(Ben Roethlisberger photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
Make New England Sunday's big winner. Not only did the the Patriots regain the top seed in the AFC playoff picture with losses by Cincinnati and Denver, but check out the top four ranked teams in that conference. Three of them are now quarterbacked by backups. And the one that's not? Tom Brady, come on down. Yeah, I'd say that gives New England an advantage.
2. They’re not a cinch for the playoffs … not yet they aren’t … but the white-hot Pittsburgh Steelers should be. And they will be with a win over Denver next weekend. I know, the Broncos have the league's top defense and are 10-3, but you have to like the Steelers' chances. They have the better quarterback. They have a balanced attack. And the game’s not in Denver, where the Broncos are 26-4 since the start of 2012. It’s at Heinz where Pittsburgh won its last three. With a victory next Sunday, Pittsburgh is all but in. Granted, the Steelers are behind Kansas City and the Jets for a wildcard spot, but that’s now. And that should change. After Denver, they finish with Baltimore and Cleveland – a combined 7-19 and playing with backup quarterbacks. Kansas City, meanwhile, could ... and should ... run the table, which leaves the Jets. Two of their last three are on the road, including Buffalo in the season ender, while the third is vs. New England. Don’t tell me you can’t find a loss in there. And maybe you find two.
3. If and when the Steelers make the playoffs, someone should send a thank-you note to Carolina. Pittsburgh couldn’t have made it without DeAngelo Williams.
4. I don’t care whom they draw in January, I’ll say it now: Seattle wins on wildcard weekend.
5. Let the guessing begin: How soon before we see Peyton Manning again?
6. When commissioner Roger Goodell last week said there are some officiating items "under consideration" for change in this year's playoffs, he as much as admitted that officiating is worse than ever, and the league knows it must fix it. There's no continuity with calls by crews, and nobody know what constitutes a catch or pass interference ... or, apparently, when there's a low blow on Ben Roethlisberger (see Vontaze Burfict).
7. To all those yahoos who insist that quarterback Russell Wilson is just a passenger on a Seattle bus driven by defense and Marshawn Lynch, consider this: Over his last four games, Wilson has 16 TDs and 0 interceptions. Nobody is playing the position better today. A passenger? Hardly. He’s the driver. And that’s what happens when you score 32 or more points in four of your last five games and average 34.6 points the past five weeks.
8. It’s not Aaron Rodgers who could take Green Bay deep into the playoffs. It’s a rushing attack that put up 230 yards Sunday. That takes the pressure off Rodgers and the Packers’ defense and could … I said could … launch the Packers on an extended run.
9. Let's hear it for New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. It was his game plan that took DeAndre Hopkins out of the game and forced Houston to beat the Patriots with what was left ... which wasn't much.
10. Don’t ask LeSean McCoy what he thinks of Chip Kelly now. He’s not talking. Funny how losing does that to people.
11. Now, more than ever, the Colts need Andrew Luck. Next weekend's game vs. Houston should decide the AFC South, and it's in Indianapolis -- where Houston hasn't won. If Luck isn't cleared, it's conceivable the division could be decided by ... quarterbacks Charlie Whitehurst and T.J. Yates? We don't make 'em up.
12. Somehow, some way, you knew there would be something to compromise Cincinnati’s chances to beat history in the playoffs. And we just got that something with Andy Dalton's thumb injury.
13. That, of course, means Cincinnati must win with ... AJ McCarron? Well, you're in luck, Bengals' fans. San Francisco is next, and you can win that one with A.J. Green at quarterback.
14. He didn’t win … and he didn’t score … but seldom has Philip Rivers played more courageously or effectively than on San Diego’s game-ending 17-drive series that ended with an incomplete pass in the end zone. You can look it up: Playing despite the flu and a bunch of nobodies at wide receiver, Rivers converted three fourth downs and one third-and-14 on the drive and barely missed tying the game with his last pass. There is no way anybody should be 3-10 with Philip Rivers.
15. Mike McCoy keeps giving ownership reasons to fire him, and here’s the latest: In three of their last four games the Bolts don’t have a touchdown – including their last two games at home. Then there’s this: San Diego not only is 0-4 in the AFC West but hasn’t scored a touchdown other than fourth-quarter garbage time vs. Oakland.
16. If you’re looking to market a product that has no catches, I suggest you hire the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant to push it and shoot the spot in Lambeau. Because there’s almost never a catch for Dez there.
17. Jeff Fisher didn’t get smart. He just woke up and did what he should have been doing all season – namely, trust Todd Gurley … not Nick Foles or Case Keenum ... to carry the offense.
18. Seattle hammered its last two opponents – Minnesota and Baltimore – by a combined score of 73-13, and get used to it, people. It could happen the next two weeks, too. The Seahawks play Cleveland and St. Louis. In Seattle.
19. Please tell me Johnny Manziel won't show up on some grainy party videos after that Cleveland win. Because I want to see more of the guy to get a read on what’s in store for 2016.
20. If and when Chuck Pagano is fired, consider the past two weeks his Waterloo. The Colts were outscored the past two weeks, 96-26, with one of those a 35-point loss to lowly Jacksonville. Worse, that loss was the Colts’ first within the AFC South since 2012. Indianapolis has a minus-81 point differential this season, which not only is the worst in the AFC South but the fourth-worst in the NFL.
21. I heard Pagano compare what happened to the Colts Sunday in Jacksonville to what happened to the Colts in Jacksonville in 2006. Two differences: 1) That team had Peyton Manning and 2) that team won the Super Bowl. This team doesn’t, and this team won’t.
22. Philadelphia didn’t beat Buffalo. Buffalo beat Buffalo, with 15 penalties – including four false-starts.
23. Yeah, I’d say the Falcons look as if they’ve quit. They haven’t just lost seven of their last eight. They’re so out of sorts they may not win again. I’m serious. They’re at Jacksonville next week, then home to Carolina and New Orleans … and tell me where there’s a sure win. Someone? Anyone?
24. So there. That’s what complaining to the team owner will get you, DeMarco.
25. If it seems like a good year for tight ends, it’s because it is. There have been 16 100-yard games from that position this season, up one from last year.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF FAME
(Cam Newton photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)
Carolina QB Cam Newton. More touchdowns, another victory and more support for his MVP campaign.
Philadelphia DT Fletcher Cox. On an afternoon where the Eagles’ defensive line dominated its opponent, Cox was the star of that line. He had eight tackles, including two for losses and one sack, and one quarterback hit – all of which made a believer of Buffalo coach Rex Ryan. “I was laughing when I saw him compared to Jerome Brown,” said Ryan. “But I’m not laughing now.”
Seattle WR Doug Baldwin. He has three TDs Sunday and eight the past three weeks. Note to defensive coordinators: You might want to cover him.
Washington TE Jordan Reed. He has a team-high nine catches for 120 yards and a touchdown to lead the Redskins to a rare … but critical … road win. The victory ended a nine-game road losing streak.
New England CB Logan Ryan. He's the guy who locked down DeAndre Hopkins, reducing him to three catches and forcing quarterback Brian Hoyer to look elsewhere for help he didn't get.
Kansas City LB Dee Ford. The second-year pro comes up with a career performance for a vastly improved Kansas City defense -- producing seven tackles and three of the Chiefs’ five sacks.
N.Y. Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. That makes nine touchdown passes and no interceptions the past three weeks. No wonder the Jets want to keep this guy.
Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles. That’s eight touchdown passes and one rushing the past two weeks and 30 TD passes for the year. Finally, it looks as if the Jags have themselves a franchise quarterback.
SUNDAY’S HALL OF SHAME
(Dez Bryant photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)
Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis. He’s inside the Pittsburgh 10 with just over 10 minutes to play and is trailing by 16. So he … kicks a field goal? C’mon, Marvin. You’re better than that.
Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor. He picks an awful time to throw his first interception since Week 4 – a span of 223 straight attempts. It not only ended Buffalo's chances for victory; it ended their chances for the playoffs.
Denver TE Vernon Davis. He costs the Broncos field position and a valuable first down with a late drop ... and, if you want to stretch it, he costs them a ballgame, too.
Chicago K Robbie Gould. One week after he shanks a field goal to beat San Francisco, he misses a 50-yarder with under two minutes left to tie Washington. Normally a sure thing, Gould has missed three field goals the past two weeks.
Dallas WR Dez Bryant. Maybe it’s Lambeau, but it sure seemed like he was fighting the ball all afternoon.
Denver WR Emmanuel Sanders. He catches just two passes but, worse, muffs a punt return that turns into a go-ahead Oakland score.
THIS WEEK’S CANTON NOMINEE
Oakland LB Khalil Mack. Six tackles, five sacks, 10 pressures, one forced fumble and an upset of Denver – in Denver, no less – makes him an easy choice for this award. Now the question: How in the world did this guy last until the fifth pick of the 2014 draft?
“Sometimes, silence is better than words.” – San Diego tight end Antonio Gates, asked to sum up the Chargers’ 3-10 season.
NUMBERS ON THE WALL OF FAME
--12 – First-half yards for Oakland
1 – Dez Bryant catches Sunday
4 – Chicago losses by three or fewer points
7 – Jason Myers’ missed extra points this season
8 – Reggie Nelson interceptions, best in the NFL
9 – Teams to start 13-0
15 – Buffalo penalties
90 – Jacksonville points the past two weeks
189 -- Total Houston yardage
312 – Alex Smith attempts without an interception, a streak that ended Sunday