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NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31482910 The playoff picture is still taking shape after an action-packed Week 15 The+playoff+picture+is+still+taking+shape+after+an+action-packed+Week+15 NFL

The NFC went 5-0 in games against the AFC, the Seahawks put up a 50-burger for the second straight week, and Cam Newton and the Panthers looked downright dominant in San Diego. Kirk Cousins got the job done in Cleveland, Tony Romo and Jason Garrett got the job done in a rare big December win, and the 49ers showed their mettle on the road in Foxborough. If the playoffs were to start today, the Redskins and Vikings would be in, while the Giants and Bears would be out. And that’s just scratching the surface. Here are my Ten Takeaways from Sunday’s NFL action.

— Peter Schrager

Matt Sullivan - Getty Images
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31482912 In the end, it was a rookie who made the biggest play in Sunday night’s wild 49ers win over the Patriots. In+the+end%2C+it+was+a+rookie+who+made+the+biggest+play+in+Sunday+night%26rsquo%3Bs+wild+49ers+win+over+the+Patriots. NFL

The league’s best defense was silencing the league’s best offense and the 49ers led the Patriots 31-3 midway through the third quarter. Less than fifteen minutes and a Tom Brady showcase later, it was 31-31 with all the momentum in the Patriots’ corner. That’s when LaMichael James, a rookie who’s dressed in just a handful of games this season, returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards and put the ball deep in Patriots’ territory. On the next play, Colin Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for the go-ahead touchdown and that was all she wrote. James, a second-round pick in the 2012 Draft, had 133 yards on kickoff returns and also ran the ball eight times for 31 yards and wisely stayed in bounds on key carries in the fourth quarter. In a game with so many stars, it was the seldom-discussed rookie who put the game away for San Francisco.

Elise Amendola - AP Images
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31484262 The Falcons may be for real, after all. The+Falcons+may+be+for+real%2C+after+all. NFL

After falling behind 23-0 early and losing to the 3-9 Carolina Panthers a week ago, the “haters” came out en masse, questioning the validity of Atlanta’s 11-2 record. A week later, at least some of the doubters were silenced with a 34-0 drubbing of the NFC East-leading Giants. Offensively, the Falcons showed something they hadn’t all season — a ground game. The Falcons ran the ball for 129 yards, with beleaguered back Michael Turner scoring the first touchdown of the game. Atlanta's dominance on the ground was a big reason why the Falcons had the ball for 23:32 of the second half. Good defense, big passing attack, solid ground game, undefeated at home? Hey, maybe the Falcons could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, after all.

Daniel Shirey - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31479921 Watch out, Eric Dickerson. Adrian Peterson’s coming for you. Watch+out%2C+Eric+Dickerson.+Adrian+Peterson%26rsquo%3Bs+coming+for+you. NFL

When I wrote that Peterson could break Eric Dickerson’s record of 2,105 rushing yards last week in this space, I got several emails telling me I was crazy. After a 212-yard afternoon in a win over the Rams in St. Louis, Peterson’s case to break Dickerson’s previously considered “unbreakable” record gets a lot better. He now has 1,812 yards on the ground this season, topping his previous career high of 1,760. He is just 294 yards away from the 2,106. The way he’s run the past few weeks, that’s not just doable — it’s likely.

Scott Rovak - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31484258 Forget Mr. November. Tony Romo could end up being Mr. December. Forget+Mr.+November.+Tony+Romo+could+end+up+being+Mr.+December. NFL

Long known as “Mr. November” for his November success (and not always in a good way), Tony Romo’s now run off three straight wins in December. If the Cowboys beat the Saints and Redskins in the final two weeks of the season, they’ll be the 2012 NFC East champions. Remember back when they were 3-5 after their loss to the Falcons? Or when they were 5-6 after their Thanksgiving loss to the Redskins? Forget all that now. Tony Romo and the Cowboys control their own destiny. Not just for a postseason berth. But for a Super Bowl championship. Crazier things have happened.

Matthew Emmons - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31484261 Jim Schwartz may have gotten a contract extension this summer, but Sunday’s loss was just another in a terrible season for the Lions. Jim+Schwartz+may+have+gotten+a+contract+extension+this+summer%2C+but+Sunday%26rsquo%3Bs+loss+was+just+another+in+a+terrible+season+for+the+Lions. NFL

Jim Schwartz signed a contract extension this offseason, but it might not matter come Black Monday in two weeks. The Lions are now 4-10 on the year with their season’s low point — in a year full of them — coming in Arizona on Sunday with a 38-10 loss to a team that had lost nine straight games entering the contest. Schwartz’s Lions face the 12-2 Falcons next week and the 8-6 Bears in Week 17. With expectations of a playoff appearance and even some Super Bowl chatter in April, the Lions have underperformed in epic fashion this season. Sunday’s effort was nonexistent. A Cardinals team that hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown in two weeks put up 38 points on the Lions high-priced D.

Matt Kartozian - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31484259 Seattle’s making history. And scaring a lot of NFC teams in the process. Seattle%26rsquo%3Bs+making+history.+And+scaring+a+lot+of+NFC+teams+in+the+process. NFL

Don’t look now, but the Seattle Seahawks, 50-17 winners over the Bills in Toronto on Sunday, could be the most dangerous team in the NFC. As they head into their much-anticipated Sunday night battle with the 49ers in Seattle, the Seahawks are winners of five of their last six games and became the first team since the 1950 Giants to score 50 or more points in back-to-back games. Seattle’s 108 combined points over the past two weeks matched the NFL's third-highest total. Wearing their “wolf-grey”-colored uniforms, the Seahawks racked up 270 rushing yards on Buffalo’s $200 million defensive line. Currently slotted as the first wild-card team if the playoffs were to start today, no one would want to play the Seahawks team we saw Sunday in the postseason. Especially at home.

Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31486152 If the Cowboys win their next two games, they win the NFC East. If+the+Cowboys+win+their+next+two+games%2C+they+win+the+NFC+East. NFL

Though Tony Romo and Jason Garrett will get the bulk of the headlines on Monday, Sunday's 27-24 overtime win was a complete team effort from the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas held the ball for 7:24 more than the Steelers, ran the ball for 18 more yards, and caused one more turnover. That turnover, of course, was huge. Brandon Carr made the big play in overtime, but it was Dez Bryant — playing with a fractured finger — who hauled in the big go-ahead touchdown reception in the third quarter. The 24-yard touchdown was Bryant’s 10th in the third or fourth quarter this season. That leads the NFL. Dallas is playing well in all three facets — offense, defense and special teams. Cowboys linebackers Alex Albright and Brady Poppinga made their first starts of the season and played well. If they beat New Orleans and Washington in the season’s final two weeks, they’ll be NFC East champions.

Matthew Emmons - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31484263 Victor Cruz is a wonderful role model. Victor+Cruz+is+a+wonderful+role+model. NFL

I spoke with Victor Cruz’s girlfriend, Elaina Watley, on Sunday evening. With a heavy heart, she told me how her boyfriend tried doing whatever he could to honor the life of one of his biggest fans on Sunday. Late Saturday afternoon, Cruz was receiving tweets from numerous residents from and around Newtown, Conn., telling him about 6-year-old Jack Pinto, one of the young victims from Friday’s massacre, and his appreciation for Cruz. Later in the evening, through the power of Twitter, Cruz got the phone number of Jack’s parents and called to offer them and Jack’s older brother, Ben, his condolences. On Sunday, he did his best to honor Jack. On one cleat, he wrote "JACK PINTO" "MY HERO." On the other: "R.I.P. JACK PINTO." Cruz spoke briefly on the gesture in the locker room after Sunday’s game. "It was very humbling just to hear how big of a fan he was, for them to think about putting my jersey on him for the services. It shows you how much of an effect you have on kids. They don't just see you on TV, they want to be you. They idolize you ... It really showed me how real it is to be a role model." In his third season, Cruz is doing a fine job of just that.

Daniel Shirey - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31483604 Cam Newton’s having a heck of a second half to what was once a lost sophomore season. Cam+Newton%26rsquo%3Bs+having+a+heck+of+a+second+half+to+what+was+once+a+lost+sophomore+season. NFL

On Sunday, the Panthers won their second game in a row for the first time since last December. Cam Newton, as he has been for the past five games, was magnificent. Newton was 19 of 33 for 231 yards with two touchdowns. He hasn’t thrown an interception in five weeks and the Panthers are 3-2 over that span. San Diego was officially eliminated from the playoffs with the loss, and former Charger Mike Tolbert had a lot to do with that. Tolbert, a player San Diego opted not to re-sign last offseason, carried the ball nine times for 40 yards and scored two touchdowns. Newton and the Panthers are now 5-9 and not going anywhere fast. But they’re finishing the season the way a fan would hope they would.

Jake Roth - USA TODAY Sports
NFL 5 43 Top 10 takeaways from NFL Week 15 31484264 The Texans showed the Colts they’re still the kings of the AFC South and quieted some critics in the process. The+Texans+showed+the+Colts+they%26rsquo%3Bre+still+the+kings+of+the+AFC+South+and+quieted+some+critics+in+the+process. NFL

Had the Colts won their last three games of the regular season, they would have been AFC South champions. The Texans put an end to any such chatter with a 29-17 win in Houston on Sunday. Six days removed from an embarrassing 42-14 loss to the Patriots in New England last Monday, the Texans quieted their critics by clinching their second straight division title with the win. "A lot of people were wondering how we were going to respond,” wide receiver Andre Johnson said after the win. "I think a lot of people doubted us after what happened last week. We (felt) like we had to show people what we were really about."

Brett Davis - USA TODAY Sports
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