Week 14: Contenders are clear, especially in AFC
In the AFC, the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos won and joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as the conference's top five teams moving away from the other contenders. Losses by the Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans and Oakland Raiders have moved the New York Jets up to the No. 6 seed, giving them an edge in getting the AFC's last wild-card spot.
San Francisco's surprising loss to the Arizona Cardinals gives the New Orleans Saints hope of getting the NFC's No. 2 seed and a playoff bye. The 49ers hold the tiebreaker over New Orleans because of a slightly better conference record, but Sunday's loss could end up hurting them in the weeks ahead.
The Green Bay Packers clinched a bye and seem destined for the No. 1 seed and a possible 16-0 record. The winner among the NFC wild-card contenders was the Falcons, who beat the Carolina Panthers to improve to 8-5. The Detroit Lions are right behind Atlanta with an 8-5 record and the No. 6 seed.
The Bears have now lost three in a row with Caleb Hanie at quarterback and are 7-6, fading among the contenders.
Here are the five things we learned in Week 14:
1. Cool Yates delivers: The Texans' improbable 20-19 come-from-behind victory over the Bengals is a tribute to the coaching of Gary Kubiak and the unbelievable composure shown by Yates, their rookie quarterback.
With 11:35 left in the fourth quarter and the Texans down by nine, Yates, in only his second NFL start, had the responsibility of creating two scoring drives to win the game.Poised beyond his years, Yates led two 13-play drives -- an 80-yard field goal drive and a 80-yard, game-winning touchdown drive.
"The young quarterback bailed us out,'' Kubiak said.
In the fourth quarter, Yates, facing intense pressure, completed 12 of 21 for 117 yards and a touchdown pass.
"T.J. has improved tremendously from the Jacksonville game to Atlanta to this one,'' tight end Owen Daniels said. "We needed 10 points bad and he got it for us.''
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer kept his defenders in Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks that had holes in the middle of the field that Yates exploited. Wisely, Kubiak didn't shorten the playbook for Yates because he knew he could handle it. Despite mistakes early in the game, Yates followed the lead of Kubiak, a former NFL quarterback. Having a former quarterback as a head coach clearly helped Yates.
"During timeouts, he is always filling my head with reminders and little things that help me calm down," Yates said. "He sees things through a quarterback's mind.''
Yates remembered one sideline suggestion made by Kubiak in the fourth quarter. Kubiak kept telling Yates the Bengals were playing a two-deep zone, so if he didn't see his targets early, then he could just run. The key play of the game was a third-and-15 from the Texans' 40-yard line with 44 seconds left. Receivers were covered so Yates scrambled for 17 yards and a first down.
If not for Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers, Kubiak would be the leading candidate for coach of the year honors. He got the Texans over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time despite being down to his third-string quarterback.
"It takes everyone on this team to win,'' linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's not about one person.''
The best scene was in the locker room after the game. Kubiak wanted to remind his team that it really didn't play a great game, but players were busy watching the end of the Titans-Saints game. Once the Titans lost, the Texans knew they had clinched the AFC South. It was quite a celebration.
2. Tebow's fitting title: The New York Times had an op-ed column that described Tebow as the Mile High Messiah. Well, he was at it again Sunday in an incredible 13-10 overtime victory over the Bears.
"If you believe, unbelievable things can become possible,'' Tebow said.
After completing only three of 16 passes in the first three quarters, Tebow completed 18 of 24 for 191 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. What was more impressive than his late surge was how classy he was after the game. Tebow may spark controversy among critics, but he's competitive and he's humble.
"My teammates made me a lot better than I really am,'' he said. "We kept believing until the very end.''
I don't know what it is, but opponents get dumb when they play Tebow. The Bears controlled the game until the end like so many of the teams that have lost to Tebow during his 7-1 stretch. Marion Barber's failure to stay in bounds when the Bears were running out the clock along with his overtime fumble gave Tebow chances to tie and win the game.
The Broncos lead the AFC West and are the best story in sports.
3. Controversial day for Brady: A lot was made of the shouting match between Tom Brady and Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. With 6:30 left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots leading Washington 34-27, Brady threw a rare red zone interception from the Redskins' 4-yard line. O'Brien ripped off his headset and yelled at him. Brady yelled back. O'Brien had to be restrained.
Although it's great theater, those things happen occasionally on sidelines. Former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis used to get in the faces of players and coaches in heated moments. It happens, which is why Brady and the team dismissed the issue after the game.
"I threw a pretty bad interception, so he wasn't happy with that,'' Brady said. "There were probably a long line of coaches and players that were pretty pissed at me."
The other controversy is of bigger concern. Trying to scramble away from pressure, Brady tried to run and started to go into a slide. Linebacker London Fletcher, one of the more respected sportsmen in the NFL, was cautious enough to aim his shoulder in a spot that wouldn't hit Brady in the helmet. Still, he was penalized for a personal foul, which sent him into a rage that almost put him in position to get ejected.
Listen, it's great that the NFL is trying to clean up the sport and protect quarterbacks. But Fletcher was trying to hit Brady the right way. Plus, Brady entered his slide late, making him a runner. Defenders have complained years that Brady, Peyton Manning and other top quarterbacks are overly protected by officials. The Brady play was a classic example. Even Mike Pereira, the former head of officials who now works for Fox, said he thought the flag shouldn't have been thrown.
Following the loss, Redskins defenders complained about the Brady hit and Santana Moss went off on officials in general. He said he was getting mugged by Patriots corners all day.
Moss told Washington reporters after the game: "You guys have been covering us for a long time. Y'all see what goes on out there. We blow our breath on one of the doggone guys over there, and it's a penalty. Our quarterback's getting killed, and we just almost hit somebody else's quarterback, and we get flag. So there's a lot of stuff that goes on, but you know, I guess, hey, we got to play against the team and the refs.''
4. Jets' time of year: The way things played out, the Jets moved ahead of the Bengals, Titans and Raiders for the AFC's final wild-card spot, and QB Mark Sanchez once again showed he's a winner. His numbers weren't great. They usually aren't. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for two touchdowns in a 37-10 win over the Chiefs. Rex Ryan's team knows how to win in December.
"I think we understand the importance of these games late in the season,'' Sanchez said. "We understood, especially my rookie year. This year we missed opportunities early in the season and any time you do that you want to try to make up for them. Guys understand that. We understand the kind of wild-card race we're in. So I think we just find a way to click and that's important late in the season."
5. Falcons may have saved their season: A disappointing loss to the Texans last week and a 16-point halftime deficit to the Panthers put the Falcons' season on the line. They responded by scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half to beat Carolina 31-23.
"I can't tell you how pleased I am with the way our football team played today,'' Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Smith admitted his offense was out of sync in the first half and the defense wasn't playing up to its normal standard. At halftime, the Falcons made some adjustments, the biggest being the decision to go to more no-huddle with Matt Ryan. In the first half, he was 11-of-18 but for only 88 yards. It didn't help that rookie Julio Jones was struggling to catch the ball. Jones made two big catches in the second half and the no-huddle kick-started the offense.
Ryan completed 11 of 20 passes in the second half for 232 yards and three touchdowns. Jones had touchdown receptions of 17 and 75 yards.
"Julio had an unbelievable second half,'' Ryan said. "He's a special player.''
With winnable games remaining against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay and a tough one in New Orleans, the Falcons should get to 10 wins, which should get them into the playoffs.
"This is the NFL, and the NFL is confusing,'' Ryan said. "Every team is good. However people view us, it doesn't matter.''
Titans wide receiver Nate Washington, who played despite what he called a high ankle sprain, led a chorus of players accusing Saints safety Roman Harper of being a dirty player. At one point, he got in the face of Harper after Harper made a face-mask tackle of Titans wide receiver Damian Williams after a 54-yard catch. Washington accused Harper of hitting Washington's knee after the tackle. "Honestly, he's a dirty player,'' Washington said. "I've been watching him. We watched film on him. He's dirty, and I don't appreciate it." During the game, Harper made a helmet-to-helmet hit on Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck. Filling in for Hasselbeck after he suffered a first-half calf injury, rookie Jake Locker showed he has playmaking ability. In the 22-17 loss, Locker completed 13 of 29 passes for 282 yards and a touchdown against the Saints' blitzing defense. You have to wonder if coach Todd Haley regrets last week's flea-flicker play on Kyle Orton's only play as a member of the Chiefs. Orton couldn't play Sunday because of a finger injury suffered on the flea-flicker, leaving Tyler Palko as the Chiefs' only option as a starter. The Chiefs lost to the Jets 37-10 and Palko completed 16 of 32 passes for 195 yards. In his four starts -- three of them losses -- Palko has put only 32 points on the scoreboard and no more than 10 in any game. Haley thought about going with rookie Ricky Stanzi but opted to stay with Palko. "We talked about it," he said. "Where the game was, we didn't think that would be a good position to put Stanzi in." Jets coach Rex Ryan credited embattled offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for coming up with a great game plan in the win over the Chiefs. The Jets have won three in a row, and in the past two weeks, the team's offense has been more unpredictable. "He kept them off balance,'' Ryan said. "I like some of the things we did -- some of the direct-snap runs, some of the screen calls were great.'' The Jets' loss of safety Jim Leonhard for the season with a knee injury was a big one. He's a good player and will miss the finish of a regular season for a second consecutive year. Michael Vick is a man of his word. He vowed to be more of a pocket passer and not risk his body as much. In a 26-10 win over the Miami Dolphins, Vick was cautious. He completed 15 of 30 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown but he stayed in the pocket. Still, he was sacked four times and hit on six other occasions. But he ran the ball only two times. "I was in a lot of pain, but the only thing I wanted to do was to finish and to get through the game,'' Vick said. The impact of the Colt McCoy concussion (Thursday night) was noticeable Sunday. Matt Moore of the Dolphins and Kevin Kolb of the Cardinals each suffered concussions and didn't return. The Lions cleaned up their tendencies to make dumb penalties in Sunday's 34-28 win over the Vikings. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch was the only Lion to pick up a personal-foul penalty. Still, they had 10 penalties and also got soft in the second half. They let the Vikings come back from a three-touchdown deficit and Minnesota was at the Lions' 1-yard line at the end of the game. Raheem Morris appears to have lost his Tampa Bay Buccaneers team and it could cost him his job. The Bucs lost their seventh consecutive game, a 41-14 decision to a Jacksonville Jaguars team that couldn't score against any other team. Tackling was poor. The Bucs committed seven turnovers. The Ravens ran the ball 37 times and called 33 pass plays in an easy 24-10 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. "I think we're still improving,'' Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "But there's a bunch of new people on the team and especially, from Joe Flacco's point of view, we're still growing and getting a better feel for each other.'' Smith, a speedster, was used more in possession routes. He caught five of nine passes thrown toward him for 48 yards. What's happened to the Raiders? They fell behind 34-0 to the Dolphins in a loss last week. In a 46-16 loss to the Packers on Sunday, they fell behind 46-7. All of a sudden, they've become non-competitive. There is no early word on how bad the knee injury is to the Packers' Greg Jennings. The team says it's just a sprain.
John Clayton's game balls
• Offense: New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was like a man among boys in a 34-27 victory over the Washington Redskins. He caught six passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns, but no one could tackle him. He now has the single-season NFL record for most touchdown catches by a tight end (15).
• Defense: Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen had three sacks and three hits on the quarterback in a 34-28 loss to the Detroit Lions. He crossed the 100-sack mark for his career and now has 100½. He has 17½ for the season.
• Special teams: Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater made clutch 59- and 51-yard field goals late in a 13-10 overtime victory over the Chicago Bears. His 59-yarder with 2 seconds left sent the game into overtime. His 51-yarder won it on Denver's first overtime possession.
Week 14 rundown
• Detroit 34, Minnesota 28
The Lions might have caught a break on the game's final play (uncalled face mask). Still, they're ensured of their first non-losing season since 2000.
• Philadelphia 26, Miami 10
The Eagles forced three turnovers and scored 24 points -- in a nine-minute span in the second quarter.
• Atlanta 31, Carolina 23
No finishing touch. For the sixth time this season, the Panthers fell short after being ahead or tied in the fourth quarter.
• Jacksonville 41, Tampa Bay 14
Are the spiraling Bucs (seven straight losses) the biggest disappointment of 2011? If not, they're on the short list of candidates -- especially after a seven-turnover day.
• Baltimore 24, Indianapolis 10
The Ravens keep marching toward a potential No. 1 seed. The Colts (0-13) keep marching toward infamy.
• Green Bay 46, Oakland 16
December to remember? Not for the Raiders, who have been outscored 80-30 in their past two games.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL• St. Louis at Seattle (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET)
An early look at next weekend's biggest games:
• New England (10-3) at Denver (8-5): The Mile High City has never been too kind to Tom Brady. Will this trip be different?
• Detroit (8-5) at Oakland (7-6): A battle of playoff bubble teams.
• Pittsburgh (10-3) at San Francisco (10-3): Super Bowl preview? You never know.