It's the next-to-last week of the 2013 NFL season, which can mean only one thing: The race for the playoffs is entering the final straightaway.
On a Sunday when several more teams clinched a spot in the postseason tournament and history was made in Houston, there were certainly no shortage of big Week 16 storylines.
As we do every week here at Bleacher Report, we've asked each of the National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers for their biggest takeaways from Sunday's action.
Here's what they had to say...besides Merry Christmas, of course.
The history we spoke of in the introduction took place in Houston, where Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes to eclipse Tom Brady as the single-season record-holder with 51 scoring strikes this year.
As NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller points out, it's just one more accolade for a player who may well be the best to ever play the game under center:
To say that Peyton Manning will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation isn’t a stretch. In fact, as more records continue to fall in his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, it’s becoming more and more obvious that Manning’s not only one of the greatest of our time but of all time.
With his 51st touchdown pass of the year coming in Week 16, Manning owns another record. This one, the single-season touchdown mark, is back with No. 18 after Tom Brady took it from him in 2007 with 50 of his own. Now Manning, with a week to play, has a chance to put the record out of reach for a long, long time.
This won’t be the most memorable record of Manning’s illustrious career, but coming at age 37, it might be the most impressive. Following a missed 2011 season when his career looked in doubt, the fact that he has bounced back at this age is remarkable. Or maybe it’s just Peyton being Peyton.
It's hard to find something "wrong" with a Denver Broncos team that's one step away from the AFC's top seed.
However, the Denver defense hasn't been very good this year. In the opinion of AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen, losing Von Miller may be too much to overcome:
What happens when a great offensive team with a suspect defense loses one of the best defensive players in the league to a knee injury in Week 16? We may find out.
Quarterback Peyton Manning set the NFL record with his 51st touchdown pass of the season on Sunday, but the Denver Broncos lost Von Miller to a knee injury that the team fears is a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, there is hope that testing Monday will reveal his injury isn’t that severe. If tests go well, Miller might be able to rest for two weeks, put a brace on his knee and play when the Broncos host a playoff game after their first-round bye.
But as we saw with Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III this season, there is a fine line between being a star and being an average player. It’s hard to imagine Miller being able to make an impact for the Broncos unless tests reveal only a minor injury.
Without an effective Miller, Denver’s defense would get even worse. The Broncos will be down to just veteran Shaun Phillips as their primary pass-rusher. That’s not going to get it done in the playoffs, putting the pressure on Manning to carry the team.
It was the defense that let the Broncos down last year in the postseason. With or without Miller, the Broncos will now have to be prepared to win by scoring a lot of points. That recipe may not work in the playoffs.
While the Denver Broncos were eviscerating the Houston Texans, the Kansas City Chiefs were playing host to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Chiefs fell at home 23-7. Not only did the loss hand the AFC West to the Denver Broncos, but NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen thinks Kansas City's flat offensive performance raises some real questions about the team's chances of getting to New Jersey:
Jamaal Charles is a star, and he’s also an ideal fit for Andy Reid’s West Coast playbook. He's a running back who can produce in multiple roles and provide matchups underneath versus both zone and man coverage.
But if you are an opposing defensive coordinator, is there another player—including quarterback Alex Smith—who truly impacts your defensive game plan?
Sure, you have to limit Charles on the edge, tackle at the second level when he gets up the field and identify the screen game.
But can Smith beat you? Can the Chiefs quarterback, along with Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and others, consistently move the ball and score points on the postseason stage?
That’s the question I have after buying into the idea for the majority of the season that Smith could make enough plays to win.
And considering the recent struggles of the Chiefs defense during losses to Denver (twice), San Diego and on Sunday to Indianapolis, there is more pressure—or responsibility—on Reid’s offense to produce.
Like I said above, Charles is a legit talent. And if I’m putting together a defensive game plan, he is the sole focus. I’m going to force someone else on the offensive side of the ball in Kansas City to beat me.
And right now, I like my chances.
By just about any measure, the 2013 season has been a fiasco for the Minnesota Vikings.
After winning 10 games and making the playoffs in 2012, the Vikings have lost that same amount this year.
Sunday's 42-14 shellacking at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals was a new low in a season filled with them, and NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter took it as a sign that major changes are needed in the Twin Cities:
For a glimmer of a fraction of an instant, it looked as though Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier was going to save his job.
Quarterback Matt Cassel reared back and hit receiver Jarius Wright for a 36-yard touchdown, and the Vikings tied the game at 7-7. With the defense getting pressure and forcing turnovers and Cassel making the most of his young playmakers, a shocking road upset over the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals seemed tantalizingly possible.
Such a victory would have made the Vikings 4-2-1 over their last seven games, a remarkable feat for a squad long since out of it.
The thing is, the Vikings weren’t supposed to be out of it.
Coming off a 10-6 season (complete with playoff appearance), a swashbuckling move to secure three first-round draft picks and a pricey free-agent smuggling of rival star Greg Jennings across state lines, general manager Rick Spielman was supposed to be giving Frazier the fuel to not only get back to the playoffs but make some noise once he got there.
After the Bengals rallied to put a 42-14 beatdown on the Vikings, Minnesota stands at 4-10-1.
It’s clear that Frazier’s all but terminated; this level of failure puts Spielman squarely in the gunsights as well. Spielman’s only had two years making the decisions since the dismantling of the so-called “Triangle of Authority,” but the failure of would-be franchise quarterback Christian Ponder, the huge whiff on Jennings and the near-total lack of succession-planning for the aging offensive and defensive lines make this implosion Spielman’s failure, too.
With the massive investment the people of Minnesota are making in an incredible new Vikings home, it’s time for owner Zygi Wilf to clean house.
Sunday's game in Cincy may not have gone very well for the Vikings, but it was all smiles on the other sideline.
The Bengals' big win means a third straight playoff berth. AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst feels it also demonstrates this could be the year the Bengals actually make some noise in the postseason:
The Cincinnati Bengals clinched a playoff berth with their commanding 42-14 win versus the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, and the Baltimore Ravens’ huge loss to the New England Patriots solidified the Bengals as the AFC North champions. With wins in four of their last five games, it’s hard to deny what a dangerous playoff team the Bengals are shaping up to be.
Though sometimes inconsistent this season, particularly on offense behind quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals played a complete and flawless game against the Vikings. Dalton was back to the “good” version of himself, completing 27 of his 38 passes for 366 yards and four touchdowns.
The defense played very well, notching four sacks on Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel and forcing a sack-fumble recovered by Carlos Dunlap. They also picked off Cassel three times, with linebacker Vincent Rey returning one for a touchdown. The run game didn’t put up many yards—just 81 yards on 37 attempts—but it did produce a first-half BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown.
Only special teams seemed suspect, having given up 143 return yards to Cordarrelle Patterson on four kickoffs. However, the Vikings were 0-of-9 on third-down conversions and held the ball for just 20:28. The Bengals made good on all four of their red-zone appearances, while the Vikings didn’t get there once.
The only issue in the playoffs will be playing on the road. As the AFC’s third seed, they will at least start out the postseason at home but could have to head to either Foxboro or Denver to advance. All of Cincinnati’s five losses have been on the road this season.
However, with so much talent on both offense and defense, things could change in the postseason. No team looks as playoff-ready in all phases of the game as the Bengals do, a fact that can carry them far despite their road woes.
The Bengals haven’t won a postseason game since 1990, but this seems like the most capable squad to end that drought. Don’t crown Tom Brady’s Patriots or Peyton Manning’s Broncos the AFC’s best just yet.
Week 16 began with proclamations of the impending demise of New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
That came from Ryan himself, but as AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz points out, the Jets at least gave their head coach a nice parting gift with a win over the Cleveland Browns:
A report on Sunday morning from Jay Glazer of Fox Sports indicated that head coach Rex Ryan told his team that “word on the street” is that he’ll be fired after this season. Ryan’s fate remains uncertain, but a win this week may help his case. And if not, at least they helped to send him out on a high note.
Rex may not have used those exact words when he addressed the team, but he sure sounded like he was delivering a parting message to the fans after the game.
“I’d like to tip my hat to the fans,” he said, via the team’s official website. “Our fans are great, and I think when you look at it, we’re 9-2 at home, when you count the preseason as well … so clearly, we’re doing a good job at home, and I always talk about how our players will feed off the enthusiasm of our fans.”
A few of those players feeding off the fans were the players who spelled the worst of the Jets’ struggles this year.
Geno Smith: two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and his first game without an interception since Nov. 3. Dee Milliner: an interception, a whopping five pass break-ups and mostly while in coverage of Browns receiver Josh Gordon.
Ryan told media after the game that this is a team on the rise. That may be a hard sell after the year the Jets have had, but it may be the only sell Ryan has. He is under contract for next year, but nothing is guaranteed.
The only guarantee is that the Jets will finish with a better record than they had last season. Whether or not that’s enough for owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik to keep him around, we’ll only know after next week. Whether these games decide Ryan’s fate or not, he’ll go out the way he came in: a player’s coach.
It's becoming an annual rite of passage for the Dallas Cowboys.
The team plays well in November, then falters in December, setting the stage for a winner-take-all Week 17 game that the Cowboys have lost each of the past two seasons.
Well, the Cowboys will get a third bite at the apple next week against the Eagles by virtue of their 24-23 win over the Washington Redskins.
NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon says "good luck figuring out how that game will play out" because the only thing that's predictable about the Cowboys is their unpredictability:
Week to week. Quarter to quarter. Hell, play to play. The Dallas Cowboys are as far from predictable as you can be in the NFL.
What happened Sunday in Washington cemented it. There were times against the Redskins in which Dallas looked like one of the NFL’s best teams. And at other times, the lack of competence was baffling.
Ultimately, all that matters is that the ‘Boys were at their best on their final offensive and defensive series. Tony Romo completed four of six passes for 93 yards on what was ultimately the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, and the defense forced the Redskins into a four-and-out to lock it up.
But before that, you had another second-half interception from Romo and two turnovers on as many possessions to start the third quarter. You had a team that finally leaned on DeMarco Murray in a close game but then nearly paid for taking the sensible road after Murray went backward on 3rd-and-goal on that final drive.
Against the ‘Skins, the Cowboys' normally awful defense was shockingly steady. Without Sean Lee and against a top-notch rushing attack, nobody expected that.
But that’s the 2013 Cowboys. Entertaining as ever but unreliable in every way. They dominated the Bears in the first quarter two weeks ago and disappeared after that. They crushed the Packers in the first half last week but went missing during the second half.
The offense looked unstoppable against Denver but couldn’t move in Philadelphia. The defense was nonexistent against the Saints but owned the Eagles.
It’s a bit odd, actually, because if Dallas once again flaunts that trademark lack of consistency by falling flat on its face next week against the Eagles, the Cowboys will finish 8-8 for the third straight year. Despite the performances themselves being dangerously unpredictable, the end result has become agonizingly predictable.
There's no overstating how big the Carolina Panthers' Week 16 win over the New Orleans Saints was.
A Panthers team that was all but written off at 1-3 has now won 10 of 11, clinching the franchise's first playoff berth since 2008.
As NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen writes, the defense set the same tone against the Saints they have for much of this hot streak, with second-year linebacker Luke Kuechly leading the way:
Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly set a franchise record Sunday when he recorded 24 tackles against the New Orleans Saints. He was one tackle shy of setting the NFL mark.
Kuechly tied David Harris of the New York Jets for the most tackles in a game. Tackles, as an official stat, have only been tracked and tabulated since 1994.
Not only did the Panthers secure a playoff spot with Sunday’s win over the Saints, but Kuechly had nine solo tackles, 14 assists, one tackle for loss, one pass defended and one interception. He is costing the Panthers approximately $178,547 each game against the cap, according to Spotrac. Sunday’s game check should be doubled.
Kuechly led the league last season with 164 tackles en route to Rookie of the Year honors. His Week 16 effort brings his 2013 total to 146, and Kuechly surely is in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
On a team that stands out on defense—entering Week 16, Carolina ranked second in scoring at 14.9 points allowed per game, fifth in passing yards (211.4) allowed per game and second in rushing yards (84.9) per game allowed—Kuechly is the driving force.
The biggest upset of Week 16 took place in the Pacific Northwest, where the Arizona Cardinals handed the Seattle Seahawks their first loss at CenturyLink Field since Christmas Eve 2011.
At 10-5, the Cardinals are still very much in the postseason hunt, and with Bruce Arians on the precipice of leading his second team to the playoffs in as many years, NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland thinks Arians may just be headed for a second straight something else:
Heading into Week 16, few believed the Arizona Cardinals could go on the road and take down the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. After all, the Seahawks hadn’t lost at home since the 2011 season.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, head coach Bruce Arians and Co. weren’t intimidated by records and winning streaks. They knew they had one job to do, and that was win. If they wouldn’t have won on Sunday, their postseason dreams would have disappeared.
It wasn’t pretty or easy, but Arizona did what it had to do to keep its playoff aspirations alive.
With a 10-5 record, it’s safe to say Arians is making a strong case for NFL Coach of the Year. Even though it’s hard to see the same coach winning the award two years in a row, the 61-year-old has led a complete turnaround in the desert.
At the end of the 2012 season, the Cardinals had the 31st-best offense in the league and the 17th-best defense. Through 15 games this year, Arizona has the 18th-best offense and the seventh-best defense. Without a doubt, the Gridbirds deserve a shot to show their true colors in the playoffs.
However, they will need help.
Aside from winning their Week 17 contest against the San Francisco 49ers at home, the 49ers have to lose to the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. Another option is for the New Orleans Saints to lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17 (along with the Cardinals winning).
Regardless of the team’s final outcome, Arians deserves to be in the Coach of the Year discussion. His team has exceeded expectations on a weekly basis.
The New York Giants' struggles have been scrutinized ad nauseum this year. An 0-6 start. Injuries on defense. A nightmare season from quarterback Eli Manning.
The Detroit Lions' collapse has been just as complete. After starting 6-3 and appearing the midseason favorite in the NFC North, the Lions have dropped five of six.
Sunday's overtime loss to the Giants eliminated the Lions from postseason contention.
In the eyes of NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey, the game also showcased two head coaches who need to be sent packing:
Close games that go into overtime should be interesting and enjoyable to watch.
This game wasn’t that.
As the Giants limped to a win the Lions desperately tried to hand them time and again, the stark reality of the situation slapped just about everyone in the face. These coaches just need to go. The teams are not well-coached. No, they are error-prone, mistake-riddled and play far below their actual talent levels.
I actually called for Tom Coughlin’s job back when the Giants were winless—in October. At the time, I noted how Coughlin seemed unwilling or unable to coach the team he had as opposed to the team he wish he did. I also noted anecdotes from local media and players that made it seem as if the team had simply learned to tune out his voice.
Yet, since then, the Giants have seemed to rally around their coach and one another. Now 6-9, the Giants aren’t going to have a chance at a winning season, but they won’t be drafting No. 1 either. Still, if that’s the bar that Coughlin had to clear, it’s a pretty low standard for a once-proud organization.
If the Giants have tuned out Coughlin, the Lions have gone full angsty teen for Jim Schwartz. Seriously, Matt Stafford handed the game away in true Christmas spirit, while the defense (supposedly Schwartz’s strong suit) has fallen apart at the worst possible times.
Organization change is always difficult, especially when high expectations tempt with ideas that “we’re just a move or two away….” If the Giants and Lions don’t do what’s needed, however, and fire their respective coaches, things will get worse—in a hurry.
Week 16 was a microcosm of the 2013 season in the NFC North.
The division went 0-4 on the day, allowing an average of over 39 points per game.
Still, even bad divisions need champions, and NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse has already cast his eye toward next week's winner-take-all contest in Chicago:
Week 16 appropriately summed up the 2013 season in the NFC North, and a blown opportunity from the Chicago Bears now assures that the year's final week will be needed to determine a champion in the NFL's wackiest division.
The Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Bears all lost Sunday. Minnesota and Chicago were both blown out—by a combined score of 96-25—and Detroit and Green Bay let winnable games slip away late. The once front-running Lions were eliminated in the process.
Chicago could have clinched the division after Green Bay failed to rally in the early game, but instead the Bears allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to run for 289 yards in a 54-11 romp in the Sunday nightcap.
Now, the 7-7-1 Packers will travel to Chicago for a division title game with the 8-7 Bears next Sunday.
This disappointing but entertaining season in the NFC North probably deserved to be decided in a winner-take-all matchup in Week 17. The first 16 weeks certainly didn't feature any one team taking much of anything.
The Lions were once 6-3 and looking down at two teams missing their starting quarterback. They folded with five losses in their next six games.
The Packers won back-to-back games to put control of their playoff destiny back in their hands. They let the Pittsburgh Steelers roll into a cold and snowy Lambeau Field and leave with a win.
And the Bears, provided the best chance of any to nail down the division, collapsed in epic fashion Sunday night.
By next Sunday, one team will wear the NFC North crown. It will have survived a roller-coaster ride of hope and despair to win the league's most unpredictable and compelling division.