The NFL's Week 7 slate helped spread light on some key divisional races, but here are the takeaways that will determine how Sunday's teams operate moving forward.
- It may only last a week, but the Falcons look like they can limp through a wide receiver injury here or there. Harry Douglas stepped up in a big way on a week where both Roddy White and Julio Jones were out, catching seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. This isn't something they can rely on every week, but with White back the offense could do enough to beat most teams around the league. That defense? That's another story.
- Box scores can trip you up sometimes. Such is the case when looking at Mike Glennon's game on Sunday. Superficially he played extremely well, passing for 256 yards and two touchdowns -- posting a rating of 90.7. Scratch the surface and there are some worrying trends Glennon will need to correct, namely an inability to consistently throw deep. On Sunday he finished with 5.8 yards per pass attempt, which is extremely low. By comparison Matt Ryan finished at 10.5 yards, meaning it took him 18 less pass attempts to throw for more yards.
Carolina Panthers 30, St. Louis Rams 15
- Sam Bradford overcame an early interception to become settled and accurate, but was routinely let down by his teammates. At least two touchdowns came off the board when Tavon Austin was denied due to a clipping penalty and Brian Quick dropped a pass in his hands late in the game. Bradford is often criticized for his lack of big throws, but it's impossible to make them when the rest of your team is crumbling. Of course, Bradford's apparently serious knee injury presents its own set of questions for St. Louis now.
- Carolina had its own questions at the quarterback position, but the latest iteration of Cam Newton is the most encouraging. Newton completed a career-high 88-percent passing, and while he thew just one touchdown he reacted well to St. Louis' pass rush. It's taken a while for him to become comfortable in the new-look Panthers' offense, but his trust with the system could be a difference maker.
Cincinnati Bengals 27, Detroit Lions 24
- It was easy early to write off Andy Dalton's success as a product of A.J. Green, but the longer Sunday's game went on it became more clear that the quarterback was the difference maker against the Lions. Dalton maintained his composure under pressure to find seven different receivers on a day where the Bengals' running game was unable to make an impact. If this can carry into the second half of the season it wont be possible for any of the middling AFC North teams to catch them.
- Outside of getting Reggie Bush more involved it's hard to single out something the Lions offense could have done differently on Sunday. The failing came on the back of Detroit's vaunted defensive line, which was only able to generate one sack. There is enough talent on defense that the Lions should have gotten more pressure, which could have derailed the Bengals' passing game before it snowballed.
- San Diego has a passing game, and showed Sunday that it has a running game now, too. Ryan Mathews broke out for the first time in 2013, rushing for 110 yards and a touchdown. Yards haven't been an issue for Mathews in the past, but he's traditionally been an inefficient runner. Against Jacksonville he showed an ability to find the gaps, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Philip Rivers was asked to be little a game manager, and it was a role that suited him well.
- There's not much more we can pull from another Jaguars' loss other than paying attention to what they can build on for the future. The team's offensive line was a serious issue on Sunday, allowing Chad Henne to be sacked six times. Head coach Gus Bradley needs to pay close attention to this problem moving forward, especially if Jacksonville selects their quarterback of the future in the 2014 draft. Left tackle Luke Joeckel goes part of the way to solving this problem, but the issues are deeper, particularly at guard.
Buffalo Bills 23, Miami Dolphins 21
- It's strange to be in the third year of C.J. Spiller's NFL career and still not have a good sense of what the Bills have at running back. At this point he should be the team's focal point, but inconsistent running continues to make him a supplemental piece to Fred Jackson. On Sunday he managed just 11 yards on six carries, making it a larger problem the team may be forced to answer in 2014.
- Ryan Tannehill is playing well, but the Dolphins' quarterback has been significantly worse since his Monday Night Football loss to the New Orleans Saints. It's hard to quantify what's going wrong on the field, making the possibility of confidence being the greater issue. There's no confusing the fact Miami has huge problems on its offensive line, but Tannehill dealt with pressure better in the first three games of the season. If the Dolphins want to be in a spot to pressure New England he'll need to get his groove back.
- Much has been made about the Jets' quarterback situation in 2013, but their defense has been routinely overlooked when talking about the league's best. On Sunday they held Tom Brady and the Patriots to under 300 yards of total offense with Rob Gronkowski back in the fold. There's still work to be done on making Geno Smith more reliable in the pocket, but this defensive front could be enough to make a push in the second half of the season.
- Loss aside, the Patriots have to be happy to see Gronkowski back in the fold. He wasn't able to get a touchdown in his first game back from injury, but he gave Brady a much-needed safety net when plays broke down. The offense will get an earful from head coach Bill Belichick, but it will be able to take shape when they're out of a hostile division environment and away from one of the best defenses in football.
- Tony Romo threw the ball 47 times while the Cowboys carried the ball just 26, all while Dallas was leading. There's no greater sign an offense lacks faith in its ability to run the football. Shifting the focus to Romo was the right move as the team's back averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, but the Cowboys need to find an answer for how they can become more balanced offensively. This problem might not be able to be solved until next year's draft as rookie Joseph Randle has struggled thus far.
- Quarterback play will be pointed to as the reason Philadelphia lost, but LeSean McCoy's 81 all-purpose yards was far more damaging to Chip Kelly's offensive scheme. Without the threat of the run the Cowboys were able to key in on the pass, and it helped when the defensive line was getting a lot of pressure. This game will be looked at as the blueprint teams will follow moving forward, and it will be interesting to see how Michael Vick will adjust as he returns from injury.
Washington Redskins 45, Chicago Bears 41
- The Redskins were helped by the absence of Jay Cutler, but the emergence of rookie tight end Jordan Reed will be interesting to watch as he became a focal point. He caught nine passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, becoming the one receiver Robert Griffin III could rely on while Pierre Garcon was unable to make an impact.
- Everything hinges on Jay Cutler's injury situation as a bad diagnosis would spell the end to the Bears' season. Josh McCown played well in a limited role, but it's hard to see him being able to carry the team for anything more than spot duty here or there. Cutler is often maligned, but he excels at putting the ball down field and trusting his receivers to make plays, which is why he pairs so well with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Without that kind of quarterback, it's unclear how Chicago's offense will operate.
- Colin Kaepernick carried the ball for 10+ times for the first time of the 2013 season and it resulted in a convincing win. His ability to run in open space helped mitigate Frank Gore's struggles on a day where San Francisco's running back was a great short-yardage option, but averaged just 2.9 yards per carry.
- Tennessee showed its absolute best on offense and still fell short by two touchdowns. This team is able to gain yards, as seen by its 368 yards on Sunday, but the Titans struggle to convert in key situations. The offense converted 36 percent of third downs, and its deficiency was clear -- they can't run the football in short situations. Chris Johnson isn't a between-the-tackles runner, and Shonn Greene was unable to offer anything. Getting a power back is the key for Tennessee to take the next step, and avoiding bad turnovers like Darius Reynaud's fumble will help too.
- Aaron Rodgers is the kind of quarterback who will take a mile when you've given an inch. This was clear not only in Sunday's win over Cleveland, but in the manner the Lions and Bears left the door open way too long. There was a chance to get them, but that has been squandered. After the Packers' glut of receiver injuries there was no better team to face than Cleveland, as the Browns' defense was unable to pressure Rodgers enough to turn Sunday's game.
- Any good will Brandon Weeden bought when he came in for an injured Brian Hoyer is gone. The Browns' quarterback was absolutely atrocious, completing just 40 percent of his passes and averaging 3.5 yards per attempt. Weeden was under pressure a lot, but he doesn't show an ability to process what a defense is doing. There were numerous times on Sunday he threw at outlets that weren't even looking for passes, simply desperate to get rid of the football. Thankfully Hoyer is back soon and the draft is a few months away.
Kansas City Chiefs 17, Houston Texans 16
- There's no question the Chiefs' schedule has become easier as the season progresses, but Kansas City is the best team in the NFL at controlling the variables it can impact. Each week this has come in the form of an overwhelming pass rush, and continuing to stretch the field with its running game. The Chiefs added another five sacks on Sunday, holding onto the NFL lead. These two factors have allowed Kansas City to take pressure off Alex Smith, where he can thrive. This might not be the best team in the NFL top to bottom, but they might be the best coached.
- There aren't many silver linings for the Texans in 2013, but Case Keenum is one. He was able to remain composed despite being under pressure throughout the day, completing 60 percent of his passes and not turning the ball over. This isn't a finished project, but it's a building block the team can continue to work on while its season has become a throw away.
- Le'Veon Bell took a huge step forward on Sunday, as the Steelers rookie couldn't be stopped en route to a 93-yard game where the Ravens didn't have a way to handle the strong North-South back. The lack of a running game is something that put Pittsburgh in a hole early in the season, but Bells' development is its key to finding a way back out. It wont help in 2013, but having that position locked down is key to 2014 and beyond.
- Running the ball is also a key for Baltimore, and something Ray Rice has failed to do this season. A lot was made of the absence of Anquan Boldin, but passing hasn't been a huge problem for the offense. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell needs to find ways to use Rice in space, particularly as a receiving threat. He caught the ball just four times in Sunday's loss, and is too often being used as a traditional back rather than an offensive Swiss army knife.
Indianapolis Colts 39, Denver Broncos 30
- Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning was the story all week, but most importantly was how the young quarterback didn't let the spectacle overshadow his on-field play. Luck was composed in the pocket, made his reads and did exactly what the Colts needed to ensure a home victory. Luck spread the ball around without making any one player a focal point, which would have been easy to do when he was under pressure to prove he was up to match the legend he replaced.
- Manning was great as always, but he was let down by his supporting cast. Penalties extended drives and put the Broncos in a difficult position. The offense and defense helped contribute to over 100 penalty yards in Denver's first loss of the season, which was too much to overcome with three turnovers. It's shortsighted to see these as major issues, especially with how well the Broncos have played in 2013 -- it was just an undisciplined game at the worst possible time.