Texans, Packers step up, gain big

During Week 15 in the NFL, there were six specific games that had major playoff implications for each team. Strangely enough, only two of them pitted divisional opponents against one another.

In the AFC South, the Houston Texans hosted the surging Indianapolis Colts in the first of two games over the course of the final three weeks between the two teams. With the win, Houston secured the division and holds a one-game lead over the Broncos for the first overall seed in the AFC playoff picture. With the loss, the Colts have still all but locked up a playoff position and currently hold the fifth seed as the first wild-card team in the AFC.

The Texans controlled the game from start to finish and, in the process, exposed some of the same weaknesses that have plagued the Colts all season. With Andre Johnson’s 151 receiving yards, this became the seventh week in a row that the Colts have allowed an opposing receiver to go over the century mark.

The Texans obviously took their shots at Johnson, but mostly did what they do by maintaining a balanced attack that included 165 yards on the ground from Arian Foster and another early lead that forced the Colts into a one-dimensional passing attack. In doing so, they were able to unleash JJ Watt to the tune of three sacks, four hurries, 10 tackles – including six for a loss – and a forced fumble to boot.

That sounds like the stat line of the future defensive player of the year.

The second divisional matchup took place in the NFC North, with the Packers clinching the division by beating the Chicago Bears and extending their winning streak over divisional opponents to 12 straight. Again, this was a game in which each team did what we have come to expect. The Packers leaned on Aaron Rodgers, who posted a passer rating of 116.8 by completing 23 of 36 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns but once again continued to struggle to get anything going on the ground.

It was the 41st game in a row in which the Packers failed to have a 100-yard rusher. This lack of running game could very easily come back to bite them, especially if they get stuck in a bad weather game at Lambeau Field in which throwing and catching the ball becomes almost impossible. The offense obviously isn’t built to run the ball and just as important, the defense is built to complement an explosive offense with pass rushers and an opportunistic secondary. With the loss, the Bears not only concede the division to the Packers, they fall to third place in the NFC North and currently sit outside the current playoff picture with the Vikings quietly stealing the sixth seed right out from under them.

The remaining four games were played outside the division and, in the case of the Steelers at Cowboys, outside the conference altogether but the drama was the same.

Entering the game, the Cowboys were locked in the closest division race in all of football and after the game it got even tighter. With the win, coupled with a win by the Redskins and loss by the Giants, all three teams maintain an 8-6 record. The Redskins hold the tie-breaker with the Cowboys in second place, but each actually controls its own destiny as they will square off in the final game of the regular season.

The Cowboys, and most importantly Tony Romo, may be getting hot at just the right time. The overtime win on Sunday was Romo’s third win this month, which is significant because of Romo’s past struggles in the latter part of seasons. Historically, he is just 8-13 in December and has thrown nearly as many interceptions as he has touchdowns in the month.

This year, he is averaging more than 300 yards, has a passer rating of 107.4 and has thrown for six touchdowns compared to just one interception. The Cowboys playoff chances will once again come down to how Tony Romo can perform under pressure, an unsettling thought in previous years but one that he is working to overcome in the last three games.

The final three games were statement games for the Broncos, Falcons and 49ers.

For the Broncos, it was their first major win on the road this season after losing in Atlanta and in New England earlier in the year. The road loss to the Patriots came in Week 5, their last loss before winning nine straight, good for the longest active winning streak in the NFL. The doubters will mention that the Ravens were still without Ray Lewis and were playing with an obviously less than 100-percent Terrell Suggs as well as a brand-new offensive coordinator that was calling plays for the first time ever in his career, but none of that is the Broncos problem.

They traveled to an always hostile environment in Baltimore and made a statement early by jumping out to a 17-0 lead at halftime then added another 17 points in the second half to secure a 34-17 win. What’s most impressive is that the Broncos, for the first time this whole season, finished the game without a giveaway and that is huge for a team that is already 10-1 in games in which they turn the ball over twice!

Even though Houston may get the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, Denver is going to be the team no one wants to play.

The Falcons also made their own statement on Sunday as they shut out the reigning Super Bowl champions. It’s not that the Giants have been an overly impressive team of late, but they are still an explosive offense that is a threat to score on any possession. For the Falcons to completely shut them out and also score 34 points can’t be understated. The 34-point margin ties for the worst loss by a defending Super Bowl champion, not to mention one that was leading their division entering the game. It was the first time a Tom Coughlin-coached team has been shut out since his first season with the upstart Jaguars.

And it wasn’t just the lopsided score – the Falcons more than doubled the Giants in first downs, outgained the Giants by 138 yards and possessed the ball nearly 18 minutes longer than the Giants. That is total domination. It is the type of domination that should have general managers and owners pounding the table to give Mike Nolan another head coaching opportunity this offseason.

In the biggest statement game of all on Sunday, the 49ers jumped out to a 28-point lead early on the Patriots then survived a Tom Brady comeback attempt only to land the knock-out punch two plays later. That sequence of events is much more impressive to me than a blowout victory would have been. The 49ers showed that they can suck all the excitement out of a fired-up stadium and get going early in an important road game. Then they proved that they could adjust to the momentum shift that is sure to come when playing against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

It’s not like the 49ers scored 31 points in the first quarter and then lost focus, they consistently moved the ball during the entire game and scored evenly throughout the quarters – seven points in the first, 10 points in the second, 14 points in the third and 10 more points in the fourth. Then, when the Patriots tied the game with 6:45 remaining, any other team would have just rolled over and succumbed to the pressure, but the 49ers responded immediately with a long kickoff return followed by a one-play scoring drive on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree to retake the lead and completely take the wind out of the Patriots’ sails.

That is the makeup of a championship-caliber football team. One that can overcome the adversity of a big-time game on national television against arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the league’s history. If nothing else, Jim Harbaugh made his point: Colin Kaepernick went punch for punch with Tom Brady and left no doubt that he was the quarterback of the future for this team.