Week 13: Separation Sunday not without surprises
35-32, Denver is now tied with the Raiders for first place in the AFC West. Week 13 leaders
Week 13 had the look of being a Separation Sunday, but the separation didn't go as expected.
Aaron Rodgers had to drive 69 yards in just under a minute to beat the New York Giants 38-35 and keep the Green Bay Packers' perfect season alive. The Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers separated themselves from the other top teams in the AFC. The San Francisco 49ers had no problem moving into the No. 2 seed in the NFC with an easy 26-0 win over the St. Louis Rams.
What wasn't expected were the upsets. The Dallas Cowboys laid an egg in a 19-13 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Oakland Raiders were blown out by the Miami Dolphins 34-14. The Atlanta Falcons couldn't beat a Texans team that rallied around rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.
Here are the five things we learned in Week 13:
1. High-high drama: What do Tim Tebow and the movie "Hoosiers" have in common? Answer: Everything. This 6-1 run by Tebow and the Denver Broncos is just like "Hoosiers." The Broncos run an old-style, outdated offense because that's what Tebow is good at. The games are dramatic. If things keep going the way they are, the Broncos could qualify for the playoffs and maybe the Indiana state basketball tournament. Broncos coach John Fox, football's version of Gene Hackman, was asked if he likes seeing a movie-like game being replayed every week.
"The ending is what I like the most," Fox said.
The Minnesota Vikings led 15-7 at the half. In the second half, Tebow started finding open receivers and the Broncos eventually won in a shootout 35-32.
"We came in the locker room at half and coach Mike McCoy was speaking to the offense," Tebow said. "He just held up the script and said, 'This isn't going to change, you have to look in the mirror and you have to change. We have to get it together and we have to play the way that we know how to play Broncos football.'"
Folks, this is Hollywood, and Tebow is your star. He completed only 10 of 15 passes for 202 yards and the Broncos ran the ball 32 times. Overall, the Vikings controlled this game, holding the ball 37:51 to the Broncos' 22:09. The Vikings had 81 plays to the Broncos' 49. But Tebow continued to make plays.
"It's crazy," Tebow said. "I just try to do whatever they ask of me, whether it's sit in the pocket or make a play."
2. No ordinary third-stringer: No one believed Texans players and coach Gary Kubiak when they said how comfortable they were with Yates as the starting quarterback.
"I think the most impressive thing about him is that he's poised and he's a rookie," Texans halfback Arian Foster said. "He's an NFL quarterback. He might be a third-stringer coming to start, but he can make throws."
Yates made enough throws in a 17-10 win over the Falcons to put the Texans in the likely position of winning the AFC South and being the AFC's third seed. Technically, the Texans are 9-3 and tied for the first seed, but they have a tough road game coming up against the Cincinnati Bengals and could be without wide receiver Andre Johnson, who aggravated his left hamstring injury. Though Kubiak said the initial report is considered minor, he won't know until Monday. Johnson already has missed six games because of the injury.
"I just told the guys, it's been three weeks, three different quarterbacks, but it's the same team, the same 46 guys going out there every week and just battling," Kubiak said.
Yates may not have won the statistical battle, completing 12-of-25 for 188 yards, but he won the poise battle against Atlanta's Matt Ryan. To show confidence in the quarterback who could take the Texans into the playoffs, Kubiak didn't trim down the playbook. Yates rolled out and wasn't shy throwing downfield. Even though Johnson was double-covered most of the game with a corner underneath and a safety over the top, Yates completed four of nine attempts to Johnson for 97 yards.
Ryan, known as Matty Ice, looked uncomfortable from the start of the game. The first sign of problems came during the first four plays, when there were two long incompletions and a flea-flicker that was intercepted. The Texans' defense, ranked No. 1 entering Week 13, generated enough inside pressure to get around Ryan's feet and force him out of the pocket.
"I think guys were collapsing the pocket some, trying to get hands in his face and get around his feet to try to get him rattled," Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph said.
Ryan completed 20-of-46 for 267 yards and had two picks and a 52.7 passer rating. With a two-game lead in the AFC South, the Texans -- even with Yates -- will be tough to derail.
3. Guns, injuries and an Oakland loss: Raiders coach Hue Jackson didn't mince words over his team's lopsided loss to the Dolphins.
"I take total responsibility for this loss," Jackson said. "This football team didn't play well on offense, defense or special teams. I didn't prepare this team as well as I can."
What was embarrassing was how the Raiders fell behind 34-0 to a 3-8 Dolphins team. It's too easy to say the Rolando McClain distraction was a big factor. McClain was arrested this week on misdemeanor assault, firearms and other charges in his Alabama hometown. Jackson had a long talk with McClain and decided to let him play.
"I'm truly backing my player on this. I trust the things that I know," Jackson said. But he also knows the league is investigating and McClain could be suspended or fined.
"If the league decides to come down on him then I'm going to come down on him like you've never seen," Jackson said.
The Raiders looked like a tired team Sunday. Foot injuries continue to sideline halfback Darren McFadden and wide receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore. Wide receiver Chaz Schilens suffered his own foot injury Sunday. Michael Bush, who's rushed for 530 yards replacing McFadden, had 18 yards on 10 carries. He's had 83 carries in his past three games.
"It definitely looked like that from what happened to us in the first half, but I didn't feel that way," Palmer said. "As the three-and-outs happened in the first half, you kind of felt that we weren't executing and that we weren't playing very well. I had an intentional grounding, which was unacceptable, we had a couple of holds that were unacceptable, and we put ourselves way too far back on third down. We had second-and-20s, third-and-20s."
Making matters tough is that the Raiders travel to Green Bay next week. At 7-5, they are tied with the Broncos for the AFC West lead. Could Oakland let the division fall to Tebow? Maybe.
4. Just call it the NFC Least: Despite their loss to Green Bay, the New York Giants might have come out the winner in a division of losers in Week 13. All four teams in the NFC East lost Sunday, but the Giants came out ahead because Dallas' loss gives them life. Had the Cowboys beaten the Cardinals, the Giants would have fallen two games behind with four games left. Now, the Giants trail by only a game heading into next week's crucial game in Dallas.
"There is no solace in losing," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We're well past that one."
What offers hope is how the Giants played hard despite injuries. They had three new starters along the banged-up offensive line. Wide receiver Mario Manningham didn't play.
"This is it," quarterback Eli Manning said. "We know where we stand and we know what we got to do."
With the Giants and Cowboys losing, it seals the deal that the NFC East will be in the wild-card part of the playoffs. The Packers and 49ers are locks for the bye week.
5. AFC moves ahead: Four AFC teams swept the NFC to take a 24-22 lead in the interconference rivalry. The most significant thing is what it did to the playoff races. The New York Jets may not have played a great game, but they did enough in the fourth quarter to beat the Washington Redskins 34-19. The Texans' win over Atlanta could hand the NFC South to the New Orleans Saints, but the Falcons still remain a viable wild-card candidate.
One of the reasons the Falcons remain a wild-card contender is the Kansas City Chiefs' 10-3 win over the Chicago Bears. The Bears look like a team that won't make the playoffs with Caleb Hanie at quarterback. Even worse, they lost halfback Matt Forte for three or four weeks with a sprained MCL in his knee. Hanie's thrown three interceptions in each of his two starts in place of Jay Cutler, and he passed for only 133 yards and was sacked seven times Sunday. Worse, he was outdueled by Tyler Palko.
The fourth win by an AFC team affected the AFC playoff race. The Broncos beat the Vikings to move into a tie for the lead in the AFC West.
With Peyton Manning unable to play because of neck surgery, the Pats-Colts game figured to be a yawn. It was. The Pats won 31-24 with the Colts coming up with three meaningless touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. There were three interesting aspects of this game. To kick-start the offense, the Pats needed the no-huddle. "We use it every week, so I'm sure we'll keep using it," Pats coach Bill Belichick said. "There are some advantages to using it and there are some disadvantages to not using, but it's part of our offense." Part of the advantage is the defense getting tired and being unable to match up against tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught five passes and scored three touchdowns. The other interesting aspect is that Tom Brady had to work the no-huddle with a practice-squad center, Nick McDonald. Ravens RB Ray Rice ran for 204 yards in a 24-10 victory over Cleveland. That's a major setback for a Browns defense that appeared to be making progress. Considering how bad the Browns' offense is, that defensive effort had to hurt. Rice's big day came at a good time because Ravens QB Joe Flacco was 10-of-23 for only 158 yards. With the way the Bucs are collapsing, you have to move Raheem Morris to the hot seat. Morris is an emotional coach, and emotional coaches sometimes get teams to lose control on the field. Defensive tackle Brian Price was ejected in the Bucs' 38-19 loss to Carolina, and Morris not only sent him home, but he cursed about how he told him to go home in the postgame news conference. QB Josh Freeman, who hurt his thumb during the bye week shooting a gun, missed the game with a shoulder injury. That allowed the Panthers to stop the run and throttle the Bucs' offense. All of a sudden the Bucs look like the San Diego Chargers, another team in collapse mode. One concerning item for the Buffalo Bills is that C.J. Spiller may not be durable enough to be an every-down back. In the first half of the Bills' 23-17 loss to the Titans, Spiller had 11 carries for 80 yards and caught two passes for 13. In the second half, he had three carries for 3 yards. In two seasons, Spiller's biggest workload is 19 carries. He's had only two double-digit-carry days during his NFL career. Steelers halfback Rashard Mendenhall seems to save his best for the Bengals. He has four touchdown runs in two games against the Bengals this year. With 190 yards last week and 153 yards on 23 carries this week, the Titans' Chris Johnson has officially checked back in as one of the top backs in football. Kyle Orton's KC debut was short-lived. He came into the game in the second quarter for one play. The Chiefs tried a flea-flicker and he dislocated a finger on the helmet of Bears safety Major Wright. Thanks to Ndamukong Suh, the Lions' defensive tackle ejected on Thanksgiving and suspended for two games, officials aren't going to shy away from ejecting players. Not only was Price ejected, but Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour was ejected for punching Dolphins guard Richie Incognito. Judging by their hapless 26-0 loss to the 49ers, the St. Louis Rams might not win another game the rest of the season and coach Steve Spagnuolo will be hard-pressed to keep his job. Quarterback Sam Bradford couldn't play after aggravating his high ankle sprain. The Rams were hopeless with A.J. Feeley going against the Alex Smith-led 49ers. Feeley generated only 157 yards and had six three-and-outs. Meanwhile, the 49ers might have lost linebacker Patrick Willis to a hamstring injury, but they clinched the NFC West and have plenty of time to rest him for the playoffs.
John Clayton's game balls
• Offense: Continuing one of the greatest stretches of quarterback play this league has ever seen, Aaron Rodgers completed 28 of 46 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns in the Packers' 38-35 victory over the New York Giants.
• Defense: Banged up for most of the season, Steelers LB James Harrison delivered a stellar performance in Pittsburgh's 35-7 victory over Cincinnati. Harrison had three sacks, three quarterback hits and six tackles.
• Special teams: Antonio Brown burned the Bengals three weeks ago with an 86-yard receiving day in Cincinnati. During Sunday's win over the Bengals, Brown had a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown that blew open the game. The return gave Pittsburgh a three-touchdown lead.
Week 13 rundown
• Miami 34, Oakland 14
When the Dolphins win, they usually win big. Three of their four victories this season have come by at least 20 points. In the past five games, Miami has outscored opponents 139-54.
• Pittsburgh 35, Cincinnati 7
This one was over by halftime, thanks largely to the Steelers' special teams. Penalties, including one that erased a TD, also helped bury the Bengals.
• Baltimore 24, Cleveland 10
A healthy dose of Ray Rice (204 rushing yards) was all the Ravens needed in rainy Cleveland. The Ravens rushed for 290 yards overall, surpassing their per-game rushing average by 191 yards.
• Arizona 19, Dallas 13 (OT)
Icing your own kicker? What was Jason Garrett thinking? If the Cowboys end up losing the NFC East, a lot of people will remember how things went awry in the desert.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL• San Diego at Jacksonville (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET)
An early look at next weekend's biggest games:
• New Orleans (9-3) at Tennessee (7-5): Few teams have been able to contain the Saints' offense. Do the Titans stand a chance?
• Oakland (7-5) at Green Bay (12-0): The Raiders really need a win, but the assignment couldn't be tougher.
• N.Y. Giants (6-6) at Dallas (7-5): Will the real NFC East favorite please stand up?