Monday Night Football is pending, but the NFL now has Week 13 in the books. It was a fascinating series of games that saw eight contests decided by a touchdown or less, while the playoff picture is becoming set. The Carolina Panthers won their eighth game in a row, and other teams are desperately trying to find the answer at quarterback.
Carolina Panthers 27, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6
- This whole "Riverboat Ron" thing is well deserved, but lost in the Panthers' risk-taking is how much Cam Newton means to Carolina. Every time there's a risky moment the ball is handed to the quarterback, and he's asked to use his heroics to will something from nothing. Against Tampa Bay it was a 4th-and-goal situation when the team's running backs had already failed. Newton leaped over the pile into the end zone and secured the touchdown. Coaching changes are the biggest reason Carolina has won eight games in a row, but it's important not to overlook the team's catalyst.
- Quarterback Mike Glennon had a typical rookie day, and those are bound to happen. He played very well early in the game, but became rattled when it became apparent he'd be leaned on to bring back the team from a deficit. There's still plenty for the Buccaneers to look forward to in 2014, even if their Week 13 game didn't go as planned. Tampa Bay remains a talented, but under-performing team, which is a ray of optimism that means this team can bounce back quickly.
Jacksonville Jaguars 32, Cleveland Browns 28
- The Jaguars are still a punchline around the NFL because people aren't very creative, but they shouldn't be. First year head coach Gus Bradley has his team playing well above its talent level, without the aid of a decent quarterback or a reliable offensive line. There are plenty of cogent reasons to discuss how this team is playing its way out of a top quarterback in the draft, but winning games and building a new culture is more important right now. There will be someone available for Jacksonville; it will just take a little more time and perhaps a touch more creativity.
- Perhaps this was a trap game for Cleveland, because that's the only way to justify the number of small mistakes that cost the Browns a win. Josh Gordon is otherworldly, and it's astonishing to imagine what he'll be able to do once he's paired with a real receiver. Cleveland lost because of two Brandon Weeden interceptions and a bizarre botched snap that resulted in a touchdown -- it's that simple. Correcting these problems will come in time.
New England Patriots 34, Houston Texans 31
- The return of Rob Gronkowski has revitalized the Patriots offense. Tom Brady was inconsistent in the first half of the game on Sunday, but his tight end helped settle the offense. Gronkowski finished with 127 yards and a touchdown, and remains one of the biggest matchup problems in the NFL. His size and catch radius make him nearly impossible for defenders to cover, and he showed those skills. New England is one of those teams that might not seem impressive right now, but in a one-off game in the playoffs they'll be deadly.
- Houston is now the worst team in the NFL, and that's official. It has been a nightmare season for the Texans, but at least they're poised to land a quarterback in the upcoming draft. For a while it appeared that Case Keenum could be the answer, but he's been mediocre in three straight games and it's unclear if he can do enough in the season's remaining games to have anyone in the Texans front office believe in him.
Indianapolis Colts 22, Tennessee Titans 14
- There's a fascinating interplay of coaching and managing happening in Indianapolis. The Colts won, which was important to holding the AFC South, but we saw players general manager Ryan Grigson believed in being benched by head coach Chuck Pagano. Grigson was named executive of the year in 2012, but that doesn't make him above criticism for executing the trade for Trent Richardson. That has been an abject disaster. Winning cures all ills, but this will be something to watch moving forward.
- Kudos to the Titans for holding on as long as they did. It was going to be brutally difficult for Tennessee after the injury to Jake Locker, but the team managed to keep it together and make an unlikely playoff push. Those hopes are likely dead after the loss on Sunday, but the Titans proved they are a talented and varied team that has the coaching needed to take the next step. Fans should be thrilled with the play of young receivers, who give Tennessee something to build on next year.
Minnesota Vikings 23, Chicago Bears 20
- Adrian Peterson is probably the rarest talent in the NFL. There are plenty of stunning players that dominate their position, but Peterson is a guy who everybody knows is touching the ball 25-plus times a game and still can't stop him. Quarterbacks were injured and struggled, while the running back notched up the fifth 200-yard game of his career. It's not just that Peterson is a volume runner, but he's efficient -- averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Now it's on the Vikings front office to find him a real quarterback while his legs remain young.
- There's not much more Chicago could have done. It was simply a case of two evenly matched teams running at each other full speed and one being left standing. Josh McCown played great football, Julius Peppers stepped up with 2.5 sacks and Matt Forte ran for over 100 yards. It was one of those games, and chastising head coach Marc Trestman for his decision-making is misguided.
Miami Dolphins 23, New York Jets 3
- Miami has a shot at the playoffs thanks to its win in New York on Sunday. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill played exceptionally well, finding seven different receivers en route to a 331-yard passing day, but it's still unclear if Mike Wallace is best used in this passing offense. Switching to a deep passing game has helped the Dolphins, but Brian Hartline remains the team's best threat and more in tune with Tannehill. It's not an issue right now, but they'll need to better balance their targets in 2014.
- Geno Smith has been bad this season, that much is certain. The Jets aren't doing him any favors, though. By the time the rookie quarterback was pulled at halftime, the team's running backs combined for five carries. With Matt Simms under center they totaled 14 carries -- while trailing. There's no logical explanation why Smith didn't have the benefit of a run game, but he was asked to be the offense in the first half. It's too much for him, and there wasn't enough balance. Perhaps that will improve in the future, but it's a mess right now.
Philadelphia Eagles 24, Arizona Cardinals 21
... it's time to recognize the second-year quarterback.
- The fashionable thing is to discredit Nick Foles' performances as anomalies or lavish praise on Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, but it's time to recognize the second-year quarterback. Foles is playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL and if he started a full slate of games it would be appropriate to talk about him in MVP conversations. Foles' has 18 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 128.0 on the season. The Eagles will be the most dangerous team in the NFC playoffs, provided they can find a way in.
- Arizona's fate is entirely tied to Carson Palmer. Holding the Eagles to 307 yards should be enough, but two interceptions from Palmer was too much to overcome. The Cardinals' playoff chances took a definite hit, but regardless of what happens this season it's vital to keep a optimistic approach to this team. They have a very talented defense and good offensive weapons, now it's about gluing everything together. That looks like it might take a little longer than expected.
Atlanta Falcons 34, Buffalo Bills 31
- The Falcons can out-gain their opponents and have air superiority, but unless Atlanta can protect Matt Ryan it's all moot. Mocking Jadeveon Clowney to the Falcons is all the rage and definitely the right move, but it won't help the team win if Ryan continues to be sacked five times a game like he was against Buffalo. Atlanta walked away with this win, but it was gifted to them following a series of fumbles. There are more needs than ways to fill them, and it is unclear how long it'll be before this team can get back on track.
- Toronto was kind to C.J. Spiller. He had one of the best games of his career against the hapless Falcons, and the Bills running back proved he can be a difference maker. The key for Buffalo is ensuring it can lean on the fourth-year running back, which has been difficult due to perpetual injury. There are some good things happening on offense for Buffalo; the team just needs time and a few more weapons. Getting a pass catching tight end could be invaluable to E.J. Manuel, and something the team should focus on come April's draft.
San Francisco 49ers 23, St. Louis Rams 13
- Colin Kaepernick needed a really solid performance and he picked a great game for it. He finished with 275 yards passing, without making any errors. Moreover, he succeeded on a day Frank Gore struggled, which is more important in the larger scheme of things. Getting Michael Crabtree back has been a godsend to an offensive unit lacking big play potential and he's not even 100 percent yet. This team is becoming more dangerous as the season progresses, which will make the last few games fascinating to watch.
- The Rams are so good defensively that it highlights the team's struggles on the offensive end. Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham have been bright spots in recent weeks, but there's a lot of work that needs to be done on the offensive line. Sam Bradford's future in St. Louis is uncertain, but it's evident that he isn't the problem on this team. Time and consistency will improve the Rams, there's little more in 2013.
Denver Broncos 35, Kansas City Chiefs 28
- It's easy to extol the virtues of Peyton Manning, but no quarterback in the league is better at clearing his mind and moving forward after a series of bad plays. Two early interceptions made it appear that Kansas City had his number, but Manning quickly settled and answered back with five touchdowns. It certainly helped that Justin Houston was unable to play, but Manning was elite in his own right and is the favorite to run away with the MVP this season.
- The Chiefs are extremely talented, but this team isn't constructed to withstand an offensive shootout. Allowing over 500 yards made it impossible for Alex Smith to bring the Chiefs back, largely because they run a more conservative ball control offense punctuated by the run. It didn't help that Dwayne Bowe's effectiveness was limited, which contributed to the problem.
Cincinnati Bengals 17, San Diego Chargers 10
- It's difficult to figure out the Bengals. They have the talent to beat most teams in the league, but Andy Dalton has proven to be too inconsistent to dominate games he should. As a result it feels like they could just as easily lose in the first round of the playoffs as they could make a Super Bowl run. A solid day on the ground propelled the Bengals over the top, but this is a shaky team right now.
- The Chargers' season if effectively over, but there are reasons they should hold their heads high. Ryan Mathews played well on Sunday, and Keenan Allen is making a case to become the offensive rookie of the year. First year head coach Mike McCoy has revitalized San Diego's chances, and he looks to be just what the doctor ordered to elevate this team into the playoffs. That wont come until 2014, however.
New York Giants 24, Washington Redskins 17
- The season is over for New York, but the Giants have to be pleased with how they turned the season around. It's easy to spout something about how "there are no moral victories," but this team dealt with a series of costly injuries and still found a way to win. New York is poised to be dangerous again once they're healthy. Eli Manning is still effective, and the team's pass rush is dominant. Now it's just about finding reliability at running back.
- A lot will be made of the crazy conclusion to Sunday night, but it's important to highlight just how good Robert Griffin III was against the Giants. The firestorm around RGIII has been endless, critiquing his off-field demeanor and on-field play, but he was near-perfect on Sunday Night Football. The Redskins quarterback completed 75 percent of his passes, gaining 294 all-purpose yards and throwing a touchdown. It was a night where he had very little run support and still made a difference.
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