Here's what we learned from Sunday's Week 12 slate of games:
- It's fitting that on a night when Randy Moss received his Hall of Fame ring, it was a Vikings wide receiver who stole the show. Adam Thielen rebounded from a quiet two weeks to abuse the young Green Bay secondary en route to eight catches for 125 yards and one touchdown. Thielen's quick burst and cuts off the line of scrimmage routinely allowed him to find space in the Packers' defense. The mind-meld between Thielen and Kirk Cousins (29 of 38 for 342 yards and 3 scores) was on full display on their third-quarter TD connection when Thielen found a soft spot in the Green Bay zone as Cousins rolled to his right, corralled a dart, turned up field and powered his way into the end zone. Thielen's 125 receiving yards also broke a franchise record - held by Moss - with his ninth 100-yard game of the season.
Minnesota (6-4-1) doesn't boast the most balanced offense in the league as the ground game was largely a non-factor, but when Cousins is on the same page with Thielen and Stefon Diggs (8 catches, 77 yards), good luck stopping them in December and beyond.
- When one writes the obit on the 2018 Packers, tonight's game will embody many of the ills that caused Green Bay (4-6-1) to squander another season of Aaron Rodgers' prime. For a second consecutive prime-time game, the Packers were undone by an inconsistent offense, injuries and questionable decision making. It seemed things had clicked as Rodgers leaned on his playmakers at receiver (Davante Adams) and running back (Aaron Jones) for back-to-back TD drives in the second quarter, but just like in their loss to the Seahawks, the Packers soon could not get out of their own way in the second half. The Packers' first four drives after halftime went as follows: punt, turnover on downs, punt and punt. Two pivotal miscues (Jones failed to convert on a fourth-and-inches and backup left tackle Jason Spriggs gave up a sack on third down) lead to 10 consecutive points for Minnesota that was more than enough to salt away the win.
- As we enter the final month of the regular season, the NFC wild card race is crystalizing. The Vikings hold the No. 5 seed and own a half-game lead on a trio of 6-5 teams (the Redskins, Seahawks and Panthers) with games at New England and Seattle looming in back-to-back weeks. For the Packers, it's tough to see a road to the postseason. Green Bay currently would have to leap frog three teams just to claim the six spot. While four of their final five games are against teams with winning records, it's tough to imagine Mike McCarthy and co. climbing out of this hole.
-- David Ely
- The Denver Broncos continue to create their own luck. With the Pittsburgh Steelers on the doorstep of a potential game-tying touchdown in the waning moments, Denver defensive lineman Shelby Harris intercepted Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone to seal a second-straight victory. Despite giving up 527 yards to Pittsburgh, Vance Joseph's team made game-changing plays all afternoon. Denver safety Justin Simmons blocked a field goal on the opening drive. A smashing hit by safety Will Parks forced a fumble by tight end Xavier Grimble that went through the end zone for a touchback. Chris Harris picked off Big Ben leading to a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter. A forced fumble on running back James Conner wiped out another Steelers scoring opportunity. And Harris wrapped up the effort with the fourth turnover of the game.
It wasn't pretty, but the Broncos stepped up to make plays whenever backed against the wall. The victory pushes Denver (5-6) within a game of an AFC wild card spot. In the final five weeks, the Broncos play just one team with a winning record. It's not the last we've heard from the Mile High team this season.
- Undrafted running back Phillip Lindsay doesn't garner the national attention he deserves. The bruising 5-foot-8 running back did the heavy lifting for the Broncos offense against a stout Steelers defense. Combining superior vision, big burst through the line, and power beyond his 190-pound frame, Lindsay churned out 110 rushing yards on just 14 attempts and the game-winning touchdown. Averaging 7.9 yards per attempt against Pittsburgh's run defense deserves to be highlighted. Lindsay became the first back to rush for 100-plus yards against the Steelers in 14 games dating back to last season. The rookie's ability to squeeze through tiny holes and fall forward kept the Denver offense in positive down-and-distance all game. It's an understatement to say that Lindsay deserves more than 14 touches a game down the stretch.
- This time the Steelers couldn't overcome their own blunders. Big Ben & Co. left about 20 points on the field. Despite a monster game statistically from Roethlisberger (41/56, 462 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs), it's the mistakes that will sting in Pittsburgh. The Steelers compiled 527 yards and 25 first downs and scored just 17 points. That's hard to do. Two turnovers at the goal line tell the tale. The Steelers wasted a magnificent game from JuJu Smith-Schuster. With the Broncos doubling Antonio Brown, JuJu gobbled up 13 catches on 17 targets for 189 yards and a 97-yard touchdown score. After Smith-Schuster's long TD score, the game felt like Pittsburgh's for the taking. Alas, Denver stepped up in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers fizzled.
-- Kevin Patra
- The Colts' greatest strength during their win streak has been the play of their offensive line, bringing extra attention to the group this week with center Ryan Kelly sitting out. The sack streak is over, yet the Colts' front five did a good job of protecting their quarterback. Evan Boehm was solid in the running and passing games, and Luck had time to work, especially in the second half. But it took three quarters of general mistakes for the Colts to sort out what didn't work, and along the way picked up a 10-point deficit. Indianapolis has Andrew Luck, though, and a defense that stepped up after falling behind as the Colts wrested away momentum and rode it to victory.
Luck's ability to avoid the rush claimed the biggest moment of the game. Luck ducked beneath two rushers, avoiding what appeared to be a sure sack, stepped up and launched a pass to Chester Rogers for a gain of 34. The completion set up the Colts' game-winning field goal, just five minutes after Luck drove the Colts down the field to tie the contest. It also extended their win streak to five and put them above .500.
- We've known this Dolphins team was a .500 or worse team masquerading as a playoff contender, and while Adam Gase deserves credit for getting them to 5-5 despite being forced to play Brock Osweiler for multiple games, this result wasn't all that surprising. For a moment early in the fourth, a Kenyan Drake touchdown had them in position to score a road win, but they couldn't hold on. And when tied, their offense was limp, presenting very little of a challenge to the Colts. Miami is without its best weapons in its receiving corps -- Leonte Carroo was responsible for one of their scores, and Drake scored the other two -- so we'll give them that. But a team that aspires to be in the playoffs can't win with an offense like this in close games like these.
- I didn't want to be this guy, but I'm going to be this guy. Stop throwing the football to Andrew Luck. Indianapolis has done this in consecutive weeks and it's produced a line of 1 for 2 for a short gain on fourth down. He got blasted by a defender thanks to Jacoby Brissett, cold off the bench, threw it high to Luck. He's playing with a surgically repaired shoulder that caused him to miss all of last season. He is your most valuable commodity, Colts. Stop lining him up to get hit.
-- Nick Shook
- For the second straight week, the Seahawks snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against an opponent that failed to capitalize on multiple scoring opportunities. With the exception of an early overthrow to an open Doug Baldwin in the end zone, Russell Wilson was a wizard, escaping pressure to hit big throws in key situations. Facing fourth-and-3 in the middle of the fourth quarter, Wilson dropped a 35-yard rainbow into the hand of David Moore for the brilliant game-tying touchdown against backup cornerback Corn Elder, who never turned around to make a play on the ball. After suddenly slumping Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed a 52-yard field goal that would have given Carolina the lead, Wilson climbed the pocket to find a wide open Tyler Lockett in the red zone, setting up Sebastian Janikowski's game-winner.
- Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey moved the ball seemingly at will between the twenties, recording more yards (478) than any Seattle opponent this season. Credit the Seahawks defense, however, for stiffening in the red zone, particularly in short-yardage situations. The Panthers should have been ahead by multiple scores in the fourth quarter. Instead, they find themselves mired in a three-game losing streak, wasting yet another career day from McCaffrey. The elusive dual-purpose back finished with the bizarre stat line of 239 yards from scrimmage with three fumbles and two touchdowns. McCaffrey became the first player this season -- and the first in franchise history -- to reach the century mark in both receiving and rushing in the same game.
- We've come to expect exciting back-and-forth matchups between these two perennial playoff contenders over the past half-decade. This contest was no exception. Today's outcome will have major repercussions in the NFC wild-card hunt, with both teams settling in at 6-5 after 12 weeks. Whereas the Seahawks face the punchless 49ers and Cardinals in three of their final five games, the Panthers draw the powerhouse Saints in two of the last three weeks of the season. Advantage: Seattle.
-- Chris Wesseling
- The game certainly wasn't pretty for the Eagles, as the team allowed 300-plus yards of total offense in the first half to an opponent. The Eagles, however, showed character by battling back from a 19-3 deficit when it appeared the Giants would steamroll to a win midway through the second quarter. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz made adjustments and his unit limited the Giants to 56 total yards and a field goal in the second half. Kicker Jake Elliott sealed the game by booting a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds on the clock to give the Eagles (5-6) a much-needed win to stay within one game out of first place in the NFC East behind the Dallas Cowboys (6-5) and Washington Redskins (6-5).
- While Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz completed an efficient 20 of 28 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown, the Eagles' running game deserves all the credit for catapulting the comeback win. After generating just 39 yards on the ground as a team in the first half, the Eagles totaled 88 yards rushing and a touchdown in the final two periods. Rookie running back Josh Adams paced the ground assault with 84 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, 80 of the yards and the score coming in the second half. Adams also converted a 2-point conversion attempt early in the fourth quarter to give the Giants a 22-19 lead. The Eagles finished with 127 yards rushing on 29 carries, marking the first time since Week 8 the team topped 100 yards rushing in a game. If the Eagles want to make up ground in the division, going with a balanced attack on offense should work well when considering their next two games are against Washington in Week 13 and Dallas in Week 14.
- The disappearance of Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley proved one of the biggest head-scratching moments in the second half. After totaling 131 yards (94 rushing) and two touchdowns in the first half, Barkley managed just 8 total yards in the final two quarters and touched the ball an inexplicable five times (four carries, one catch). If the Giants are looking for a reason for blowing a 19-3 lead, the coaching staff should start by explaining why Barkley wasn't utilized more after halftime to grind out yards and control time of possession.
Sunday's loss dropped the Giants to 3-8 on the season and three games out of first place in the division with five games remaining.
-- Herbie Teope
- If it was awkward to see their ex-coach, Hue Jackson, roaming the Bengals sideline, Cleveland's young roster showed no ill effects. Baker Mayfield continued where he left off before the bye, finishing with 258 yards and four scores for an attack that fired off touchdowns on their first four drives. Going 36-of-46 passing for 474 yards and seven scores over his past two games, Mayfield's progress centers around on a lightning-quick release, faster decision-making and a knack for spreading the ball to every possible weapon. Give credit to Freddie Kitchens, the team's new play-caller who used run-heavy wishbone sets to foil the Falcons before riddling the Bengals on Sunday through the air with a rash of empty backfield looks. The Browns (4-6-1) went quiet in the second half, but Mayfield suddenly seems at the helm of a talented attack with far better protection up front -- and zero sacks over the past two games -- since Jackson bolted stage right.
- Say goodbye to the listless Bengals (5-6). Missing wideout A.J. Green, cover man Dre Kirkpatrick, left tackle Cordy Glenn and linebacker Nick Vigil, this simply isn't the squad that showed such promise out of the gate in September. Today they're a club trying to move the ball without their All-Pro wideout and a deep-threat in John Ross who doesn't look like the same player due to a groin injury. Joe Mixon (14/89) unfurled a handful of pretty gains, but the injury bug bit again when Andy Dalton was ruled out with a concerning right thumb injury. Down 35-7, frisky backup Jeff Driskel fought hard to bring Cincy back with two long scoring drives, but it was too much to ask anyone to make up for one of the worst defenses in the league.
- How could Jackson -- the newly minted Bengals defensive assistant -- have felt as his former offensive charges lit up their Ohio rival with ease? Players like David Njoku (5/63/1), Antonio Callaway (4/62/1) and Nick Chubb (128 total yards with two scores) were in full bloom as the club erased an outrageous string of 25 straight road losses -- a whopping 1,141 days -- without a win. So many of those hideous defeats came under Jackson, who could only stand there as Cleveland's Damarious Randall flitted over to hand his former coach a picked-off pass in front of the entire Bengals bench.
-- Marc Sessler
- The wheels completely fell off this game for the Jaguars at exactly the moment Donte Moncrief found himself clutching the football after making a big play for his team. Moncrief's extended tie-up with Buffalo defensive back Levi Wallace resulted in his teammates coming to his aid, which included pushing and shoving, and then a full-blown fight highlighted by Leonard Fournette trading blows with Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson. The skirmish got both of them ejected, cost Jacksonville its star power back with the ball on the 1-yard line. Thanks to a sack and a pair of penalties, the Jags ended up outside the 20 on fourth-and-goal, and Josh Lambo capped the disaster by missing a 42-yard field goal.
Jacksonville, which relied heavily on Fournette leading up to that moment (he finished with 95 yards on 18 carries despite being ejected late in the third), lost its best threat to a Buffalo defense that hasn't been kind to most all season. Losing by three points only added to the sting of defeat in Doug Marrone's return to Buffalo.
- No matter your concerns with his details (I have long held at least a couple), Josh Allen's return was a major boost for Buffalo. With no offense intended for Matt Barkley, Allen brought a new life to the Bills with a beautiful long pass that took advantage of the rookie's big arm and ended in a 75-yard touchdown reception for Robert Foster, a fairly well-paced offense and even his own running plays. In fact, it was his running that did the most damage, with the quarterback carrying the ball 13 times for 99 yards. Allen's 14-yard touchdown run right up the middle of the field -- which came immediately after the aforementioned meltdown and on the first play of the fourth quarter -- would've blown the roof off New Era Field if it had one. That score capped a euphoric day for Bills fans in a game that seemed destined to grind to a three-point difference, which it did, but it wasn't as ugly as it appeared it would be.
- At 3-8, one has to wonder where the Jaguars go from here. Blake Bortles wasn't the lone offender, but Jacksonville's offense is downright abysmal in the passing game, no matter the depth. It's clear the Jaguars' best approach is to pound the football, but in-season acquisition Carlos Hyde didn't do much (10 carries, 33 yards) to help in between Fournette carries, and this team's receiving corps is just a group of glorified No. 2 or No. 3 receivers running routes for a quarterback who definitely misses his left tackle. Keelan Cole dropped a pass that resulted in a Buffalo interception. James O'Shaughnessy was part of a blown screen play on a pass that either arrived too early, or O'Shaughnessy turned around too late. Ereck Flowers got his first start for the Jaguars at left tackle and was predictably bad, and an injury to Andrew Norwell only made things worse up front. This was once the exception, but it's starting to become the norm, and with the Jags' defense not holding up their end of the bargain (Barry Church was caught in concrete on Foster's touchdown reception), it's turned into a losing formula.
This game was a rematch of last year's AFC Wild Card meeting, and the two participants are far from such a return now. But one team at least feels better about itself after this contest.
-- Nick Shook
- The Patriots (8-3) started sloppy coming off their bye week, but turned it on in the second half, scoring on its first three possessions to run away with a double-digit victory. The Pats committed a season-high 11 penalties for 105 yards on the day, most coming in a messy first half that stymied the offense. The Patriots moved the ball with ease most of the day, and if not for the penalties and some early red-zone struggles, the blowout would have been bigger. Rob Gronkowski returned after missing the past two weeks and immediately proved his worth with a 34-yard touchdown spike down the seam. After getting battered in Week 10, Tom Brady was kept clean and threw darts over the middle, spreading the ball around. TB12 played similarly to how he has all season, missing some deep shots and sideline throws, but feasting on strikes over the middle. The Brady-Gronk connection wasn't in perfect form, with the QB missing the TE three times in the red zone. Gronk's availability, however, completely opens the Pats offense. With the Jets focusing on the tight end, Brady found Julian Edelman for a 21-yard touchdown catch and run to begin the second-half rout. Gronk (3 catches on 7 targets, 56 yards) looked healthy throughout the game, even as he was sucking on oxygen on the sideline. His continued health the rest of the season would be huge for New England down the stretch.
- With Brady getting dinged on the hand in the first half, the Patriots rode Sony Michel hard in the second two quarters. The rookie blasted through big holes in a Swiss-cheese Jets defense for 133 yards and a TD on 21 totes, including 87 yards in the second half. The rookie runner suffered a back injury but returned looking none the worse for wear, displaying good vision and burst in the hole as he blasted off for dashes of 33 and 31 yards. Michel's day would have been even bigger if not for several penalties that negated long gallops. With Michel and Gronk healthy, the Patriots offense is a much bigger beast to handle than we'd see from New England in recent weeks.
- Josh McCown started for the injured Sam Darnold, and threw the ball a whopping 45 times, completing 26 for 267 yards, a TD and an interception. With zero run game, the feeble Jets relied on short passes to move the ball. McCown was efficient early finding receivers for yards after the catch, but off-target on everything deep. Once the Patriots defense adjusted, the Jets offered no response. The 39-year-old signal-caller isn't going to carry this ragtag cast of characters. Falling to 3-8, there is little to be optimistic about for the Darnold-less Jets. The defense can't generate pressure (zero sacks) or stop the run (215 rushing yards allowed). The offense is a stale hodgepodge of dinks. Todd Bowles' days in New York appeared to be numbered, much to the pleasure of Jets fans donning brown paper bag headwear at MetLife Stadium.
-- Kevin Patra
- Jameis Winston cemented his place as the Buccaneers' starter -- at least for another week. Winston put in a solid performance against the 49ers, avoiding some of the mid-field stalls that have plagued Tampa Bay (4-7) in recent games to pick up a much-needed win. For the first time this season, Winston didn't throw an interception in completing 29 of 38 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns for a 117.4 passer rating. It was Winston's best performance of the season, coming against a San Francisco defense that entered the game ranked 10th overall. While it's easy to imagine Ryan Fitzpatrick putting up a winning effort against a 49ers defense that was dealing with former first-round pick Reuben Foster's abrupt departure from the team, Winston did everything he needed to in keeping Tampa Bay's faint flicker of a playoff hope alive.
- While the quarterback carousel in Tampa Bay appears to have stopped, the one in San Francisco might be getting started. The promise Nick Mullens showed in the 49ers' dominant prime-time win over the Oakland Raiders three weeks ago seemed like a distant memory against the Bucs. Mullens struggled to piece drives together for the 49ers (2-9) and was shaky in pressure situations as he connected on 18 for 32 passes for 221 yards, a touchdown and two picks. With Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon out, Mullens hardly had any reliable receiving options outside of tight end George Kittle. Matt Breida's impressive 106 yards rushing on 14 carries was the only real positive for the 49ers on offense. Coach Kyle Shanahan will have to figure out if having C.J. Beathard under center for next week's game against the Seattle Seahawks will serve the 49ers better as they continue to trudge through the post-Jimmy Garoppolo injury fog.
- Mike Evans has been a model of consistency for the Buccaneers. On Sunday, he joined Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only wide receivers in NFL history to post five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to start their careers. Evans caught six passes on eight targets for 116 yards. He wasn't the only standout for the Bucs. Pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul became the first Tampa Bay player since Simeon Rice in 2005 to record at least 10 sacks in a season when he smothered Mullens in the second quarter.
-- Austin Knoblauch
- The Ravens (6-5) weren't armed with the element of surprise this time around, but they still relied heavily on the ground game. It worked again, with the upstart Gus Edwards rushing 23 times for 118 yards and Lamar Jackson again ripping up yardage, running 11 times for 71 and a touchdown. It wasn't the emphatic effort of Week 11 against Cincinnati, but it was more than enough to keep Baltimore's offense moving. That was important, too, because Jackson didn't have the best day at the office when it came to throwing the ball. At one point, he owned a line of 9 for 18 for 140 yards and two interceptions, including an untimely and completely avoidable interception off a tipped pass (a nice play by Oakland's Gareon Conley) that was lofted to the end zone as a 50-50 ball inside two minutes. Jackson ended up rebounding, finishing with a final line of 14 for 25 for 178 yards, a touchdown and the two interceptions, and it might have been even better had a long completion to John Brown not been negated by a hold on fellow rookie Orlando Brown. Jackson has a ways to go as a passer but is an undeniable weapon for the Ravens and a main reason for their (and Edwards') success in the last two games.
- For all the goodwill built up by Oakland's decent start, Baltimore's Cyrus Jones wiped it away with a 70-yard punt return to take a 10-7 lead. That remained the theme for the rest of the game, that is, until the Raiders fell apart late in an all-too-familiar fashion. This time, it was a Derek Carr sack fumble, caused by Matt Judon (who celebrated that and two sacks on the immediate prior plays by running into the tunnel), recovered and returned for a touchdown by Terrell Suggs. The Raiders (2-9) show promise in small slivers of time, but they look much like the team they are: One that has traded away two of its best players for draft picks. Incremental improvement is all Oakland fans can hope for this season -- that, and more fun plays made by Jared Cook.
Having said all of that, the development of the Carr-Jon Gruden relationship remains something to watch. It can produce long completions at times and maddening mistakes at others, but their dynamic is vitally important to the team's future for obvious reasons. Sunday was a decent example of how it can be fairly tumultuous at times.
- Matt Judon is a guy I've enjoyed watching play since he came into the league in 2016, yet Sunday felt like it might have been his coming out party. He's been Baltimore's best-kept secret for a year or so now, but recording three straight sacks will get him plenty of national highlight-reel play and might make him a name recalled by more than just Ravens fans (or football nerds like us). These types of players are what makes Baltimore's defense resilient enough to keep the team in most games, and sometimes, effective enough to cause turnovers that decide them.
-- Nick Shook
Rivers dissected the Cardinals with well-placed passes, including two touchdown passes to wide receiver Mike Williams in the end zone. Williams' first score came on a back shoulder throw where he leaped and reached back to secure the ball, and the second touchdown came as Williams used his 6-foot-4 frame to snatch a pass close to the boundary line.
The Chargers pulled Rivers from the game early in the fourth quarter and he finished his record performance completing 28 of 29 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns for a 138.4 passer rating. Rivers is a dark horse candidate for the league's MVP award and deserves to be in the conversation.
- The Chargers improved to 8-3 on the season, but Sunday produced bad news. Running back Melvin Gordon suffered a knee injury early in the third quarter and didn't finish the game. Television replay showed a visibly upset Gordon on the trainer's table, and the broadcast booth pointed out teammates came over to console the running back. Gordon, who rushed for 61 yards and two touchdowns on the game, was shown walking to the locker room with a towel over his head and the Chargers now await results Monday's exams.
Gordon leads the Chargers in rushing with 802 yards and nine touchdowns on 153 carries, adding 44 catches for 453 yards and four touchdowns. Any potential lost time would deal a blow to a team in the hunt for the postseason.
- The Cardinals dropped a third consecutive game and sit on a 2-9 record in what is a clear rebuild process with first-year head coach Steve Wilks. Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen's development ran into a buzz saw, though, as the Chargers limited him to 105 yards passing on the game. If there was a bright spot to take away from Arizona's game, it would be defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who totaled 2.5 sacks and eight tackles on the game.
-- Herbie Teope