Just when you thought the AFC playoff race was taking shape, the Pittsburgh Steelers pulled a stunner.
Minus Ben Roethisberger, the Steelers hit the road and beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 to remain in the thick of the AFC playoff race. That win happened on a Sunday when the AFC elite took care of business.
The Houston Texans clinched a playoff spot by turning over a Tennessee Titans offense that was still reeling after its offensive coordinator was fired this week. The New England Patriots didn't have too much trouble clinching the AFC East by beating the Miami Dolphins. Despite a slow start, the Denver Broncos won the AFC West with a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thanks to Tampa Bay's loss, the Atlanta Falcons won the NFC South.
With four weeks remaining, one third of the playoff picture has been resolved, all by teams that made reach the postseason last year.
And then there are the Steelers. Roethlisberger was out with a sprained shoulder and bad rib. Injuries plagued the offensive line. They headed to Baltimore with Charlie Batch, an aging quarterback who hadn't gotten a lot out of the offense. Yet they managed to pull out a much-needed victory.
Week 13 was one for team achievements, but there were some individual milestones, too. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became the first starting quarterback in NFL history to win 10 division titles. Peyton Manning of the Broncos tied Joe Montana with his ninth division title.
Luck has thrown for 3,596 yards, the most ever by a rookie quarterback in 12 games. Wilson now has three game-winning touchdown passes in the final two minutes in regulation or overtime. No rookie quarterback has done that since the 1970 merger.
Here is what else stood out in Week 13.
1. No. 1 rivalry: Sunday's Steelers-Ravens game confirmed that this is the best rivalry in the NFL. The Ravens pulled out a low-scoring win in Pittsburgh two weeks ago when Roethlisberger was out. All they needed to do was beat the Steelers and Batch to win the AFC North. They couldn't.
"I don't care what the elements of the story were," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We needed to win a game."
And win they did. When the Steelers were down 13-3 in the second quarter. The defense, inspired by the return of safety Troy Polamalu, fought hard and kept the team in the game. Batch started figuring things out in the second half. He wasn't much of a factor in the first half, completing nine of 16 passes for 57 yards. In the second half, he completed 16 of 20 passes for 219 yards.
Taking the heat, I'm sure, will be Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco has struggled on the road, but home has been a haven for him. Not Sunday. Flacco was only 16-of-34 for 188 yards and was sacked three times.
"It's a team thing," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I'm not going to assign blame to any individual. It starts with me, putting guys in better position to make plays. The [Steelers] executed better and they won the game. What was it, a three-point game once again?"
But that three-point win put the Steelers at 7-5 and kept them in the race. They may not catch the 9-3 Ravens in the standings, but the teams could meet again in the playoffs. By then, Big Ben will be back.
2. Different vibe in Denver: John Fox became one of 10 NFL coaches to win division titles in their first two seasons with a team. Last year's success was a bit hollow. The Broncos went 8-8 and won wacky games filled with three-and-outs and Tim Tebow miracles. They were just happy to be in the playoffs.
With Peyton Manning as their new quarterback, the Broncos feel as though they belong among the elite teams. Still, players and coaches admit they aren't playing great football. After a 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that wasn't really close, players and coaches were happy but not satisfied. Manning talked about penalties and mistakes by offensive players. Fox talked about slow starts and poor finishes. Cornerback Champ Bailey talked about letting the Bucs score 13 points in the fourth quarter.
"We're not playing lights out," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "It's frustrating when you watch the film. But we've got four games to correct things."
How the Broncos handle the next four games will be interesting. The AFC West title is clinched. They are five games ahead of the San Diego Chargers.
"We've got to finish better," Bailey said. "Four games can change your fortunes. We've got a lot of work to do."
The Broncos fell behind 10-7 in the first quarter and didn't regain the lead until the third quarter. They put the game away with two Manning touchdown passes in the third quarter and a Von Miller interception for a touchdown.
3. Rookies no more: A wild-card spot in each conference appears to be destined for two of the most unlikely candidates -- Luck's Indianapolis Colts and Wilson's
Seattle Seahawks. Both rookie quarterbacks looked like seasoned veterans in come-from-behind victories Sunday.
Of the two, Wilson fought longer odds to be 7-5 and in position to get a wild-card berth to the NFC playoffs. Wilson's 12-play, 97-yard drive in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears was Peyton Manning-like. He completed 6 of 9 passes for 77 yards and got a key 13-yard scramble. He hit Golden Tate with a 14-yard touchdown pass that gave the Seahawks a 17-14 lead with 24 seconds left in regulation. Bears QB Jay Cutler responded with a 56-yard completion to Brandon Marshall that set up a game-tying field goal, sending the game into overtime.
No problem. Wilson orchestrated a 12-play, 80-yard drive on the first possession of overtime to give the Seahawks a 23-17 victory. "It was a blast to play out there today," Wilson said.
Wilson said he went to the huddle before the Seahawks' last drive before overtime and said the season was on the line. Then he marched the offense 97 yards. "That's what we needed," Wilson said. "That's how we have to play."
Luck directed touchdown drives of 85 and 75 yards in the final four minutes to overcome a 12-point deficit and beat the Detroit Lions 35-33. What was incredible was both wins came against NFC teams with high-priced quarterbacks and both came on the road. Incredible. The eight wins by Luck are the most by a rookie quarterback taken with the first pick in the draft.
4. Harbaugh open to criticism: Last week, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh learned that having two capable quarterbacks puts a decision-maker on the hot seat. As it turned out, his decision to go with Colin Kaepernick Sunday could cost the 49ers home-field advantage for the playoffs.
In his third start, Kaepernick's inexperience came through in key moments of the fourth quarter, costing the 49ers in a 16-13 overtime loss to the St. Louis Rams. Leading 10-2 with 3:04 left in regulation, Kaepernick made a fatal blunder. He threw an errant pitchout to Ted Ginn Jr. on a third-and-3 from the 49ers' 17-yard line. Rams rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins recovered the fumble and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. A two-point conversion tied the game.
Kaepernick showed his great potential by breaking a 50-yard run to set up a potential game-winning field goal, but then his inexperience showed again. On a third down, Kaepernick made the mistake of running out of bounds on a 10-yard gain to the Rams' 15. By stepping out of bounds instead of running out the clock, Kaepernick gave Rams QB Sam Bradford 1:34 to lead a game-tying field goal drive. The Rams then won with a field goal in overtime.
Alex Smith may not have Kaepernick's athletic ability, but he probably wouldn't have made those critical mistakes in the final three minutes. The loss dropped the 49ers to 8-3-1, two-and-half games behind the 11-1 Atlanta Falcons in the race for home field in the NFC. With the Green Bay Packers at 8-4, the 49ers are in jeopardy of losing a playoff bye.
Smith admitted his demotion was disappointing because it came because of a concussion, not because of performance. As it stands, Smith will remain the backup.
"I will let you know if there's a change," Harbaugh said. "But right now, I feel as if it would be the same this week. And I'm proud of Kap -- proud of the way he played. He did some things, some really good things, under a lot of heat. He handled himself well."
5. QB quandaries: The Arizona Cardinals-New York Jets game, won by the Jets 7-6, was a clinic of how not to handle quarterbacks. I still can't believe Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has stuck with rookie Ryan Lindley, who clearly isn't ready for NFL starting assignments. In critical parts of the game, Lindley missed wide open receivers. He completed 10 of 31 passes for 72 yards. He was awful. The Cards were 0-for-15 on third down.
Whisenhunt said he considered a quarterback change, but added, "You always do what you think gives you the best chance. That's what we did."
Whisenhunt thought John Skelton gave the Cardinals the best chance to win at the start of the season, choosing him over Kevin Kolb. Now Whisenhunt is apparently waiting until Kolb is healthy to make a quarterback change. The Cardinals are on a miserable eight-game losing streak that has everyone wondering if Whisenhunt could lose his job.
Jets coach Rex Ryan keeps saying how he believes in Mark Sanchez, but he benched Sanchez with 4:48 in the third quarter after Sanchez threw three interceptions. Greg McElroy completed five of seven passes for 29 yards and produced a 1-yard touchdown pass that gave the Jets their only score.
"I believe in Mark, I believe in Greg, I believe in everyone we have," said Ryan, who wouldn't commit to a starting quarterback for next week.
He said he'll look at the situation and evaluate it. "The defense was doing a tremendous job," Ryan said. "I thought I needed to make a change. I will always do what I think is in the best interest of our team."
Ryan said he liked the way McElroy controlled the clock. He also said McElroy worked to improve his arm strength during the offseason. You get the feeling Ryan will go back to Sanchez next week, but the damage has been done. Sanchez was demoted and more fans will call for Tebow to start. Tebow was inactive because of cracked ribs, but the quarterback debate will be a hot topic on talk shows this week.
For this Sunday, though, McElroy outperformed Sanchez. McElroy had 152 yards on four drives. Sanchez had 164 on 10.
How irrelevant have the Eagles become? No Eagles player is in the top five in the fan voting for the Pro Bowl, not even Michael Vick. This was supposed to be the Dream Team, but even the fans have gone to sleep on it. … The Jaguars wasted no time getting Jason Babin active. Claimed off the waiver wire from Philadelphia, Babin was part of the defensive end rotation against Buffalo. … Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz has gotten gun-shy throwing the challenge flag. After losing the Thanksgiving game in part because he challenged a reviewable touchdown, Schwartz didn't challenge a 42-yard completion to Donnie Avery that should have been ruled an interception. The Colts scored four plays later and cut the Lions' third-quarter lead to three points. … The Miami Dolphins are concerned left tackle Jake Long suffered a potential serious triceps injury. He was in street clothes in the second half of the 23-16 loss to New England. Rookie Jonathan Martin, the starting right tackle, might have to move to left tackle the rest of the season. You also wonder how this affects Long's free-agent status after the season. He has had a bad year and may not get a $10 million contract from the Dolphins. … Aaron Rodgers controlled the action in Green Bay's 23-14 victory over Minnesota. Rodgers had the ball for 38 minutes and 30 seconds and ran 73 plays. The league's most-sacked quarterback was downed twice, but his game management was exceptional. Rodgers started with a three-step drop to take away some duress but he still kept firing downfield. Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 286 yards, putting the Packers back in first place over Chicago in the NFC North. … The Vikings have to be concerned about their passing offense. Christian Ponder completed only 12 of 25 passes for 119 yards. Sure, he didn't have Percy Harvin, but he got only three completions to wideouts. … Credit Romeo Crennel with doing a great job of keeping his team focused in the Chiefs' 27-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers. "Keep fighting for each other," Crennel told his team in a postgame speech. He wanted every player to get a game ball, while one would be placed prominently to show how the Chiefs rebounded from Saturday's tragedy. Owner Clark Hunt was very proud of the team's effort, which he should have been. … Weather was a factor in changing the game plan for the Buffalo Bills in their 34-18 victory over Jacksonville. Chan Gailey wanted hot back C.J. Spiller to get 60 percent of the running plays, with the rest going to Fred Jackson. Because of winds and rain, Jackson had 25 carries for 109 yards. Spiller had 77 yards on 14 carries. "Yeah, it does [change] a little bit because you would like for C.J. to be on a fast track," Gailey said. "He proved with that one run that sometimes it does not matter. When you are in a physical, downhill game that is more Fred's game." Gailey was alluding to Spiller's 44-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. … It's still hard to figure why Bill Belichick moved Julian Edelman ahead of Wes Welker at the beginning of the season. Welker has been money. He caught 12 passes for 103 yards in the Patriots' victory over Miami. He had 92 catches for 1,064 yards in 12 games. His 17 career 10-plus catch games ties him with Jerry Rice for the most in NFL history. All 12 catches, according to ESPN Stats & Information, came on throws of 10 yards or less. Meanwhile, Edelman suffered another leg injury and left the stadium with his foot in a boot. … The Pats pressured Dolphins rookie QB Ryan Tannehill and he completed only two of nine passes when five or more rushers came at him. … Adrian Peterson passed the 8,000-yard career rushing mark. Only Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell and Edgerrin James did it faster. … With Maurice Jones-Drew out, the Jags lost running back Rashad Jennings to a concussion. They were down to Montell Owens and Richard Murphy, who was just signed off the practice squad. … The Houston Texans had six sacks and forced six turnovers in their easy, 24-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans, who were helpless again Sunday. … The Seahawks will find out Monday when cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner will have their hearing for testing positive for Aderrall. They might be able to play in Week 14 against Arizona, but you get the feeling their suspensions could knock them out of playoff games.