Unexpected results in Week 12 both simplified and complicated the league's total playoff picture. The NFC is becoming a case of the haves and have-nots, where there is a fairly clear deliniation between the elite teams in the picture and those struggling outside. However the AFC isn't so simple. Outside of the top few teams there's a great wash of mediocrity. A total of 11 teams have losing records in the conference and some of these will hold playoff spots.
Here's what we learned on Sunday in the NFL.
- Head coach John Harbaugh has enough talent on defense to win games, but if his team wants to make a playoff push he'll need to determine why Ray Rice is struggling. Offensive line issues are a large part of the problem, but Rice has been less decisive this season than we've seen in the past. He was working against a stout Jets defensive line, but Rice is averaging less yards per carry than Bernard Piece in similar circumstances. That said, despite the team's offensive struggles the Ravens aren't a team the AFC wants to allow into the playoffs.
- The New York Jets made a draft commitment to Geno Smith, but can they afford to make a long term one? It's a quarterback microwave around the league, and bad teams believe in poor players too long. If the Jets find themselves picking in a spot in a quarterback rich draft they'll have a big decision to make on Smith's future. There have been flashes, but he was terrible against the Ravens -- and has been for much of the season. He finished with a passer rating of 22.3, Smith's fifth game with a rating under 60 and second in a row his team had no chance on offense.
- There have been more impressive win streaks around the NFL, but the Pittsburgh Steelers deserve credit for digging deep following a disappointing start to the season. Head coach Mike Tomlin kept his team focused after an 0-4 start, bouncing back with a 5-2 record following the team's bye week. Currently sitting at 5-6 the Steelers hold a wild card in a weak AFC, and have an opportunity to still challenge the Cincinnati Bengals at the top of the division.
- Cleveland finds itself in an interesting position. The team is in dire need of a long term quarterback, but could find itself outside of the draft bubble where they could find one in a quarterback-rich draft. The Browns have the ammunition in picks to move up, but at least three teams currently ahead of them need passers and might not be willing to move down. It's a real concern compacted by the need to maximize Josh Gordon while he's young. His franchise record was another example of him being one of the best young receivers in the league, and to think he was almost moved at the trade deadline.
- Is Mike Glennon the NFL Rookie of the Year? Voting wont conclude for a couple of months, but he's certainly won the right to be in the conversation. Glennon is 3-5 as a starter, but outside of wins and losses he has thrown for over 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns with a passer rating of 87.7. He's not just managing games either, throwing for over 225 yards in five of his eight starts. Greg Schiano might not lose his job because of Glennon, and the Buccaneers suddenly have hope for the future.
- Good teams find ways to win games they should. The 6-5 Detroit Lions are still good, but a lot of the luster is gone for an organization that looked poised to run away with the division two weeks ago. Struggles in Chicago and Green Bay has put the NFC North on a platter for the Lions, but two-straight losses to teams with a combined record of 8-14 has allowed the Packers and Bears to stay in the hunt. Matthew Stafford needs to step up, it's as simple as that -- he can't throw costly interceptions with the talent around him and Reggie Bush needs to be a bigger factor in the team's passing game.
- A tie game against the Packers backup quarterbacks is about the best the Minnesota Vikings can muster this season. Adrian Peterson was fantastic, Christian Ponder played a near-perfect game, but the problem is an overall lack of big plays. Minnesota's longest passing play was 31 yards and this is the biggest reason why the Vikings need to move forward with a new quarterback. The team's offensive line isn't doing anybody favors, but getting a big arm under center is key to taking steps forward.
- Green Bay wanted a win, obviously -- but they should be happy that the team was able to get a tie without Aaron Rodgers. If he is able to play in the next two weeks this team is poised to still win in the NFC North. Neither the Lions nor the Bears have been able to capitalize on Rodgers absence, with 6-4 currently winning the division there's a strong chance the Packers can make a late push.
- Congratulations Jacksonville, you're no longer the worst team in the NFL. That's sincere and heartfelt to a team that has been the butt of league jokes for much of the season. There is enough to build on in 2014 once the team finds a quarterback. Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders both have potential moving forward, and when paired with the return of Justin Blackmon this could be a dangerous team with a big-armed quarterback.
- Hi Houston, welcome to the suck. It's hard to be here, but every year at least two teams find themselves where you are right now. There's a phrase "to be the man you gotta beat the man," well you did the inverse, losing to "the man." At one point there was hope that Case Keenum could be the bright spot in an otherwise devastating season, but he's regressed over the last two weeks and it's unclear if he can be the long-term option at quarterback he once appeared to be. There's only a few games left, I'm sorry.
- Philip Rivers has been largely overlooked this season because of Peyton Manning's record-setting games, but the Chargers quarterback has been sensational in 2013. Against one of the league's best defenses he threw for 392 yards and a three touchdowns, extending his season total to 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Rivers is also on pace to throw for over 4,500 yards, which would be the second-highest of his career.
- The Chiefs' second loss of the season was disappointing, but it could be devastating depending on how the diagnosis of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali pans out. If both players sustain serious injuries it will sink Kansas City's season, it's that simple. Head coach Andy Reid was impressive in his ability to keep the team in a shootout, but they can't reliably win without a pass rush.
Carolina Panthers 20, Miami Dolphins 16
- Carolina had impressive wins this season, but the Panthers' victory over Miami was vital in showing Cam Newton's team could win when things weren't going their way. Head coach Ron Rivera embraced his inner gambler, and now it's possible he could be in the Coach of the Year discussion. This is a varied team that operated without its top pass rusher, and on an afternoon where Newton struggled.
- Loss or not, throwing deep revitalized the Miami Dolphins offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said he wanted his team to embrace longer passing and it was almost the blueprint for beating Carolina. It's unclear if the Dolphins can make the playoffs, but they have to keep throwing deep and taking chances -- this is how the team will grow moving forward.
St. Louis Rams 42, Chicago Bears 21
- The St. Louis Rams allow a lot of yards, but they are opportunistic on defense and gifted at getting turnovers. Against the Bears they forced multiple fumbles and recorded an interception. This is classic Jeff Fisher football, where it's not always pretty but he knows how to win games. This year might not hold a playoff push for St. Louis, but they will be in good stead moving forward.
- Josh McCown is playing very good football, but the Bears blew their chance to gain ground in the NFC North while Aaron Rodgers was injured. Now they're back in a three-way battle and it's unclear if they have what it takes to bounce back. The lack of pass rush is noticeable and nobody on the defensive line is able to make impact plays.
- Carson Palmer has stepped up the last two weeks and suddenly the Cardinals are the NFC's most dangerous team nobody is talking about. Perhaps it's a conditioned response to Arizona, but this team has an outstanding defense and now a deep-ball offense with a series of receivers that can stretch the field. Moreover, they hold the head-to-head record over the Carolina Panthers, which could get them into the playoffs. This is a team that doesn't bring a lot of fear, but they should -- positioning them to be the kind of team capable of a deep playoff run.
- It's hard to avoid piling on, so instead of rising above it's appropriate to continue to discuss how terrible Trent Richardson has been. The trade that brought him to Indianapolis was supposed to bring offensive balance, now it feels like he's getting reps to justify the price paid for him. Too much is being asked of Andrew Luck, and without Reggie Wayne there isn't enough talent at wide receiver to keep the team afloat. The Colts will make the playoffs because they play in the AFC South, but it's hard to envision a deep run for this team until they can find balance and improve on defense.
Tennessee Titans 23, Oakland Raiders 19
- Ryan Fitzpatrick is nothing more than a game manager, and that's enough in 2013. The AFC South is so weak that the Titans can still get through with a poor record thanks to Houston and Jacksonville. If Justin Hunter is emerging as a deep threat this team has a chance to surprise even with a .500 record. Hunter was sensational against Oakland, finishing with 109 yards and a touchdown and he was matched by second-year receiver Kendall Wright. The nucleus is strong and a playoff push is possible with a strong defensive line and good weapons.
- The Oakland Raiders made the switch to Matt McGloin, and it's paying dividends thus far. They almost won their second-straight win with the undrafted free agent at the helm and he's proven to be a more conservative passer -- even if he lacks the athletic pop of Terrelle Pryor. The playoffs are unlikely, but the best move for the Raiders this year is to use Pryor as a chance of pace player, similar to how Kordell Stewart was used for Pittsburgh. It's not a perfect solution, but these are two imperfect quarterbacks.
Dallas Cowboys 24, New York Giants 21
- Tony Romo has been one of the league's best quarterbacks this season and while he wasn't perfect against New York, he did enough to win. Passing has been the team's hallmark over the last few seasons, but the emergence of DeMarco Murray could be what sets the team apart -- provided they can make the playoffs. Murray is averaging almost five yards per carry, and has averaged over this mark in the last three games.
- The door is still open for the Giants, but making the playoffs is a thin chance. It will take a collapse by Philadelphia and Dallas to keep them in the hunt, which is possible if the team can keep running the ball effectively. Andre Brown averaged 6.0 yards per carry, rushing for over 120 yards on Sunday.
- The Peyton Manning, cold weather thing isn't going away anytime soon, deserved or not. The Broncos blew a 24-0 halftime lead on their way to a 34-31 overtime loss. Manning averaged just 4.2 yards on 36 passing attempts.
- Von Miller is back at full steam. He was the Broncos' most important player through the first half, sacking Tom Brady twice, a forced fumble and a the game's opening touchdown. It's too bad for the Broncos that Miller and the rest of the defense couldn't keep it up for four quarters.
- Bill Belichick will take the wind, thank you. And he used it. The Patriots coach is as cunning as ever, and that could be the difference in the race for the top of the AFC.
- Tom Brady was in MVP form, well, for half the game anyway. He finished with 344 yards and three touchdowns. The trio of Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman probably isn't who you thought would give Brady his best trio of receivers, but they all found mismatches in coverage and picked apart the Denver defense.