NFL Week 14: Expert Takeaways from Sunday's Action
If there was a prevailing theme in Week 14, it was hypothermia.
A blast of wintry weather turned the early slate of games on its head, leading to wild finishes in Baltimore and Cleveland and a game between the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles played with several inches of snow on the field.
There were plenty of games with postseason implications on Sunday, from that Eagles victory over the Lions to a big win for the Cincinnati Bengals against the Indianapolis Colts and a huge Sunday night showdown in the Big Easy.
As we do every week, we asked the Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers to put on their snowsuits and brave the cold to offer their takes on Week 14's action.
Here's what they had to say, other than "BRRRRRR."
The Lions Are Who We Thought They Are
Things started off badly in Week 14 for the Lions, as running back Reggie Bush slipped during warmups, aggravating his injured calf.
Bush went on to miss the game, a 10-point loss to the Eagles that served to underscore the issues facing the Lions in 2013.
Cue up the Dennis Green speech, because the Detroit Lions are revealing their cowardly nature once again.
You know that stereotypical bully that backs down the moment someone pushes back? That’s the Lions. They have “toughness,” sure. When it’s time to talk tough, or play to the “echo of the whistle” or push a quarterback around, they have what it takes. But when the game is on the line, this team just doesn’t have what it takes.
Worse yet, now that it’s crunch time in the battle for the playoffs—with not only seeding, but a divisional title still hanging in the balance—the Lions are spending each and every week reminding us why they aren’t what their record says they are.
Since their bye week, the Lions are 2-3, beating only the Chicago Bears (with a hobbled Jay Cutler) and the Green Bay Packers (with Matt Flynn). They’ve lost to Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and now Philadelphia—hardly a murderers' row.
With Baltimore, New York Giants and Minnesota left, it’s easy to hope the Lions go 2-1 or 3-0, but what have they done in the past month to make people believe that’s going to happen? The offense has sputtered under the weight of turnovers. The defense, though usually OK against the run, has shown it can give up yardage through the air almost at the will of its opponent. The team is mistake-prone, penalty-prone and looks poorly coached at every turn.
The Lions have certainly taken huge strides since last season, but they need to find some way to change their stripes before playoff time, or they simply won’t be able to compete with the elite teams of the NFC.
The Eagles Have the Mental Toughness Required of a Contender
If there's a flip side to the Lions falling flat in the City of Brotherly Love, it's the winning performance put forth by quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeSean McCoy and the Philadelphia Eagles.
McCoy rushed for over 200 yards on the day. In fact, the team gained over 200 yards on the ground in the fourth quarter alone.
It was a huge win for the Eagles, and a win that NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon thinks shows this 8-5 Eagles team is for real:
Sunday’s crucial game between the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles was played in a snowglobe, which means we pretty much have to throw the stats out the window. That’s fine, though, because it gives us a chance to examine some important intangibles regarding two NFC playoff contenders.
Intangibles like mental toughness. That’s something the Eagles quite frankly lacked during the final two years of Andy Reid’s reign. The “Dream Team” spending spree zapped some of the spirit out of that dressing room, and the effort level didn’t always appear to be there.
The Eagles quit on Reid last year. With the writing on the wall, a talented team lost 11 of its last 12 games. In fact, they sort of resembled the 2013 Washington Redskins, who are tanking before our eyes under similar circumstances.
As B/R Eagles columnist Bryn Swartz smartly pointed out Sunday on Twitter, the 2012 Eagles would have fallen completely apart down 14-0 in inclement weather, especially against a talented opponent like Detroit.
This looks like a team that is going all in for head coach Chip Kelly. Combine that with the sheer talent they possess on both sides of the ball and it’s impossible to count the Eagles out.
Dennis Pitta Breathes New Life into the Ravens Offense Right When They Needed It
The Baltimore Ravens entered Sunday's action at 6-6, with no margin for error if they want an opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title.
The Ravens came through, downing the Minnesota Vikings 29-26. As AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst reports, that was due in large part to the return of tight end Dennis Pitta:
Though Dennis Pitta played only 35 of a possible 79 offensive snaps in his 2013 debut against the Vikings, it’s already clear his presence on the field will be a much-needed shot in the arm for Baltimore’s struggling offense. His return from a fractured and dislocated hip was a successful one, with six catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.
The 28-year-old Pitta didn’t have a flashy yardage total, but his 11 targets tied receiver Marlon Brown for the most on the game. Quarterback Joe Flacco was clearly happy to have his favorite weapon back on the field and didn’t shy away from it. Though it might be easy to look at Pitta’s stat line and think he was only a minor difference-maker, what he did with those yards underscores just what the Ravens had been missing without him.
Pitta had two major receptions on third downs that kept drives alive for the Ravens, including one for six yards on a 3rd-and-6 that ended with Pitta’s one-yard touchdown to help give Baltimore a 15-12 lead. Another catch for 18 yards resulted in a touchdown grab by Brown on the next play to seal the Ravens' 29-26, last-second victory.
These are the plays the Ravens expected from Pitta when they traded away Anquan Boldin in the offseason. With the Ravens now 7-6 and still in control of the AFC’s sixth playoff seed, Pitta’s ability to move the chains will mean a lot to his team’s playoff push and attempt to properly defend their Super Bowl championship.
Pitta may have a bit of rust and the weather conditions in Baltimore didn’t do him many favors. However, he had an undeniable impact on Baltimore’s win, all while playing under half of all offensive snaps. His playing time will increase every week, the weather will be a bit more forgiving from a blinding snowstorm standpoint, and he’ll catch more than six passes on 11 targets.
The Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals are all up next for the Ravens. They are on notice that Dennis Pitta is back and that Flacco is ready to unleash him.
The Bengals Own the AFC North
The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts met Sunday in one of Week 14's bigger games, a battle of 8-4 division leaders who have struggled offensively of late.
After jumping out to a 21-0 lead, the Bengals emerged with the 42-28 victory, and NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter thinks it's time for the proverbial fat lady to start warming up her voice in the AFC North:
Back in September, I wrote that the Bengals would go exactly as far as quarterback Andy Dalton’s play would let them. With a 24-of-35 performance against the Colts, where he racked up 275 yards and four total touchdowns, it’s obvious the Bengals are more than good enough to run away with the AFC North.
Dalton wasn’t just pitching so that A.J. Green and the Bengals receivers could catch and run, Dalton made gorgeous (and difficult) throws. Better yet, he never made the kind of back-breaking mistake to which he’s been prone.
Despite having to keep ahead of a Baltimore Ravens team that refuses to die (who climbed to 7-6 with a heart-stopping win Sunday), Dalton and the Bengals are playing well enough to remove any doubt about their being the class of the division.
In fact, given the New England Patriots’ recent struggles, the Bengals are now scarier than any AFC team save the Denver Broncos.
The Bengals haven’t lost in regulation since Week 4, and with the possible exception of those Ravens in Week 17, it doesn’t look like they’ll do so again before it’s time for the playoffs—when the Bengals can prove just how good they are against the NFL’s best.
Ryan Tannehill Is Proving He Belonged in the Vaunted 2012 Rookie QB Class
Given the turmoil and controversy that has surrounded the Miami Dolphins for much of the 2013 season, the team deserves a great deal of credit for hanging around in the playoff hunt in the AFC.
Those postseason hopes stayed alive in Week 14 with a 34-28 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the eyes of AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz, Sunday's victory is more evidence that Ryan Tannehill was worthy of the high draft pick the Dolphins spent on him in 2012:
In a quarterback-driven league, you’re not going to get very far unless your team features an above-average passer under center. With the Dolphins' playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Tannehill has turned in some of the best football of his young career. His performance in Sunday’s wild win over the Steelers was just that.
It was only the second time Tannehill has thrown for three touchdowns in a game, and the Dolphins’ 34 points was the second-highest total of any game in Tannehill’s career and their highest of the season. The Dolphins now join the rest of the league, after being the last team to score 28 points or more in a game.
Sure, Tannehill’s pick-six was brutal, thrown to a triple-covered Brian Hartline and intercepted by safety Troy Polamalu, but he finished strong. His 95.5 passer rating was among his best of the season.
His improvements in accuracy (10 games over 60 percent completions; six all of 2012) have been remarkable, especially when you consider how much pressure he’s been under all season. Tannehill was sacked three times on Sunday and has been sacked a league-leading 48 times this season.
There are question marks moving forward. Is head coach Joe Philbin still in the plans after all of the drama around Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin? Will Mike Wallace ever live up to his contract?
But for the first time in a long time, there will not be a question mark at the most important position on the roster.
The Packers Defense Finally Made a Stand
Entering Week 14, the Green Bay Packers were 0-4-1 since Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. The team had been all but written off where the playoffs are concerned.
However, after a come-from-behind 22-21 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the Packers are back at .500 and only half a game back of the Detroit Lions.
NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse believes it's the Green Bay defense which deserves credit for getting the Packers back in the NFC North race:
For five straight games, the Packers defense failed to pick up a team that was missing its heart and soul.
For five straight games, the Packers defense regressed to the point of embarrassment.
But over just one half Sunday, the same defense that helped create the team's winless stretch without Aaron Rodgers revived the Packers season by playing a leading role in a comeback win over the Falcons.
Green Bay pitched a second-half shutout, which allowed Matt Flynn and the offense to score the game's final 12 points. A recovered fumble early on in the fourth quarter set up Flynn's game-winning touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless.
From that point on, the Packers defense held off Atlanta's final three advances. Down just one point, the Falcons could only manage to miss a long field goal and fail a fourth-down opportunity before Matt Ryan was intercepted by Jarrett Bush in the waning seconds.
A fading run defense also came to life in freezing temperatures at Lambeau Field.
After giving up more than 200 rushing yards in back-to-back games, the Packers allowed just 19 rushing yards in the second half Sunday. Atlanta finished with 83 yards on 23 carries.
Credit the Packers defense for snapping out of its funk just in time to keep the team afloat in the playoff race. It's better late than never.
The 49ers Are for Real...Again
One of Week 14's biggest games took place in the Bay Area, where the 8-4 San Francisco 49ers were attempting to keep the 11-1 Seattle Seahawks from becoming the second team this year to clinch their division.
The 49ers accomplished that goal, winning 19-17 on a late Phil Dawson field goal. As NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller points out, the 49ers are shaping up as the wild-card team no one wants any part of in the first round of the playoffs:
A Week 2 beating at the hands of the Seahawks (29-3) put the 49ers’ future in question. They were still thought of as a potential elite team, though, at least until losing by 20 points (27-7) to the Colts in Week 3.
Even when the 49ers went on a five-game winning streak over the middle of the season, critics pointed out that they were beating bad teams. A one-point (10-9) loss to the Panthers in Week 10 brought back the doubters. And if that wasn’t enough, a close three-point (23-20) loss to the Saints in Week 11 sealed the deal.
The 49ers were soft, frauds and destined for failure, according to the pundits.
Anyone who wrote this team off after Week 11 hopefully wrote it in pencil. The 49ers have responded with gutsy wins over the Rams and the vaunted Seahawks in back-to-back weeks, overcoming tough defenses and very good coaching to secure what looks to be a No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
It’s not the NFC West championship many hoped for, and it’s not home-field advantage in the playoffs, but it’s enough to get the 49ers into the postseason. And if the last two years are any indicator, once Jim Harbaugh’s team gets into the postseason, they can do serious damage.
Hold on to your hats, football fans, the 49ers are back.
Karlos Dansby Leads the Way as the Cardinals Keep Their Playoff Hopes Alive
The San Francisco 49ers weren't the only NFC West team playing a must-win game in Week 14.
Like the 49ers, the Cardinals took care of business, blowing out the St. Louis Rams 30-10 to move to 8-5 on the season.
That win keeps the Cardinals in the thick of the wild-card hunt in the NFC, and NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland says the team has its defense to thank:
After a disheartening loss to the Eagles in Week 13, the Cardinals knew they would need finish the season with four consecutive wins to garner a playoff spot in the NFC. So, what did they do? They broke out their red-on-red uniform combination against the Rams.
For the eighth time in a row, the Cardinals secured a “W” in the win column when they wore their red jerseys and red pants in front of their home crowd.
All jokes aside, Arizona traveled back to the desert, reestablished the ground game (thanks to Andre Ellington), converted on third down and shut down St. Louis’ passing game. The Cardinals' sound plan of attack on both sides of the ball allowed them to keep their playoff hopes alive.
However, the unsung hero in Week 14 was inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. Dansby’s terrorizing play accounted for eight total tackles, one quarterback sack, one quarterback hit, two tackles for loss, an interception and a touchdown.
For those who haven’t followed Arizona closely this season, that type of stat line has become a normal occurrence for the 32-year-old out of Auburn. Even though Daryl Washington is the younger, more athletic inside linebacker of the two, Dansby is quietly making a case for Defensive Player of the Year.
Will he win the award? Probably not, but there’s a good chance pundits from around the league will start to take notice if the Cardinals keep winning from here on out. With three games left to play, Dansby is on pace to finish the season with 123 total tackles, 7.5 quarterback sacks, three interceptions and two touchdowns.
A tip of the hat to head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim for recognizing Dansby’s talent level, despite his age. Without a doubt, the 10-year veteran has to shoulder some of the success if the wins keep piling up and the Cardinals make some noise come playoff time.
No, the Other Cam
Well, a player with the name Cam was a force during the Saints' 31-13 win, but as NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen reports, it wasn't Newton:
In the days leading up to Sunday night’s Week 14 matchup between the Panthers and Saints, a great deal of time was spent analyzing how Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was going to affect this game.
All that fuss should have been spent on Saints defensive end Cam Jordan.
Jordan sacked Newton twice and pushed his season sack total up to 11.5. He now leads all 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL in sacks and has been attacking quarterbacks more efficiently than any other end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
No one on this Saints roster has benefited more from the arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan than Jordan, who has registered at least one sack, quarterback hit or hurry in every game this season. He’s tallied multiple sacks in a game three times.
It took Jordan 11 games this season to reach nine sacks after spending his first two years combined pulling down just nine quarterbacks. His push to 11.5 Sunday set a career high and almost ensures he’ll be garnering some All-Pro and Pro Bowl attention.
The Chiefs Are Far from a Fraud
The Chiefs were a team that really needed a win to shift momentum on their season after three straight losses. And Kansas City was able to achieve just that with a 45-10 thrashing of Washington.
That win keeps the Chiefs in the race for the AFC West title, and AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen says the team is no fraud at 10-3:
Despite winning their first nine games, the Chiefs weren’t given much credit for their success. "They played a bunch of bad teams with backup quarterbacks," some said. "They were frauds."
Losing the last three games—two at home—supported those claims. The Chiefs were merely an average team with a favorable schedule, and they couldn’t hang with a good team like the Broncos. Kansas City also lost to a very average San Diego squad.
Although bad teams have defeated Washington, the Chiefs won by 35 points. That’s what good teams do; they go on the road and put up crooked numbers.
The Chiefs may not be one of the best teams in the league, but they are a good team. They scored 38 points in the first half—that’s not easy to do on the road against any team at the NFL level.
It’s time to start taking the Chiefs seriously. If their opponents don’t, they just might be watching running back Jamaal Charles dancing in the end zone and outside linebacker Tamba Hali sacking their quarterback.