Week 12 in the NFL was a story of streaks, surprises and sister-kissing.
The Carolina Panthers won their seventh straight game, rallying to beat the Miami Dolphins. At the other end of that spectrum, the Houston Texans dropped their ninth in a row, hitting rock bottom in a 13-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In a week where the Kansas City Chiefs lost their second straight, the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions both played hot potato with the NFC North lead and the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings tied, we asked each of Bleacher Report's NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers for their biggest takeaways.
Here's what they had to say.
For the fifth time in six games, the Cleveland Browns lost on Sunday, falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-11.
However, as AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst points out, amid the dark clouds of another disappointing season in Cleveland, there have been some bright spots:
Cleveland Browns wideout Josh Gordon had 14 catches on 17 targets for 237 yards and a touchdown in his team’s 27-11 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, breaking Ozzie Newsome’s single-game Browns receiving-yardage record in the process, according to Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal. He managed to put up so many yards despite starting quarterback Jason Campbell giving way to Brandon Weeden after suffering a concussion.
This year, Gordon has played with three quarterbacks—Weeden, Campbell and Brian Hoyer—but has still managed an impressive 18.3 yards per reception. He’s caught 54 of 98 passes for 988 yards and five scores, and he has 16 catches of 20 or more yards, including four on Sunday. His talent has made mediocre quarterbacks look dangerous.
Just imagine if Gordon had a true, franchise quarterback throwing to him—he could be the next Calvin Johnson. And that’s not (much) hyperbole.
The Browns spent the 2013 offseason shoring up their defense, and it’s been a mostly successful endeavor. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to re-tool their offense to the same effect. It’s the team’s greatest offseason priority for 2014, and it should be done with an eye for helping out Gordon, their biggest playmaker.
The quickest, simplest way to build an effective offense is to have a good quarterback throwing to a receiver of Gordon’s talents. From that, anything is possible—the run game opens up, other receivers get opportunities and, most importantly, it leads to touchdowns and wins.
The Browns have long been in search of their franchise quarterback, and Gordon’s presence on the roster makes it that much more urgent that they find him this spring. Whether that means a rookie quarterback, the returning Hoyer or someone else, the timing is perfect for the Browns to make a leap on offense with Gordon as their centerpiece as long as they can finally get this position right.
The Browns are a quarterback away from being a truly good football team, and Gordon is a quarterback away from being one of the NFL’s best receivers. Hopefully, Gordon won’t be a casualty of an organization that has failed, since 1999, to find a long-term answer at quarterback. The Browns owe it to him.
There hasn't been a more up-and-down team in the NFL this year than the New York Jets.
However, after losing to the Baltimore Ravens 19-3 in Week 12, rookie quarterback Geno Smith and the Jets offense have been stuck on "down" for a while now.
In the opinion of AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz, those struggles have been a group endeavor:
As the Jets rode a win-lose pattern to a 5-5 record, we were reminded of the “ebb and flow” that is to be expected of a rookie quarterback’s first season in the NFL. The Jets may be just one game below .500 after losing to the Ravens 19-3, but Geno Smith has been stuck in “ebb mode” for too long.
The Jets have been winning in spite of bad play at quarterback, but Smith has been beyond bad; he has one touchdown against 10 interceptions in the past six games and has thrown five of those picks in the Jets’ two straight losses. He has also combined for 230 yards passing in those games.
The problem is clearly in the passing game. The question is: How do the Jets fix it?
At least part of the blame has to go to the players for their lack of execution. Smith was under pressure on 42.5 percent of his dropbacks in the first 10 games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he was under duress from the Ravens defensive line nearly every time he dropped back to throw. It’s hard to get the passing game going without any protection, regardless of who is throwing the ball.
If that’s not bad enough, the Jets wide receivers are a mess, which has unfortunately become par for the course over the past few years. Stephen Hill has not developed as the Jets had hoped; Jeremy Kerley is sidelined with an elbow injury; Santonio Holmes has been dealing with multiple injuries all year and is still not at full health.
It’s hard to hold offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg too much at fault. There simply aren’t enough resources to field a competent offense. He has tried adjusting, with an increased focus on screen passes (running back Bilal Powell led the Jets with three receptions against the Ravens).
Between poor pass protection by the offensive line, a lack of separation by the receivers and off-target throws by Smith, the Jets offense has more problems than Mornhinweg can handle. The team will spin out of control and out of the playoffs unless it gets everything corrected.
The Carolina Panthers are the NFL's hottest team, winners of seven games in a row after downing the Miami Dolphins 20-16.
NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen thinks Carolina showed great resiliency in coming back to beat the Dolphins, but Bardeen also thinks the Dolphins may have offered a blueprint for ending the Panthers' winning streak:
The Carolina Panthers scored 17 unanswered points and showed incredible heart and determination in beating the Miami Dolphins Sunday 20-16.
Even though the win was brave and tons of moxie was earned in Carolina’s seventh victory in a row, the Dolphins did something that should worry the Carolina coaching staff and Panther Nation.
Cam Newton was sacked twice and under immense pressure—particularly in the first half—from Miami’s pass rush that featured defensive ends Cameron Wake and Dion Jordan. Newton was battered and flustered in the first half, and Carolina’s offense was stagnant.
The Panthers have two games in the next four weeks against the New Orleans Saints and one against the New York Jets. What do those two teams have in common? They both feature defenses heavily influenced by defensive geniuses, Rex and Rob Ryan.
It’s not a stretch to imagine the Dolphins just handed Rex and Rob a blueprint on how to flummox Newton and the Panthers offense. It’s also fair to say both of the Ryan brothers are adept enough to continue dialing up pressure even after halftime adjustments—like the adjustments Carolina made at the half to come back on Miami—are made.
The Carolina coaching staff is going to have to work on ways in the coming weeks to keep pressure off Newton, and that’s not going to be easy.
If the Carolina Panthers are the NFL's hottest team, then the Houston Texans are unquestionably the coldest.
Not only did the Houston Texans lose their ninth straight game in Week 12, but they also failed to a score a single touchdown against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
After Sunday's 13-6 loss to the Jags, NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey has seen enough:
In case you missed it or simply haven’t been ready to accept reality, the Houston Texans are a really bad football team. Their offense is almost nonexistent, and their defense is quickly falling off a cliff.
In two straight weeks, the Texans have lost two complete “gimme games” to the Oakland Raiders and now the Jacksonville Jaguars. The quarterbacks of those teams were Matt McGloin and Chad Henne—not even scary when they were Big Ten quarterbacks, let alone in the big leagues.
This team is atrocious, and the excuses have officially run out.
Blow it up.
Do injuries play a part? Certainly, and no one is denying that. However, every year injuries strike a number of NFL teams, and how teams deal with those shortcomings is always telling. For the Texans, it seems as if the injuries have amplified their lack of depth and made any coaching mistakes stick out like sore thumbs.
With this Texans team, there’s been plenty of both.
Just last week, I took a look at rebuilding the NFL’s worst teams, and the Texans were on that list—just a year after many (myself not included) thought they were one of the best teams in football. Not to pat myself on the back, but I’ve always had my misgivings about general manager Rick Smith, head coach Gary Kubiak and quarterback Matt Schaub.
Those misgivings now look well-founded.
Quarterback Case Keenum is not the answer, nor is simply getting running back Arian Foster or linebacker Brian Cushing back. This is a team that needs a complete overhaul.
The Green Bay Packers still haven't won a game since Aaron Rodgers got hurt, but at least things are headed in the right direction.
The Packers tied the Minnesota Vikings 26-26 in Week 12, setting up a huge game for the Packers on Thanksgiving Day at Detroit.
This past offseason, the Green Bay Packers flirted with the idea of signing veteran running back Steven Jackson and later balked at the original opportunity to draft Eddie Lacy.
Jackson eventually went for more money in Atlanta, and Lacy survived a few picks after the Packers traded back in the second round. Fast forward to late November, and the Packers are reaping the rewards of losing out on Jackson and their reluctant drafting of Lacy.
The rookie running back put together arguably the most complete performance of his first NFL season, rushing for 110 hard-fought yards and tallying a career-high 48 receiving against the Minnesota Vikings. But it was the manner in which Lacy totaled his 158 yards Sunday that was the eye-catching factor from the rookie's day.
Facing heavily stacked boxes for most of the game, Lacy spun out of tackles and proved to be a load to get on the ground. He routinely fell forward, making dead plays into positive ones for a Green Bay offense sans Aaron Rodgers.
By the fourth quarter, Lacy was willing the Packers back into the game. He patiently moved the sticks on one critical fourth down and later bowled over fellow rookie Xavier Rhodes at the end of a long catch-and-run.
His combination of power, vision and toughness has given Green Bay its best running back since Ahman Green. Meanwhile, Jackson is laboring away during an injury-filled season with the Falcons.
The marriage took the right combination of events to make happen, but Lacy and the Packers have been a perfect fit through the first 11 games of 2013.
NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen sees that as a sign that the Rams might want to consider getting the youngster the ball more:
Tavon Austin had two receptions and one carry in the Rams' 42-21 win over the Bears down in St. Louis.
Three touches on offense. That’s it.
The Rams are still trying to work him into the game plan. And with that comes a sense of creativity because of Austin’s unique talent that impacts personnel, alignment and scheme.
Take Austin’s 65-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. With “Joker” personnel on the field (three wide receivers, two tight ends), the Rams motioned the rookie into the backfield from a slot alignment, pitched him the ball and pulled the tight end (or H-Back) to the weak side of the formation.
That’s just a counter toss—with a ton of window dressing.
However, because of the personnel grouping (plus the pre-snap motion), the Rams forced the Bears to overpursue to the ball. And that allowed Austin to get to the second level of the defense where he could showcase his legit straight-line speed.
But I want to see more.
That means bunch/stack alignments, consistent targets in the short-to-intermediate passing game and situations where the Rams can create specific matchups that favor the rookie wide receiver.
Just get him the football. If that means throwing an option route on third down, then align Austin in the slot and let him go to work inside of the numbers.
Hey, whatever it takes to utilize his skill set.
This guy is a matchup weapon. And while he does play a major role for the Rams in the return game, Jeff Fisher’s club needs to take advantage of his ability more within the offensive game plan.
Because every time he touches the ball, the opportunity is there for an explosive play.
Sunday's game between the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans wasn't exactly considered a marquee matchup. At 4-6 entering Week 12, both teams were on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
However, after a 23-19 win, the Titans are now on the inside of the playoff bubble, while AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen writes the Raiders lost more than just a football game:
The Oakland Raiders have been a bad team for over a decade now. General manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen are in year two of trying to make the team a winner again, but they are having issues getting over the hump.
No one honestly believed the Raiders were a good team, but they had a chance at respectability and choked it away on Sunday. A win meant being the sixth seed coming out of the AFC—at least for a week. After 12 weeks of football, having a shot at the playoffs would have been a moral victory for the Raiders.
The fans certainly deserve better than what their team has given them for the last decade, but the Raiders failed them. All they really wanted was for the team to be in the conversation again.
It was a home game for the Raiders against an average team, and they couldn’t pull out the victory—that’s really all there is to it.
The Raiders attempted six field goals, but Sebastian Janikowski missed two of them. The Raiders were also just 3-of-10 on third down and 0-of-2 in the red zone.
After undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin even threw a laser down the sideline for a touchdown with just over six minutes to play, the Raiders couldn’t hold on to their three-point lead. Oakland’s veteran defense couldn’t make a play to win the game.
The Tennessee Titans went down the field for the game-winning touchdown on 14 plays and chewed up all but 10 seconds of the clock. The Raiders were conservative at the end, and cornerback Tracy Porter blew his coverage on the game-sealing touchdown.
The worst part of it for the Raiders is that their veterans knew what was at stake—they knew there is a big difference between 5-6 and 4-7 in the AFC. The veterans on the team knew their season was on the line, and they choked it away.
Just as we all expected, the Raiders now stare up at most of the AFC in the standings.
The San Diego Chargers pulled off one of the bigger upsets of Week 12, knocking off the Kansas City Chiefs 41-38 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Philip Rivers, who has enjoyed a bounce-back season this year, threw for 392 yards in the win. NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter believes Rivers' latest performance only solidifies his renewed status as the franchise quarterback for the Bolts:
Philip Rivers has been the San Diego Chargers quarterback of the future for 10 long years.
After two seasons on the bench, Rivers led the Chargers to the postseason four times in eight seasons as a starter and earned four Pro Bowl nods along the way. Still, he never won that ring—and at age 31 (32 in December), the Chargers’ offseason house-cleaning seemed to cement Rivers as the Chargers’ "Quarterback Until We Draft the Next Guy."
In 2013, though, Rivers has recaptured his old magic under new head coach Mike McCoy. In fact, he seems to have captured new magic.
Coming into the Chargers’ Week 12 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Rivers was completing 70.9 percent of his passes. That’s far above his career average of 64.3 percent or 2010 single-season high of 66.0 percent. He was also throwing for an average of 298.9 yards per game, on pace for a career-high total in passing yardage.
Rivers’ quarterback rating stood at 104.4, tied for second-best behind his 2008 career high of 105.5. With a touchdown rate of 5.3 percent and an interception rate of 2.2 percent, Rivers has only thrown more touchdowns against fewer interceptions once, in 2009.
That was all before Rivers completed 27 of 39 passes (69.2 percent) for 392 yards, three touchdowns and no interception against the second-best scoring defense in football.
When Rivers hit unheralded receiver Seyi Ajirotutu with 24 seconds left on the clock, he completed a touchdown pass to his eighth different receiver this season. More importantly, he and the Chargers completed the eighth, and final, lead change in a 41-38 shootout with the Chiefs.
Not only did the Chargers hand the Chiefs their second loss, but the win kept the Chargers’ postseason hopes alive. Going into the week of Thanksgiving, that’s far longer than anyone expected.
Nobody expected Rivers to mount the best campaign of his career either—but if he keeps playing like he did against the Chiefs, the Chargers won’t be drafting to rebuild this offseason, they’ll be drafting to build around him.
The most convincing win of Week 12 belonged to the Arizona Cardinals, who blasted a then-7-3 Indianapolis Colts team 40-11.
Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer topped 300 passing yards and tossed two touchdown passes in the win. According to NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland, improved play from the 11th-year veteran has been a big part of the Cardinals' four-game winning streak:
Over the course of the first seven games of the season, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was playing up to expectations. He had managed to amass eight touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Based on his age and the way he had played as a member of the Oakland Raiders, pundits believed this was his ceiling.
Few could argue with that notion considering he had been a turnover machine the last two years.
But then something clicked after Arizona’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Ever since Week 8, Palmer has transformed into one of the most efficient signal-callers in the NFL. He stopped throwing multiple passes into double and triple coverage, while making more high-percentage throws.
Did head coach Bruce Arians get in his ear, or did Palmer and the rest of the Cardinals offense find a new level of understanding? Whatever happened during the organization’s win streak has the 11th-year veteran performing at a top-notch level.
Over the last four, Palmer has tallied eight touchdown passes, 1,146 yards passing and a quarterback rating of 110.6. Not to mention, his interception-throwing days have gone by the wayside. He has only thrown two interceptions amid the Cardinals’ win streak.
Even though the final five games of the season will prove to be a real challenge for Arizona, Palmer’s play is inspiring. It might just be enough to help the Cardinals make their first playoff appearance since the 2009 season.
There hasn't been a streakier team than the New York Giants.
Six straight losses to open the year were followed by four straight wins. That hot streak was enough to get the Giants back into the hunt in a weak NFC East.
However, New York's lagging postseason hopes were dealt a crushing blow on Sunday. That blow came in the form of a 24-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that exposed the Giants as a mediocre football team, according to NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon:
When the New York Giants came storming back to rejoin the NFC East picture with four straight wins between Weeks 7 and 11, it wasn’t crazy to wonder if the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl champions had another magical run in them.
Turns out, the Giants were just in the right place at the right time for four consecutive weeks.
New York beat up on mediocre teams and an array of backup quarterbacks during that stretch, but Big Blue was put in its place Sunday in a home loss to Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys. It wasn’t a convincing Dallas victory, but that’s because the Cowboys nearly didn’t take advantage of New York’s many mistakes.
Eli Manning was once again ordinary at best, completing 16 of 30 passes for 174 yards. The offense stalled inside the Dallas 5-yard line not once but twice. They committed 11 penalties, including four personal fouls in the third quarter alone. They converted just three of 12 third downs against a depleted defense that was missing its best player.
If you’ve really turned it around, you don’t lose at home to banged-up teams like the Cowboys. You just can’t. This Giants team might not be 0-6 bad, but it isn’t good enough to win a division or qualify for the playoffs, and we got proof of that Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Week 12's showcase game featured the Denver Broncos traveling to face the New England Patriots in the 14th meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
The game was an exciting, back-and-forth affair fought in cold and windy conditions that went to overtime at Gillette Stadium before the Pats prevailed 34-31.
In fact, it's those cold and windy conditions that NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller sees as the biggest takeaway from Sunday night.
Especially the effect the weather had on Manning:
Coming into Week 12, Peyton Manning was 2-5 all time playing the New England Patriots in Foxborough. That includes a Week 5 loss there during the 2012 season. But what we saw on Sunday night, with temperatures in the low 20s and the wind chill in the teens, was a lack of zip on Manning’s passes.
After three neck surgeries and a missed 2011 season, Manning’s arm hasn’t looked the same. Even when throwing in warm weather this season and last, his zip and fire on out routes has been limited.
Put Manning in a cold-weather situation, though, and it’s like his arm never warms up. While Manning was never known for a huge arm, comparing his play now to his pre-2011 throws, you’ll see a completely different level of velocity and spiral on passes.
Manning is 37—almost 38—years old. His arm is not what it used to be, and that’s why no one should feel comfortable picking the Denver Broncos to run through the playoffs at home in the frigid Colorado air.
And what awaits them if they can manage to win two games at home? A cold-weather Super Bowl in New Jersey.