The best three teams in the NFL at the moment may all reside in the NFC.
The Seahawks are rolling, showing an explosive passing game that we haven't seen in the Russell Wilson era. Cam Newton and the Panthers seem to get better every week and look to be on their way to 16-0. And the Cardinals are the only team to be in the top five in total defense and offense.
Meanwhile, in the AFC, the gap is narrowing between the best teams and the wild card hopefuls. The Steelers, Jets and Chiefs are playing outstanding while the top three teams all have issues. Andy Dalton's injury was the most heartbreaking moment of Week 14, possibly ruining the best Bengals team we've seen since Sam Wyche was the team. The Broncos lost at home with a lackluster offensive performance and are trying to change their identity on the fly. The Patriots got back on track against Houston, but they suffered even more injuries to key players.
The playoff chase in the AFC is far more compelling than the NFC. But the Divisional Round of the NFC playoff is shaping up to be outstanding if it winds up including the three best teams in the league, with Aaron Rodgers' Packers thrown in.
Here's what else we learned in Week 14:
- This was a fitting way for Rex Ryan's season to essentially end. They out-gained the Eagles by 64 yards, but couldn't overcome self-inflicted wounds. The Bills incurred 15 penalties, with nearly half of them before the snap. They constantly put themselves in more difficult situations than necessary, right down to the last drive.
- The Bills, now 6-7 and two games back in the wild-card race, forced a fast three-and-out to set up a potential game-tying field goal drive with just under two minutes left. With a third-and-3 on their own 38-yard line, they were called for their fourth false start. That forced Tyrod Taylor to go down the field the next play, and Taylor overshot his receiver badly for a game-ending interception.
Taylor played well for most of the day, but he was way off target on two huge third-and-long plays in the last three minutes. The Bills might have won with better accuracy.
"This one's tough," Ryan said. "We got ourselves to blame. You can't have that many penalties. It's a no-brainer when you jump offsides a million times.
"We're going to be sick, I tell you that. This is going to cost us (a playoff berth), which I think it will."
- Fletcher Cox had another monster day on the way to a Pro Bowl outing. The Eagles' defensive line was too strong for the Bills most of the day, and Cox was a terror with eight tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and a QB hit.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- Marvin Lewis said Andy Dalton will miss next week's game with his thumb injury as the Bengals wait for Dalton's bone to heal. Dalton was seen with a cast on his hand. That puts Cincinnati's playoff positioning hopes on AJ McCarron. The Alabama product made a number of sharp throws on the way to 280 yards on 32 attempts, but he also threw two killer interceptions. One was a pick six that came after McCarron didn't identify a blitz and panicked a throw under pressure.
- Ben Roethlisberger set the tone early by throwing a 31-yard bomb to Markus Wheaton on third-and-1 on the first drive of the game. He hit a number of third-and-long plays early as the Steelers built a lead they would never relinquish. The Bengals' defense did a good job most of the day limiting damage -- Cincinnati outgained Pittsburgh 385-354 -- but Pittsburgh mostly played mistake-free football.
It felt like offensive coordinator Todd Haley played things a little safer once Dalton was out.
- The Steelers, now 8-5, kept pace in the fiery AFC wild-card race. They also now have an outside chance of catching the 10-3 Bengals in the AFC North if McCarron can't keep the ship afloat.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- The Raiders have themselves a superstar in Khalil Mack. The second-year linebacker abused poor Michael Schofield all day, finishing with five sacks, including a strip that led to a safety and a fourth-quarter takedown of Brock Osweiler that doomed Denver's final possession. Mack has at least two sacks in each of the past three games and 14 on the season. His five sacks tied a Raiders record held by Howie Long. Wow.
- This game was almost laughably one-sided at halftime. The Broncos outgained the Raiders 224 to minus 12 in total yards, with Oakland's biggest play of the half just four yards. The Raiders stayed alive because the Broncos had to settle for four Brandon McManus field goals and a 12-0 lead.
- He's unlikely to get much pub, so we'll show him love here: Raiders punter Marquette King played a huge role in Oakland stealing this game. King put five of his 10 punts inside the 20-yard line, and buried Denver inside their 5 on a possession that ended with a safety. In the fourth quarter, he boomed a game-high 55-yarder that was muffed by Emmanuel Sanders and recovered by the Raiders. Three plays later, Oakland scored the go-ahead touchdown.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Jordan Reed dominated all game. The Redskins' best player Sunday caught every target thrown his way, was too quick for Bears linebackers to cover and ran over secondary defenders after the catch. When the tight end is right, he's a monster for the Redskins, especially in the red zone. Sunday was the most determined we've seen him run with the ball all season, plowing over defenders for nine catches on nine targets for 120 yards and a touchdown. It was Reed's third career 100-yard game.
- The Redskins' running back rotation chewed up yards against a Pernell McPhee-less Bears defensive front. Alfred Morris got going early and scored his first touchdown of the season on the opening drive, but Matt Jones did most of the heavy lifting late (18 carries, 62 yards). The Redskins combined for 99 total yards on the ground. Despite some shakiness with the ball, it is clear Jones is the battering ram Jay Gruden prefers down the stretch of close games.
- The most accurate kicker in Bears history has a case of the yips. For the second consecutive week, Robbie Gould missed a huge field goal -- this one to potentially force overtime. Gould has now missed six field goal attempts on the season, including three the past two weeks. The previous five he had pulled left. Sunday looked like a classic overcompensation as he pushed it right.
-- Kevin Patra
- So the Falcons spent the week preparing for Carolina's zone read game. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn told the visiting broadcasters that this was what the Panthers did best. They block the plays incredibly well and use it to pace their offense. So how do the Panthers respond? By coming out and gaining more yards in one quarter (260) than any team in the NFL this season. Newton, who went 12 of 17 for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, had the best opening half of his entire career. Ted Ginn's first two catches were touchdowns, one of which went 74 yards straight over the top of Quinn's defense -- the Panthers' longest play from scrimmage this year. This is a versatile team rolling with ease toward the Super Bowl. It really is incredible how effortless this looks. Newton was converting second-and-20s Sunday without breaking a sweat against the coordinator of a Super Bowl defense.
- In the second quarter, Quinn gathered almost his entire team together for a pep talk. They were already down three touchdowns. It was a fine gesture, but in a way it summed up the dire straits the Falcons are in right now. They've lost six in a row and have to play the Panthers again in two weeks. Before the game, Julio Jones told FOX Sports sideline correspondent Pam Oliver that he felt like the Falcons were playing not to lose over their massive losing streak. This is a coach who was almost brought to tears by these same players after a resounding victory against the Eagles to kick off their season on Monday night. Has Quinn lost his team already?
- The only remaining test for Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is going to be player management. Cam Newton took a shot at the end of the first half causing him to miss a play and Greg Olseninjured his left knee while Jonathan Stewart sprained his foot. Luke Kuechly was on the sideline getting his ankle taped but came back in to pick off Matt Ryan at the end of the third quarter. Bene' Benwikere was carted off the field in the fourth with fractured leg and will miss the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, Rivera has Newton in through the third quarter, at one point throwing lead blocks on a reverse. Honestly, if this is the way he wants to play it, good for him. That's why he's called Riverboat Ron, and there have been good teams who have tried to sit their players only to see it backfire massively. Carolina is just as fun to watch on the sideline as it is on the field, so why mess with a good thing? Also, with Benwikere, the team was already short on cornerbacks and there's not much it can do.
-- Conor Orr
Linebacker Dee Ford had the game of his career. The second-year defender recorded seven tackles and three sacks. Kansas City had five sacks on the day and held Philip Rivers to a 64.4 quarterback rating.
The Chiefs only mustered up 10 points against a poor San Diego defense. They scored their lone touchdown late in the first half when Smith hit Albert Wilsonfor a 44-yard touchdown. They then followed up the touchdown with a field goal just before the half, but were shut out in the second half.
- San Diego's laundry list of issues remained the same in Kansas City. The offense line struggled to pass and run block -- and the Chargers' defense is just bad in all phases.
The Chargers' dink-and-dunk-style offense has become very predictable due to Rivers only trusting Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green and Danny Woodhead. On the ground, rookie running back Melvin Gordon is still having a tough time generating a run attack. It doesn't help matters that Gordon is running behind a makeshift offensive line.
-- Tyler Dragon
- This was a strange game. The Jaguars' offense struggled to move the ball in the first two quarters, were booed by the home fans and actually went into the half down 16-12. In the second half, they scored a touchdown every time they got the ball. Allen Hurns started the third quarter with an 80-yard touchdown reception and Rashad Greene turned the game into a boat race with a 73-yard punt return for six. Jacksonville outscored Indianapolis 42-3 in the second half.
- Blake Bortles has made the leap. The second-year quarterback threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score, all of the damage coming in the second half. Bortles now has eight touchdowns in the past two weeks and 30 on the season against just nine interceptions. He has all the look of a franchise passer the team can build around for years. In other words, the Jacksonville braintrust hit a home run.
- If I'm the Colts, I'm not even comfortable putting Andrew Luck back on the field with this offensive line. Frank Gore had nowhere to go and Matt Hasselbeck took multiple hard hits before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a rib injury. The pounding is starting to take a toll on the 40-year-old passer.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Russell Wilson came into Week 14 with three-plus touchdown strikes in three straight games. Make it four after the Seahawks passer lobbed another five against the Ravens, part of a largely spotless afternoon that saw Wilson hit seven different receivers for 292 yards. Tyler Lockett (6/104) and Doug Baldwin (6/82) led the way, but Jermaine Kearse also made a handful of clutch grabs. Wilson's first scoring strike to Lockette was a beautiful read-and-throw by a signal-caller playing as well as anyone in the NFL. With 16 touchdowns and zero picks over his past four starts, Wilson is carrying Seattle into January play.
- Seattle's sixth win in seven games came with a cost: Thomas Rawls was heading for another monster afternoon on the ground before suffering a broken ankle. He is done for the season. Seattle's undrafted rookie plowed through Baltimore for 44 yards on the opening drive before giving way to the unremarkable duo of DuJuan Harris and Fred Jackson, who combined for just 57 yards at 2.3 yards per carry.
- How banged-up are the Ravens? Baltimore's final player announced on offense -- a position typically saved for the quarterback -- was guard Marshal Yanda. The offensive lineman couldn't save the day, though, for a Ravens offense that mustered just four yards rushing in the first half and 28 all day. When Clausen gave the ball to Javorius Allen just before the half, hoping to kill the clock, the rookie back killed Baltimore with a fumble that set up an easy 14-yard touchdown strike from Wilson to Doug Baldwin for the 14-3 lead. Game over.
-- Marc Sessler
- Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to be the Jets' MVP. The veteran quarterback threw three touchdowns without an interception and has nine touchdowns without a pick in the past three weeks -- all Jets victories. Fitzpatrick's career has been marked by slow finishes -- the Jets have to be thrilled that the quarterback is doing the opposite in 2015.
- Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall are making a case as the best 1-2 wide receiver duo in football. Decker had another touchdown reception and now has found the end zone in every home game he's played this season. Marshall went over 100 yards receiving for the eighth time this season and scored a 69-yard touchdown on a play in which the Titans' defense literally forgot to cover him.
- If I'm Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk, I am not happy with the effort level I saw Sunday. Titans players were making business decisions on tackle attempts. Killer drops on offense also speaks to a lack of focus. The Titans have the quarterback in Marcus Mariota, but this team still has a long way to go.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Cleveland came out spreading the field against former Browns coach Eric Mangini and his Niners defense. Johnny Manziel missed a handful of early throws, but the second-year quarterback now owns two of Cleveland's three wins on the year after hitting six different targets for 251 yards at 8.7 yards per attempt. With Brady Quinn of all people providing color analysis, Johnny scanned the field and went through his progressions to find receivers in space, helping the suddenly frisky Browns outgain San Francisco 255 yards to 48 over the first two quarters, and 481-221 on the day.
Johnny brought a genuine spark, but it wasn't all perfect. Manziel was responsible for an ugly sack near the end of the first half, and would have taken a safety on the next play if the Niners weren't hit with a facemask call. Later on the drive, he tossed an ugly pass across his body that landed in the arms of Jaquiski Tartt.
Still, Manziel (21-of-31 passing with a touchdown) displayed a live arm and plus mobility, which begs the question: Why did the Browns wait so long to unleash their young quarterback? Where would Johnny be if they gave him this valuable experience earlier? With Cleveland scoring fewer than 10 points in five games this autumn, the Browns were a lost cause from the start. Manziel could have earned these valuable reps months ago, a weight that rests on the shoulders of coach Mike Pettine.
- Blaine Gabbert has produced a string of promising performances, but the Browns gave him all he could handle. Getting pressure on the quarterback for the first time in months, Cleveland piled up five sacks on the 49ers passer in the first half and a whopping nine in total, allowing fewer than 30 points for the first time in five games. It's weird to type this, but the Browns dominated, holding San Francisco to 150 yards through the air and just 4.1 yards per play.
- Coming into Sunday with the league's worst rushing attack, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson finally broke free. The rookie Johnson piled up 84 total yards off 14 touches while Crowell played his finest game as a pro, ripping through San Francisco's front seven for 145 yards while showing power and burst. Cleveland had 112 yards in the first half -- and 230 on the day -- nearly doubling its previous season high.
-- Marc Sessler
- With coach Mike McCarthy taking back Green Bay's playcalling, the Packers shook off an early goal-line stand by the Cowboys to score a pair of first-half touchdowns. It looked like the offense might explode from there, but too many drives still ended in punts for an attack gifted with Aaron Rodgers under center. Last year's MVP was marvelous out of the gate, drawing first blood off a well-designed, 13-yard screen pass to James Starks that baffled the Dallas secondary. From there, Rodgers finished 22-of-35 passing for 218 yards and two touchdowns as McCarthy unfurled a balanced attack that piled up 230 yards on the ground and another 205 through the air. Give the Dallas defense credit for hanging around, but there was no stopping the Packers once their ground game caught fire down the stretch.
- How often do you see two teams stopped at the goal line on back-to-back drives? Before the Packers fizzled out at the Dallas 1, Cowboys quarterback Matt Cassel authored a red-zone meltdown of his own, throwing an interception on his opening drive that bounced off Dez Bryant's hands in the end zone. Unlike the Packers, though, Dallas couldn't rely on their signal-caller to play the hero. Cassel was putrid, passing for 3.9 yards per attempt and repeatedly throwing short of the sticks as Dallas finished 1-of-11 on third downs.
- About getting those playmakers involved: Packers wideout Randall Cobb piled up his most catches (eight) since Week 2 and yards (81) since Week 9, while hard-charging Eddie Lacy ripped through the Cowboys for 124 yards at 5.2 yards per rush, making his biggest runs as the fourth quarter ticked away. Lacy looks healthy and powerful, but don't forget about Starks (11/71), who sealed the game with a beautiful 30-yard touchdown burst that helped Green Bay pile up their most yards on the ground since Week 12 of 2004.
-- Marc Sessler
- Though the Buccaneers became a popular NFC Wild Card sleeper pick over the past few weeks, Sunday's 24-17 loss at home against the Saints they proved there's still work to be done. Jameis Winston was off his game, missing receivers with passes that sailed too high or too wide -- though the Saints were unable to turn those mistakes into turnovers.
- Drew Brees has dominated the Bucs over the course of his Saints career and that continued as he diced up their secondary to the tune of two first-half touchdowns to Marques Colston and 31-of-41 passing for 312 yards on the day. The Saints kept getting big plays in third-and-long situations, like a 41-yard Willie Snead catch on third-and-21.
Even when the Bucs got stops, they bailed out the Saints with penalties, like a hands-to-the-face call after a sack of Brees that would've brought up fourth down. The Saints got a touchdown on that drive that put them up 14 going into the fourth quarter. On the Saints' final clock-running possession, Alterraun Verner got flagged with a holding penalty that extended the drive and allowed them to run out the clock. Lovie Smith's team is surprisingly undisciplined.
- Despite his troubles, Jameis still kept the Bucs in the game with various big plays. Down 10 points with a minute left in the first half, Jameis drove them down the field and converted a third-and-10 with a 19-yard scramble that allowed them to get a field goal before the half. Despite being dominated on both sides of the ball, the game was winnable down to the final seconds. Down two scores, Jameis got a quick touchdown strike to unheralded Adam Humphries to move them within seven points.
Lovie Smith opted to punt with 4:21 on the clock from midfield, and the defense -- sans rookie Kwon Alexander the rest of the year due to a suspension -- was unable to get them the ball back. The Bucs have an even steeper climb to try and nab a playoff spot as they are now two games back of both the Seahawks and Vikings in the race.
-- Mark Ortega
- Todd Gurley is back! (As we predicted!) After four games held under 70 yards rushing with just one run of 10-plus yards, the rookie busted loose for 140 rushing yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns. The Rams' play calling didn't look much different under Rob Boras -- finally leading in a game was huge for Gurley. When Gurley gets to the second-level he's devastating running through defenders' futile attempts to wrap him up, as evidenced by dashes of 49, 25 and 21 yards. Sunday his poor blockers finally got him some creases, especially on stretch runs. In the second half Gurley had a whopping 127 yards (!) rushing after just 13 in the first half. Case Keenum threw for just 124 yards. This is a Gurley-or-bust offense.
- The Lions played like a team hungover after last week's emotional last-second loss. The offense was out of sync all game with Matthew Stafford under siege. Stafford threw a disastrous pick-six and most of his 30-of-46 passing for 245 yards and two TDs came after the Lions got down two scores. Calvin Johnson didn't have his first catch until under 2:30 left in the game. Any thoughts of Jim Caldwell retaining his job should be shelved after watching his players lay an egg against an equally limp Rams squad. The Lions were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
- Detroit fans likely wanted to vomit watching Aaron Donald dominate the line of scrimmage -- the Lions passed on drafting the defensive tackle in 2014 in favor of tight end Eric Ebron. Donald feasted Sunday, sacking Stafford three times and consistently blowing up the Lions schemes. No one could block the defensive tackle Sunday and Stafford paid the price.
-- Kevin Patra
- Brian Hoyer looked flummoxed all evening, thanks to the Patriots' swarming defensive line. New England collected six sacks of Hoyer who sat like a deer in the headlights behind his offensive line. Jabaal Sheard dominated Texans right tackle Derek Newton to the tune of two sacks and two forced fumbles, while Akiem Hicks tallied two of his own. Despite the in-game losses of Dominique Easley (thigh) and Jonathan Freeny (hand), the Patriots' front seven picked up steam as the game wore on and the deficit grew larger.
- This week in large, loud football players heroically returning from injuries: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski -- who just two weeks ago on Sunday night suffered what looked like a season-ending knee injury -- was listed as active following a week of speculation. Of course, he put up massive numbers per usual -- four catches, 86 yards, TD -- and made his presence felt on New England's very first drive with a cross-field 45-yard reception.
- Has anyone seen Nuk? Houston's go-to wideout DeAndre Hopkins went missing Sunday night, finishing with just three catches on six targets for 52 yards, 40 of which came on one garbage-time play. Hoyer tried to spread the ball around to other playmakers -- Nate Washington had one impressive 49-yard grab early -- but without Hopkins in the mix, Houston's offense stalled in the second half. Credit Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan with shutting down the Texans' main man.
-- Jeremy Bergman