Then there was one. A single week remains in the NFL regular season with playoff pictures almost set in both conferences. Week 16 helped define many of the league's divisions, but there are still some lingering questions that will need the final week to decide.
Buffalo Bills 19, Miami Dolphins 0
- There's an inherent difficulty in selling fans on the idea of a "moral victory," but Bills fans have a lot to be excited about in 2014. It's unclear whether E.J. Manuel is the franchise quarterback the front office hopes he can be, but the team's defense and running game is good enough to shock a lot of teams. On Sunday they registered 7.0 team sacks and ran for over 200 yards. It helped that they faced Matt Moore for much of the day, but they shut out Miami in a battle of backups. That alone is something to cherish.
- Miami is still in the playoff picture and should be able to secure a wild card with a win over the Jets in Week 16. There are major problems this team needs to address in the offseason. At this point it's safe to say that Ryan Tannehill is poised to be a top-15 quarterback moving forward, but without any running game and offensive line they're setting him up for failure. Perhaps everything is a product of bad blocking, but adding another running back is a must, if only to hedge their bets on Lamar Miller.
- Andy Dalton is a fascinating case of inconsistency. The Bengals are deservedly playoff bound, but it's still hard to fully embrace this team because of unreliability at the quarterback position. In 2013 Dalton has posted a passer rating of 100+ on six occasions, but also less than 65 on another four. Not sold on passer rating? He's thrown three or more touchdowns six times, and two or more interceptions four times. These swings need to even out, because peaks and valleys can be killers in the post season.
- Cordarelle Patterson ran for more yards than Adrian Peterson -- there's your one-sentence review of why Minnesota lost. There's no mystery why they struggled, no team respects the Vikings passing game because of their quarterback position. Cincinnati stacked the box and dared Matt Cassel to beat them with his arm, and it went how you'd expect with three interceptions in a disappointing loss.
- The Colts' win was far from perfect, but boy did they need this one. It has been a rough and inconsistent month for Indianapolis, swinging from dominance to wondering if this team was talented enough to make the playoffs outside of the AFC South. Their win on Sunday helped establish some much-needed confidence entering the playoffs that will help self belief as much as anything. In the past we've seen Andrew Luck dominate, but it was the Colts' defensive performance that really made the difference on Sunday.
- It's premature to talk about a Chiefs' collapse, but the last month has to be worrying fans in Kansas City. The team is 2-4 since Nov. 17, with its only two wins coming against the woeful Redskins and Raiders. The Chiefs will be dangerous in time, but it's hard to have too much faith in a team that's basically a house of cards. If the pass rush and running game is clicking they'll beat anyone, but once Alex Smith is asked to carry the offense things break down. It's a huge problem when they hit the league's best passing offenses in the playoffs.
- Robert Quinn is playing on a whole other level right now. Defensive ends tend to move in waves, and it has been a long time since we've seen a legitimate game-altering 4-3 pass rusher. His three sacks on Sunday increased his season total to 18.0, and while it seems near-impossible he will threaten the NFL single-season sack record, he's already beaten the franchise sack record. It's an extremely impressive number, and Quinn is only 23-years old. The sky is the limit.
- The Buccaneers are probably feeling a little less secure with Mike Glennon at quarterback. A strong start to the season has quickly cooled, with Glennon posting an average passer rating of 67.0 over the last four games. It didn't help that these were against four of the best defensive teams on Tampa Bay's schedule, but these are the kind of signature performances he needs to solidify him as a legitimate starter in 2014. The biggest issue is an unwillingness to pull the trigger in key passing situations, that's what killed the Buccaneers on Sunday.
New York Jets 24, Cleveland Browns 13
- Geno Smith has led the Jets to a 7-8 record on the year, but this is a fairly misleading statistic. It's part of the pitfall of judging passers on wins and losses, with the rookie playing much worse than his overall record shows. That said, Smith was very good against the Browns. He completed over 50-percent of his passes (which is good based on recent results) while throwing two touchdowns and most importantly no interceptions. There are flashes, now it's about fanning those by surrounding him with more talent.
- The Browns defense is an absolute mess, but it doesn't help when the offense can't control the clock. A lack of reliable running and solid quarterback play is putting far too much pressure on an already week defense and asking them to hold the line. It's alarming how little pass rush Cleveland generated on Sunday, and without any push up front, the team was doomed.
- It took a late touchdown for the Cowboys to beat the hapless Redskins, and that kind of sums up their season. This is a talented team that makes everything look five times more difficult than it needs to be. Tony Romo is playing good football, and there are enough offensive weapons to make waves -- but the team's pass rush is old and unproductive. Leaning on DaMarcus Ware was great when he was a 15.0+ sack master, but that number is on the wrong side of 10 and the team is struggling.
- If nothing else we learned that Robert Griffin III wasn't the problem. Kirk Cousins can't succeed as quarterback of this team, and it's an absolute mess from top to bottom. Things need to be torn down, but the passer isn't one of them. Pierre Garcon is playing extremely well, but it's hard to find another receiving weapon on this team when he's covered.
- A funny thing happens when the majority tries to evaluate the Carolina Panthers. When they lose it's because of Cam Newton, when they win it's because of the team's defense. The truth lies in the middle, as it tends to. Newton isn't inconsistent, per se -- he's overly emotional. When he keeps this in check, he's loose and as good as any passer in the league, when he doesn't he becomes mechanical and stilted. The fear for Carolina is that playoff pressure is around the corner, and they need to keep him loose.
- Making the switch to Terron Armstead at left tackle was arguably the worst coaching decision of Week 16. It tipped the Saints hand on offense and made it abundantly clear they would try to use their screen game. Carolina countered by having Luke Kuechly play in space, while defensive end Greg Hardy manhandled Armstead up from and amassed three sacks. It was a bold and terrible move that cost New Orleans the game.
- Six wins might be enough to save head coach Mike Munchak, and perhaps it should. The Titans have played incredibly hard throughout the year, and never gave up despite losing their starting quarterback. Issues on the offensive line and at quarterback are clear, but there is young in the trenches and Jake Locker will hopefully return. A top draft pick can solidify the team's few weaknesses on defense, and there's no reason Tennessee can't compete in 2014 -- especially in the AFC South.
- Head coach Gus Bradley is doing his darnedest to maximize the talent on his roster, but this team is tapped out. Losing Cecil Shorts III was the backbreaker that made it impossible for the Jaguars to advance, and they lack a reliable player to fill his stop. He will return in 2014 along with Justin Blackmon, and the team is poised to find a franchise quarterback in the draft.
Denver Broncos 37, Houston Texans 13
- Another year, another NFL record for Peyton Manning. The Broncos quarterback has wrestled back the single-season touchdown record from Tom Brady, and it's unclear how long it will be before this record is broken again. The league is becoming more passing intensive, but this year shows how hard it is to get past 40 touchdowns, let alone 50. To put 51 touchdowns in context, look at Jaguars' starter Chad Henne who has 54 career touchdown passes -- in six seasons.
- Houston is in a must-lose situation in Week 17. Yes, you read that right. The Texans have the ensure they finish with the league's worst record in order to get a franchise quarterback. It went well in 2006 when the team passed on Vince Young and Matt Leinart, but those years are few and far between.
New York Giants 23, Detroit Lions 20
- It's astonishing this Giants team has won six games, and it's a testament to good coaching. Keeping players motivated in a down year can be difficult, but keeping morale high is key to taking steps forward in 2014. New York had no run game and were without Victor Cruz, but thanks to a little help from Matthew Stafford they were able to will the game to a victory -- killing the Lions' playoff hopes.
- "Gunslingers" are a rare breed. It's a term of endearment often reserved for gutsy passers who make impressive throws, but who we don't want to call scatter shot gamblers. Stafford has too often been an inaccurate and careless passer this season, losing because of him and winning in spite of. It's astonishing how the team hasn't given him enough help in the passing game -- which is a problem.
- The Arizona Cardinals have been overlooked for much of the year, but head coach Bruce Arians has been left out of coach of the year arguments. It's hard to find many coaches with a more impressive resume in 2013, and his ability to manage an inconsistent Carson Palmer has been a masterstroke. Arizona drafted well, has a strong defense and arguably the league's best group of receivers. This is a dangerous playoff team with a cadre of signature wins.
- It turns out the Seahawks are beatable at home, who knew? It's tempting to say the Cardinals gave the NFL a blueprint for beating Seattle, but that feels like hubris. Take nothing away from Arizona, but Seattle looked uncharacteristically unprepared to for Sunday, and they lost -- plain and simple. Now they'll need to fight to ensure the playoffs are routed through Seattle.
- Arguments that Mike Tomlin should be fired are probably the most myopic of arguments. It's astonishing this was ever a point of contention. This is one of the least talented teams Tomlin has coached, and injuries have ravaged the team's offensive line -- but they can still make the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger is playing well enough, and it's quickly apparent that the Steelers made the right move to keep Antonio Brown over Mike Wallace.
- Good news. The Packers are still in it thanks to ineptitude in Chicago. Injuries ravaged the team mid-season, and it should have been too much for them to recover. No organization is capable of playing without their franchise quarterback, but Green Bay found a way. Eddie Lacy has been excellent this season, and with a fully stocked offensive line in 2014 this team will be dangerous.
- The Chargers could be the league's pluckiest team. They're a gritty, strong-willed team that is performing really well under first-year head coach Mike McCoy. San Diego is still in playoff contention, and they might not be ready to compete right now -- but this is a team poised to improve. The problem is working out if they can compete before Peyton Manning finally hangs up his cleats.
- Oakland has to find a quarterback in the draft and not let the ghost of Jamarcus Russell haunt them. That was a bad experience to move on from, and it's okay to try again. It was the bad relationship every fan remembers, haunting the fan base to this day. There are plenty of good passers and the Raiders will have a high pick, but Matt McGloin's passing problems were made apparent in Week 16.
- In the past we've seen the Patriots season hinge solely on Tom Brady, but this 2013 team is supporting its quarterback with solid running and strong defensive play. It's unclear how New England can perform without Rob Gronkowski in the playoffs, but if this trend can continue they might be more dangerous than past iterations. Stevan Ridley and LeGarrett Blount combined for 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns, which helped set the tone on a day no receiver was making an impact.
- The Baltimore Ravens need more weapons at wide receiver, but there has to be a healthy amount of fear creeping in regarding Joe Flacco. The Super Bowl MVP has been largely terrible in 2013, and games like this were definitive moments he needed to put the team on his back. The result was a 56.9 passer rating and a year with more interceptions than touchdowns.
Philadelphia Eagles 54, Chicago Bears 11
- Better get the Eagles now, while you have the chance. Once Chip Kelly gets a defense it's hard to see how this team will be beaten on a regular basis. That sounds like hyperbole, but Philadelphia gained over 500 yards like it was nothing. The team's defense was solid against Chicago -- but this is an offensive-first team that lives by its shock-and-awe. Five sacks on Sunday changed the game and made it impossible for the Bears to bounce back.
- This season in the NFC North has been about missed opportunities. On Sunday night the Bears had a chance to win the division, but weren't able to and now find themselves in a situation where they have to win in Week 17. It's an unenviable situation and if the Packers get back Aaron Rodgers it could be fearsome.