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Week 10: The problem with parity

NEW ORLEANS -- An interesting stat started circulating Saturday.

Since 1987, at least one team with a losing record after nine games has made the playoffs. For an NFL that loves parity, the stat will keep fans interested until late in the season. In 2014, it's also an indicator of bad football.

In Week 10, 11 AFC teams escaped with winning records. It's hard to imagine the 4-5 Houston Texans, technically 12th in the conference, jumping five teams to make a playoff run. It's the NFC South leader that's likely to fulfill the annual stat. The New Orleans Saints lost in overtime to the San Francisco 49ers 27-24 but lead the NFC South at 4-5. The Carolina Panthers are second at 3-5-1. The Atlanta Falcons are still in the divisional race at 3-7.

Embarrassing.

The overtime loss marked the fourth time in five games the Saints lost a one-possession game (eight or fewer points).

"There is nothing to put our finger on, nothing specific," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We've had some go our way, just like a year ago, so you just have to keep trekking. It was tough for us to lose again."

Here is what we learned in Week 10.

1. Little resolved in AFC playoff race: Eleven teams entered Week 10 with winning records. Eleven teams, including those on a bye, left Sunday with winning records. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the New York Jets 20-13 and let the Cleveland Browns take the lead in the AFC North.

The statement win came from the Kansas City Chiefs, who edged the Buffalo Bills 17-13. The Chiefs are 6-3 and have shown a great ability to respond to pressure. Early in the season they overcame free-agent losses and injuries. On Sunday, they overcame a 10-point deficit and a tough Bills defensive line.

"I mentioned that to the team," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "There's going to be games like this where everything is not pretty and you have to play through it."

The Bills' powerful defensive line got through the Chiefs' offensive line for six sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Kansas City QB Alex Smith was running for his life the entire afternoon. What helps is having Jamaal Charles, who had 15 carries and 98 yards. More important is his leadership. Despite the struggles in pass protection, according to Reid, Charles said to his linemen, "We're going to be fine. Let's just keep pounding the ball. Let's go."

The Chiefs' new formula is run the ball, don't commit turnovers and play great defense. That's why they are a factor for a wild card. Sizing up the AFC playoff race, the Patriots, Broncos and Colts appear to be the top three seeds. A 10- or 11-win team will come out of the AFC North, which should also have at least one wild card. What we learned Sunday is the Chiefs have a decent chance to be that other wild card.

2. Jim Harbaugh era isn't over yet: A loss to the Saints wouldn't have ended Jim Harbaugh's incredible run as the 49ers' coach, but it would have likely initiated the divorce process. Despite living dangerously throughout the game, the 49ers pulled off a 27-24 overtime win. "Anquan Boldin said after the game that these are one-week seasons," Harbaugh said. "Now we approach next week."

The 49ers did just enough to win. Down three with 1:34 left, quarterback Colin Kaepernick had an impossible fourth-and-10 from the San Francisco 22-yard line. Kaepernick scrambled right with no one open. Then, all of a sudden, he spotted Michael Crabtree deep downfield, with no defender around him. Kaepernick hit him for a 51-yard gain that set up the game-tying field goal. Then, in overtime, linebacker Ahmad Brooks stripped the ball from Drew Brees at the Saints' 17. Rookie Chris Borland recovered, setting up Phil Dawson's game-winning field goal.

At 5-4, it's hard to say the 49ers are completely back. They are scoring only 21.4 points a game and giving up 22.4, a ratio indicative of an 8-8 or 7-9 team. The first-team offense has not had a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter all season. Things, however, look better ahead. Linebacker Aldon Smith, good for a sack a game, comes off the suspended list this week. The next four weeks feature games against the Giants, Redskins, Seahawks (at home on Thanksgiving) and Raiders, a chance to pick up maybe three wins.

More importantly, the 49ers got back to what they do best on offense -- running the ball. Frank Gore had 81 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. The team rushed for 144 yards and emphasized the more physical two-tight end and two-back sets.

"This is our game," Brooks said about the change back to the running philosophy. "To set up the play-action, you have to establish the run."

Harbaugh knew this wasn't a pretty victory. But the coach who has taken the 49ers to three consecutive NFC title games is still in the hunt.

3. AFC North teams can't handle prosperity: On Thursday, a nationally televised audience watched the Cincinnati Bengals lay an egg in a 24-3 loss to the Browns. Quarterback Andy Dalton had his worst game. That set up the Steelers' chance to take first place in the division. They played even worse, losing to the Jets 20-13.

Ben Roethlisberger didn't play well despite throwing for 343 yards, and his red zone struggles from earlier in the season returned. That means the Browns are now in first. Ouch.

"The reality of it was we shot ourselves in the foot today," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "You are not going to win any football games minus-4 in the turnover game."

Even worse, the Steelers had a minus-4 turnover ratio to a Jets team that created only three turnovers in its first nine games and ranked last on defense. Remember, this is a Steelers team that lost to Tampa Bay at home. Over the past three years, the Steelers have had a bad habit of losing games they should win on paper. It's one of the reasons they have been out of the playoffs since 2011.

Roethlisberger, coming off two games in which he threw a combined 12 touchdown passes, had two interceptions Sunday. Wide receiver Antonio Brown lost two fumbles. Those mistakes allowed the Jets to jump to a 20-3 lead and coast to a victory.

AFC North teams have the gift of an easy schedule, playing the AFC South and NFC South, divisions that have a combined nondivision record of 13-39-1. AFC North teams are 14-4-1 against the Souths. It's the reason the AFC North has four winning teams. The Steelers had the gift of playing the Jets and blew it. The loss gives hope to the Ravens, who are now tied with Pittsburgh at 6-4 and have three more games against the Souths.

4. Telling victory for Lions: One of the best matchups of the day featured the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions. In many ways, the reputations of these teams are similar because you don't know if you can trust either in a playoff race.

Even though it took a 74-yard touchdown drive at the end of the game to secure the 20-16 victory, the Lions solidified their contender status. They are 7-2 and getting healthy again. Calvin Johnson was back; Megatron caught seven passes for 113 yards, including a beautiful 49-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford early in the game.

The Lions' defense stuffed the Dolphins' rushing attack, limiting Miami to 50 yards on 19 carries. The Lions executed two successful fake punts, an indication of good coaching. Sure, kicking remains an issue -- the Lions have missed 11 field goals and are on their third place-kicker -- but you can't argue with overall success.

The Dolphins continue to carry the stigma of a team destined to be 7-9 or 8-8. Ryan Tannehill was just average Sunday. He completed 27 of 38 passes for 207 yards and was sacked three times. It's been well documented that Tannehill isn't great at hitting deep passes even though management gave him one of the league's best deep threats in Mike Wallace. The Lions did a great job of pressuring Tannehill. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tannehill was under duress on 39 percent of his dropbacks. He was 4-for-13 under pressure and averaged only 2.9 yards per attempt.

5. Plot thickens in NFC West: Just when you thought the Arizona Cardinals were going to run away with the NFC West, quarterback Carson Palmer, less than 48 hours after getting a $50 million contract extension, suffered what appeared to be a torn left ACL. He tore that same knee in a 2005 playoff game against the Steelers.

Sunday was a day of twisting momentum in the NFC West. Palmer suffered the possible season-ending injury on the first possession of the fourth quarter. The Cardinals trailed the St. Louis Rams by four, but backup Drew Stanton entered the game and hit John Brown for a 48-yard touchdown pass. The defense followed up with two scores, leading to a 31-14 win.

In a tie game late in the third quarter, New York Giants QB Eli Manning tried an ill-advised fade pass in the end zone that ended up being picked off by Earl Thomas. Momentum changed and the Seahawks scored 21 unanswered points to win 38-17. The 49ers hit on a fourth-and-10 and got a strip sack in overtime to set up their win over New Orleans.

The Cardinals have a two-game lead over Seattle and a three-game lead over San Francisco, but can they stay on top with Stanton at quarterback? Momentum could be switching.

SHORT TAKES

Left tackle Branden Albert suffered what might be a season-ending knee injury in the Dolphins' 20-16 loss to Detroit. It forced the Dolphins to make three changes along the offensive line, including moving rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James to left tackle. ... Loved the way coach Bruce Arians summed up a poor running performance by the Cardinals: "We got our asses whipped." ... Apparently, Tampa Bay's loss to Atlanta was so hard on Bucs quarterback Josh McCown he was caught crying at his locker. "It hurts," he said afterward. ... One of Jaguars QB Blake Bortles' biggest problems is accuracy. He threw more than a half dozen passes at the feet of receivers in Jacksonville's 31-17 loss to Dallas.