In a game that meant so much in a very crowded race for the two AFC wild card spots, it's a shame that someone not associated with either team decided this game.
That individual was Walt Coleman, who awarded the Dolphins with nine free points with two atrocious calls. It was a tight, 10-9 affair in the third quarter when Kyle Orton was whistled for an intentional grounding penalty that was ruled a safety because Orton was in the end zone when he threw the ball. It was a disgusting penalty that was wrong for two reasons. First, Sammy Watkins, the intended target, didn't make his break when Orton released the ball, so the quarterback didn't know where his receiver would be. And second, Watkins ended up being in the area anyway. He was literally 4-5 yards away from where the pass landed.
The second horrific penalty came on a play that set up Miami in the red zone because of a long pass interference. Stephon Gilmore made a terrific break-up, but the officials threw the flag. Both CBS announcers, as well as everyone on the post-game show, was completely appalled by the infraction. Gilmore made a completely clean play; he actually couldn't have defended his receiver any better. Shortly afterward, the Dolphins scored their second of two touchdowns on the evening, and even that was controversial, as instant replay showed that the ball was short of the goal line when Jarvis Landry's knee was down. Coleman reviewed it, but let the touchdown stand, either because he was too senile to understand what was going on, or he or someone associated with him had a big wager on the Dolphins.
Coleman was one of the two major reasons the Dolphins were able to prevail. The second was the Miami defensive front, which absolutely dominated the trenches after halftime. The Bills couldn't convert a single third down in the second half because the pressure was just too overwhelming. Orton barely had any time in the pocket and missed open receivers as a result. He didn't commit a turnover, but he easily could have, as Louis Delmas dropped a pass thrown right to him.
Orton went 22-of-39 for 193 yards, but was just 10-of-22 for 93 yards following intermission. He was solid early, finding Chris Hogan repeatedly to move the chains in the first half. Orton only had issues in the red zone early on, but he had major problems doing anything after halftime, as the Miami defense made the appropriate adjustments, while the Bills' coaching staff was befuddled, as usual.
Buffalo's defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, was guilty of some stupid play-calling as well. Schwartz, for reasons unknown, blitzed the Dolphins on too many occasions. Doing so failed every time, as Ryan Tannehill was able to hit an open receiver with a quick pass that always seemed to turn into a big gain. There was absolutely no reason for Schwartz to blitz, as the Bills had a front four that could get to Tannehill, who was missing his left tackle. Buffalo registered five sacks, including 3.5 from Mario Williams, who was sporting red contact lenses, but Schwartz stupidly sent extra rushers unnecessarily. He paid the price every time, yet he just didn't seem to realize that he was costing his team.
Schwartz's incompetence helped Tannehill thrive Thursday night, as he completed 26-of-34 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Tannehill made only a couple of bad throws. He missed Mike Wallace on a deep bomb, and he nearly threw an interception at the very end. He also lost a fumble in the red zone in the first half and took a big loss on a sack (12 yards), but he was on point most of the evening. He even had an impressive juke on a Buffalo defender on a 15-yard scramble in the fourth quarter.
Lamar Miller's effectiveness was a surprise. Expected to be limited, Miller gashed the Bills' strong run defense for 86 yards on only 15 carries. The Bills, conversely, couldn't run the ball at all. Anthony Dixon (10-35) picked up some short-yardage conversions, while Bryce Brown's only positive take-away as a runner was that he didn't fumble. Brown gained just 14 yards on six carries.
I mentioned earlier that Tannehill missed Wallace on a deep shot. That ruined the night for Wallace, who led the team in targets (7), yet was able to produce only four catches for 38 yards. Brian Hartline paced the team in receiving (3-55), while Landry (5-46) and Brandon Gibson (2-13) both found the end zone. Landry converted all five of his targets, but lost a fumble on the free kick following the poor Orton safety call. Fortunately for Landry, Dan Carpenter whiffed on a 47-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, setting up Miami with a short field, which eventually led to Landry's touchdown.
Sammy Watkins, like Wallace, was also missed deep, as Orton overthrew him. Watkins had a horrific fantasy outing, snagging just three of his seven targets for 32 yards. Hogan was the hero for the Bills early on with seven grabs for 74 yards, while Bryce Brown tied Hogan with seven catches for 57 receiving yards, saving those who started him in PPR leagues.
Falcons 19, Panthers 17
Remember when everyone was expecting the Falcons to fire Mike Smith following that disastrous meltdown against the Lions in London? That seems like ages ago, because those very same Falcons are now in first place of the NFC South. They're just 4-6, but in the wake of this victory, as well as New Orleans' epically horrific showing against the Bengals, Atlanta has moved into a playoff spot.
Things didn't begin smoothly for the Falcons, at least on offense. They had a sloppy red-zone possession in which Matt Ryan took a sack because his receivers couldn't get open for some reason. Ryan also missed some receivers, including Julio Jones twice - once for a potential big gain, and another time when he threw way too high on a receiver screen. However, Ryan ultimately got into a groove. He threw a touchdown to Roddy White and then led a game-winning field goal drive following an improbable Carolina comeback.
Ryan finished 31-of-45 for 268 yards and the touchdown to White, who caught eight of his team-leading 12 targets for 75 yards. White outgained Jones, who finished with six grabs for 59 yards. As mentioned, Ryan had some issues connecting to his stud receiver. Jones should've had a bigger afternoon, and I'm sure he'll rebound soon.
Part of the problem for Atlanta's offense early on was that Steven Jackson was completely ineffective. Jackson mustered just 41 yards on 17 carries, and he didn't have a gain longer than five yards. It seemed like a wasted down every single time Jackson touched the football, and it's very puzzling as to why Devonta Freeman (6-28) and Antone Smith (1 touch) aren't getting more of a workload.
The Panthers, meanwhile, deserve credit for not quitting late. Things were going miserably for them early on, as they were down 16-3. Cam Newton was completely inaccurate, and he was responsible for multiple interceptions. Following one incompletion, which was nowhere near Greg Olsen, the crowd booed Newton off the field, prompting the FOX announcers to wonder whether Ron Rivera would bench Newton in favor of Derek Anderson.
Newton, however, came alive in the fourth quarter. Carolina took the lead at one point eventually, and following an Atlanta field goal, it had two chances at game-winning field goals. The first was wide right from 46, which was Graham Gano's second miss ever at home as a member of the Panthers. The second was blocked from 63.
Despite going 10-of-16 for 79 yards and a pick in the first half, Newton managed to finish 23-of-37 for 292 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of picks to go along with 30 rushing yards on five scrambles. The first interception tipped off Olsen's hands, while the second was telegraphed, although Kelvin Benjamin was guilty of slowing down on his route. Newton eventually managed to take the lead with a pretty bomb lofted to Philly Brown, as the ball fell perfectly into the rookie wideout's arms.
Newton's other touchdown went to Benjamin, who finished with a monstrous stat line (9 catches, 109 yards) after a mediocre start. Benjamin had just two grabs for 21 yards at the break, so his fantasy owners were thrilled to see Newton finally get his act together in the fourth quarter. Olsen, meanwhile, had five catches for 61 yards, but was responsible for one of Newton's interceptions.
DeAngelo Williams had three more carries than Jonathan Stewart this week, outgaining his teammate, 41-24. Neither was very effective against a poor run defense. This position needs to be addressed this spring, and that's what I have happening in my 2015 NFL Mock Draft.
Bears 21, Vikings 13
The Bears desperately needed a performance like this. They'll need a miracle to make the playoffs, but this was more about their future. Jay Cutler's heart and Marc Trestman's coaching were questioned after two consecutive blowout losses to the Patriots and Packers. There was speculation all week that neither would return in 2015, so their victory in this contest could be the first step to allow both to maintain their jobs for at least another season.
Despite the victory, Chicago didn't get off to a good start. Cutler lost a fumble early on and then proceeded to yell at the refs about it, drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty. The Vikings appeared to recover, but the officials strangely ruled that they took too long to pounce on the football and thus weren't awarded possession. It was such a weird call, but it ultimately didn't matter because Robbie Gould missed a long field goal, as Cutler's penalty ended up costing his team valuable yardage. Slightly afterward, Trestman and his staff weren't prepared for a fake punt, which Minnesota turned into a touchdown. The Vikings went up 10-0, and it appeared as though they would run away with this contest.
I thought there was a good chance Cutler would just pack it in and quit again, but he actually played well for the first time in a while. He had a couple of sketchy moments during the afternoon - in addition to that fumble-penalty, he had a classic, #yolo interception in Minnesota territory - but his positive plays far outweighed the negatives.
Cutler finished 31-of-43 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The other pick was underthrown during the 2-minute drill at the end of the first half, which allowed Xavier Rhodes to come away with his first-career interception. Cutler nearly scored on the ground, but was ruled short on a fourth-down scramble. Still, Cutler showed some heart, as he took a crushing hit.
Cutler's twin-tower receivers made some great catches. Brandon Marshall, who snagged seven balls for 90 yards, hauled in two of Cutler's touchdowns. One was awesome, as he boxed out his outmatched defender and ripped the ball out of the air. Alshon Jeffery (11-135, TD) also made a fantastic, leaping catch. His one blemish on the afternoon was a dropped touchdown, as he could've matched Marshall with two scores.
Matt Forte was expected to have a big outing against a pedestrian defense, and he didn't disappoint. He gained 117 yards on 26 carries, and he also reeled in all six of his targets for 58 receiving yards.
Aside from the Cutler and Trestman redemptive angles, the big story in this game was the pressure the Bears sent after Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings' rookie signal-caller was constantly under siege. He was sacked only twice, but that's not indicative of how much heat he saw throughout the afternoon. Jared Allen abused the inept Matt Kalil; it's astonishing how the former Pro Bowl left tackle has transformed into one of the worst offensive linemen in the NFL. It was so bad that at one point, Bridgewater drifted back 25 yards in the pocket on one play to avoid pressure.
Bridgewater went 18-of-28 for 158 yards, one touchdown and an interception, which was just a desperation heave into the end zone. However, the score occurred after the aforementioned fake punt, as Chicago's defense wasn't prepared.
With Bridgewater struggling with time in the pocket, he couldn't connect with his primary receivers. Cordarrelle Patterson saw only three targets, catching two of them for 24 yards. Greg Jennings' numbers (1-4) were even worse. He was thrown to just twice, but that's because he left early with a rib injury. Meanwhile, Kyle Rudolph played, but didn't catch a single pass. Someone named Charles Johnson led the Vikings with six grabs for 87 yards.
Vikings' offensive coordinator Norv Turner screwed up by not trying to establish the run. Jerick McKinnon saw just eight carries despite the fact that the Vikings never trailed by more than four points until the final quarter. McKinnon managed just 38 yards on his attempts, while Matt Asiata rumbled just once for two yards.
Texans 23, Browns 7
Mike Pettine has an important decision to make. Brian Hoyer, despite Deion Sanders' pleas to get him paid, is not the answer. He was absolutely dreadful in this game, as he gave his team no chance to win. Hoyer doesn't have the ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs, so Pettine really needs to think about inserting Johnny Manziel into the lineup. Manziel doesn't have the mental aspect of the game down yet - and I'm not sure he ever will - but he would be an upgrade over Hoyer.
I wouldn't trust Pettine to make the right decision though, given how he has bungled the running back situation. He made the right move to bench Ben Tate in favor of Terrance West, but he screwed up this week when he went with the inferior Isaiah Crowell. It was extremely puzzling, as West fixed a ground attack that had been decaying ever since All-Pro center Alex Mack was lost. The decision predictably blew up in Pettine's face, as Crowell didn't do anything outside of a 35-yard run. Crowell also lost a fumble near midfield in the second quarter. Pettine, who already wasted two timeouts early in the opening half, looked so stupid when Brian Cushing punched the ball out and J.J. Watt recovered.
Speaking of Watt, he completely dominated this game. In addition to recovering that fumble, Watt had a sack, forced a fumble, had several tackles for losses, single-handedly screwed up a Cleveland drive that went 18 yards in the wrong direction, and even caught another touchdown. Watt's aggression backfired on a couple of instances when he committed two roughing-the-punter penalties.
On the offensive side of the ball for Houston, all eyes were on Ryan Mallett, who was making his first career start. Mallett's first pass appeared to be a 28-yard connection to Andre Johnson, but the ball hit the ground. His second pass wasn't even close either, but Mallett caught fire after that. He heaved a 41-yarder to DeAndre Hopkins, who came down with the ball in double coverage. He made a bullet throw to Johnson to convert a third-and-8, and then he lofted a nice touch pass to Watt in the end zone.
Mallett finished 20-of-30 for 211 yards for two touchdowns and an interception that was more of a great play by Joe Haden than a bad throw by Mallett. He also nearly had a second pick that was dropped. The new Houston signal-caller has loads of upside, but smart defensive coordinators will be able to take advantage of his lacking mental abilities.
In the meantime, Hopkins (4-80) and Johnson (7-68) will be happy to have an upgrade at quarterback, as their numbers will undoubtedly improve. Garrett Graham (2-34) snagged Mallett's other touchdown.
The Texans' victory is impressive considering that they didn't have Arian Foster at their disposal. Alfred Blue ran well versus a horrific run defense, gaining 156 yards on 36 carries.
Some quick Cleveland stats:
- Hoyer went 20-of-50 for 330 yards, one touchdown and an interception. If it wasn't for some decent strikes against a prevent defense, his numbers would've looked a lot worse. He was 11-of-28 at one point.
- Hoyer's one touchdown went to Andrew Hawkins, who caught six of 13 targets for 97 yards. Taylor Gabriel also saw 13 targets, snatching five of them for 92 yards.
- Crowell, as mentioned, did nothing outside of one long gain. He mustered 61 yards on 14 carries along with the lost fumble. West (5-12) should've received more of a workload.
Adding injury to insult, Karlos Dansby may have sprained his MCL. He'll surely have an MRI on Monday. His absence would be huge.
Chiefs 24, Seahawks 20
This was a big game for the Chiefs. They've had an impressive winning streak going, but knocking off the defending Super Bowl champs would send a message that they are for real. Well, everyone now knows that they are, in fact, a legitimate threat.
It was pretty astonishing how easily the Chiefs moved the chains in this game. They opened things up with an impressive, 86-yard touchdown drive, culminating with a Jamaal Charles score on an option. The Chiefs blasted open big holes for their runners, easily pushing around the Seahawks in the trenches. It's clear that Brandon Mebane, who was lost with an injury, is sorely missed.
Kansas City's next drive also resulted in a touchdown, though they did it quickly with numerous explosive plays. The Chiefs moved the chains in a variety of ways throughout the afternoon, and the Seahawks struggled to get their defense off the field. Kansas City punted only twice, while facing only six third-down situations throughout the contest. The Chiefs averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per play.
Charles had a fantastic afternoon. He carried the ball just 20 times, but managed to accumulate 159 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught two balls for 19 receiving yards. His only blemish on the afternoon was when he lost a fumble near midfield in the third quarter, which led to a Seattle score. Knile Davis (5-10) vultured a touchdown following a long Charles gain.
Alex Smith once again didn't find a receiver in the end zone - he didn't throw any touchdowns, or interceptions, for that matter - but he did a good job of managing the game and releasing the ball quickly. He misfired just five times, going 11-of-16 for 108 yards.
The only Kansas City player who had more than two catches was Travis Kelce, who converted three of his five targets for 37 yards. Kelce also lost a fumble in the 2-minute drill, which Seattle converted into a field goal.
The Kansas City fumbles kept the Seahawks in the game with 10 free points. The Chiefs forced a fumble themselves on Russell Wilson, but an illegal hands penalty allowed Seattle to keep the drive alive and ultimately score a touchdown. Wilson did a good job of converting third-and-long situations all afternoon, and it appeared as though he'd have a good chance of leading his team to victory - until Max Unger went down. The talented center was missed, as his absence created some pass-protection issues. Dontari Poe was able to sack Wilson as a consequence on the final drive, which pretty much ended the game.
Wilson finished 20-of-32 for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He endured some accuracy issues early on, but got into a groove until Unger went down. Wilson was also lethal on the ground, scrambling eight times for 71 rushing yards.
Speaking of running well, Marshawn Lynch rumbled for 124 yards on 24 carries. He had big holes to burst through before Unger got hurt. Lynch was stuffed on third-and-short near the goal line with several minutes remaining in regulation, which was a big part of Kansas City's victory.
Wilson's other aerial score went to Doug Baldwin (6-45). Seattle's leading receiver was Jermaine Kearse, who had five catches for 54 yards, but was guilty of dropping a touchdown.
Bengals 27, Saints 10
From an outside perspective, the weird thing regarding this game is that while the Saints' defense has been putrid, the offense couldn't do anything in this contest. By the time the Bengals established a 20-3 lead in the middle of the third quarter, New Orleans had been outgained by 120 yards, and Drew Brees was 18-of-24, but for only 135 yards. The Saints, who showed absolutely no signs of desperation throughout the afternoon, couldn't even get more than seven garbage-time points; that's how dismal this performance was on their part.
Brees ultimately went 33-of-41 for 255 yards and a late, meaningless touchdown. The numbers don't look terrible, but all Brees did throughout the afternoon was dink and dunk. He and Sean Payton screwed up in the red zone yet again, as they squandered a scoring opportunity in the second quarter, coming away with zero points.
So, what really happened? There's no logical reason why the Saints' top-ranked offense should sputter against an injury-ridden Cincinnati defense. The answer is Jimmy Graham's injury. Graham (3-29) hurt his shoulder in the first quarter, and while he stayed in the game, he just didn't look the same. We've seen the Saints' offense sputter when Graham is hurt, and that's exactly what happened this Sunday. It doesn't fully excuse this completely embarrassing loss - remember that the defense sucked as well - but it would explain why New Orleans couldn't score at all.
It was odd to see Mark Ingram struggle to run on a Cincinnati defense that couldn't stop the Cleveland backs last Thursday. Ingram managed just 67 yards on 23 carries.
As for the Bengals, Andy Dalton completely redeemed himself following Thursday's disastrous performance. He misfired just six times, going 16-of-22 for 220 yards and three touchdowns. He had only a couple of bad passes, including one in he red zone when he missed an open Mohamed Sanu because he rushed his attempt. Of course, Dalton had an easier matchup, as he was going up against an already-poor secondary that was missing Keenan Lewis. The stud corner played, but was limited to just 11 snaps because of an injury. Lewis not being on the field was just as huge as Graham's injury, as the Saints just didn't have anyone who could cover A.J. Green.
Only one Cincinnati player had more than 36 receiving yards, and that was Green, who hauled in six balls for 127 yards and a touchdown, as he was thrilled that Lewis couldn't play much. Green nearly had a second score, but the ball barely touched the ground. Sanu (3-23) didn't do much. By the way, Rex Burkhead had that 36-yard figure, and it's sad that the incompetent Saints couldn't prevent him from having a trio of double-digit gains.
Jeremy Hill, starting in place of Giovani Bernard, gained 152 yards on 27 carries. The big play was a 62-yard burst at the end of the first half. The Bengals were pinned deep in their own territory and seemed content to let the clock run out, but the incompetent Saints allowed Hill to burst for 62 yards, setting up a field goal. This allowed the Bengals to enter halftime with a 10-point lead instead of just a touchdown advantage.
49ers 16, Giants 10
The 49ers and Giants had a fierce battle Sunday afternoon. But a victory wasn't at stake; it was the distinction of being the team to commit the most mental errors in a single game. New York prevailed, but had quite the challenge from San Francisco.
The 49ers kicked things off with a Frank Gore lost fumble in the red zone on a good-looking drive. Colin Kaepernick then threw way behind Michael Crabree near the red zone on a third down. After that, San Francisco had two special-teams gaffe, getting surprised by an onside kick and then botching a field goal when a bad snap forced Andy Lee to pick up the ball and attempt a desperation heave downfield. This looked exactly like a play that the Giants had go against them in a wild-card playoff game following the 2002 season, so it took them 14 years, but they finally got revenge.
The Giants outclassed the 49ers, committing five turnovers. All of them were Eli Manning interceptions. Because Eli had an epically brutal performance, cementing himself as the worst quarterback of the three Manning brothers, let's delve into all of his picks:
Manning's first interception was telegraphed. His second was one of the worst throws in NFL history. It was unclear whom Manning was targeting because he lofted a weak-armed duck to a 49er player with no teammate in the vicinity. His third was a terrible overthrow. His fourth occurred because he was hit as he released the ball. The fifth should've never happened; after stupidly throwing three fades in the red zone - horrible play-calling because fades seldom work - the Giants should've tried a field goal. They were down six with 4:30 remaining on the clock, so going for three made a lot of sense. Tom Coughlin foolishly went for it, and Manning proceeded to throw his fifth pick on a deflection.
Manning finished 22-of-45 for 280 yards, one touchdown and the five picks. He had some nice throws during the afternoon, but his interceptions were back-breakers. The Giants played evenly with the 49ers, but the turnovers were the difference.
The silver lining for the Giants was that Odell Beckham looked great once again. He caught six balls for 93 yards, including a fantastic sideline grab. Rueben Randle actually outgained Beckham, snatching seven passes for 112 yards. Larry Donnell (3-54) secured Manning's sole touchdown.
The Giants were expected to be more competitive in this game because they finally had a threat in their backfield. Rashad Jennings was sorely missed because Andre Williams was dreadful as a replacement. Jennings (18-59) didn't actually fall forward for two yards every time.
The 49ers predictably ran better than the Giants. Gore gained 95 yards on 19 carries, but he had that aforementioned fumble that helped the Giants hang around.
Kaepernick needed Gore to run well, as he struggled in this contest. Barely completing half of his passes, Kaepernick went 15-of-29 for 193 yards and a touchdown. He had accuracy issues, and he was lucky to even get 16 points, as a bogus Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie pass interference gave the 49ers a gift field goal early on.
Crabtree led the 49ers in receiving for a change, catching three passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. Anquan Boldin had a disappointing outing (5-53), while Vernon Davis was awful yet again, reeling in just one of his five targets for seven yards.
Rams 22, Broncos 7
I wrote that hell would freeze over before Peyton Manning lost to Shaun Hill. Maybe this result explain the second polar vortex. In all seriousness, I thought the Rams would cover this spread because it was absurdly high, but I never envisioned them actually beating the Broncos, considering all of the late-game meltdowns they've had this season. Give them credit though, as they bounced back from last week's gut-wrenching loss to the Cardinals.
Having said that, it's fair to wonder if the end result would've been any different had the Broncos not lost some key personnel throughout the contest. Both Montee Ball and Julius Thomas were knocked out early on. Ball's absence only affected depth, as C.J. Anderson was expected to carry the load in the wake of Ronnie Hillman's injury. Ball made a huge mistake by returning too early, as he re-injured his groin. Skill-position players often screw up by coming back prematurely as a result of player overconfidence, and Ball's arrogance has cost him.
Thomas going down was huge, as he sprained his ankle after making a short catch in the first quarter. Things got worse when Emmanuel Sanders was knocked out with a concussion. The officials flagged Rodney McLeod on a helmet-to-helmet hit on the violent collision, but they made a mistake because it was shoulder-to-shoulder. It ultimately didn't matter because the Rams prevailed, but Sanders is now in the concussion protocol. He may not be able to play next week.
Despite the injuries, Manning racked up the yardage, going 34-of-54 for 389 yards and a touchdown. However, he threw a pair of interceptions; one was an inaccurate throw, while the other was forced into double coverage. The Rams did a great job of pressuring Manning, who has never had much success against four-man rushes.
With Sanders, Thomas and Ball out, all Manning had at his disposal by the end of the game were Demaryius Thomas, C.J. Anderson and Wes Welker. Thomas led the team in receiving, catching seven passes for 103 yards. He just barely outgained Sanders, who was having a huge afternoon before going down. Sanders snagged five balls for 102 yards and a deep touchdown when the Rams were caught offguard on a fourth-and-10 in the second quarter just over midfield. Welker continued to do nothing; he had just four receptions for 28 yards to go along with a drop. Jacob Tamme, meanwhile, took over for Julius Thomas and was highly inefficient, converting just four of 10 targets for 31 yards.
As for Anderson, he struggled to find running lanes against St. Louis' stout ground defense, mustering just 29 yards on nine carries. However, he was a big factor in the passing attack, catching eight passes for 86 receiving yards.
Meanwhile, the victors didn't melt down for once. Perhaps the difference was Shaun Hill replacing the inconsistent Austin Davis. Hill had some accuracy issues early on, completing a pass to Kenny Britt that would've been a touchdown had it been on the money, and then he was nearly picked off on a pass thrown behind Jared Cook. However, Hill settled in and continuously threw great strikes, finishing 20-of-29 for 220 yards and a touchdown.
The Rams had just one receiver who totaled more than 31 receiving yards. That was Britt, who was a monster, securing four passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. One of the CBS announcers even exclaimed, "The Broncos can't handle Kenny Britt!"
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this loss for Denver was that its run defense allowed Tre Mason to have a big game. The Broncos were ranked first against the rush entering this weekend, yet Mason gained 113 yards on 29 attempts.
Editor's Note: How do the Buccaneers play so well on the road and so terribly at home? Maybe they should ask Roger Goodell if they can play 16 away games next year.
A year ago, Tampa Bay started 0-8 before winning some meaningless games down the stretch that hurt the franchise's draft positioning. The Buccaneers started that process again with a win over the Redskins. However, Tampa Bay's new coaching staff needs to start showing some improvement, and this was a start toward that to close out the 2014 season. Mike Evans is proving to be an excellent pick from the new regime, as he destroyed the Redskins to the tune of 209 yards and two touchdowns on only seven receptions.
To make this win possible, Washington's offensive line was completely incompetent and allowed six sacks. Robert Griffin III held onto the ball too long, but the Redskin blockers made Tampa Bay resemble the line of its late-90s playoff teams.
The inept football got started immediately as the Redskins turned the ball over on their first play from scrimmage. After Lavonte David forgot to tackle Griffin for a sack, Griffin rolled out and threw to Niles Paul. He deflected the ball into the air and linebacker Danny Lansanah snatched the pass for an interception. Josh McCown then fumbled the ball on a strip-sack by Trent Murphy, but Tampa Bay recovered to set up a short field goal. The Bucs added a touchdown after Larry English tipped a Griffin pass that was picked off by Johnthan Banks. He ran it into the end zone from 19 yards out.
Clinton McDonald had a nice sack to end a Redskins drive, but Marcus Thigpen muffed the punt, and the Redskins recovered at the Bucs' 17-yard line. Alfred Morris ripped off an impressive run aided by a Lavonte David facemask. Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith came up with sacks, and that led to Washington missing a 47-yard field goal.
McCown threw a pass up to Mike Evans for a 51-yard gain to set up another field goal. The Redskins started to respond as they had a drive going well until Smith caused a fumble on a nice gain by Roy Helu and Tampa Bay recovered. With a minute remaining before halftime, the Redskins finally finished a drive. Some dump-offs to Alfred Morris moved the ball into Tampa Bay territory. The Bucs sent a blitz, but the Redskins had the perfect play called with a screen to Helu (6-57) that resulted in a 30-yard touchdown. The Bucs took a 13-7 lead into the half.
In the third quarter, Michael Johnson had a sack to push back a field goal attempt by the Redskins, and once again, they missed it. McCown took advantage with a 36-yard touchdown pass to Evans, who burned past Tracy Porter. They hooked up again for another score as Evans burned a linebacker for a 56-yard touchdown. The Redskins' offensive line was too porous to give Washington any chance of making a comeback.
McCown completed 15-of-23 passes for 288 yards with two scores. Charles Sims led the Bucs on the ground with 36 yards on 13 carries. Vincent Jackson (3-43) is seeing fewer targets, as Evans has emerged as a big-time play-maker.
Griffin finished 23-of-32 for 207 yards with a score and two interceptions. Alfred Morris had a solid performance with 96 yards on 20 carries and two catches for 36 yards. Griffin missed an opportunity for a big play as he could have had a long touchdown pass of around 60 yards to DeSean Jackson (4-35) in the first half, but he overthrew Jackson in the end zone.
The Bucs' defense got good games from Gerald McCoy (5 tackles, 1.5 sacks), Clinton McDonald (4 tackles, 1 sack), Jacquies Smith (2 sacks), Michael Johnson (1 sack) and Lavonte David (12 tackles).
One of the reasons the Redskins' line struggled was left tackle Trent Williams left with a knee injury in the first half.
Editor's Note: I wish I hadn't bet three units on the Chargers before hearing that Norv Turner decided to coach the Chargers again. The news broke right before halftime when the Chargers allowed 17 seconds to let the time run off the clock. They wasted a timeout and a scoring opportunity as a consequence. Oh, Norv!
The Chargers were in need of a win to keep pace in the wild-card race in the AFC, and while they came through with a victory to improve to 6-4, they have to be concerned about their level of play after struggling to score points on the Raiders. San Diego's offense looked very average against an Oakland defense that was just dominated by Denver. The Chargers picked up the win, but they have to take their play to another level if they want to make it to the postseason again.
On the first play from scrimmage, Derek Carr fumbled the snap away to San Diego. Philip Rivers made the Raiders pay with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Malcom Floyd, but that was the only Chargers touchdown of the day, and it was gift wrapped for them. Oakland's defense was surprisingly up to the task of limiting Rivers, and that is a troubling sign for San Diego going forward.
Carr responded with some nice passes to set up a Sebastian Janikowski field goal. Both offenses moved the ball on some drives before stalling and sending out the punter. The Chargers missed a field goal at the end of the first half. Without Carr's fumble, it would have been a 3-3 game.
In the third quarter, Ryan Mathews (16-70) burst for 20 yards, and that led to a 52-yard field goal from Nick Novak. After getting backed up inside their own 10, the Raiders got going by feeding the ball to Latavius Murray (4-43). He ripped off two runs for about 30 yards, but that drive stalled as well. Midway through the fourth quarter, Carr hit Kenbrell Thompkins for a 35-yard yard gain to set up a field goal for Oakland. The Raiders had one more shot after a 28-yard pass to James Jones, but the Hail Mary fell incomplete.
Rivers completed 22-of-34 passes for 193 yards with the lone touchdown. He suffered a leg injury, but gutted it out (Editor's note: Antonio Gates later revealed that Rivers has also been dealing with a rib injury for the past few weeks, which would explain his struggles since the second half of the Denver game). Keenan Allen (8-63), Gates (3-32) and Eddie Royal (2-27) were surprisingly contained by the Oakland secondary. The Raiders' defense got some good play out of the front seven, including sacks from Antonio Smith and Khalil Mack.
Carr finished 16-of-34 for 172 yards. The numbers don't illustrate it, but he made a number of good throws. His receivers really struggled to get open, and Oakland lacks play-makers to help Carr out. Darren McFadden (8-21) didn't find any running lanes against the Chargers. Rookie Jeremiah Attaochu had a big sack in the fourth quarter, and Marcus Gilchrist played well for San Diego.
Cardinals 14, Lions 6
The Cardinals have a tough battle at Seattle coming up, but this game meant more for them for two reasons. First, it would possibly determine the tie-breaker for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. And more prominently, it allowed them to prove to everyone that they can win without Carson Palmer. Most of the talking heads in the media dismissed Arizona's chances - myself included - but Bruce Arians made it known during his post-game press conference that it was important to have the next man step up.
Having said that, I still have my doubts about Drew Stanton. He certainly began the game well, making a nice throw to John Brown on a third-and-11. He then launched a 42-yard touchdown bomb to Michael Floyd. Unfortunately, following a second Floyd score, things trended downward for Stanton. He threw an interception in the red zone when he didn't see linebacker Josh Bynes. He then tossed a second pick when he forced the ball into coverage. Stanton nearly had a third interception in the second half that was dropped, but he redeemed himself by converting a third-and-11 to Larry Fitzgerald that iced the game, which the FOX announcers called the "biggest throw of his career." There's some question as to whether Fitzgerald was past the line to gain, but the Lions couldn't challenge because they were out of timeouts. Jim Caldwell used all of them prior to the 2-minute warning, which was a poor coaching gaffe.
Stanton went 21-of-32 for 306 yards, two touchdowns and the pair of picks. Those numbers look much better than how Stanton actually played, as he struggled to move the chains following the initial scoring drives.
Both of Stanton's aerial scores went to Michael Floyd, who only made two catches for 54 yards. John Brown (5-69) led the team in receiving, while Fitzgerald (2-33) didn't do much because he hurt his knee. He'll have an MRI on Monday, but it's a good sign that he was able to gut it out and snare the game-sealing reception.
Andre Ellington continued to contribute as a pass-catcher with four grabs for 24 receiving yards. However, he didn't get anything on the ground against Detroit's ferocious run defense, gaining just 42 rushing yards on 19 carries.
While Stanton did a fairly decent job overall, the primary reason why the Cardinals were able to prevail was the play of the defense. They put immense pressure on Matthew Stafford and prevented him from finding Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate downfield. The Cardinals sacked Stafford four times, and it easily could've been a higher number.
Stafford went 18-of-30 for 183 yards and an interception that was forced under pressure. It could've been much worse though, as Jerraud Powers dropped a possible Stafford pick in the first half. Stafford also fumbled, but his teammates recovered.
Calvin Johnson converted just five of 12 targets for 59 yards. Patrick Peterson had solid coverage, but Stafford simply didn't have an opportunity to get the ball to his All-Pro receiver. Johnson also hurt Stafford with a deep drop on third-and-long. Golden Tate (2-41) had an even worse outing.
With Reggie Bush out again, Joique Bell handled most of the workload, tallying 85 yards on 14 carries. Curiously, the Lions used Theo Riddick in a short-yardage role in the second half, and Riddick was predictably stuffed. The FOX announcers asked why Bell wasn't being used in this crucial situation, and I was wondering the same thing.
There were a number of terrible calls in this game, which shouldn't have been a surprise because Jerome Boger was the official. The league's most incompetent ref screwed up when he failed to overturn a poor Detroit spot in the red zone following an Eric Ebron catch, proving once again that Boger doesn't know how to use replay. After that, Detroit special-teamer Jeremy Ross made a heads-up play to take a tipped pass and return it past midfield. The play was reviewed, and Boger incorrectly determined that the ball should be on the Detroit 1-yard line because the Cardinals somehow had possession, when that never really happened. In other words, Boger's blatant error ended up costing the Lions about 50 yards. Boger also messed up the spot on the Fitzgerald reception, which ended the game instead of giving Detroit one last shot.
Packers 53, Eagles 20
I thought this was a big test for the Eagles. They've been a team that has gotten most of its victories because of turnovers and special-teams play, but that's not a sustainable way of winning football games. They'd need to actually play well on both sides of the ball to prevail in Lambeau. As it turns out, they were terrible on offense, defense and special teams.
Philadelphia's secondary had absolutely no chance against Aaron Rodgers. Mr. Discount Double-Check was extremely sharp, immediately opening up with a 64-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson, who beat Bradley Fletcher. Rodgers later impressively kept a drive alive with a third-and-18 conversion. By halftime, he was 18-of-25 for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
Rodgers was once again on pace to challenge an NFL record in the first half - this time, the single-game passing yardage mark - but as with last week's game, he stopped throwing because the contest wasn't competitive. Rodgers finished 22-of-36 for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Not included in those stats was a long pass interference that Nelson drew. Rodgers also picked up some first downs with his legs, scrambling thrice for 32 rushing yards.
Rodgers' three touchdowns went to different players: Nelson (4-109), who easily could've had a bigger game if it weren't for some bad luck, Eddie Lacy and Davante Adams. Randall Cobb didn't find the end zone, but he led the team with 10 catches and 129 receiving yards.
Lacy was a monster, totaling 69 rushing yards on 10 carries and catching three passes for 45 receiving yards. He scored twice; once on the ground and once on a pass from Rodgers. He completely blew up Brandon Boykin with a fierce collision.
The Packers also scored points on special teams, as Micah Hyde took a 75-yard punt return to the house at the end of the first quarter.
As for the Eagles' offense, Mark Sanchez had a dreadful showing after a solid Monday night performance. The Packers' pass rush didn't make things easy for him. Letroy Guion beat a backup guard for a sack to disrupt a promising drive. Sanchez was then sacked on third downs of consecutive possessions, one of which occurred in the red zone.
Sanchez wasn't brought down behind the line of scrimmage in the second half, but the Packers were up by so much that they took their foot off the gas. Chip Kelly opted not to do the same, keeping Sanchez, Darren Sproles and many other starters in the game very late despite facing a 40-point deficit. I'm not sure if Kelly still thinks he needs to impress clueless AP poll voters, but he's extremely fortunate that his team didn't suffer any injuries late in meaningless action, because that would've been catastrophic.
Sanchez's final numbers don't look bad - 26-of-44, 346 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions - but most of his positive stats came in garbage time. He had accuracy issues, fumbled an exchange, lost another fumble on a high snap, took bad sacks and tossed a pick-six right to Julius Peppers. His other interception was a desperation heave at the end of the game.
LeSean McCoy didn't play well either. He gained 88 yards on 23 carries, but hurt his team with a lost fumble in the third quarter. He caught only one pass for 18 receiving yards.
Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews weren't complaining about the garbage-time stats. Maclin led the team with nine catches for 93 yards, while Matthews (5-107) outgained him, though he had a bad drop.
Patriots 42, Colts 20
I had the Patriots as the No. 1 team in my NFL Power Rankings, and I think that I even underrated them. After dismantling both the Broncos and Colts, the Patriots look like they are an unstoppable force. They're prolific on both offense and defense, and the Colts, who are probably a top-five NFL team, appeared to be completely helpless against them.
Tom Brady wasn't even at the top of his game early on. He was just 10-of-19 for 84 yards and two interceptions prior to halftime. One pick occurred as Brady was getting hit, but the other was an ugly, careless heave off his back foot that set up an Indianapolis touchdown prior to intermission. This, however, sparked Brady, as he looked pissed coming out of the locker room. He was nearly flawless for the rest of the game, going 9-of-11 for 173 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
Brady's final numbers were 19-of-30 for 257 yards, two touchdowns and the pair of picks. Both scores went to his tight ends. Tim Wright caught the first one, while Rob Gronkowski impressively powered his way into the end zone after securing a short pass. If you didn't see the highlight on SportsCenter, check it out; Gronkowski bulldozed through five helpless defenders and refused to go down before crossing the goal line. It was vintage Gronk, and yet another sign that he's completely healthy. If he's 100 percent, the Patriots' offense is very difficult to contain.
The star for New England's offense was Jonas Gray. The Colts couldn't tackle him at all, as the powerful rookie continuously moved piles and ultimately rushed for 199 yards and a whopping four touchdowns on 38 carries. Indianapolis seemed to focus more on Gray following intermission, which made life easier for Brady.
Excluding Gronkowski, who caught four balls for 71 yards and drew a pass interference in the end zone, Brandon LaFell led the team with 62 receiving yards on three receptions. Julian Edelman (5-50) and Shane Vereen (4-59) also contributed.
Andrew Luck must have been envious watching Gray pummel for big yardage, as his big back, Trent Richardson, did nothing. He literally did nothing, as he didn't gain a single yard on seven carries. Richardson stinks, and the bad news is that the Colts may have to use him going forward; Ahmad Bradshaw, who wasn't much better with four yards on his seven attempts, suffered a lower-leg injury and left the game. Bradshaw really cost his team early by dropping a pass that would've gone for a big gain.
Bradshaw wasn't the only injured player for the Colts, as Dwayne Allen went down early, which was huge because Luck loves to lean on him. Luck went 23-of-39 for 303 yards, two touchdowns and an interception - impressive numbers considering that a stalwart Patriot defense stymied T.Y. Hilton. New England did a tremendous job on Luck in the second half, limiting him to 10-of-20 passing for 130 yards. Luck was as fault as well, missing Donte Moncrief on a deep pass. His pick was an impressive play by Darrelle Revis, who tipped the ball to Devin McCourty.
The Patriots limited Hilton to just three catches for 24 yards. The speedy wideout should've drawn a pass interference in the end zone early on, but the officials didn't call the penalty for some strange reason.
Only two Colts outgained Hilton: Coby Fleener (7-144) and Reggie Wayne (5-91). Hakeem Nicks (2-15) and tackle-eligible Anthony Castonzo secured Luck's touchdowns.
Steelers 27, Titans 24
Not many expected this to be a close game. The Steelers were favored by a touchdown, and more than 85 percent of the money in Vegas was on Pittsburgh. It looked like this contest was going to play out exactly how everyone envisioned it to when the Steelers, up 3-0, ran back a pick-six, which was a poor Zach Mettenberger throw and an even worse route by Justin Hunter. It appeared as though Pittsburgh would win in a blowout.
Well, by the end of the third quarter, the Steelers were down 24-13. Pittsburgh struggled to contain the Titans, who were winning the yardage battle for most of the evening. This shouldn't have been much of a surprise, given that the Steelers, who typically play down to their opponents as road favorites, were missing five starters on defense, including Troy Polamalu and Ryan Shazier.
Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger was making mistakes on the other side of the ball. He missed a touchdown to Martavis Bryant on a late throw. He then heaved an interception in the end zone toward Antonio Brown, which was thrown off his back foot. Roethlisberger's YPA at halftime was just 6.25, as he struggled with the immense pass rush the Titans brought. Tennessee blitzed as much as possible, and Roethlisberger took a whopping five sacks as a result.
Roethlisberger, however, finally figured out the Titans' schemes in the second half. He released the ball quickly and found the hot receiver, nullifying the Titans' blitz, and Tennessee didn't do anything to counter this. Roethlisberger consequently misfired just four times following intermission. He and Le'Veon Bell were able to keep long drives alive, putting up points and keeping Tennessee's offense off the field.
Roethlisberger finished 21-of-32 for 207 yards, one touchdown and the aforementioned interception. His score went to Antonio Brown, who was able to haul in nine of his 11 targets for 91 yards.
Besides Brown, only one Steeler accumulated more than 18 receiving yards. That was Heath Miller (5-71), who proved to be a solid safety valve for Roethlisberger to counter the blitz. Bryant (2-11) cooled off statistically, though Roethlisberger should've hit him for a touchdown early on.
Bell was a monster. He rushed for the most yardage of any Steeler running back in Monday night history, rumbling for 204 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. The Titans simply had no answer for him - not even when they knew he'd have the football in his hands. The Steelers took over with about seven minutes remaining in regulation, and they never relinquished possession because Bell was bursting for 8-10 yards each time he touched the ball.
As for the Titans, Mettenberger continued to show signs of improvement. He went 15-of-24 for 263 yards, two touchdowns and the early pick-six. His big play was an 80-yard bomb to Nate Washington following Roethlisberger's interception. He had some accuracy issues at times, but he displayed great power on his throws. He also endured some drops, including a couple by Kendall Wright, so he could've had a better night. Wright at least made up for it by leading the team with four catches for 70 yards.
Mettenberger's touchdowns went to Washington (1 catch, 80 yards) and Chase Coffman (3-32). Hunter, who had two grabs for 48 yards, proved to once again be an inefficient receiver. He needs to play better.
Bishop Sankey had some nice runs in this contest, but overall, more was expected from him. He gained just 38 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries against Pittsburgh's skeleton-crew defense.
For more thoughts, check out my updated NFL Power Rankings, which will be posted Tuesday morning.