Four teams clinched playoff berths on Sunday, while the Raiders joined the Chiefs and Jaguars as one of the three AFC teams to be eliminated from the 2012 playoff picture. New England, Denver, and Houston kept on rolling with wins (and will join Atlanta in the postseason), while the Ravens stumbled at home versus the Charlie Batch-led Steelers. The Seahawks stunned the Bears in Soldier Field, the Cowboys stayed alive with a win over the Eagles, and Colts rookie Andrew Luck found a way to escape Detroit with yet another clutch comeback victory. Here are my 10 takeaways from the football Sunday that was. —Peter Schrager
Bryce Brown is going to have a fine NFL career, but he needs to take better care of the ball
Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown has been a breakout fantasy football star the past two weeks, but he’s also cost the Eagles valuable possessions with careless ball security in two Philadelphia losses. Brown’s two fumbles set the Eagles back in their Monday Night Football loss to the Panthers in Week 12. His fourth quarter fumble against the Cowboys in Philadelphia’s 38-33 loss in Dallas on Sunday night all but put the finishing touches on any chance the Eagles had at leaving Big D with a win. Brown’s put up huge numbers in both of his first two NFL starts. All the dazzling statistics in the world won’t matter if he can’t hold on to the ball.
Without national media attention, the Bengals continue to play the best football in AFC North
The hottest team in the AFC right now? You can have your Broncos and Patriots, but I’m taking the sizzling Cincinnati Bengals. With very little media attention and just about zero national buzz, Marvin Lewis’s boys have rattled off four straight wins, are now in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt, and can make a run at the division title with a few wins and a bit of luck. Cincinnati’s 20-13 win in San Diego included a second half in which the defense shut out the Chargers offense. Trailing 13-10, the Bengals started a game-winning drive on their 45 and ate up 7:42. The win was sealed with a game-ending interception by safety Reggie Nelson in the end zone. The Bengals have four games left this season — home vs. Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, and home against Baltimore. An AFC North division title is not unrealistic.
Questionable play-calling cost the 49ers a win in St. Louis
The 49ers led the Rams 10-2 with the ball, late in the fourth quarter of a divisional road game in which their defense had not given up a point all afternoon. The play call? A risky read-option toss to a wide receiver lining up at running back. Hmm . . . Jim Harbaugh’s pressed all the right buttons in his two years as head coach of the 49ers and I stand behind his decision to ride the hot hand and go with Colin Kaepernick. But that play call cost the 49ers a win and a crucial game in the standings. Atlanta now holds a 2-1/2 game lead over San Francisco.
No Mark Sanchez. No Tim Tebow. No Fireman Ed. No problem. The Jets still found a way
It wasn’t pretty and it was by no means the way they wanted it, but the Jets got their fifth win of the season on Sunday. After throwing three interceptions and struggling mightily to move the offense, Jets starter Mark Sanchez was benched — to the great pleasure of the home crowd — with New York trailing 3-0 in the second half. Third string quarterback Greg McElroy — with backup Tim Tebow inactive due to a rib injury — filled in for Sanchez and tossed a game-winning touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland 5 seconds into the 4th quarter. The Jets fans will want McElroy or Tebow on Sunday. The Jets brass will want Sanchez. Good luck, Rex. At the very least, this should make for an interesting final four weeks of the season for the New York City tabloids.
The Houston D — banged up and exhausted — can still get the job done
Houston came into Sunday’s game with Tennessee 'fresh' off two overtime games in five days. The Texans won both of those overtime games, but the defense suffered. Beyond giving up 68 points in both victories, numerous injuries were suffered, including the loss of starting linebacker Brooks Reed. It would have been somewhat understandable if the Texans fell victim to a 'trap game' in Nashville on Sunday. But Jared Crick (No. 93) and the defense rose to the occasion, intercepting Jake Locker three times and recording 6 sacks in a dominant 24-10 victory. With 11 wins, Houston’s already set a franchise record for victories this season. The pundits seem to be jumping on the Broncos and Patriots. Let 'em. Houston just keeps on winning.
Pete Carroll's 7-5 is a lot more impressive than Lane Kiffin's 7-5
Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans limped to a 7-5 finish after starting the season as the AP’s No. 1-ranked college team. USC’s last head coach, Pete Carroll, has his young team at 7-5 and in possession of the NFC’s second wild card spot heading into Week 14 after Sunday’s impressive 23-17 overtime victory in Chicago. The Seahawks entered the game just 1-5 on the road this season and trailed 14-10 late in the second half. Russell Wilson did what he’s done all season and found a way to get his Seahawks a win. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III get all the headlines, but Wilson sure is having an impressive rookie campaign, too.
Oakland's been eliminated from the playoff picture. Again
Another season, another year in which the Raiders will be watching football from their couches in January. Rinse and repeat. Oakland hasn’t been to the postseason since its Super Bowl appearance in January 2003 and with Sunday’s loss to the Browns, they were officially eliminated from the 2012 postseason race. Brandon Weeden tossed for a career-high 364 yards and led the Browns on a clinching 94-yard drive in the fourth quarter that helped the Browns end a 12-game road losing streak. Oakland was 3-4 at one point this season. It's now 3-9. The bright side? The NFL Draft is just five months away.
Andrew Luck continues to confound and amaze. So does Jim Schwartz
There are four weeks left in the 2012 season and Andrew Luck has already thrown for the third-most passing yards by a rookie in NFL history. He’s also got his Colts — the worst team in the NFL a season ago — at 8-4 and very much in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. Luck has now won more games (eight) than any rookie quarterback drafted No. 1 overall in the Super Bowl era. Sunday’s incredible fourth quarter comeback was another Luck masterpiece. It was also another Jim Schwartz head-scratcher. With yet another fourth quarter collapse, the Lions became the first team to lose three straight games when leading with 2 minutes left in regulation since San Diego did it in 2000, and the first since at least 1983 to blow leads that late in three home games in a row. Detroit, guided by Schwartz, opted to play it safe on its final drive, running the ball on third and 5. Luck got the ball back with 1:07 left and made the Lions pay.
With Baltimore's remaining schedule, the playoffs are no guarantee
With Ray Rice’s incredible 4th and 29 catch and run and a 16-13 victory last week in San Diego, Baltimore improved to 9-2 on the year and had a one-game edge over both the Broncos and Patriots in the AFC conference standings. Following Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, things get a lot murkier for Baltimore. Due to the NFL’s playoff tiebreaker rules, the Ravens would be the dreaded 3 seed — not the 2 — in the AFC if the postseason were to start next weekend. Baltimore's next four opponents? Washington, Denver, New York Giants and Cincinnati. Forget home field, a playoff berth is anything but locked up.
If Sunday was the last start of Charlie Batch's career, he did it right
A week after throwing three interceptions in a hideous 20-14 loss in Cleveland, 37-year-old Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch led Pittsburgh to a gutsy 23-20 victory in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon. Ben Roethlisberger will most likely be back in the lineup next week versus the Chargers and will get the nod from here on out, but Batch did something Ben couldn’t do last year — he beat the Ravens. Suddenly, the Steelers — a team many were writing off after back-to-back losses — are two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North standings. Charlie Batch turns 38 on Wednesday and may never start another NFL game. If that is indeed the case — he went out with quite a showing on Sunday.