Week 12 will be remembered as this season’s version of Separation Sunday.
Barring catastrophic collapses akin to those of the San Diego Chargers, the winners of four divisions — NFC South (Atlanta), NFC West (San Francisco), AFC North (Baltimore) and AFC West (Denver) — are now decided following Sunday’s victories by all four franchises. Houston (AFC South) and New England (AFC East) also have what should be insurmountable leads entering the final five weeks of the regular season after winning on Thanksgiving Day.
That leaves only the NFC East and NFC North as well as all four wild-card spots up for grabs down the home stretch. The same goes for the first-round playoff byes and guaranteed home-field advantage associated with being the No. 1 seed in each conference.
Here’s a look at how Sunday unfolded in my weekly FOXSports.com Marvez Rewind:
New York Giants 38, Green Bay 10: Yes, it’s the same Giants team that lost two straight before last week’s bye. But this also just a more-rested troop following a toxic combination of the toll it takes entering every game painted with a target as defending Super Bowl champion and being physically tired after not receiving a bye until Week 11. The stress caused by Superstorm Sandy and the damage left behind shouldn’t be underestimated, as well. Here’s an eerie writing moment: Just as I was about to type about how sharp New York’s defense played while deploying a three-safety look, Kenny Phillips went down with another leg injury in his first game back since Week 4. The amazing nine-year career of Giants middle linebacker Chase Blackburn continues with his evolution into a blitz threat. Blackburn logged his career-high third sack against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He also defended a fourth-down pass in the end zone to quash Green Bay’s remote hopes for a second-half comeback. If this is an indication of how Green Bay’s offensive line is going to block sans right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip) against elite fronts like New York’s, the Packers won’t be lasting too long in the postseason. Defensive end C.J. Wilson joined the long injury list of Green Bay’s players that includes Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson. The Packers would fall into a second-place tie with Minnesota (6-5) with a loss in next Sunday’s meeting.
San Francisco 31, New Orleans 21: The 49ers had plenty of great individual performances ranging from second-time starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick (258 total yards, two touchdowns) to linebacker Ahmad Brooks and safety Donte Whitner, both of whom returned Drew Brees interceptions for touchdowns. But this game was won in the trenches. San Francisco’s offensive line performed brilliantly, leading a 144-yard rushing performance and not allowing a sack. New Orleans (5-6) produced just 59 yards on the ground and Brees was sacked five times playing behind a line with a fourth-string right tackle in Will Robinson, who was re-signed last week after being out of football this season. The Saints’ defense surrendered less than 400 yards for the first time this season but there still were far too many missed tackles. The only negative for the 49ers (8-2-1) were the continuing struggles of kicker David Akers, who made only one of his three attempts. Akers is now 19 of 27 on the season. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh need only call his brother John in Baltimore for a reminder about how important having a reliable kicker is entering the playoffs.
Atlanta 24, Tampa Bay 23: The gutsy play of Atlanta’s defense was embodied by cornerback Asante Samuel, who continued to play despite a shoulder injury that left him repeatedly bent over in pain for much of the second half. The Falcons forced Tampa Bay to settle for an early field goal after two stops from their own 1-yard line and then allowed only six points on two other drives that reached their 30 and 24 respectively. Atlanta’s 26th-ranked run defense surrendered two touchdowns to Doug Martin but otherwise held the red-hot rookie in check by limiting him to 50 yards on 21 carries. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, who entered having thrown 16 touchdown passes in the past six games, also was held without a scoring throw. Matt Ryan’s 80-yard touchdown bomb to Julio Jones was the game’s most spectacular play, but the Falcons should be equally proud of their final offensive series. Atlanta picked up two first downs and ran 3:24 off the clock. That left Tampa Bay (6-5) no time for a comeback and, subsequently, no shot at catching the Falcons (10-1) in the NFC South.
Jacksonville 24, Tennessee 19: Nobody knows for sure whether injured second-year Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert can ever justify his selection as the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Chad Henne, though, is definitely taking advantage of his chance to show he should be Jacksonville’s starter even when Gabbert (arm) is healthy enough to return in 2013. Henne overcame seven sacks and an interception thrown on his first attempt to lead the Jaguars (2-9) to their first home victory of the season. In seven-plus quarters since Gabbert replaced Henne, Jacksonville’s offense has operated far more smoothly — and that’s without the services of injured running back Maurice Jones-Drew (foot). As for the Titans, maybe it’s time for another Bud Adams “pep talk.” Tennessee (4-7) settled for field goals on four drives that stalled between the Jacksonville 22 and 15 yard-lines.
Cleveland 20, Pittsburgh 14: I have lots of respect for CBS announcer Kevin Harlan, but what game was he watching when calling this a “quality victory” for the Browns? Yes, Cleveland (3-8) beat Pittsburgh (6-5) for only the second time in the past 18 meetings. But to me, “quality” would be converting eight turnovers by a Steelers squad decimated by injuries into more than 20 points rather than having to play prevent defense on Pittsburgh’s final possession to secure the win. Charlie Batch, Pittsburgh’s third different starting quarterback in as many weeks, needed all the support he could get. Instead, each of Pittsburgh’s four running backs fumbled to go along with Batch’s three interceptions. A two-game losing streak since Ben Roethlisberger (ribs/shoulder) was injured looks like it will be growing even longer for the Steelers next Sunday in Baltimore.
Cincinnati 34, Oakland 10: This game was a reminder that the Bengals (6-5) are doing just fine since Carson Palmer quit on the franchise last year and was subsequently traded to Oakland. Second-year replacement Andy Dalton threw for three touchdown passes as Cincinnati gained 254 yards through the first 1 1/2 quarters to open a 21-0 lead. One of those tosses went to rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who remarkably reeled in a two-yard scoring pass with his left hand despite being right-handed. As for Palmer, his 146-yard passing performance was his lowest of the season. The Raiders (3-8) would be a lot better off if the defensive line showed as much fight trying to tackle as it did during a fourth-quarter melee that resulted in the ejection of Lamarr Houston and Tommy Kelly. Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis busted off runs of 48 and 38 yards as part of a 129-yard performance. Two Bengals entered the team’s record book: Geno Atkins broke Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson’s single-season sack mark for defensive tackles with his ninth and Mike Nugent’s 55-yard field goal is tied for the longest in franchise history. Not that it’s any consolation for a club that has gotten outscored by a 169-79 margin during a four-game losing streak, but Oakland did get jobbed on an inadvertent whistle by an official nullifying a fumble return for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Chicago 28, Minnesota 10: The Bears (8-3) already knew what life was like without Jay Cutler when losing five of their final six games last season after their quarterback was sidelined with a broken thumb. Cutler’s value was reaffirmed Sunday following a two-week absence (concussion). Not only was he efficient (23 of 31 passing for 188 yards with one touchdown and one interception), Cutler can handle pass-rush pressure far better than replacement Jason Campbell. Chicago’s offensive line rebounded from a disastrous performance last Monday night against San Francisco by only allowing one sack, although in-game knee injuries suffered by center Chris Spencer and right guard Lance Louis may not bode well for the future. Louis was crushed during a Vikings interception return on a controversial block by Jared Allen that will definitely draw close NFL scrutiny. A sack-less performance by Allen and fellow defensive end Brian Robison was just one of a multitude of Vikings failures in a game where Minnesota (6-5) squandered the chance to catch Chicago in the NFC North standings. Already lacking injured wide receiver Percy Harvin (ankle), running back Adrian Peterson lost two fumbles and wideout Jerome Simpson continued his career-long penchant for drops. The Vikings had a field goal blocked and allowed a two-point conversion on a fake. And I couldn’t disagree more with head coach Leslie Frazier’s decision to eschew a 26-yard Blair Walsh field goal early in the fourth quarter that would have cut Chicago’s lead to two scores. Ponder’s incompletion to wide receiver Mike Jenkins on fourth-and-2 from the Bears’ 8-yard line kept the Vikings in too deep a hole for an offense with such an anemic aerial attack.
Indianapolis 20, Buffalo 13: The Bills (4-7) became the fourth straight road opponent to fall against the Colts, which showed great resiliency after being humiliated in last Sunday’s 59-24 loss at New England. As usual, a rookie stole the show for Indianapolis (7-4). However, it wasn’t wunderkind quarterback Andrew Luck this time. Third-round draft pick T.Y. Hilton became the first player in franchise history to score on both a punt return and touchdown catch in the same game. Just as impressive, the speedy wide receiver survived a vicious hit to the back of the head by linebacker Nigel Bradham to continue playing after passing a concussion test. Another Colts newcomer — former CFL linebacker Jerrell Freeman — paced a strong defensive effort with 16 tackles. Capping another feel-good day at Lucas Oil Stadium was an appearance by leukemia-stricken Chuck Pagano and the decision by two Indianapolis cheerleaders to shave their heads to support the ailing head coach and cancer awareness. Buffalo’s front office has a history of questionable-to-poor personnel decisions that have greatly contributed to what will now become a 13th consecutive year without a playoff appearance. Here’s another: Why would Bills general manager Buddy Nix sign kicker Rian Lindell to a four-year, $11 million contract extension during the offseason if head coach Chan Gailey doesn’t have faith in his leg strength? Gailey punted in the second quarter rather than allow Lindell to attempt a 52-yard field goal. The 35-year-old Lindell hasn’t even attempted a kick of 50-plus yards since the 2010 season, which must be more than coincidence. One player signing that is starting to pay dividends: Mario Williams. The $100 million defensive end had three sacks Sunday, raising his total to five since undergoing minor wrist surgery in late October.
Denver 17, Kansas City 9: Sorry, Chiefs fans. Your team was the first officially eliminated from playoff contention at 1-10. This latest loss largely stemmed from being unable to fully capitalize on early scoring opportunities. The Chiefs settled for field goals on two trips inside Denver’s red-zone, including a suspect decision by head coach Romeo Crennel to not go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Broncos 4-yard line. While he has enjoyed previous success against Peyton Manning, Crennel should know better than anyone that field goals weren’t going to cut it against a Hall of Fame quarterback, especially with Kansas City fielding such a putrid offense. Manning wasn’t as dynamic as usual but two touchdown throws were sufficient against the likes of quarterbacking counterpart Brady Quinn (13 of 25 passing for 126 yards and one interception).
Miami 24, Seattle 21: The sprinklers came on in the third quarter because of a computer malfunction, but it was the Seahawks (6-5) that left Sun Life Stadium soaking wet. The postgame news was even worse than the loss. As first reported by ESPN, starting cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are facing four-game NFL suspensions after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The entire complexion of Seattle’s defense would change without two outstanding press cornerbacks on the field. Road losses to inferior opposition like the Dolphins (5-6) aren’t helping matters either. Seattle has now dropped games against four opponents — Miami, Detroit, St. Louis and Arizona — that have a combined record of 17-26-1. The competition gets much tougher next Sunday when Seattle visits Chicago (8-3). This latest setback came after Seattle had taken a 21-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter. After reaching the Miami 40-yard line just before the two-minute warning, the Seahawks lost 11 yards and were forced to punt. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, who was thoroughly outplayed for much of the game by fellow rookie quarterback Russell Wilson (16 straight completions), drove Miami 65 yards with only one timeout for Dan Carpenter’s game-winning field goal on his 27th birthday. The Dolphins tied the score at 21-21 on their previous possession when Tannehill connected with tight end Charles Clay, who now has two touchdowns in the past three games. It’s understandable that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll would have faith in his defense against a mediocre Miami offense, but the decision to punt rather than allow Steven Hauschka to attempt first-half field goals of 53 and 56 yards should be second-guessed with points not proving easy to come by.
Baltimore 16, San Diego 13 (overtime): When the 2012 Chargers reflect upon a season of what could have been — and head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith should have plenty of free time for this in January — three collapses will stand out the most. The first came in the second half of a Week 5 loss against New Orleans, followed by Denver scoring 35 unanswered points to erase a 24-0 halftime deficit in the next game. But what transpired against the Ravens may hurt most of all. The Chargers (4-7) allowed Baltimore to convert on fourth-and-29 — yup, fourth-and-29 — to keep alive a drive that ended with the Ravens field goal that sent the game into overtime. That play was the NFL’s longest fourth-down conversion since 2001. San Diego still had a chance to win but another defensive failure — cornerback Quentin Jammer surrendered a 31-yard completion to wide receiver Torrey Smith — led to Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal with 1:07 remaining. The Ravens (9-2) remain a far worse road team than when playing at M&T Bank Stadium, which makes securing at least a first-round playoff bye essential for postseason success.
St. Louis 31, Arizona 17: So how bad is John Skelton that Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt would give rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley his first NFL start while Arizona (4-7) was still in playoff contention? At this point, all the Cardinals can do is look forward to 2013 after Lindley had two of his four interceptions returned for touchdowns by Rams rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins. It’s good to see that Jenkins and rookie wide receiver Chris Givens — who had five touchdown catches for 115 yards and one touchdown — appear to have learned their lesson from being benched two weeks ago against San Francisco for missing curfew. Jenkins is the first NFL rookie in 52 years to score on two interception returns in the same game. One of the few positives for Arizona was two first-half touchdown runs by Chris “Beanie” Wells in his first game back since coming off the injured reserve list. Wells, though, only gained 48 yards on his 17 carries.