Billick: Call a timeout on notion Lions fatally damaged their playoff hopes

With marquee matchups like the 49ers at the Saints and the Chiefs at the Broncos, there certainly were plenty of storylines and entertaining games this weekend, but I’m not sure we learned anything more about the pretenders and the contenders as we approach the final six weeks of the season.

Here are a couple observations from Week 11 in the NFL:

The NFC North is completely up for grabs. The Lions entered Sunday as the sole leader in the division, a title they hadn’t held this late in a season since 1999, but came out flat in Pittsburgh and eventually sputtered out late in the loss to the Steelers. At the same time, the Bears took advantage of a two-hour weather delay to climb out of a 10-point deficit and eventually beat the Ravens with a field goal in overtime.

The Lions and the Bears are deadlocked at 6-4 at the top of the division with no more head-to-head matchups left this season. The Lions still are on the road of least resistance leading to the division championship as they have the easiest remaining schedule and hold the tiebreaker against the Bears. This division is going to come down to the wire.

Coaches are brilliant when they get it right, but quickly become the village idiot when they get it wrong. Just ask Jim Schwartz. He dialed up a fake field goal from the 10-yard line on fourth-and-5 with a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Rookie Sam Martin took the direct snap but fumbled while being tackled two yards short of the first-down marker. Sure, you blame Schwartz, but strategically it wasn’t necessarily the most horrible call that the outcome suggests. They were hoping to catch Pittsburgh on their heels and quickly deliver a knockout punch that would have made it a two-score game in the fourth quarter.

If this was a home game, I would be much more critical, but you have to be a little more willing to deliver that knockout punch when opportunities present themselves on the road. Even if they don’t convert, as we saw, the Steelers would take possession backed up nearly to their own goal line. Playing the percentages, rarely will a team take it 90-plus yards on a scoring drive, which of course Pittsburgh did.

Again, had it worked, he would have been a genius, but since it didn’t, he becomes the topic of debate. It’s easy to question his decision now, but taking everything into consideration at the time of the call, I’m not going to be critical.

It is no secret that the Chiefs win with a great defense and an opportunistic offense and special teams. And while the Chiefs offense was certainly more aggressive in the downfield passing game Sunday night, they weren’t opportunistic. The turning point in the game could have been the Derrick Johnson fumble recovery, of which I think he will realize on film that he could have just outrun Peyton Manning to the sideline and taken it all the way back for a score rather than trying to cut it back inside. Instead, the Chiefs offense takes over inside the 20, but turns it over on a fumble of their own on the very next play. That is something this team just can’t afford to do; they don’t have the explosive ability to make up for those types of miscues.

The Chiefs defense, after facing quarterbacks that all started 2013 as backups in each of the past five weeks, couldn’t really get anything going either. They forced just the one aforementioned turnover, which was a muffed snap that basically just rolled in Johnson’s hands and forget sacks, they didn’t even get a quarterback knockdown on Manning all night long. This is the second straight week the Chiefs have finished the game without a sack and have just one in the past three weeks after totaling 35 in the first seven games.

The Bengals may have a thee-game lead in the division, but they can’t feel comfortable. Andy Dalton has been atrocious in the last three games and finished Sunday with just 93 yards and two interceptions. He did throw three touchdowns, but it was a Mohamed Sanu touchdown pass that was needed to kick-start the team after trailing 14-0 early against the Browns. The Bengals have the talent and ability to beat any team in the NFL, but they have been wildly inconsistent and still have a lot of wrinkles to iron out before being seriously considered as a contender for the Super Bowl.

49ers fans’ anger isn’t entirely justified. Sure, they’re up in arms about the call that allowed the Saints to kick the game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter, but they should be happy they were even in contention that late in the game to begin with.

The Saints handed them their first touchdown with a muffed punt at the 11-yard line and then on the next 49ers possession, Colin Kaepernick threw what should have been a pick-six, but Corey White fumbled the ball just before crossing the goal line while trying to switch the ball to his outside arm and it rolled out of the end zone for a touchback. This was a 14-point swing in the game that was basically handed to them.

And let’s not forget, even after the hit-to-the-head penalty, the 49ers still had a chance of their own with two minutes left to make their own fate, but they went three and out and handed it right back to the Saints after using just 22 seconds of the clock. This very easily could have been a blowout.

The Broncos passed the test last night. But it was just the first of three as they now will travel to New England and then once again face the Chiefs in Week 13, this time in Arrowhead. I’m not sure they make it out of this stretch without another blemish on their record.