Week 12 brought more clarity to the AFC playoff picture.
The conference's four division leaders -- New England, Denver, Cincinnati and Indianapolis -- all won. The Patriots continued to be the conference's most dominant team, having no trouble beating Detroit 34-9. Peyton Manning and the Broncos needed three fourth-quarterback touchdown drives to beat the Miami Dolphins 39-36. The Bengals controlled the Houston Texans 22-13, and the Colts beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 23-3, pulling two games ahead of Houston in what should be a division runaway.
The Patriots' hold of the No. 1 seed could suffer a setback if they lose in Green Bay next Sunday. But don't forget that the Patriots have the tie-breaker on Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati because of earlier victories.
The Broncos can't think about the No. 1 seed for the next seven days because their priority is winning the AFC West. They have to travel to Kansas City next Sunday. A loss reopens the division because the Broncos are 8-3 and the Chiefs and Chargers, who travel to Baltimore, are at 7-4.
The Bengals are two weeks away from their first of two meetings against the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the moment, the 37-37 tie with Carolina (Week 6) gives Cincinnati a slight edge in the division race. The remaining schedules for Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland suggest that three could get to 10-6, but the Bengals might win the division with a 10-5-1 record.
The Dolphins' loss to Denver could have seriously damaged their playoff chances.
Here is what we learned in Week 12.
1. Cards fail to tighten NFC West grip: With a three-game lead in the NFC West entering the day, the Arizona Cardinals could have all but clinched the division had they beaten the Seattle Seahawks. Though it was no surprise the Seahawks won 19-3 at home, the Cardinals have to be concerned about how they looked with Drew Stanton at quarterback.
According to Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, the Seahawks lined up in basic man coverages most of the day and limited what the Cardinals did passing.
"We lined up in more man than I can remember in a while," Wright said. "It was a real simple approach."
Stanton completed only 14 of 26 passes for 149 yards and was sacked three times. The Cardinals gained only 204 yards total. At 9-2, the Cardinals are still in a good position to win the division. If they can get to 11 wins, the Cards could get at least a No. 2 seed.
What the Seahawks learned from this victory is that their defense matches up well against what the Cardinals have offensively the rest of the season. The Cardinals don't have a power running attack, which gave the Seahawks trouble last week in Kansas City. The Seahawks diagnosed the outside running plays and screens involving Andre Ellington. For the game, the Cardinals had only 64 yards rushing, 41 by backs.
Cornerback Richard Sherman said the reason for the strong defensive effort was the Seahawks' improved health, particularly the return of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. This sets up for a great Thanksgiving game between Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers.
Meanwhile, the MCL sprain that kept Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald out of the game could sideline him for another week or two.
2. Broncos simplify approach: With Julius Thomas out with an ankle injury, Emmanuel Sanders playing a week after suffering a concussion and halfbacks Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman out, Broncos coach John Fox knew he couldn't go with a conventional Peyton Manning passing game plan. Air Peyton went Ground Fox on Sunday in a win over Miami.
The Broncos made it a point to run the ball and be more basic with the run-blocking. Tight end Virgil Green helped with the blocking. The Broncos used more jumbo formations in which an offensive lineman was a sixth blocker. With more big bodies leading the way, the Broncos had 35 rushing attempts for 201 yards, led by C.J. Anderson's 167 yards on 27 carries.
"It was an emphasis," Fox said of running the ball. "It was something we needed to do. We even used some offensive tackles at tight ends."
The disappointment was how the defense struggled. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 26 of 36 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Miami led 28-17 entering a fourth quarter in which Manning posted 22 points.
3. Running games loom large: Teams with great quarterbacks sometimes get away from the run with their play calling. Some offensive coaches tend to slip into a passing mode even though the weather dictates more running plays. On Sunday, there was a lot of smart football.
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy made sure he had balance in the Packers' 24-21 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. The Packers had 32 runs and called 30 pass plays, almost perfect balance. With a kickoff temperature of 49 degrees at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Eddie Lacy had 25 carries for 125 yards. Seventy of those yards were after first contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"He was great, and he's a workhorse and we need him in winter," McCarthy said of Lacy.
Even though the Patriots called 53 pass attempts in a 34-9 win over the Lions, Bill Belichick recognized the value of a physical running attack. He signed 250-pound LeGarrette Blount this week after Blount was cut in Pittsburgh and gave him 12 rushing attempts for 78 yards. Blount is a good runner in the red zone and on short-yardage plays.
The Philadelphia Eagles had 38 carries for 164 yards in a 43-24 win over the Tennessee Titans. The surprising thing is that Eagles coach Chip Kelly didn't even have to try a single read-option play involving quarterback Mark Sanchez, according to ESPN Stats & Information. For Kelly, that is a first since coming into the league 27 games ago.
And no team understands the value of running the ball more than the Cincinnati Bengals, who have three consecutive playoff losses in games in which they had a combined 67.4 to 32.6 percent pass-to-run ratio. Hue Jackson, who took over as offensive coordinator after Jay Gruden left for the Washington Redskins, vowed to have a balanced attack. A recent injury to Giovani Bernard altered those plans, but Bernard was back for the Bengals in their 22-13 victory over the Houston Texans. The Bengals had 43 rushes for 139 yards and 35 pass attempts. Jackson's offense controlled the ball for 39 minutes, 10 seconds.
4. Still going South: It's bad enough that the AFC South and NFC South went 0-4 against the rest of the league Sunday, putting their combined record in non-division games at 15-45-1. Yet the Souths reached new lows in their defeats.
The Titans were relatively uncompetitive in their loss in Philadelphia. Plus, they lost offensive linemen Brian Schwenke and Taylor Lewan to injuries, which could make the Titans' 2-9 season even worse. The Houston Texans' offense was invisible in their loss to Cincinnati. Ryan Mallett had the ball only 20:50 and produced only 248 offensive yards.
But the Atlanta Falcons topped them all. Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer tried to give Atlanta the game with three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter. Even that wasn't good enough. The Falcons gave the Browns enough time to put together a 61-yard field goal drive in the final 44 seconds and pull out a 26-24 win.
"I can't believe we still won," Hoyer said after the game. No one could. The Falcons are now 4-7 and 0-7 in non-division games. The New Orleans Saints could drop to 4-7 if they lose to Baltimore on Monday night. Overall, the NFC South is 6-22-1 against the rest of the league. I can't remember a division as bad as this.
"It's very frustrating when you don't play consistent football," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Were it not for the NFC South, the Browns wouldn't be in playoff contention. They are 3-0 against the NFC South and have one more chance at a win when they play Carolina in Week 16.
5. The unconvincing Lions: Once again, the Lions' offense struggled against a team with a .500 record or better. In five games against teams that currently stand at .500 or better, the Lions' offense has scored only 68 points, 13.6 a game. That's inexcusable for a team that has Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, three quality tight end and good depth at running back.
"I know everyone wants to focus on the quarterback, but it's not all his issues," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "We are not functioning very well on offense."
Belichick used a simple plan to stop the Lions' outside receivers. He put Brandon Browner, a big, physical cornerback, on Megatron with a safety over the top in double coverage. He put Darrelle Revis on Tate. Each receiver caught four passes. Stafford was 8-for-21 when targeting Johnson and Tate for 155 yards. He was 18-for-46 for the game.
"When you play a good team like New England, the whole team has to play well," Stafford said.
That's the problem. Against the good teams, the Lions are average. Despite having one of the best defenses in the league, the Lions' success this season seems to be partially attributed to the schedule. They are 2-3 against good teams and 5-1 against teams that currently have losing records.
Nevertheless, they have a great chance to get a wild card. They don't play a team that boasts a winning record until the season finale in Green Bay. Winning the next four games would put them at 11-4 going into Green Bay. That would give Detroit a chance to be the No. 5 seed and play the weak NFC South winner in the first round of the playoffs.
Patriots halfback Jonas Gray learned a value lesson this week: Don't get in Bill Belichick's doghouse. Despite rushing for 201 yards last week, Gray didn't get a single offensive touch in the Patriots' 25-point victory over Detroit. ... Josh Huff's 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the Eagles' victory continued an amazing trend. Philadelphia has nine different players with touchdown returns, tying an NFL single-season record. ... Josh Gordon was right. He said he was ready to tear up the league, and he did just that in the Browns' victory over Atlanta. He caught eight passes for 120 yards. In a game in which he was expected to get only 20 to 30 plays, he was targeted 16 times by Brian Hoyer. ... Lovie Smith's return to Chicago turned into yet another embarrassment for the Bucs. Three turnovers in the third quarter, including two by former Bears backup Josh McCown, handed the Bears the game. The Bucs limited Jay Cutler to 112 net passing yards, but the mistakes gave Chicago the win. ... Colin Kaepernick's 75-yard touchdown drive to beat Washington was San Francisco's first fourth-quarter touchdown drive this season with the first-team offense. ... Washington QB Robert Griffin III took a pounding in the loss. He was sacked five times and hit eight other times throwing the ball. ... The Chargers welcomed the return of halfback Ryan Mathews, who had 105 rushing yards in a 27-24 victory over St. Louis.