<
>

Week 11: Standing tall in NFC

Cold weather finally made its appearance in Week 11.

Seven games were played in kickoff temperatures of 48 degrees or lower. As a result, scoring decreased. Entering the week, scoring was at 46.7 points a game league-wide, best in the NFL history through 10 weeks. The wind chill dropped and the scoring average cooled to 39.6 points in those seven games.

Sticking with a weather theme, hot and cold teams brought some clarity to the NFC playoff picture. Even though they were in warm weather, a cold Detroit Lions offense lost to the Arizona Cardinals 14-6, and suddenly the Cards have a two-game lead in the race for the NFC's No. 1 seed. The Green Bay Packers was hot at cold Lambeau Field, beating the Philadelphia Eagles 53-20 and improving their chances of winning the NFC North.

While the Cardinals and Packers were the big winners in the NFC playoff picture, the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals made statements in the AFC.

Here is what we learned in Week 11.

1. Cards in line for No. 1 seed: As expected, there was a drop-off in the Cardinals' offense going from Carson Palmer to Drew Stanton. The 24-point offense scored only 14 points Sunday. Stanton hit on 21 of 32 passes for 306 yards and threw interceptions. But the former Lions backup was better than the current Lions starter Matthew Stafford in a victory that gives Arizona the best chance of getting the NFC No. 1 and the NFC West title. Once again, the Cardinals' defense set the tone.

"We believed this week and last week, our defense needed to play great against the opposing team's defense to help our offense," Cards CB Patrick Peterson said.

The Cardinals shut out the Lions in the second half, just like they shut out the St. Louis Rams in the second half last week. So much of the credit goes to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who was rewarded last week with a contract extension through 2017 and will probably get a head-coaching job next year.

"He's probably the best half-time adjustor I've been around," Peterson said. "When he comes in at halftime, he dissects what is hurting us and makes adjustments to stop certain plays. He's definitely the Papa Bear of this defense."

Stafford completed only 18 of 30 passes against the Cardinals' blitzing defense for 183 yards. The Lions had only 262 yards of total offense. Even if Stanton is average down the stretch, the Cardinals could go 3-3. That should be good enough for a 12-4 record and possible No. 1 seed.

2. Pack rolling at Lambeau: The Packers made it look easy in their blowout victory over the Eagles. By halftime, they led 30-6. All of a sudden home-field advantage at Lambeau Field is becoming the best in the NFL. The Packers have outscored opponents 128-9 in first halves of the past four home games.

Aaron Rodgers has thrown 29 consecutive touchdowns at home without an interception.

"It's about taking care of the football," said Rodgers, who completed 22 of 36 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns. "If you take care of the football, you give your team a chance to win."

Looking ahead, the Packers have a great chance to run the table as long as they can beat the New England Patriots at Lambeau on Nov. 30. Four of the next five games are against 5-5 teams or worse (Minnesota, Atlanta, Buffalo and Tampa Bay). The Packers finish at home against the Lions, and the NFC North could be on the line.

"This is the kind of stretch you want to be on at this point of the season when teams start to sort things out," Rodgers said. The Packers are making a serious Super Bowl run.

3. Seahawks learning about Super Bowl jinx: Even though the Seattle Seahawks were considered the league's No. 1 team entering the season, they haven't been able to escape the Super Bowl jinx. Four of the past eight Super Bowl winners didn't make the playoffs the following season. No team has won a playoff game in the season after winning the Super Bowl since the New England Patriots in 2004. Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Chiefs didn't kill the Seahawks' chances of repeating, but the odds are starting to stack up against them.

The past eight days illustrate the bad things that happen to Super Bowl teams. Last Sunday, the Seahawks lost their best run-stopper, defensive tackle Brandon MeBane. Without him, the Chiefs rushed for 190 yards on 30 plays and scored three touchdowns on the ground. Tight end Zach Miller had to go on injured reserve during the week. With 8:25 left in the fourth quarter and the Seahawks driving to take a lead, Max Unger, one of the best centers in the league, suffered a high-ankle sprain and a knee injury. The loss of Unger forced the Seahawks to put Patrick Lewis, signed off the street a couple weeks ago, at center.

All of a sudden, the league's best running offense started running amok. Quarterback Russell Wilson had to use extra hand motions to try to get the new center to get him shotgun snaps because Lewis had difficulty with the Arrowhead Stadium noise. On one play near the goal line, Wilson had to physically move recently signed tight end Tony Moeaki from the right side to the left side before the snap. Minus Unger, the Seahawks gained only 32 yards on their last 13 plays and were stopped four times on fourth down.

At 6-4, the Seahawks may not have enough gas to catch up to the Cardinals for the NFC West title. With the league's toughest closing schedule, the best the Seahawks might do is get to 10 wins. With the roster wearing down, the Seahawks have to worry about just making the playoffs instead of getting back to the Super Bowl.

4. Suddenly, the AFC West is in play: When they signed DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and Emmanuel Sanders, the Denver Broncos made themselves the favorites to repeat as AFC West champs and possibly be the AFC's No. 1 seed. Losing to New England on Nov. 2 didn't change the Broncos' status. Peyton Manning usually loses in Foxborough. But Sunday's 22-7 loss in St. Louis was unexplainable and scary.

The scary part is the injury situation. Running back Montee Ball reinjured his groin and could be out for a lengthy period. Backup Ronnie Hillman was out with a foot injury. Then, one by one, offensive players went down. Tight end Julius Thomas suffered an ankle injury. Sanders suffered a concussion on a fineable hit. Tight end Jacob Tamme injured an elbow. Wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Wes Welker were also banged up.

"It's next man up," Welker said. "The next guy comes in there and tries some plays. Unfortunately, throughout the day ... even at the start of the game, we couldn't ever get in the flow of things and it was frustrating."

Manning still threw for 389 yards, completing 34 of 54 passes, but he had only one touchdown. Even worse, he was overthrowing. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, he overthrew or underthrew 10 of his 54 passes. The problems started when Thomas went down in the first quarter. With Virgil Green out, Manning had to try to connect with Tamme, his third-string tight end. Manning targeted him 10 times but connected with him only four times for 31 yards.

"Certainly, you hate to see Julius, Emmanuel injured, but I still don't think that's an excuse," Manning said.

Here's the problem, though. With Ball and Hillman out, the success of the Broncos' offense hinges solely on the passing game. Running back C.J. Anderson had nine carries and 29 yards Sunday. That was it for the running game. Denver's final 27 plays were in the air.

The Broncos host Miami next week and then have a key game prime-time in Kansas City on Nov. 30. Andy Reid has the Chiefs tied for the division lead with great defense and a solid running game. Reid put together a great game plan against the Seahawks that featured perimeter runs and short passes by Alex Smith. The Chiefs have a balanced offense. The Broncos have an injured offense.

5. NFC South is NFL's irrelevant division: Following the Atlanta Falcons' come-from-behind, 19-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Falcons QB Matt Ryan said, "We're relevant." The Falcons were able to be excited only because the NFC South has become irrelevant.

The New Orleans Saints were dominated by the Bengals 27-10. The Falcons technically lead the NFC South because they beat the Saints in the opener, but their records are 4-6. It's looking more and more likely that the division winner is going to have a losing record. The Falcons are 4-6 only because they are 4-0 against NFC South teams. They are 0-6 against the rest of the league. Overall, the NFC South is 6-20-1 against the rest of the league.

Starting next year, the NFL needs to consider not awarding a playoff home game to a team with a losing record. Either the Falcons or Saints will eventually get the No. 4 seed in the NFC, but should they get a home game instead of an 11-5 team such as the Detroit Lions or Dallas Cowboys? I don't think so.

"We can't escape the reality of where we are right now," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "You are what your record says you are. We're a 4-6 team right now. None of us are happy with that."

Not only are the Saints losing, but they seem to have lost tight end Jimmy Graham in the offense. He was targeted only four times Sunday and had three catches for 29 yards. Since the start of last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints are 2-5 when Graham catches three passes or fewer.

SHORT TAKES

The interesting twist of the Texans' 23-7 victory over the Browns was Ryan Mallett outperforming Brian Hoyer in the quarterback free-agent audition game for 2015. Mallett was more accurate and timely with his big plays and seriously damaged the Browns' playoff chances. Both quarterbacks are free agents next year. Mallett needs to play well to prevent the Texans from going after Hoyer, who might draw interest from Tennessee. ... Sunday was a double-downer for the Vikings. They dropped to 4-6 after a 21-13 loss to Chicago and Adrian Peterson is probably going to get a suspension. The NFL is expected to rule on his child-abuse case as early as Monday. Because he's not cooperating, most people believe he's going to get a significant suspension. ... Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is amazing. He caught his fourth touchdown pass, but was penalized for hitting a punter twice. Which makes you wonder: What is he doing on special teams? ... Robert Griffin III was horrible in the Redskins' 27-7 loss to Tampa Bay, but the team as a whole was so bad there was no thought of benching him. ... How long will the Giants keep putting up with mistake-filled games from Eli Manning? Sunday was his 19th game since 2004 in which he's thrown at least three picks.