Week 14 offered hope in what has been an NFL playoff race without much drama to this point.
The Atlanta Falcons' loss to the Carolina Panthers put the No. 1 seed in the NFC in play for the San Francisco 49ers, who had no trouble beating the Miami Dolphins. The New York Giants got a needed win over the New Orleans Saints to hold their one-game lead over the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins in the NFC East.
The Seattle Seahawks jumped into the NFC wild-card lead with a blowout of the Arizona Cardinals, but the Chicago Bears' loss to the Minnesota Vikings sent shock waves and hope up and down the NFC. Now, the Redskins, Cowboys, Vikings and even the 6-6-1 St. Louis Rams can keep playoff hopes alive thanks to the Bears.
In the AFC, it's still a race for the wild cards. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots have clinched division titles, and the Houston Texans, already qualified for the playoffs with Monday's game against the Patriots looming, still have a 2½-game lead over the Indianapolis Colts. The surprise was the downfall of the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals all lost.
"We don't even deserve or warrant the right to speak about playoffs," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "All we have earned is the right to talk about the Titans next week."
But at least the playoffs aren't out of the conversation with the Jets at 6-7.
Here is what else stood out in Week 14.
1. Trouble for Lovie? Everyone remembers last year's meltdown. Chicago was 8-3 and looking good. Then Jay Cutler got hurt and the Bears lost their last five games and finished 8-8.
Well, Cutler is healthy -- sort of -- and the Bears have lost four of their past five games, including Sunday's 21-14 loss to the Vikings. At 8-5, the Bears still have a good chance of making the playoffs, but can they? Things were so bad along the offensive line for protection that coach Lovie Smith let Jason Campbell finish the game while Cutler rested. They said afterward that Cutler had a neck injury, but he is taking a lot of hits behind a bad offensive line.
What's clear is that when Cutler is in the game, he's targeting Brandon Marshall too much. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Marshall was targeted 14 times by Cutler on throws of 10 yards or more. That ties the most for a receiver in any game on any team over the past five years. Marshall caught half of those 14 throws. For the game, he was targeted 19 times and had 10 receptions for 160 yards. The offense is completely out of whack.
As for Smith, his contract runs out after next season. He'd like a contract extension, and the team won't discuss it until after the season. If he doesn't make the playoffs, his future might be under review. Next week, the Bears play Green Bay in the most important game of their season. It might be the most important game of Smith's future.
"We knew it would be a race to the finish, and that's what we're going to have," Smith said. "That window of opportunity for us is a lot smaller, but we still control what happens with us."
2. Steelers have problems, but Ben's not one: The Steelers' 34-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers had nothing to do with Ben Roethlisberger. The reason was simple: Pittsburgh plays down to the competition.
"We don't seek comfort," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We accept responsibility for it. Hopefully, we can make corrections and move forward, because, regardless of what happened in other stadiums, if we play the way we played today, it doesn't matter."
The Steelers didn't look like a playoff team Sunday, and they knew it. They let the Chargers convert 12 third downs. Roethlisberger and the offense converted only five. Despite being at home, the Steelers let the Chargers set the field-position battle. The average starting position for the Steelers was the 19-yard line. Eight Steelers offensive drives started inside their 19. In the first four of those drives, the Steelers had three-and-outs.
"We felt like we left a lot of plays on the field and we all know we have to play better," said Roethlisberger, who was 22-for-42 for 285 yards. Understand, though, that Roethlisberger was rushing back from a serious SC joint sprain that was painful.
He concentrated on shorter passes in the first quarter, and the offense went nowhere. But when Roethlisberger loosened up, his receivers betrayed him. Midway through the second quarter, Roethlisberger made a Big Ben-like play. He avoided pressure, stepped up in the pocket and unleashed a long, perfect pass. Mike Wallace dropped it. Most long and intermediate plays just seemed to be off the hands of receivers.
What's amazing is the Steelers play their worst against the worst. Four of their six losses came against the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans and the Chargers, teams with combined records of 17-35. The Chargers had three new starters along the offensive line, with unproven Kevin Haslam at left tackle and career guard Reggie Wells at right tackle. Philip Rivers was sacked only once.
The only good news for the Steelers was Roethlisberger was able to throw deep and the Bengals and the Ravens also lost. "I didn't have any problem with his ability to throw the ball vertically or horizontally or any of those physical things," Tomlin said. "We just didn't perform very well today."
3. NFC East race heats up: What a weekend for the NFC East. The Giants kept coming up with big play after big play in beating the Saints 52-27, moving to 8-5, one game ahead of the Cowboys and Redskins.
For the Cowboys, it was a weekend of incredible emotion. Defensive tackle Josh Brent spent the weekend in jail after being charged with intoxication manslaughter in the death of practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown. Then, Dallas rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat the Bengals on the road 20-19. That's a great win for the Cowboys.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant got hot at the right time, and Tony Romo put up 10 points in the final 6:52 to win the game. Bryant didn't catch his first pass until 8:33 remained in the third quarter. He had a 27-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and he's been money down the stretch of games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bryant has caught 76.6 percent of the passes he's been targeted on in the second half this season and has 673 of his 1,028 yards after the intermission.
Robert Griffin III hurt his knee in the fourth quarter of the Redskins' 31-28 overtime victory against Baltimore. He tried to stay in the game, but finally, after hopping around, came to the sideline for treatment. Rookie Kirk Cousins delivered a touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon and a two-point conversion to tie the score and directed the game-winning field goal drive in overtime.
The Giants are 8-5 and the Redskins and Cowboys are 7-6. Next week, the Cowboys host the Steelers, the Redskins have a winnable game at Cleveland and the Giants have a tough one at Atlanta. One Giant stumble could cause a tie in the NFC East. As for RG3, he says his knee should be fine, but you have to wonder if it's a bone bruise or if there is ligament damage. If the Redskins have RG3, they have a chance at the division. It's fun to watch.
4. Feel-good story continues: The combination of Luck and Chuckstrong is becoming unstoppable. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, in the finishing stages of chemo as he recovers from leukemia, attended his third home game Sunday and is that much closer to getting back on the field.
The Colts came from behind once again in the fourth quarter, beating the Tennessee Titans 27-23. In games decided by eight points or fewer, the Colts are 8-1. They are 9-4 and close to locking up a wild-card spot. Face it, they are this year's team of destiny. The team is playing to give Pagano a chance to coach them in the playoffs.
The Colts fell behind 20-7 in the first half Sunday, continuing a trend of struggling early but recovering in the second half. Interim head coach Bruce Arians said the locker room at halftime was very calculated.
"Hollering and screaming doesn't get anything done," Arians said. "Some veterans stepped up and helped."
Arians said he made some offensive corrections. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky adjusted some defensive plays, and the Colts held the Titans to 86 yards in the second half after allowing 270 in the first. But the magic still involves Andrew Luck. His final stats were average: 16-of-34 for 196 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
"I don't think there were wholesale changes offensively, but we had better focus," Luck said. "We took it one play at a time. It was good to come out to start the second half with a score."
With two of the next three games against Houston, the Colts are thinking more than just a wild card. "We want to win this division," Arians said.
5. Pick up your parting gifts: For a few weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like a team that could pirate its way into the playoffs. Not now. Their inexcusable 23-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles put them at 6-7 and all but out of the wild-card race.
The Bucs had momentum going when the offense opened the fourth quarter with two touchdown drives. They had a 21-10 lead over the Eagles, who were going with rookie quarterback Nick Foles. Everyone knows about the Bucs' pass defense problems. They look as though they will be the first team in NFL history to surrender more than 300 passing yards a game.
On Sunday, they outdid themselves. They let Foles drive 72 and 64 yards in the final 7:21 to win the game. Foles finished with 381 passing yards. The Bucs are giving up 311.6 passing yards per game and finish the season against Drew Brees, Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan. The only thing that could save them is the chance the Falcons might rest Ryan in the season finale.
The Buffalo Bills could have kept their slim playoff hopes alive Sunday but suffered disappointment instead. They had a 12-7 lead over the Rams but let Bradford drive 84 yards on 14 plays to pull out the 15-12 victory. At 5-8, the Bills have to do a lot of soul searching.
Their defense has been a disappointment. The Mario Williams signing hasn't translated into wins despite an easy schedule. Ryan Fitzpatrick has made too many mistakes, and you have to wonder if the organization will draft a quarterback with its first-round pick or maybe go after Michael Vick. At 5-8, the Bills are all but done.
Finally, say goodbye to the Saints. They lost to the Giants 52-27 and are 5-8 and left with only one fight -- the bounty story. To their credit, the Saints never say never. They don't quit. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue offered them a compromise that saves the four players big money and suspension time if they just admit they were involved in the bounty. They said no, so Tagliabue will probably come down on them hard Tuesday. Does that turn the Saints' 5-8 record into 5-9?
Falcons coach Mike Smith knows his team isn't playing great football despite its 11-2 record. The Panthers dominated them 30-20 Sunday. "We couldn't get off the field," Smith said. "We need to play better." No doubt. The Bengals have been known for fast starts recently. In a five-game stretch, they outscored opponents in the first quarter 52-9. A poor finish against the Cowboys, though, dropped them to 7-6. Several teams entered Week 14 with offensive line problems. Give credit to Norv Turner and Rivers for minimizing the damage from the Chargers' issues. Down three starters along the line, Turner called more screens and short passes, which allowed Rivers to stay upright. Sure, there were breakdowns and he fired a pass to the ground to save his body, but Rivers looked more like Rivers in his victory over the Steelers. That wasn't the case for the Titans, who have lost four starting linemen to injured reserve. Quarterback Jake Locker was scrambling all day, and the Colts held Chris Johnson to 44 yards on 19 carries. The running lanes weren't there. It was a jailbreak for the Cardinals, who couldn't do anything against the Seahawks. The Bears limited kicker Robbie Gould to just kicking extra points after he suffered a calf injury in the pregame warm-ups. Rex Ryan once again gambled with the Jets' quarterback position. He deactivated Greg McElroy and left Tim Tebow on the active roster despite his cracked ribs. Tebow didn't even get on the field. Mark Sanchez was 12-of-19 for 111 yards in the win over Jacksonville. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rex Ryan got flagged for ranting and yelling at an official after he thought Bengals tackle Andre Smith should have been called for a holding penalty. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is once again getting hot late in the season. The pressure is off, but he had another great game Sunday. Newton's 72-yard touchdown run was the fifth longest by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era. The NFC went 4-0 against the AFC on Sunday with wins by the Redskins, Cowboys, Rams and 49ers. The NFC is 31-23 against the AFC and can clinch the interconference title for the second consecutive year with two more victories. Adrian Peterson now has 1,600 yards rushing and is on a mission to get to 2,000. Because he's averaging 6 yards a carry, he's doing it on 20.4 carries a game. That's a lot but it doesn't destroy the body too much. Few are giving the Cleveland Browns credit for their rookie class. Supplemental pick Josh Gordon had 86 receiving yards in the win over the Kansas City Chiefs. First-round quarterback Brandon Weeden was efficient. Fourth-rounder Travis Benjamin had a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown. The Browns have now won three in a row and are 5-8. Five more interceptions were returned for touchdowns Sunday. That brings the season total to 57, the fifth most ever and just three shy of the record set in 1967. By getting the Rams to 6-6-1, Jeff Fisher might draw Coach of the Year considerations.