NFL takeaways: Panthers become legitimate, while Denver has a scare

Ezra Shaw

A win over the San Francisco 49ers has legitimized Carolina. Now it's a question of whether the Panthers can keep it up.

Ten weeks are in the books and the league's best teams are starting to rise to the top. The Carolina Panthers recorded their first signature win of the season, while the Broncos dominated, but had a scare. Here's a complete look at the week that was in the NFL:

Seattle Seahawks 33, Atlanta Falcons 10

  • It's easy to throw a dart at the Seahawks' roster and find a solid player, but wide receiver Golden Tate is rising to the occasion at a time the team's receiving corps is arguably its only weakness. Percy Harvin is trying to get himself in game shape, Sidney Rice is lost for the season -- all the while Tate is showing that he can be "the guy" in the interim. In four games he has amassed 305 yards receiving and three touchdowns. He was stellar once again in Atlanta, and is a player to watch down the stretch.
  • The Atlanta Falcons should know precisely why they lost on Sunday. A team can't be outgained 211 to 64 yards on the ground and win a game. Atlanta's front office spent time building a passing team in a quarterback-driven league, but failed to have reliable options at running back or on the defensive line. Solving these problems will be easier said than done for the rest of this season.

Baltimore Ravens 20, Cincinnati Bengals 17

  • Baltimore stopped its three-game slide with an impressive overtime win over the Bengals. This 4-5 Ravens team is very difficult to figure out, as they continue to swing between extremes -- but one constant is how they've played games close. Four of the team's five losses have come by one score or less, and this could be a very different AFC North if the ball bounced a little differently.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals should be quietly concerned about Andy Dalton. There are times the third-year quarterback looks like he has all the tools, even appearing like he's taken the step into elite status -- then games like Sunday's happen. In four games he's posted a passer rating of 100 or more, and in three games he's posted less than 60.0. In each of the last two weeks, Dalton looks like he's regressed and the team needs to determine why he has been so inconsistent in 2013.

Detroit Lions 21, Chicago Bears 19

  • Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are rightfully getting plenty of attention, but Reggie Bush has been the unsung hero of the Lions' offense. He finished with 105 rushing yards on 14 attempts, while giving the team added depth it hasn't had in the past. Pulling the focus away from the passing game allowed the field to open up, and in past years, teams were able to key in on Johnson without any other offensive threats.
  • The Chicago Bears are paying Julius Peppers as if he's one of the league's five best defensive ends, and it's OK to demand better performance from him. Once again Peppers was a non-factor at a time the Bears needed a defensive player to step up. This season he has 18 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble -- on pace for his worst season since 2007 with the Carolina Panthers. Quarterback issues will be the focal point, but the bigger question is why the Bears can't pressure opposing passers.

Philadelphia Eagles 27, Green Bay Packers 13

  • Everything is falling into place for the Eagles, and that extends beyond facing the Green Bay Packers without Aaron Rodgers. Chip Kelly's offense is still relevant despite struggles in October, while it became clear that Nick Foles is simply the right player to run this system. He takes care of the football, knows how to use the team's weapons and is backed up by an excellent running game. Those factors are the reason this team could easily seize the lead in the NFC East.
  • There's no mystery why the Packers didn't win on Sunday -- they don't have their franchise quarterback. This team isn't constructed to be able to limp along without Rodgers under center, few are. However, the front office didn't do enough to ensure there was adequate support at the position behind Rodgers.

St. Louis Rams 38, Indianapolis Colts 8

  • The St. Louis Rams are a lesson in disappointment largely brought about by poor offensive scheming. Losing quarterback Sam Bradford was certainly a factor, but if the Rams ran the offense they did against the Colts all season, this team could be 6-4 right now, not 4-6. The team still has issues running the ball, but the offensive staff didn't stop Zac Stacy from having opportunities. Forcing Indianapolis to respect the run allowed the game to open up for Kellen Clemens, who took advantage.
  • Andrew Luck is a remarkable quarterback, gifted with the ability of bringing his team back from the brink -- but he can't do it alone. The Colts front office let down their franchise quarterback when they didn't get him adequate protection this offseason or find a way to fill the team's hole at running back. Trading for Trent Richardson was a desperation move that hasn't paid dividends, and the Colts don't have a chance in the playoffs if they allow Luck to be sacked multiple times, as he was against St. Louis.

New York Giants 24, Oakland Raiders 20

  • It's interesting to think about how differently the New York Giants would have looked in 2013 if Andre Brown had been available for the entire season. He was activated from the PUP list on Thursday and made an immediate impact as he ran for 115 yards against a highly ranked Raiders run defense. This season might be lost for the Giants, but the running ability of Brown is something they can build off for 2014.
  • Terrelle Pryor doesn't have a lot of weapons in Oakland, but the coaching staff still can't be happy with some of the things they're seeing from the third-year quarterback. He was extremely inaccurate on Sunday, completing just 42 percent of his passes and finishing with a passer rating of 40.9. New York's defense has been fairly porous this season and not having success is a worrisome sign for Pryor's future.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Buffalo Bills 10

  • The Steelers lifted themselves out of the NFL's cellar, but the team continues to leave a lot to be desired on offense. Le'Veon Bell is having up-and-down performances in his first season, averaging 2.6 yards per carry against the Bills. Dick LeBeau's defense held Buffalo to 3-for-14 on third down, which resulted in the win, but there's a lot more Pittsburgh needs to build on moving forward.
  • C.J. Spiller has struggled to follow up his breakout 2012 season and was once again ineffective against the Steelers, running for 23 yards on eight carries. Earlier this season, Spiller was struggling with a high ankle sprain, but heading into Sunday's game he said he was feeling like his own self and starting to get back on track. That obviously hasn't happened, and evaluating him moving forward will be key to the offense in 2014.

Jacksonville Jaguars 29, Tennessee Titans 27

  • It wasn't pretty, but the Jacksonville Jaguars ensured they wouldn't join the rare company of winless teams. Chad Henne was efficient with the football outside of his two interceptions and the defense was vital in forcing fumbles and turning knife. At this point the season is over for the Jaguars -- that has been clear for weeks -- but the defense is something to build with a new quarterback.
  • Chris Johnson was terrible against Jacksonville, but that's not especially rare this season. He finished with 30 yards rushing and it was the fifth time he's finished with fewer than 50 yards on the ground. Johnson has a tendency to punctuate big games with poor ones, and the issue extends beyond the Titans' troublesome offensive line.

Carolina Panthers 10, San Francisco 49ers 9

  • The Carolina Panthers were in desperate need of a signature win, and they found it. Cam Newton struggled and the team didn't make any flashy plays on offense, but Carolina's defense is so good it can win without big plays. No team has made a bigger 180 this season than Carolina, a team that went from losing to Arizona and Buffalo to beating one of the best teams in the league en route to a five-game win streak.
  • Colin Kaepernick blamed "lack of execution" on his team's loss in the postgame press conference, but it simply looked like a very good team overmatched by a dominant defense. It didn't help that the team lost Vernon Davis to injury in the first half, which forced the 49ers out of their comfort zone and allowed the Panthers to have Luke Kuechly play Frank Gore almost exclusively.

Arizona Cardinals 27, Houston Texans 24

  • Carson Palmer had one of his best games this season, but the offensive story for Arizona is the emergence of rookie Andre Ellington as the team's top running back. Rashard Mendenhall continues to get carries by default, but this is Ellington's show now -- or at least it should be. Against Houston he finished with 73 all-purpose yards and should get the lion's share of carries moving forward.
  • Losing Arian Foster was the cherry on top of the disappointment sundae for the Texans in 2013. This season is over, but the front office has to be thrilled with the performance of Case Keenum. In three starts he's thrown for over 800 yards and seven touchdowns, all without an interception. There were times he struggled against a talented Cardinals secondary, but it was mostly good.

Denver Broncos 28, San Diego Chargers 20

  • Injury is the only thing that can stop the Denver Broncos, which is what makes Monday's MRI on Peyton Manning so scary. This team will fold if he's forced to miss any significant time, but that seems like a long shot. It's astonishing that a 330-yard, four-touchdown game has become ho-hum -- but here we are. Manning is redefining what was thought possible at the quarterback position and he's using all his weapons to leverage a big win.
  • Defense is letting San Diego down, but there's a lot to build on for the future. First-year head coach Mike McCoy has made the offense reliable and the coaching staff should be happy with how Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews have responded. Competing in the AFC West is almost impossible this year, but with veterans stepping up and rookies like Keenan Allen contributing, the Chargers have a chance to surprise teams next year.

New Orleans Saints 49, Dallas Cowboys 17

  • The New Orleans Saints found their running game on Sunday night, and if this is a sign of what's to come then watch out. Mark Ingram had three years of looking like a draft bust and one good night might not be enough to sway public opinion, but it was a heck of a night. He finished with 145 yards rushing and a touchdown, all while averaging over 10 yards per carry.
  • Dallas was woeful on Sunday night -- that's the downside -- but at least the front office knows it made the right decision in committing to Sean Lee long-term. Without their middle linebacker, the entire Cowboys defense crumbled. He might not be an impact player every down, but Lee is a rare middle linebacker for which defenses surely have to account. Without him on the field, the Saints attacked the center of the field and Dallas had no answer.

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