NFL fans had a pre-Thanksgiving feast of close games, wild finishes and crazy offensive efforts in Week 11.
Three games went into overtime, with the new two-possession rule continuing to work. The extra time enabled the favored Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to earn victories. Andre Johnson of the Texans and Justin Blackmon of the Jacksonville Jaguars had historic days. They were the first receivers in NFL history to post 200-yard receiving days on the same field. Johnson had 273 yards on 14 catches. Blackmon had 236 yards on seven catches.
Thanks to the new overtime rule, the Texans became first team in NFL history to get two scores in overtime, a field goal with their first possession and a touchdown to win it.
As for the playoffs, the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Texans opened three-game leads in their divisional races. The Atlanta Falcons maintained their three-game lead on the surging Bucs in the NFC South.
The Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans Saints and Cowboys kept their faint playoff hopes alive with Week 11 victories. The San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals are sentenced to six weeks of gloom and doom.
Here is what else stood out in Week 11.
1. Mile-high perspective: Now that the Broncos have a three-game lead in the AFC West, people can take a philosophical look at what is going right with the Broncos and what has gone wrong with the San Diego Chargers.
"In this league, you are two games away from disaster,'' Broncos coach John Fox said.
Thanks to Sunday's 30-23 victory over the Chargers that wasn't as close as the score indicates, the Broncos aren't two games away from disaster. They have a three-game lead with six games left and a quarterback, Peyton Manning, who is getting stronger by the week. Sure, there are some minor issues. Halfback Willis McGahee, who has had fumbling problems of late, suffered a knee injury that is a concern. Linebacker D.J. Williams is coming off a nine-game suspension and is just getting integrated back into the defense. But overall, the Broncos are strong and can start making preparations for the playoffs.
As impressive as Manning has been with his comeback from four neck operations, there are other great stories with the Broncos. What about Brandon Stokley, who's career seemed to be over? Stokley caught four passes for 55 yards and a touchdown Sunday, giving him 32 catches for 387 yards and five touchdowns for the season.
Then you have offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who did miracles making Tim Tebow a playoff quarterback last year. He has done an incredible job coming up with offensive formations that keep defenses off balance.
"He'll come up with different ways of lining up guys with our three-receiver set," Manning said. "He kept Brandon on the field with three receivers. We'll move guys around. We'll do things in bunch formation."
Sounds like a prime head-coaching candidate for 2013, in other words.
While the Broncos are a mile high, the Chargers are below sea level. The struggles of QB Philip Rivers point to how bad the talent around him has slipped. Robert Meachem is no Vincent Jackson. Malcom Floyd isn't fast. Antonio Gates is older and slower. Things are so bad that Danario Alexander, just plucked off the streets a couple of weeks ago, has emerged as Rivers' top receiver. Alexander had seven catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
At 4-6, Norv Turner is heading for the unemployment line at the end of the season and the roster seems to be set for an overhaul.
2. Prudent Packers: The Green Bay Packers' 24-20 victory over the Lions is a great example of how better prepared the Packers were for adversity than the Lions. If anything, the game ball should go to Packers general manager Ted Thompson. Going into last offseason, the Packers and Lions -- playoff teams in 2011 -- had serious needs on defense. Thompson used his first six draft picks to help the defense. The Lions ignored their serious needs in the secondary both in free agency and the draft, using their first two picks on offensive backups and grabbing only cornerback Jacob Lacey in free agency.
Down five starters on defense Sunday, the Packers got solid efforts from the young players. Cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Jerron McMillian each came up with huge games against the Lions. Hayward had five defensed passes. Safety M.D. Jennings, a second-year player, came up with a 72-yard interception for a touchdown. Mike McCarthy called that interception as exciting a play as he's seen from a Packer since he has been head coach. Defensive end Jerel Worthy, a rookie second-round pick, also played well.
"This is a mature team,'' Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We've won a lot of games together. We've positioned ourselves for a run down the stretch.''
At 7-3, the Packers are in great position to either win the NFC North or get a wild card. At 4-6, the Lions are all but done.
3. Rookie QB lesson: As if Eagles coach Andy Reid didn't have enough problems, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan taught him the proper way to use a rookie quarterback. Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son and the Redskins' offensive coordinator, understand one of the keys to having rookie quarterbacks succeed is to minimize the number of throws in a game. The more a rookie quarterback throws, the greater chance he has of losing.
The 2012 class of rookie quarterbacks is 5-21 in games in which they attempt 31 or more passes.
Reid had rookie Nick Foles throw 46 passes in a 31-6 loss to the Redskins. Reid dialed up 22 pass attempts in the first half, which included interceptions on the Eagles' first two possessions. That's pushing the limits of a rookie. Sure, Andrew Luck can get away with it, but he's the highest-rated quarterback to enter the league in at least a decade. Foles is a third-round pick making his first start because of a concussion to Michael Vick.
"I take full responsibility for where we are right now,'' Reid said.
In the first half when the game was competitive, Reid called 23 passes and 13 runs, an inbalance. Conversely, RG3 was 14-of-15 for 200 yards for the game. Shanahan's emphasis on the run set up play-action passes, allowing Griffin to hit touchdown passes of 61 and 49 yards.
At 3-7, the Eagles are going nowhere. And with RB LeSean McCoy suffering a concussion and Vick recovering from his own concussion, the running game might not even be an option for Reid if Foles has to start again next week.
4. What was Whisenhunt thinking? Call it impatience. Call it a wake-up call. Call it a gamble. But call it wrong. Ken Whisenhunt's decision to bench John Skelton and go with rookie Ryan Lindley was the worst decision of the day and the worst decision of the month. A 13-3 lead became a 23-19 loss, in part, because of the move.
First of all, the Cardinals were on the road. The 2012 rookie quarterback class is losing two-thirds of its road starts and this is as great a rookie class that has hit the league in years. Skelton completed only two of his first seven passes for six yards. The benching came immediately after Skelton missed a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone. Fitz ran the perfect route. Skelton let the ball sail over him.
But Lindley wasn't ready for this assignment. He completed only two of his first seven attempts. On Lindley's first possession, Falcons defensive end John Abraham stripped the ball from Lindley and Jonathan Babineaux returned the fumble 15 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 13-10.
With three interceptions in the first quarter and five for the game, Matt Ryan and the Falcons shouldn't have had the opportunity to climb back in the game that quickly. But the decision to put in Lindley handcuffed the Cardinals. They had only two field goals the remainder of the game. Lindley completed nine passes for 64 yards and was sacked three times for 29 yards.
The Cardinals knew this was their desperation game. They entered Sunday on a five-game losing streak. Coming off the bye, Whisenhunt had Skelton on the short lease, but Lindley wasn't the dog to walk in as a replacement.
Whisenhunt has been playing with fire all season. On Sunday, he was going with two rookie offensive tackles: Bobby Massie and Nate Potter. Abraham destroyed Potter all day. With a 13-0 lead, Whisenhunt put his trust in an inexperienced rookie quarterback and two rookie tackles not ready for prime time.
It all amounted to a victory the Falcons didn't deserve.
5. Playoff preview for Colts? If the Colts can squeeze out enough wins down the stretch, they have a chance to return to the playoffs under the direction of a new quarterback, Luck. Manning spoiled Colts fans for more than a decade, putting together 12-win seasons and AFC South titles.
It's a new era under Luck, and Sunday's game against the New England Patriots gave them a look at how they would do as a wild card. Whoops. The Patriots blew out the Colts, 59-24. The Colts have seven weeks to find solutions or they will be one-and-done in the playoffs, which still isn't bad because no one thought they would be in position to make the playoffs.
The Colts are 6-4. Looking ahead, they could get to nine wins if they beat Buffalo, Tennessee and Kansas City, all winnable games. The problem is they will probably have to go back to Foxborough or fly to Denver to play the Broncos and Manning in a first-round game.
"We knew we couldn't come here and turn the football over and have a chance to win," interim Colts coach Bruce Arians said. "I thought our guys played extremely hard and gave us a lot of good effort, except some areas that we've got to shore up. Obviously, our punt return coverage, and obviously we'd like to have a couple throws back. But other than that, we will fight our tails off so we can come back here in January."
Luck threw for 334 yards and two touchdowns, but he had three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns.
The Colts saw their future, and it was a little scary.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby missed his seventh field goal of the season, but don't expect any change. Packers coach Mike McCarthy says he "won't blink" in support of Crosby. Apparently, Jets owner Woody Johnson's 45-minute talk with the coaching staff and front office did some good. Even though the Jets got off to a slow start against the St. Louis Rams, they had their best offensive performance in a month and the defense was solid all day. For the sixth time this year, an opposing offense came out and scored against the Jets on the opening drive. By minimizing the use of Tim Tebow, though, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was able to stay on the field more and get into a groove. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 178 yards in the Jets' 27-13 win. It was important for Jets coach Rex Ryan to win this game and not be embarrassed by his former offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, who is the Rams' offensive coordinator. "I thought Shotty did a nice job of keeping us off balance that first drive," Ryan said. "As the game went on, I thought defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and everyone did a great job of really playing fundamentals and the communication got much better. We made some plays up front so I think that was huge."
The Cowboys can't view their 23-20 overtime victory over the Cleveland Browns as a moral victory. It was more concerning than anything. First, Tony Romo was sacked a career-high seven times and was knocked down 10 additional times. Second, left tackle Tyron Smith suffered a high ankle sprain and will certainly miss the Thanksgiving Day game against Washington. Jermey Parnell is expected to start at left tackle. The Cowboys are also down two centers because of injuries. They also don't know if halfback DeMarco Murray will be available. Third, Cowboys fans aren't as rabid. There were plenty of empty seats at Cowboys Stadium as overtime started. A loss to the Browns would have been ridiculous. The Browns have the league's longest road losing streak and the worst record in the league since Week 12 of last year. The Houston Texans' defense learned a good lesson Sunday. Sometimes, it's best not to knock out the starting quarterback. Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert suffered an elbow injury five minutes into the game on a sack in which he fumbled. Chad Henne came off the bench to throw for 354 yards and four touchdowns, forcing the Texans to scramble like crazy to beat the Jaguars 43-37 in overtime. The Texans are 9-1 with a three-game lead over the Colts. Houston can clinch the AFC South in about two weeks. The last playoff spot in the NFC could end up going to a running team -- Seattle, Minnesota or Tampa Bay. The Vikings and Seahawks were on bye weeks, giving Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin the day to showcase his skills. He didn't disappoint. Martin had 138 yards on 24 carries in a 27-21 victory over Carolina. Seventy-nine of those yards came in the fourth quarter. During the first three quarters, Martin averaged 2.6 yards after contact. He averaged 3.6 after contact in the fourth quarter and overtime, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He gets stronger as do the Bucs' playoff chances. The Vikings, Seahawks and Bucs are 6-4. Despite the disappointing loss, the Panthers played hard. Linebacker Thomas Davis almost won the game by knocking the ball out of Martin's hand for a fumble on a great goal-line stand in the fourth quarter. Even though the Panthers are 2-8, they've had eight games in which they have been close to winning. They are 2-6 in games decided by eight points or less. Carson Palmer threw his fifth pick-six since joining the Raiders, who are now 3-7 after a 38-17 loss to the Saints. Matt Cassel was benched again by the Kansas City Chiefs, but you get the feeling the Chiefs don't have enough confidence in Brady Quinn to let him have the rest of the season. In the Chiefs' 28-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Cassel didn't commit any turnovers but only 8-of-16 for 93 yards and generated virtually nothing on offense. Quinn was 9-of-14 for 95 yards and wasn't much better. The Patriots opened their game against the Colts in an unusual formation. They had a two-receiver set featuring Julian Edelman and Wes Welker. You wonder if Brandon Lloyd's role is being reduced. The Pats were without TE Aaron Hernandez (ankle injury).