Week 16 is in the books. The Patriots and Seahawks both picked up big wins again this week to further separate themselves from the pack, but the Cowboys, Broncos, Packers, Lions, Colts and Steelers aren't far behind.
Tom Brady and the Patriots took care of business in an always tough divisional rivalry game in New York, and with the Broncos' loss to the Bengals, locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Jets' defense gave Brady and company all they could handle in this one -- New England finished with just 231 yards of offense and 3.7 yards per play -- but they capitalized in the red zone when they needed to. Despite this tepid offensive day, the Pats have now won 10 of their last 11 games after being blown out by the Chiefs in Week 4, and in that time Tom Brady has completed 67 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Their defense remains strong as well, and came up big this week with an interception of Geno Smith when trailing with time running out in the third quarter. That turnover led to Jonas Gray's 1-yard, go-ahead touchdown run early in the fourth, and the Pats wouldn't look back from there.
The road to Super Bowl XLIX in the AFC goes through New England, and the Seahawks now look to have the inside track to guarantee the road in the NFC goes through Seattle. Pete Carroll's crew extended their win streak to five by knocking off the previously No. 4-ranked Cardinals in their place, and a win over the Rams next week (without a Detroit-Green Bay tie) means the Hawks will be the NFC's No. 1 seed. Seattle didn't pull away until the fourth quarter in this one, thanks to three missed field goals by kicker Steven Hauschka, but dominated in nearly every statistical category. The Seahawks exploded for a franchise record 596 yards of offense and did what they should do: hold Ryan Lindley's Cardinals to just 216 yards of offense in a 35-6 thrashing. Russell Wilson accounted for 427 yards and three total touchdowns, and Marshawn Lynch added a highlight-reel 79-yard touchdown run for good measure. Seattle's offense has started firing on all cylinders to help that side of the ball keep pace with its dominant defense, which has only given up 33 points in their last five games combined.
With the loss, Arizona falls in our rankings. Their offense predictably couldn't get much going against the Seahawks, but the ballhawking, attacking defense the Cardinals have relied upon to get to 11 wins this year faltered when they needed a big game, giving up the most yards an Arizona defense has surrendered since 1958, back when the team was based in Chicago.
The Broncos also fall in the rankings with a loss on the rain-soaked road in Cincinnati. Peyton Manning threw four interceptions for the first time in a game since 2010, and after throwing 22 touchdowns to three picks in Denver's first seven games, he's thrown 17 touchdowns to 12 picks in the last eight. While the Broncos' offense hasn't completely fallen off, it doesn't seem to have been the same high-octane, well-oiled machine that it was early in the year. Denver has a chance to get things rolling again next week against the Raiders in order to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs, which would give the Broncos a chance to get healthy and geared up for another run at the AFC title.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys clinched the NFC East title by trouncing the listless Colts, 42-7. The Cowboys stuck to the balanced formula that has gotten them to where they are today, running for 127 yards and a touchdown while getting explosive plays from Tony Romo and Dez Bryant in the passing game. For as much as Romo has been criticized for late-game and late-season performances in the past, he balled out in this one, connecting on 18 of 20 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns, a cool 151 quarterback rating. Romo is somewhat quietly having one of the best seasons of any passer in the NFL this year -- first in completion percentage (70.32) among quarterbacks with 150 attempts, first in yards per attempt (8.49), first in passer rating (114.4), and he's connected for 32 touchdown passes while throwing just eight interceptions. His yardage totals are in the middle range, but that's to be expected with the Cowboys' transition to a run-heavy approach. It's working.
The Packers and Lions did what they should do this week, and that's beat inferior teams on the road, but neither Green Bay nor Detroit made it look easy. No matter. The two teams will meet up at Lambeau Field next week for the NFC North title and a chance at a first-round bye, and they'll both try to clean up some of their hiccups on offense along the way.
The Colts went into their matchup with the Cowboys with their division locked up, so there wasn't a ton to play for, but their dismal performance isn't really the type of tone you want to set going into the playoffs. After falling behind big in the early going, Indianapolis was nearly shut out, and could manage only one single yard rushing. On 10 carries. They say it's a game of inches, so here you go: Indy averaged 3.6 inches per carry. Nonetheless! Nonetheless, it's not the end of the world for Andrew Luck and company, who are guaranteed to host a game on Wild Card weekend, and they're now the No. 4 seed, looking forward to hosting the loser of the Bengals-Steelers matchup next week. No doubt they'll want to flush this Cowboys game from their memories and get things clicking against the Titans next weekend.
NFL Must Reads
Division titles grudge matches on the slate
We've already mentioned the big-time NFC North matchup next week between the Lions and Packers. In the AFC North, the Steelers' win over the Chiefs clinched them a playoff spot and sets up a winner-take-the-division matchup next weekend at home against Cincy. Pittsburgh has now won three games in a row, with Ben Roethlisberger completing 70 percent of his passes for 930 yards, 9.39 yards per attempt and four touchdowns to no picks in that streak. The Steelers are hot at the right time.
The Chargers' amazing come-from-behind victory over the Niners gives them a "win and you're in, lose and you're out" scenario against the Chiefs. Philip Rivers shrugged off a terrible first half in Santa Clara to storm back and keep San Diego alive, and when Rivers gets hot, it makes the Chargers dangerous -- if they can secure a playoff spot.
Speaking of overlooked dangerous teams in the playoff hunt: In the NFC South, the Falcons got great performances from both Matt Ryan and their defense to eliminate the Saints from contention, setting up a showdown with the Panthers next week for all the marbles. Whoever wins is in the playoffs, and both the Falcons and Panthers bring some interesting matchup issues to the table for potential opponents.
Race to the bottom
Right now, the Titans appear to be the NFL's worst team, and the current order for the 2015 NFL Draft supports that. After that, the current state of affairs in Jacksonville, Washington, New York, Tampa Bay and Oakland aren't great, with only the Raiders really showing signs of life over the last few weeks. Having Derek Carr, a guy who looks like he could be a legit franchise quarterback, makes things a little more bearable.
|1||New England Patriots, 12-3 (Last week: 1)||Pats Pulpit|
|2||Seattle Seahawks, 11-4 (Last week: 2)||Field Gulls|
|3||Dallas Cowboys, 11-4 (Last week: 7)||Blogging the Boys|
|4||Denver Broncos, 11-4 (Last week: 3)||Mile High Report|
|5||Green Bay Packers, 11-4 (Last week: 5)||Acme Packing Company|
|6||Detroit Lions, 11-4 (Last week: 8)||Pride of Detroit|
|7||Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-5 (Last week: 11)||Behind the Steel Curtain|
|8||Cincinnati Bengals, 10-4-1 (Last week: 12)||Cincy Jungle|
|9||Indianapolis Colts, 10-5 (Last week: 6)||Stampede Blue|
|10||Arizona Cardinals, 11-4 (Last week: 4)||Revenge of the Birds|
|11||San Diego Chargers, 9-6 (Last week: 13)||Bolts from the Blue|
|12||Baltimore Ravens, 9-6 (Last week: 9)||Baltimore Beatdown|
|13||Philadelphia Eagles, 9-6 (Last week: 10)||Bleeding Green Nation|
|14||Houston Texans, 8-7 (Last week: 17)||Battle Red Blog|
|15||Miami Dolphins, 8-7 (Last week: 16)||The Phinsider|
|16||Kansas City Chiefs, 8-7 (Last week: 14)||Arrowhead Pride|
|17||Buffalo Bills, 8-7 (Last week: 15)||Buffalo Rumblings|
|18||Carolina Panthers, 6-8-1 (Last week: 20)||Cat Scratch Reader|
|19||Atlanta Falcons, 6-9 (Last week: 25)||The Falcoholic|
|20||San Francisco 49ers, 7-8 (Last week: 19)||Niners Nation|
|21||New York Giants, 6-9 (Last week: 23)||Big Blue View|
|22||St. Louis Rams, 6-9 (Last week: 18)||Turf Show Times|
|23||New Orleans Saints, 6-9 (Last week: 21)||Canal Street Chronicles|
|24||Cleveland Browns, 7-8 (Last week: 22)||Dawgs by Nature|
|25||Minnesota Vikings, 6-9 (Last week: 24)||Daily Norseman|
|26||Chicago Bears, 5-10 (Last week: 26)||Windy City Gridiron|
|27||Oakland Raiders, 3-12 (Last week: 31)||Silver and Black Pride|
|28||Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-12 (Last week: 30)||Big Cat Country|
|29||New York Jets, 3-12 (Last week: 28)||Gang Green Nation|
|30||Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2-13 (Last week: 27)||Bucs Nation|
|31||Washington, 4-11 (Last week: 29)||Hogs Haven|
|32||Tennessee Titans, 2-13 (Last week: 32)||Music City Miracles|