The Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins find themselves well within the playoff hunt in their respective divisions, despite both starting 1-3 on the season. Week 9 made the picture more difficult to decode, and this sets up one of the most interesting stretches the NFL has seen in a while. Here's our Monday morning look at what else we learned from Sunday's games.
Kansas City Chiefs 23, Buffalo Bills 13
- Give the Chiefs credit, this team doesn't know how to lose. It's an important distinction from "knowing how to win," that leans more on stubbornness than past experience. You would be hard pressed to find a game where a defense allows 470 balanced yards and manages less than half of that on offense, but still holds on when it counts. The popular thing will be to talk about how "bad" the Chiefs are despite their record, but they're still winning even if the victories aren't always convincing.
- The Buffalo Bills just cant catch a break this season. Injuries at the quarterback position, inconsistency at running back and receiver -- all while boasting an underrated defense that's very good. Fans hate "moral victories," but there are a lot of good things this team is doing, despite its record. This is a team that could be very good in 2014 once E.J. Manuel is back and they add to their offense, but for now, it's about playing out the year and gathering as much information about the team as possible.
Dallas Cowboys 27, Minnesota Vikings 23
- The Dallas Cowboys got a win, they hold first place in the NFC East -- but even the team's most staunch proponent is probably a little afraid of the team's scare in Minneapolis. Christian Ponder had success against the defense, and Dallas had no answer for Adrian Peterson. There's a lot to be said about putting the ball in Tony Romo's hands based on his strong season, but the unwillingness to run the football could become a huge issue moving forward.
- Minnesota gave everything they had on offense, and it still wasn't enough. Christian Ponder played well by Christian Ponder standards, but this team is starving for consistent and meaningful quarterback play. Brett Favre's short run in 2009 merely whet the team's appetite, and the Vikings will need to closely manage their offense moving forward to ensure they can maximize Adrian Peterson before age catches up to him.
Tennessee Titans 28, St. Louis Rams 21
- Sunday's game was a Tennessee Titans offensive renaissance as bad quarterback play and stellar Chris Johnson running resulted in a close win. The potential is there for the Titans to be very dangerous, but first they'll need to reconcile the two sides of their offense. Each week either the run game or the pass game lets the team down, rarely are both working in concert. There are weapons, and Jake Locker has shown he can be a reliable quarterback, but until this team's line maturates it's difficult to see Tennessee taking the next step.
- Sam Bradford's injury sunk the Rams' chances, and it's games like this one that he would have been able to win. Kellen Clemens is serviceable to short stretches and he played fairly well, but we're still looking at a player that it took 35 pass attempts to hit 210 yards. Pair Zac Stacy's effective running with Bradford and this game is a win for St. Louis, but instead they're forced to play for next season and evaluate their future.
New York Jets 26, New Orleans Saints 20
- The consistently inconsistent New York Jets are one of the most fascinating teams to watch in the NFL. Rex Ryan's team is pushing against conventional wisdom and finding ways to be one of the league's best offenses on the back of strong defense and successful running. There catch cry of football remains "this is a passing league," but Ryan isn't following these notions. Drew Brees was still able to throw for more than 350 yards, but they were ineffective yards that didn't generate scoring. When the field got compact, the Jets defense shined, and they'll be a difficult team to beat moving down the stretch.
- New Orleans will win a lot of football games this year, but this team does not have the ability to win a close game in the trenches. The defense under Rob Ryan is vastly improved, but it's easy to gloss over this team's myriad issues when pegging them for greater success. The Saints have no running game, and no running back that looks capable of stepping up. Plenty of teams can win on the back of high-powered passing offenses, but the Saints don't match up well against a team like Carolina that is hot on their heels in the NFC South.
Washington Redskins 30, San Diego Chargers 24 (OT)
- Having a balanced offense is Washington's key to making an improbable playoff run, despite their rough start to the season. Robert Griffin III is capable of being a playmaker, but he's at his best when pressure is taken off in the running game. The Redskins' running backs totaled almost 200 rushing yards on Sunday, scoring three touchdowns on the ground and opening the middle of the field for RGIII. From there he was able to pick apart the secondary. There are issues on defense the team needs to solve, but this is a dangerous team if they find their form now.
- The San Diego Chargers suffer from the same problem a lot of teams do -- an inability to run the ball. Ryan Mathews isn't consistent enough to be leaned on as a short yardage back, which came into play at the close of the second half when the Chargers didn't trust in the team's running backs enough and threw twice on the one yard line before settling for a Nick Novak field goal. Allowing the game to hit overtime was a huge mistake, and the reason San Diego lost on Sunday.
Carolina Panthers 34, Atlanta Falcons 10
- Stars have aligned to put the Carolina Panthers one game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. Now it's on Cam Newton and company to prove they aren't simply a decent team that's able to beat up bad ones. The team's four straight wins are impressive, but the struggling Falcons were the best of the bunch. Week 10 will truly allow the Panthers to prove how good they are with a tough road trip to San Francisco. A win turns the 2013 season into two games, both against New Orleans. There's competition with the NFC North for the second wild card spot, making winning the division the only guaranteed road to the post season.
- Matt Ryan has regressed in the last two weeks, coinciding with the injuries his team has faced. He threw three interceptions against the Panthers on Sunday, including a late game pick-six that helped seal the loss. The lack of reliable offensive weapons is causing Ryan to force his passes, and the result is a quarterback who's no longer making plays organically. Forcing the ball is never a good idea, but Ryan is killing his teams chances by becoming careless with the ball.
- Nick Foles is now in the NFL record books. A few weeks ago there were questions whether he should be the team's starting quarterback, now Foles has become the Eagles' savior at the position. No player has run Chip Kelly's offense as well, and the team was able to prevail on an afternoon where LeSean McCoy couldn't be the focal point. There's no reason to make any offensive adjustments now, they just need to stay the course.
- Oakland has talent, but too much is being asked of Terrelle Pryor. The third-year quarterback is a fantastic talent, but at some point the team needs to find a way of scaling back his involvement. It's a lesson the Panthers learned when Newton was the team's leading passer and rusher, doing everything is fun to watch but it's hard to generate wins.
Seattle Seahawks 27, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 (OT)
- Russell Wilson was terrible in the first half, but still managed to pull it all together for a respectable game with 217 yards passing, three total touchdowns and a passer rating of 91.3. Herein lies the reason the Seahawks are so dangerous, they can flip the switch at a moment's notice. Sunday's game was more than overcoming the biggest deficit in team history, it was about winning all three phases of the game and making it impossible for the Buccaneers to come back.
- This was an encouraging game for Mike Glennon, as the rookie quarterback didn't succumb to throwing at Richard Sherman, instead accepting that Vincent Jackson was covered and looking to other options. It wasn't perfect, and the vertical offense struggled -- but this kind of conservative quarterback play is something you want to see from a young player. It's not much in a terrible year, but it's a start.
Cleveland Browns 24, Baltimore Ravens 18
- Waiting so long to play Jason Campbell was a huge misstep. It's unclear what the Browns were waiting to see from him, but making the switch is the biggest reason Cleveland still has a shot at the playoffs. It's going to be a difficult road, but the team's receivers are all better when they work with Campbell, evidenced by Greg Little's huge day against Baltimore. In order to take the next step they'll need to find a way to run the ball.
- Ray Rice has been a non-factor this season and is the single biggest reason the Ravens are struggling. Against the Browns he managed just 17 yards rushing on 11 attempts, failing to make an impact in the passing game. Rice was the team's furnace on offense during the 2012 Super Bowl run, moving the chains while Joe Flacco took deep shots. Baltimore becomes one dimensional when he fails, and that's why they're struggling in 2013.
- Tom Brady had his best game on the season on an afternoon where his three weapons finally gelled. The return of Rob Gronkowski has make the formula work, and Aaron Dobson has won Brady's trust. The Patriots wont be happy with their poor defensive showing, but for the psyche of the offense it was important to get in a shootout and prove they could hang a lot of points on a team.
- Sunday's game against the Patriots represents the ceiling of the Pittsburgh Steelers as constructed. Injuries have hurt the offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger gave New England everything he could, but it wasn't enough. The defensive secondary doesn't have enough ability to cover multiple weapons, which is why we've seen the Steelers be able to handle teams with one focal point on offense -- but falter against teams with a large number of weapons.
- Case Keenum is definitely a short-term answer for the Texans. His three touchdowns and 350 passing yards had the favored Colts on the ropes. Had it not been for tree missed field goal attempts, including one that would have tied the game, the undrafted free agent might have had his first NFL win. At the very least, Houston is a more competitive team for the rest of the season. They also have two more months to find out whether or not Keenum can be a long-term fix.
- That's 10 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime for Andrew Luck. The Colts could need even more from the second-year superstar with Reggie Wayne on the shelf and the running game still not working any better. Trent Richardson averaged less than three yards per carry. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton will need to open up his playbook and give Donald Brown more carries.