday without even having to work.

One of the great parts of being a comeback team is the resilience. One of the bad parts is continually falling behind.

"I think one of our players mentioned it this week that sooner or later it's going to catch up and it caught up," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said.

But losing by 30 points at home to a Rams team without its starting quarterback? That's bad. A disturbing trend for Indy has been the number of hits on Luck. During the offseason, the Colts hired Pep Hamilton as offensive coordinator. His mission was to switch the Colts over to more power running and less finesse. The strategy has cut down on the sacks, but Luck remains one of the most-hit quarterbacks in the league. He was sacked three times by the Rams and hit seven more. Being behind so much, the Colts couldn't go to a running game.

The Colts have taken care of business enough that they should win the AFC South, but their road to the Super Bowl will likely go through either New England or the winner of the AFC West.

The Bengals, meanwhile, have lost two straight games by a total of five points. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wasn't pleased with the officiating. There were nine penalties for 134 yards against the Bengals. The Ravens had eight for 65.

"I've never seen it so one-sided," Lewis said. "We couldn't catch a break."

Well, they did catch a break -- a 51-yard Hail Mary from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green that sent the game into overtime. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals became the first team in NFL history to hit a 50-plus-yard Hail Mary and lose. At 6-4, the Bengals are still in position to win the AFC North. They lead the Ravens and Browns by 1½ games and the Steelers by 2½. But it looks like a No. 3 or No. 4 seed for them.

Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger reaffirmed Sunday that he wants to be a Steeler for life.

4. Big Ben Is a Steeler: The Pittsburgh Steelers' 3-6 season is forgettable. Their defense hasn't made the plays. The offense doesn't have a true personality. But maybe things bottomed out this weekend. A story surfaced that the Steelers have listened to trade offers for QB Ben Roethlisberger in the past year. The story indicated Big Ben might ask to be traded after the season. Not true, said the Steelers. Roethlisberger called it "B.S."

"I'm a Pittsburgher," Roethlisberger said. "This is home. I'm so proud to raise my kids here I don't want to play for anybody else. This is it for me."

Roethlisberger is under contract through 2015, and the Steelers know the value of a quarterback. Teams can't win without good ones, and Roethlisberger is a potential Hall of Famer.

Plenty of things will change after the season, though. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley might be gone. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau could retire. The roster could be shaken up. The Rooney family believes in having a family of players and a family of coaches. Roethlisberger grew up in Ohio, but he talks like a Pittsburgher. Sunday's 23-10 victory over the Bills wasn't pretty, but what happened off the field was important to the long-term future of the franchise. It was a double win for the Steelers.

5. Contender or pretender? The Tennessee Titans may have proved to be a pretender Sunday. Not only did they lose to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars 29-27, but they lost their quarterback. Jake Locker suffered a foot injury that will likely end his season.

"It's a nice reminder to everyone in the locker room that this is the NFL ... you can lose any game if you don't show up," Titans backup -- now starting -- quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said.

The Titans are 4-5 and still don't know where they stand with Locker. If he's out for the rest of the season, he will have missed 14 games over the past two years because of injuries.

Even though their defense gives up more than 300 yards a game through the air, the Philadelphia Eagles might be a contender for the last wild card in the NFC. With their win over the Packers, the Eagles improved to 5-1 on the road. If the Eagles can win some home games, they have a chance.

The Panthers proved they are a contender. They showed against San Francisco that their defensive front seven might be league's best. The Arizona Cardinals are now 5-4 after a 27-24 victory over Houston. The Cardinals proved the move to get Carson Palmer was a success. He does enough at quarterback to keep the Cardinals a little better than most average opponents.

Back to the pretenders. The Chargers have had enough close losses that they may have fallen into pretender mode. The Mike McCoy-Philip Rivers union is a good one, but the Chargers aren't getting enough big plays to win these games at the end.

SHORT TAKES

Roddy White's return from a hamstring injury made no impact for the Falcons, who are now 2-7. He caught one pass for 20 yards in a 33-10 loss to the Seahawks. ...  A knee injury clearly affected Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor in a 24-20 loss to the New York Giants. He had only five runs for 19 yards and his throwing mechanics weren't right. He completed 11 of 26 passes for 122 yards. ... Giants QB Eli Manning was lucky. He threw yet another pick-six but escaped with a win. Manning now has 16 interceptions for the season. ... The Houston Texans gave a nice battle to the Cardinals, but they found out Sunday morning Arian Foster needs back surgery and is done for the season. The Texans had only 76 rushing yards without Foster. ... In a short time, Eagles QB Nick Foles has established he can get the ball downfield. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he was 4-for-6 on throws at least 15 yards downfield Sunday, including all three touchdown passes. Entering the week, only Drew Brees and Tony Romo had more downfield touchdown passes with seven.