Week 13: Bengals in favorable spot

Thanksgiving was an NFC feast, as Seattle, Philadelphia and Detroit stepped up like playoff contenders.

Sunday's leftovers were dominated by AFC storylines. We saw the near collapse of the AFC North, with only the Cincinnati Bengals winning, and only because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers forgot you can't have 12 offensive players on the field. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland each had inexplicable losses.

Although the Bengals' 14-13 win over Tampa Bay can be categorized as a Lovie Smith gift, the Bengals emerged as the clear leader of the AFC North. At 8-3-1, they lead the Steelers, Ravens and Browns by a game and a half and can make their situation even better next Sunday if they can beat the Pittsburgh Steelers at home.

The San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills kept their hopes alive with victories. The Miami Dolphins can do the same Monday night if they can beat the New York Jets. The Indianapolis Colts entered Sunday with nothing to worry about in the AFC South and breezed to a 49-27 win over the Washington Redskins.

Here is what we learned in Week 13.

1. NFC South steps forward: With Atlanta and New Orleans at 5-7, it's still unlikely a team with a winning record is coming out of the NFC South, perhaps the worst division in NFL history. Overall, the NFC South is 8-25-1 in non-divisional games. Yet the Saints and Falcons showed some pride with impressive victories Sunday.

The Falcons, who hold the current tie-breaker over New Orleans because of their season-opening victory, dominated the Arizona Cardinals 29-18 in the Georgia Dome. The bigger surprise was seeing the Saints dominate the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 35-32 win that wasn't as close as the score.

The Saints started to take control in the second quarter, after they fell behind 6-0. For a while, the Saints looked like the team that made the playoffs last year and was supposed to be competing for the No. 1 seed this year. Drew Brees was sharp with his throws. Sean Payton called a balanced offensive game. And finally, the defense won the turnover battle with a plus-2.

"We did the things that are necessary to win," Payton said. "I thought we ran the ball better. We defended the run better. We had balance. We were better on third down."

The Saints entered Sunday with a minus-9 turnover differential. They forced only 11 turnovers in the first 11 games and had only eight drives start in opponents' territory in the first 11 games. Defensive end Cameron Jordan gave New Orleans a big lift in the third quarter by deflecting a Ben Roethlisberger pass into his own hands and setting up an easy touchdown drive for Brees at the Steelers' 15. Brees hit Nick Toon with an 11-yard touchdown to open a 21-6 lead, and it didn't take too long for the Saints to open a 35-16 lead.

Still, the NFC South had its typical bad moments. The Bucs had 13 penalties, including a costly 12-men-on-the-field blunder late in the game, in a 14-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Carolina Panthers had two punts blocked in a 31-13 loss to Minnesota.

"That's how 2-10 football teams play," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "We found a way to lose it at the end."

2. AFC North falls flat: A week ago, the Browns beat the Falcons, despite Brian Hoyer's two fourth-quarter interceptions. Horrible clock management by Falcons coach Mike Smith allowed Hoyer to lead a game-winning field goal drive in the final seconds. That win gave the AFC North four teams with seven wins. Sunday was a meltdown.

The Bengals survived three Andy Dalton interceptions in their win. The rest of the division went 0-3. For the seventh time since 2013, the Steelers fell to a team with a losing record in their loss to New Orleans. Remember, this is the team that lost to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets. Although the Saints might be a more respected franchise because of Brees and Payton, the Steelers can't shake the bad habit of playing to the level of their competition.

"We didn't make enough plays to win the game," tight end Heath Miller said. "We didn't convert early on offense. We were moving the ball, but we didn't put the ball in the end zone. That came back to haunt us."

Part of the problem was Ben Roethlisberger's right hand. He hit it on the helmet of Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton in the process of throwing a 21-yard completion to Antonio Brown. Leading 3-0, he was forced to call four straight handoffs with his left hand. Although his hand recovered enough to complete 32 passes, the Steelers' offense was off the rest of the day and only able to rally for meaningless points when the game was out of reach.

Meanwhile, the Ravens fell apart in the final seconds of a game they appeared to have in control. Justin Tucker put the Ravens ahead of the Chargers 33-27 with 2:22 left. But Chargers QB Philip Rivers drove 80 yards in eight plays and got the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds left.

On that drive, Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil lined up in the neutral zone to negate a sack that would have set up a third-and-16. Cornerback Anthony Levine got a pass interference call in the end zone against Malcom Floyd to set up the win. Overall, the Ravens had 14 penalties for 98 yards.

3. The reality of backup QBs: I once again go back to Ted Marchibroda's observations about backup quarterbacks. The former NFL head coach said a good backup can come off the bench to win you three games, but if you play him six, that quarterback will lose you three games.

Two examples of that became apparent Sunday. Because of the season-ending knee injury to Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton is now running the Cardinals' offense. Stanton was 3-1 as the starter before he lost to Seattle last week. His misfortune continued in a 29-18 loss to Atlanta on Sunday. Despite his incredible start, Brian Hoyer of the Browns is settling into the backup model. Hoyer was benched and replaced by Johnny Manziel in a 26-10 loss to Buffalo, and coach Mike Pettine isn't sure who is going to start next week.

As with all backups quarterbacks who start, the extended game tape tends to catch up to them. Defensive coaches figure out their tendencies and weaknesses. Hoyer was 18-for-30 for 192 yards and two interceptions Sunday. He was 20-for-50 in a 23-7 loss to Houston two weeks ago and threw three picks in what should have been a loss to Atlanta in Week 12. That's six picks in three starts and what should have been an 0-3 stretch.

If he's benched, Hoyer stands to lose millions. A free agent next year, Hoyer might be able to get a starting job in Houston, Buffalo or Tennessee -- but not if he's looking like a backup. That's exactly what Stanton looked like against Atlanta. Stanton posted 294 yards but didn't get enough points, which is not surprising. In 10 career starts, he has averaged 15.5 points a game. His record is 10-10. Get the point?

4. Promising outlook for Bills, Chargers? At 7-5, the Bills gave their fans and their new owner some hope for the playoffs.

"I'm proud of the players," Bills coach Doug Marrone said after the win over Cleveland. "That's what you have to do to win in this league. When you get the ball [deep in opponents' territory], you've got to finish these drives and finish things as you go."

But the finishing schedule should turn the Bills into pretenders. Their schedule includes Denver, Green Bay, Oakland and New England. That's probably a 1-3 finish and an 8-8 record. The Chargers' schedule might be considered tougher. They play New England, Denver, San Francisco and Kansas City. But at 8-4, the Chargers, who came from behind to beat Baltimore 34-33, have the better chance of making the playoffs. Sunday saved their season.

The difference between Buffalo and San Diego is at quarterback. The Bills have Kyle Orton, a career backup. The Chargers have Rivers, an elite quarterback. Rivers was on fire against the Ravens. He completed 34 of 45 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns.

"When you have a great quarterback like Philip Rivers, you have a chance to win every game as long as there is time left on the clock," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said.

This win was all about Rivers' tenacity. He shows emotions that can be misinterpreted when watching him yell at opponents, but he's calm and patient in the final drives of games.

"Philip's a competitor," Chargers running back Ryan Mathews said. "If it's down to the very last play, he'll compete. He's never going to stop."

5. Super Bowl preview as billed: Green Bay's 26-21 victory over New England sets the stage for what could be a rematch in February. Thanks to Arizona's loss to Atlanta, the Packers are 9-3 and in a great position to get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the NFC. Despite the loss, the Patriots are 9-3 and still in control of the AFC's top seed.

Home field was probably the difference in the Packers' win. Aaron Rodgers doesn't throw interceptions at Lambeau Field. He completed 24-for-38 passing for 368 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions Sunday. At home, he has now thrown 360 consecutive passes without an interception and 31 touchdown passes at home without a pick. Those are NFL records. He hasn't thrown a pick at Lambeau since 2012.

Bill Belichick did his best to play a chess match with his coverage groups. He started by putting Brandon Browner, a tall, physical corner, on Jordy Nelson and Darrelle Revis on Randall Cobb, but he made adjustments throughout the game to confuse Rodgers. Rodgers edged Tom Brady because he got the most out of his plays in the pocket, but he ran for first downs when needed.


The day was good and bad for rookie quarterbacks. Blake Bortles of Jacksonville and Teddy Bridgewater of Minnesota got nice wins, but Zach Mettenberger (Titans) got a loss and an AC joint sprain. The Raiders' Derek Carr was blown out by St. Louis 52-0 and is now 1-11. Rookie quarterbacks are 7-27 this year. Hear that Johnny Manziel? ... The Rams must have a smart rookie in running back Tre Mason. He predicted the Rams would score more than 50, and they did. He helped by rushing for 117 yards and two touchdowns. ... The Redskins' move to Colt McCoy at quarterback only offered better stats. McCoy threw for 392 yards and three touchdowns but lost to the Colts 49-27. ... I still can't believe a Tom Coughlin-coached team can lose to a one-win Jacksonville team by blowing a 21-0 lead. The Giants have hit new lows and seem like a team heading for a coaching change.