We’re only two days into December with four weeks remaining in the regular season, but the NFL playoff picture is already starting to take shape.
New England (9-3) and Denver (9-3) have won the AFC East and AFC West, respectively.
Thanks to a Tampa Bay loss to the Broncos, Atlanta (11-1) is now NFC South champions. The Falcons also are two victories away from being guaranteed the conference’s top seed following San Francisco’s 16-13 overtime loss at St. Louis.
Houston (11-1) has clinched a playoff berth.
And the worst team in the league last year — Indianapolis — still controls its fate in the race for one of two AFC wild-card berths after improving to 8-4 with a wild comeback win at Detroit.
We take a look at all this and the rest of Sunday’s happenings in this Week 13 edition of the Marvez Rewind:
Dallas 38, Philadelphia 33: Only the Cowboys can make things so difficult against bad teams. If Dallas played every first half like the second, the New York Giants would have reason to sweat the NFC East title. Instead, you get games like Sunday night where the Cowboys made it difficult on themselves by allowing a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown with 31 seconds remaining to make the game closer than it ever needed to be. Despite every effort by right tackle Doug Free to get him killed, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo still managed to exploit a Philadelphia secondary that has mastered the “Toro” defense of avoiding contact. Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown has a bright future if he learns how to better protect the football. The same can’t be said of Eagles head coach Andy Reid, whose team lost its eighth straight game. Great attention to detail by NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth for knowing there was a marker on the sideline chains used as a spot in case the sticks were already moved for change of possession. Such knowledge came in handy when a replay review corrected a fourth-down Eagles defensive stop into a Cowboys first down in the third quarter. I do strongly disagree with Collinsworth’s assessment that the Eagles have a “lot of talent” on their roster. Out of the past 67 draft picks under the Reid regime, name two difference-makers besides the injured LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson? There also is still no sign yet that Nick Foles is a sure thing as Philadelphia’s “quarterback of the future” since Mike Vick is obviously part of the past.
Denver 31, Tampa Bay 23: In less than six minutes of the third quarter, a 10-7 Buccaneers lead became an 18-point deficit thanks to the efforts of Denver’s two best players. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw two touchdown passes to Demaryius Thomas and outside linebacker Von Miller returned a Josh Freeman interception 26 yards for another score after dropping into coverage. Baltimore’s 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh now has the Ravens, Denver and New England in a 9-3 deadlock for the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed. As for the Buccaneers (6-6), pass defense remains their Achilles' heel. In consecutive losses to Denver and Atlanta, Tampa Bay allowed Manning and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to complete 53 of 70 passes for four touchdowns while generating two interceptions and one sack. Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano must not believe in karma by continuing his unsuccessful attacks on “Victory” formations like the one Denver used when kneeling down to run out the clock for its seventh straight win.
New England 23, Miami 16: New England’s December record of 42-5 since 2001 is the NFL’s best, but three of those losses have come against Miami. The Dolphins could have pulled the upset Sunday if rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill was more accurate and the special teams didn’t commit two huge errors. Tannehill’s overthrow to a wide-open Brian Hartline on a busted Patriots coverage cost Miami a first-quarter touchdown. Tannehill, who missed an open Hartline again later on what would have been another big gain, finished 13 of 29 passing for 186 yards and lost a fumble on a sack that New England converted into a field goal. A botched Brandon Fields punt attempt and a roughing-the-punter penalty led to 14 more Patriots points. Those types of mistakes rarely can be overcome against a team that almost never beats itself, like New England. With his 12-catch, 103-yard performance, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker joined Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history with 17 career games of at least 10 receptions. Doing so in South Florida was especially sweet for Welker, who was foolishly traded by Miami to New England in 2007. The Dolphins got an advanced look at what their left tackle situation may look like in 2013. Rookie Jonathan Martin shifted from right tackle to replace the injured Jake Long, who suffered what may be a season-ending torn triceps in the first half. Long is set to become an unrestricted free agent and the Dolphins may not be inclined to offer a monster contract extension or designate him as a franchise player after two seasons of declining play.
Houston 24, Tennessee 10: After two lousy games of pass defense, the Texans got back in gear by forcing a franchise-record six turnovers and sacking Titans quarterback Jake Locker six times. Leading the charge was defensive end J.J. Watt, whose grip on the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award looks unbreakable even if San Francisco’s Aldon Smith breaks the single-season sack record. Watt became the first player in NFL history with 15 sacks and 15 passes defensed after another monster effort Sunday – and there are four games remaining in the regular season. 2012 first-round pick Whitney Mercilus (two sacks, fumble recovery) also impressed in his first Texans start. Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak’s change of offensive coordinators last week didn’t pay immediate dividends. I wouldn’t be surprised if Munchak himself is the next to get the axe with the way Tennessee (4-8) is slumping again. Home losses are especially vexing for Titans owner Bud Adams.
St. Louis 16, San Francisco 13 (overtime):Colin Kaepernick suffered his first loss as a starter since replacing Alex Smith, but there should be no quarterback controversy. Kaepernick put the 49ers in position to win twice, but tight end Delanie Walker dropped what should have been the game-winning touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter and kicker David Akers missed a 51-yard field goal with 4:11 left in overtime. Akers has three straight Pro Bowl appearances and was brilliant last year in his first season with the 49ers. But with nine misses already this year and the 49ers recently bringing in veteran kickers for tryouts, it’s hard to blame the 49ers if a change is made as early as this week. The 49ers (8-3-1) entered Week 13 with the best chance of catching Atlanta for the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed but will have to play in the first round if Green Bay (8-4), Chicago (8-4) or the New York Giants (7-4) win out. As for St. Louis, how can the Rams play a legitimate Super Bowl contender like the 49ers so well and yet be 4-6 against every other opponent?
Indianapolis 35, Detroit 33: It’s scary to think just how much better Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will become as he grows comfortable playing on the road. Luck threw three more interceptions Sunday, raising his season total to 13 in six games away from Lucas Oil Stadium. Luck, though, was able to make amends with a clutch performance that belies his rookie status. He led the Colts on two touchdown drives – throwing the game-winning 14-yard toss to wide receiver Donnie Avery as time expired – in the final 4:02 without using a single timeout. Such collapses have become too commonplace for the Lions, which once had a penchant for winning these types of games decided at the wire. According to STATS LLC, Detroit is the first team in at least 30 seasons to lose three consecutive contests after leading in the final two minutes. The Lions are wasting what may be a record-setting season for wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who had another outstanding game Sunday with 13 catches for 171 yards and one touchdown. Johnson is on pace to finish with 1,904 receiving yards, which would break Jerry Rice’s single-season mark of 1,848.
Green Bay 23, Minnesota 14: Speaking of wasted seasons, another fabulous performance by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson went for naught. Peterson’s 210-yard rushing output almost doubled what Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder produced in the passing game (119 yards). Ponder didn’t complete a single pass to a wide receiver until late in the game. That’s inexcusable even with Percy Harvin (ankle) out for a third straight game. Protection problems by the offensive line are a huge concern as Green Bay (8-4) lumbers toward a playoff spot. Struggling Packers kicker Mason Crosby may have saved his job by making his final two field-goal attempts after missing a 53-yarder and sending the opening kickoff of the second half out of bounds.
New York Jets 7, Arizona 6: The score reflects just how badly both offenses are playing right now. After going an unprecedented 0-for-15 in third-down conversions Sunday, the Cardinals moved one step closer to become the first team in NFL history to start 4-0 and finish 4-12, according to STATS LLC. New York’s offense is almost as rancid but backup quarterback Greg McElroy did provide a spark when replacing the ineffective Mark Sanchez (three interceptions). During his postgame news conference, Jets head coach Rex Ryan wouldn’t name his starting QB for next Sunday’s game at Jacksonville. Cue the circus music for another week of controversy at Jets headquarters.
Seattle 23, Chicago 17 (overtime): Thanks to rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks (7-5) took a significant step toward a playoff berth with only their second road win of the season. Wilson led a 97-yard drive late in the fourth quarter and directed Seattle into the end zone again in overtime after the Bears (8-4) improbably tied the score at the end of regulation. Chicago’s vaunted defense couldn’t figure out Wilson on read-option plays. He ran for 71 yards on nine carries and passed for 293 more in a 23-of-37, two-touchdown showing. But as great as Wilson was, Chicago left 10 points on the field that kept Seattle in the game early. Ahead 7-0, Bears head coach Lovie Smith’s decision to eschew a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks' 15-yard line backfired when running back Michael Bush was stuffed for no gain. Wide receiver Earl Bennett then dropped a sure-fire touchdown pass from Jay Cutler later in the second quarter. Seattle’s victories over Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota bode well if there is a direct head-to-head tiebreaker for a wild-card spot.
Kansas City 27, Carolina 21: The merits of even playing this game Sunday were strongly debated, but winning will help the Chiefs begin the healing process following the murder/suicide committed Saturday morning by linebacker Jovan Belcher. From strictly a football standpoint, Kansas City (2-10) played its most complete game of the season in the face of tragedy. An offense led by quarterback Brady Quinn (19-of-23 for 201 yards and two touchdowns) and running back Jamaal Charles (27 carries for 127 yards) was particularly crisp as the Chiefs didn’t commit a turnover for the first time this season. On a positive note for the Panthers, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton (three touchdown passes, 310 combined yards rushing and receiving) is finally breaking his season-long slump with a second straight quality performance. However, it looks like too little too late when it comes to saving head coach Ron Rivera’s job with the Panthers at 3-9.
Buffalo 34, Jacksonville 18: Trailing 14-10 late in the second half, a string of 24 unanswered points kept Buffalo’s slim playoff hopes alive on a miserable wet afternoon in Orchard Park, N.Y. C.J. Spiller has provided the big-play punch this season for the Bills (5-7), but running back Fred Jackson deserves props for his season-high 109-yard production on 25 carries. Buffalo rushed for 232 yards and two touchdowns overall against one of the NFL’s most disappointing defenses. Anyone misguidedly expecting ex-Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Jason Babin to help solidify things after being claimed off waivers would be disappointed. Babin had four tackles, one quarterback hurry and one personal foul penalty on a Bills touchdown drive in his Jaguars debut. Jacksonville remains last in the NFL in sacks with 13 after failing to take down quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on his 17 pass attempts.
Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 20: The NFL’s best rivalry didn’t disappoint once again. Only teams with a winning pedigree are able to pull off what the Steelers did. They played a 37-year-old third-string quarterback in Charlie Batch. They lost top cornerback Ike Taylor to a leg injury. They made 2011 rushing leader Rashard Mendenhall a healthy scratch before the game. They lost a potential touchdown when wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders fumbled without ever being touched. And the Steelers (7-5) still beat the Ravens (9-3) with a 42-yard Shaun Suisham field goal as time expired. If they meet again in the playoffs, Joe Flacco must figure out Pittsburgh’s pass defense. Flacco averaged 176 passing yards in two games against the Steelers, which is 92.6 yards less than in his other 10 outings. Flacco also lost a fumble on a fourth-quarter James Harrison sack that led to a Pittsburgh touchdown. What is it with the Harbaugh brothers and post-game handshakes? Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin had no interest in exchanging pleasantries at midfield, leading to Baltimore’s John Harbaugh holding onto his hand before both parted following a brief awkward exchange.
Cincinnati 20, San Diego 13: It wouldn’t be the 2012 Chargers without the squandering of a fourth-quarter lead. In this latest collapse that dropped San Diego to 4-8, the Bengals chewed 7:42 off the clock on a touchdown drive and added a field goal following the subsequent sack-and-strip of quarterback Philip Rivers by defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Rivers fittingly threw three straight incompletions from the Bengals 17-yard line before being intercepted by Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson to seal San Diego’s seventh loss in the past eight games. Cincinnati’s running game is starting to get into gear with BenJarvus Green-Ellis registering his third straight 100-yard game. A.J. Green’s string of consecutive games with at least one touchdown ended at nine, but he still led the Bengals (7-5) with nine catches for 85 yards.
Cleveland 20, Oakland 17: The Browns (4-8) continue to take baby steps toward respectability under head coach Pat Shurmur. This week, it was ending a 12-game losing streak against a Raiders squad that has now dropped five straight contests. Browns rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon continued to prove his worth as a 2012 second-round supplemental draft pick by catching six passes for 116 yards and one touchdown. Raiders running back Darren McFadden (ankle) missed his fourth straight game but is expected to return Thursday night against Denver. Oakland (3-9) can use all the firepower it can get after not scoring more than 17 points in the past three games. Raiders tight end Brandon Myers channeled his inner Todd Christensen by catching 14 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown. Best wishes to Raiders head coach Dennis Allen, who is taking a brief absence from the team to see his ailing father before returning to coach against the Broncos.